How Digital Will Force Comic Books To Consider Female Readers Again

Terry Moore was the reason I began reading comics. During the alternative comics boom of the late 1990s, Strangers in Paradise was one of the most influential independently published comic book series being made, and a large chunk of its fanbase was women in an industry where very few titles can say the same. Last week Terry Moore announced that not only is Strangers in Paradise moving to Comixology, but he hopes that his new series, Rachel Rising, will go there as well. He quoted one of his readers who was having difficulties finding the independent creator’s new series in stores and cited similar experiences by other fans as his motivation for going digital. This decision is about to change not only the financial viability of independent publishing, but ultimately end the overwhelming dominance of superheroes.

All-ages publisher Ape Entertainment released their 2011 Pocket God series to comic book stores and received a cold reception. Comic book sales are primarily based on pre-sales made by comic book stores through Diamond; store owners read Diamond’s Previews catalog and determine what to carry on their shelves based on what has sold in the past, what they think will sell in the future, and their own personal preferences. Pocket God, a non-superhero title about adorable island natives, sold so poorly to stores that Ape abandoned the print version. By December they had announced that the series’ ties to the mobile game had led to 500,000 paid downloads of the digital comics.

The success of Pocket God came without any support or influence from purchases made by brick and mortar stores. Perhaps it’s a given that digital sales could make publishing an independent comic more financially possible, but why would this affect what types of comics are being made by the larger publishers? Aren’t superheroes what comic book readers want? Certainly Previews‘ January’s list of top 100 comics would suggest that, dominated as always by titles from DC and Marvel that are almost strictly about superheroes. Print sales would support the idea that the big boys will never have to change anything about their current direction besides adding a new method of delivery.

But January’s list isn’t taking into account what’s selling digitally. More importantly, it doesn’t reflect the potential readers who exist outside of the current distributer-to-comic-store-to-comic-store-visitor sales model. Demographics like children, parents, people who dislike comic book stores, and women who aren’t interested in superheroes.

Let’s put this into perspective graphically. Here is a diagram of the layout of my local comic book store:

Here is how this translates to the eyes of a woman who loves comics but has only a mild interest in superhero books:

By contrast, here is one of many ways to search for a comic on Comixology:

Look at the screenshot above for a moment… Small press and major publishers, side by side, given equal consideration. Shelf space is no longer a factor here, how much of the store a publisher takes up is no longer an influence on purchasing decisions.

Many an old-timer has repeated to me the old lament that comics will fail to reach new, young readers until they are available again at newstands and grocery stores. First, who’s been to a newstand lately? Second, comics are becoming more accessible now than they ever were when they were in grocery stores. iVerse, the development company responsible for the Pocket Gods comic app, say their top-sellers are for kids, a growing number of which are playing with hand-me-down iPhones and iPads. When Ape Entertainment announced an app release for my Strawberry Shortcake series last December, mothers who would never consider walking into a comic book store told me how excited they were to download something they could read to their daughters on their iPads. The days when comic book stores could dictate which comics found an audience ended when credit cards met the internet, even if we didn’t know it back then.

Assuming for a moment that the major publishers really are in business to make money, how long will they be able to ignore potential sales to untapped but potentially interested groups? Children who want to read about cartoon characters? Preteen girls who like high school romance and My Little Ponies? Video game playing young boys who want more video game tie-ins? People who like westerns, pirates, sci-fi, horror, ANYTHING other than stories about yet another superhero?

With a new Kindle Fire in hand, reasons to buy a single issue in print are few for someone like me. The effort it takes to pre-order a title because my local comic book store won’t carry it on the shelves can’t compete with the discounted immediacy of a checkout button. When Rachel Rising finds it’s way to Comixology I will be among the first to download every available issue, and unlike my typical store experience, I will have no trouble acquiring the entire story beginning with issue #1. And eventually, purchases like mine will be too common to ignore.

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