by Chris Arrant
Digital comics have been a big topic in comic circles for years. Several major companies have announced plans to roll out digital versions of their print comics, and some have already done it. One of those is SLG Publishing.
Last summer, SLG Publishing quietly launched EyeMelt.com. EyeMelt.com acts as a division of SLG Publishing, and has become one of the first ventures by established print comics publishers to embrace the digital medium not just for advertising but to deliver full comic books to readers for purchase. While the current count of comics available are less than 100, SLG are slowly adding new titles from it's publishing history to the site. There is currently two price points for downloads at EyeMelt.com, $.69 for previously printed comics and $.89 for new web-exclusive comics. SLG looks to eventually have it's entire publishing catalog to the site, and looks to partner with other comic publishers for non-SLG content in the future.
Newsarama.com spoke with SLG Publisher Dan Vado to find out more about his new initiative.
When was Eyemelt officially launched, and could you tell us how sales have been?
We have been selling downloads of our comics from our old site since last summer, Eyemelt launched in January with a soft-opening (we weren't really ready, but we needed to make the switch and go live to accommodate the new regular web presence for www.slgcomic.com)
. Sales have been a little slow, but we have not really taken off on the marketing of the site yet. One of the things with Eyemelt is that we wanted to invite other publishers to be a part of it. Just about everyone is taking a wait and see attitude towards it and it does not make much sense to put a load of dollars into marketing something with so little product.
I take a slow and cautious approach to most things, so we didn't want have too many people involved with the Eyemelt program at first because it is kind of a labor-intensive process for us at this juncture.
Looking though Eyemelt, I notice two price levels -- $.69 for previously printed comics and $.89 for web-exclusive comics. Will that be the standard?
For our stuff yeah, that's pretty much the system. We are allowing other publishers to name their own pricing depending on what is more important to them, profit per download or building circulation. For SLG, we feel that building circulation is the important piece to this, so the prices are low. On top of that our main competition in the download business are the torrent sites where people can get this stuff for free, so my feeling is that the prices of the downloads cannot be so high that we will just send people back to pirate sites.
The online comics at www.eyemelt.com
are available as CBZ and PDF formats, both of which have relatively little digital rights managements (DRM) security. Why'd you opt for this format?
I actually spent time and a little money looking at DRM systems. I almost settled on one and then read that it had been hacked by some kids in a daycare somewhere. I am of course kidding about the daycare kids, but DRM systems are a huge obstacle in the download environment. Steve Jobs recently went on record as saying he felt that record companies needed to drop their DRM requirements from the downloadable music business. He cited the fact tat the record companies were selling non-copy protected content in the form of CD's already and that the download sites should not have to be hampered by a limitation the record companies cannot put on their own products. Basically what it comes down to is if you put some kind of heavy handed DRM on your downloads you wind up making the download more expensive, making it less usable by the end user and ultimately end up sending that customer back to the torrent sites to get this stuff for free.
The formats we choose were based on the need to remove as many obstacles to buying downloads as possible. We sell PDF's because most computers have some sort of built-in PDF reader on them, so the customer does not need any additional software. The CBZ file is a little better than the CBR (these are the file formats most commonly found on the illegal download sites) in terms of working in a cross-platform environment. CBZ needs a special reader and our site has links to places where you can get free comic reading software.
Since eyemelt.com was launched, a major comics torrent site has stopped trafficking in SLG comics. Did you have any conversations with them to do this?
No, they did that on their own. That site has always maintained that they would stop making files available from their site when publishers started making their content available for download at an affordable price.
Have you approached any other pirated comic traffickers about carrying SLG products?
No, although our site has an affiliate program and the ability to sell downloads from our site on ANY site, so anyone that wants to sell downloads (this would include brick and mortar retailers) can get in on our site.
At current count, you have 43 comics available on eyemelt.com. What would you say is your projected number in the months to come?
My goal is to have our entire 21 year output of comics available as downloads, which is a load of comics. Also, as I mentioned above, we are inviting other publishers (or anyone with a comic they might like to sell as a download for that matter) to participate. One of the problems with our catalog is a lot of the stuff that you might like to see on the site, Milk & Cheese
as examples, were published before we were preparing our stuff digitally and would require a lot of rescanning. That's a load of work and, well, we're going to focus on the easy stuff first.
Will your Disney-licensed comics be available on eyemelt.com?
No, downloads are not only not a part of that license, they are specifically prohibited.
I've read on Midnight Sun
creator Ben Towle's blog that his comic is going to stop being printed in single issues in favor of serialization online. Is that a one-time thing, or do you plan to do that with your other serialized issues?
We are going to be moving a lot of stuff that would have come out as comics onto our download site. The comic book format seems to be breathing its last and I think releasing a comic with sales under 1,000 copies not only is a money-loser for us, it doesn't do anything to build circulation. At 69¢ and with the notion of instant gratification, the barrier to trying something becomes reduced.
In another instance, a shipping snafu has resulted in Emo Boy
#11 being delayed from February to April – even though the comic is finished. As a result, you're offering it on eyemelt.com now. Do you think that will affect the print orders of the single issue?
Probably not. First, let me address the Emo Boy
situation, which was something that was completely my fault. The person who had been doing our solicitations for us had left the company for a new job and Emo Boy
#11 got lost in the shuffle of her leaving and my taking over her job, and I solicited it two months late. It was my mistake and something I do not think I have properly apologized for. The situation with Emo Boy
is a one time deal and not part of the intended process. We put it up as a download in part because I felt bad for Steve Emond (Emo Boy
's creator) having worked so hard to get the book in on time and here I screwed it up.
