Yesterday, I posited the suggestion that a comic publisher should provide a retailer portal where an LCS could download and/or order all sorts of nifty stuff from one place for free. Today, I thought of a way to expand on that idea...
What if a publisher created such a portal, and then let ANYONE have access? Sign up for free, regardless of who you are, and have access to all sorts of content.
"Okay, Sean, now you've just gone crazy!"
Hear me out.
Not everyone would have access to all the same materials. Since a user would have to log in, the portal would know who they are and could provide access to only specific levels of material. An average reader, for example, wouldn't need to order self-standing brochure holders, for example. Retailers would be set up by the publisher, as would reviewers and press-type folks. All of these people would be given access to advance PDF copies of the actual books (watermarked to identify who's downloaded them) and some basic promotional materials -- some hi-res art files, for example. Retailers would have the added benefits of the posters and tchotchkes, as I detailed earlier.
Folks without such retail or press credentials could sign up for individual accounts. They would have access to -- are you ready for this? -- the publisher's entire library of content. Every book they'd published online. For free.
"OK, Sean, now I know you're nuts!"
I've got logic behind this, though.
First, the downloads would all be of the individual pamphlet comics, not collections. Second, the files would be EXACTLY as they originally went to press with ads, letter columns, and all. Third, like the retailer versions, each issue would be watermarked with the downloader's name. Finally, the available-to-the-public versions would only be made available some time (a week or two?) after the printed books were available in stores.
The realization I had was that a comic book's shelf life is, by and large, one week. The vast majority of sales of any given issue occur in the week that it's released. Sales drop over the next three weeks and, a month later, the book is next to worthless. Certainly any book that's been out for six months or longer is likely to sit in with all the other long boxes until it's inevitably moved to the quarter bin.
Which means that neither the retailer or the publisher is financially hurt by giving away back issues.
Further, the content of a comic book is, as I've tauted before, is NOT what customers/readers are paying for. They are paying for the delivery system. If they are solely interested in the story, they'll download the free copy. If they want a copy they can hold in their hands and read while sunning themselves on the beach, they'll have to pay for either the pamphlet or TPB version. Or perhaps the iPhone-specific version. But the basic content? That's not what they're paying for.
Another consideration is that, if a publisher of decent size offers up their entire library of material, most people would be too overwhelmed to digest all of it anyway. How much content sitting on Hulu have you actually watched online? Although this is entirely speculation, I sincerely doubt Friday's episode of Eureka being on Hulu is going to prevent anyone who was a potential customer from buying the DVD later.
Now, here's where the real key idea behind the portal comes in. Every person has to sign in. That means that there's a record of not only who they are (the sign in process obviously would require some basic contact information) but the publisher would be able to track what they're looking at. Are they targeting specific books, specific creators, an overall genre, what? That information could then be used to target users with ads specifically catered to their tastes. Ads selling tangible goods uniquely related to their interests like t-shirts and statues and action figures.
Frankly, that's a concept that I really do find fascinating and should study more: that people are willing to pay for the privilege of advertising your goods...
But I can almost guarantee that if a publisher starts giving away their comics, they'll more than make up for potential lost comic sales in the sales of ancillary material. This is precisely how your Phil Foglios and Jen Breedens make a living, albiet on a smaller scale. Despite giving away their content, people are still willing to pay for collected books and mousepads and calendars and all sorts of other material, which has been traditionally secondary to the process of making comics. The main difference I'm talking about is that, where Foglio and Breeden have a more open (i.e. you don't have to log in) environment, a more "traditional" publisher could expand the goals and reach of the same idea exponentially with their larger content base.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that a publisher would be best-served by giving away all their content for free. Wired's Chris Anderson just released a book on the subject, which I'll be reading shortly. (The book by the way is being given away for free, putting Anderson's money where his mouth is.) The question at the moment is only one of who's going to be the brave soul to be first?