Before it got shut down by the FBI earlier this week, HTMLComics.com was a website that specialized in putting online, for free, older comics from just about every major publisher and other more obscure ones as well. The site reportedly saw traffic in the numbers of over 1 million hits per day.
To put that in perspective, this site never hits that amount of traffic per month. Granted, we’re a newer site and we are growing exponentially each month, but that’s PennyArcade traffic there. I think that is a fundamental statement on the comic book reading community. Let’s not kid ourselves, comics are popular right now. The geek chic thing hasn’t crashed and burned yet and Iron Man 2 opened to $52 million dollars on opening day. The market is there for the material, the culture however is diverging from the traditional business model due to a shift in the mindset of the modern consumer. You see, it seems like the majority of the populace thinks that piracy is a victimless crime. The majority of people who pirate content, any content, is that if they never intended to buy the product in the first place and only obtain it because it was free, you’re only depriving a creator of money they never would have handed over in the first place. It’s roundabout logic, and in some twisted way I think it makes a little sense. There is a part of me that wants people to be able to experience art, whether it’s music or film or comic books, no matter how they get it. The only problem with that is that people work very hard to produce that art and they deserve to be compensated. That includes retailers. People who work in comic stores like I do need to see people come in and pick up the books. I want to see the medium proliferate, but at the same time I want to see it expand through my doors. I harbor a bit of animosity toward Barnes and Noble and the like for being able to undercut our prices for trades and graphic novels. Casual readers tend to gravitate to them rather than us because they don’t need the things we offer, like back issues and snarky commentary.
But at least it’s legal and nobody is getting fucked over. It’s competition between retailers, that’s about it. They may offer good intro deals on new trades and graphics, but they don’t stock bulk like my store does. They don’t have out of print first editions like we do. But what good comes of a guy who scans old issues and uploads them for free? Erik Larsen of Image comics called HTML Comics “the greatest comic book website on the face of the earth!” on the Image Comics message boards. His Savage Dragon issue were hosted on that server. He didn’t seem to mind too terribly much. He considered the site a great resource, both for fans and creators. Image, coincidentally enough, was not part of the coalition of publishers who lawyered up to shut the site down. DC, Marvel, Dark Hourse, etc., all put their differences aside to combat a site that flaunted it’s illegal activity claiming legal loopholes prevented it from technically being an act of copyright infringement. The FBI raid obviously proved their claims wrong.
So what can we take away from all this? Prices are restrictive to the readership, both new and old. If product could be made available, in a manner that was cheaper than what the average is now, you would see an uptick of purchasing. A dollar an issue versus four? That’s a no brainer. It’s like when the Marvel Omnibi went on sale at Amazon for 10 bucks a pop, people turned out in droves to buy them. That glitch proved that value can attract mass sales. Perhaps an inventive approach to the digital distribution model is worth looking into.
I can’t tell anyone what to do; in regards to their illegal activities or their buying habits. I just want to point out that there is room for new ideas. Someone just has to put them to work.