Now, as for what it will do for print sales, I think that the download market and the print comic book market are separate markets.
I hear a lot from our existing readership that they are not into reading comics on their computers; they want to be able to hold the product in their hands. More interesting will be to see if the small readership for something like Midnight Sun
will embrace buying downloads instead.
Speaking to the broader issues here, is this move from singles to online comics a reaction to low sales in the Direct Market and/or an embracing of the possibility of online comic sales?
Yes, I kind of answered that before. The direct market has moved itself into a place where only a small handful of stores really support a company like ours in any meaningful way. It has become a vicious cycle, really. A lot of retailers don't carry the comics because they don't sell, but then the potential customer has given up going into most comic shops because they don't see what they want. This and our other online sales address that.
We are not giving up on print, obviously we still print some things in comic book format and our emphasis is now going to be on graphic novels and books as well as associated merchandise. Even retailers who are generally supportive of our line tell us that there is a "wait for the trade" attitude out there that makes selling indie comic books unprofitable, or less profitable, for them.
I think if you are going to be in this, or any, business today you need to be able to embrace and be present in as many sales channels as possible. Online and downloadable comics are just one more channel for us.
In light of the increased output exclusive to online comics for SLG, this turns you as a print publisher into one more focused on graphic novels. Later this year you're doing your first original graphic novel since 2005 called The Clarence Principle
. Have your graphic novel sales, both in the DM and in bookstores, prompted this, and why?
Yeah, like I said, the market has moved more to supporting books rather than comics, at least for us. The book (graphic novel) format allows us greater access to more channels right of the bat. Not just direct market and bookstores, but other online retailers like Amazon and a few others prefer the more expensive book format. The book has a longer shelf life and is more attractive, because of its higher price, for a retailer of ANY kind to take a special order or to make one copy available for their stands.
On the flipside, two of your web-exclusive comics, Byron
, have been announced as going to print graphic novels in August and July. Can you tell us about your decision to serialize it online before a print edition?
Those were both projects which were pitched to us as comic book series. Given what we were getting numbers-wise on comics from new creators (even established creators) I felt that the comic book format was not viable for these projects. A lot of money goes into marketing something that is new regardless of the format. Take Tron
as an example, we spent a load of money on Tron (Full color posters, flyers, postcards) and while you might look at the sales and say they were okay, based on the numbers we got it wound up we spent almost $1.00 per comic sold on marketing. Not a very good Return on Investment. This might get paid back on the trade, but then that product will require a new round of marketing.
Focusing the dollars spent on marketing a book, which is more expensive and has more potential places it can be sold, is a better investment for us and affords us better shot at breaking even. Having the chapters available as downloads helps generate a small amount of revenue for us, gives us a piece of a business in which we were NEVER getting any revenue stream from and actually helps promote the artist and their work.
As important as the new revenue stream is, so is the marketing factor of the download business. While we could give
away the downloads and probably do even better in terms of marketing, but the fact is that downloads carry a cost of their own. Storage, bandwidth cost money and if we wind up with thousands of comics in our download system (which I hope to at some point) then we are going to need to pay for that in some way. With the prices we are charging we're basically just covering our costs in terms of downloading and processing cards.
Your core site, slgcomic.com, has recently been redesigned and reflects more emphasis on ordering your comics through that as storefront. Why'd you decide to do this?
Lots of reasons. A lot of the changes to our web presence are things you can't see, but for the first time our web presence is locked in step with our back office in real time which provides potential customers with better information on what they can order, what the status of their order is at any given time in real time and provides better security than our old one. This site and back office system will also allow retailers (or anyone) to become affiliates of our site in much the same way that Amazon has affiliates and put our items on their website and earn commissions for pieces sold. The system we are using is a tremendous improvement of our inventory management system and allows us to manage all of our sales channels in one place. It's something that, with a little tweaking, could be a huge benefit (the system we use, not our web site) to comic book retailers since, in addition to managing a web presence it also has an interface that can be used as a cash register. So, imagine you are a retailer and you enter something into inventory, you allot an amount to your shelf, an amount to your web site, another amount to eBay (or just your unsold overstock) and manage all of that from one back office.
With our old configuration (site with a separate store) I feel we were losing a lot of sales because people were not able to read about something and then click over to a store and then search for it again. One of the things that our direct-to-consumer sales does is help build circulation and readership for titles that maybe are struggling to find room on a stores shelves. You would be surprised to see that our web stores better sellers are usually things like Emo Boy
and Rex Libris
, things that a lot of stores do not carry.
We charge a pretty decent premium for postage since we do not want to compete too directly with retailers, so our website is really the place of last resort. But, we get enough stories about people who go to stores and can't find or are poorly served by whatever stores they shop in, so the store really needs to be there to help us build readership.
I can hint at one small thing I am also doing, or going to attempt to do, and that is to develop a service company for other publishers and companies (not just comics, but almost anything really) where we can direct and manage a merchandise and mail order program for companies that might not want to make the investment of doing that on their own. So, for instance, lets say company Y wants to have a commerce presence, but does not want to have to have its own order department and do the customer service, our new web system will allow us to host a companies website, but their items into our back office and manage the commerce, customer service and fulfillment for them. All they would have to do is manage their sites non-commerce content as they normally would. One other aspect of that is that we can develop complete merchandising programs for other publishers who want one. From shirts to plush to plastic toys to statues, the whole works. Basically I am marketing our companies particular skill set to the entire industry.