I saw a couple of attendees to this year's annual ComicsPRO meeting note how some of the larger publishers were committed to continuing to push their product towards/through the direct market. (The most detailed account of this I've found is from Brian Hibbs.) And it got me thinking about why publishers have been so reluctant to explore digital distribution.
Let me repeat that: "why publishers have been so reluctant to explore digital distribution."
It was phrasing the question like that that really made things stand out for me. Publishers (at least in comicdom) are NOT distributors. By and large, they haven't had the infrastructure for distribution and were almost entirely focused on publication -- which, not surprisingly, requires a different mindset and set of skills. What Diamond does bears little to no resemblance to what Marvel and DC do.
In fact, that's one of the reasons Heroes World failed. Marvel did not have the knowledge or ability to handle distribution of their product. Not as a slam against them, but even "back in the day" they had their books distributed by Independent News, and that was after a series of other small distributors had closed, so they had NEVER had anyone who really understood periodical distribution from a hands-on perspective.
"Ah," you might protest, "but what about subscriptions? Isn't that a means of distribution, and isn't that handled by the publishers?"
Quite true, but that has typically been a small sub-set of comics' readership. Indeed, many publishers don't have subscription options available at all, and even Marvel (I believe) discontinued it for a few years. It's certainly a far cry from really large scale distribution.
So it strikes me that the various publishers are looking at their organizations and saying to themselves, "Putting all our materials online is so vastly different than what we've done in the past that we don't know where to begin." And, really, that shouldn't be surprising. It's the exact same problem many creators have online -- they might know how to produce comics, but getting that comic out to an audience is a whole other ball of wax. Hence, the reliance many webcomic creators put on word-of-mouth.
Diamond, of course, has no incentive to pursue online distribution either. They've got a good set-up going now (from their perspective, at least) and no one to compete against. Why put effort into changing?
Which means we've got publishers with no real way to change their current processes themselves, and a monopolistic distributor with no desire to change their current processes.
Regular readers should know that I'm bullish on webcomics in general; I want to see them succeed and I want to see more options and more diversity there. But I have to admit to being at a loss on how to accomplish that for traditional comic publishers. I think it would take a radical restructuring and a substantial infusion of cash (mainly to hire new talent) to get traditional publishers online with an appreciable presence.
This was actually seen, to a smaller degree, with Zuda. Zuda runs largely independently from parent DC Comics with staff hired specifically to run it. Imagine, though, if DC put some real resources behind it. Can you imagine the traffic (and subsequent revenue) that would be generated if they posted a Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely Superman story? It's certainly NOT the type of thing I would be interested in, but I'm betting readership would easily be a dozen times larger than All-Star Superman. From my understanding, Zuda is considered a success as it stands now, and that's largely without a lot of big name recognition of either the creators or the creations, and without a lot of marketing efforts behind it compared to DC's pamphlet books.
But we're certainly NOT going to see that kind of effort put forth right now if for no other reason than the economy not being so hot and most companies are scaling back and saving resources. But beyond that, I suspect (cynically, I'll admit) that I'm sure the major publishers will continue to support the direct market system in large part because they really don't know what other options to pursue and are hesitant to hire enough resources to change that.