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.Cbr Is the New .Mp3 — Comic Publishers Should Embrace It Or Beware

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We’ve been hearing for years about the eventual dawning of the ‘digital age’ of publishing, where we’d all go paperless and everything would be eReaders and eBooks etc.  I think it’s finally safe to say it’s happening, what with eInk technology and the Kindle and the Sony Reader.  It’s probably going to take twenty or thirty years, maybe even longer, before everyone’s transitioned, but at least we’re underway now, though for me, it can’t come fast enough.

I’m in a ‘post-stuff’ phase; there’s not only the massive waste that paper publishing produces, but also just the sheer amount of objects that we’re forced to accumulate if we want to fully pursue our entertainment goals.  I’ve got twelve boxes of books and comics back at home (not to mention DVDs); obviously I couldn’t bring them all with me when I came to Taipei, and so because of that I have to go without.  But if everything was digitized, I’d have my entire library with me on my computer, completely portable.  The advantages of this are obvious, and once people fully clue into it, they’ll see how this will utterly change the world.

One major area this shift will affect is comics.  In fact, we’re already seeing this with the widespread proliferation of .cbr and .cbz files.  And the comic industry would be wise to fully embrace this new format now lest they suffer in the same way the music industry did during the whole .mp3 revolution.  They’ve made some steps, but for me, they aren’t moving fast enough.

.Cbr and .cbz files use a very simple concept; each page of a comic is scanned as a .jpg or .png file and numbered, then the whole batch made into a .zip archive and renamed with either of those two file extensions.  All it then takes is a reader program to read them; it’s great — you get full-screen, high-quality images, and an easily portable comics library that doesn’t take up a huge amount of hard-drive space (an average file size is about 15 mb).

As you might imagine, this doesn’t still too well with the comic publishers.  They view those who scan and trade comics around online the same as the music and movie industries view those who do the same with their products — as thieves.  And yes, technically it is ‘online theft’ in the same way it is with music and movies.  But this is where they need to learn from the past; the music industry fought against .mp3 tooth-and-nail until it became obvious that not only was it here to stay, but it was actually a better format, maybe not sound-quality wise, but because of its portability — from that was birthed iPods and iTunes and now they’re finally making some money back on it.  But look how much they missed out on by being short-sighted.

The movie industry fought, and still fights, against piracy, but has now gotten smart enough to sell movies on iTunes as well, and again it’s not going to be long before DVD is completely dead.  In fact, I don’t know why they even bothered bringing out Blu-ray; I don’t know how anyone could be dumb enough to buy a Blu-ray player now, when the era of the physical distribution of media is so obviously nearing its end.

And that brings us back to comics; they’ve taken some initial steps, but for me they’re not enough because they don’t address the central problem.  As evidenced by the video above, there are now reader programs available for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and you can purchase certain comics from most of the major publishers — Marvel, Dark Horse, IDW (though no DC, apparently) — through iTunes.  However, it’s currently not good enough.  You can only get them through an iPhone/iPod application; that means it’s a proprietary program and you can’t view the files any other way except on that small iPod screen, which, despite the fact that you can zoom in on the text, for me is not that appetizing.  Plus, the library of titles currently available is small.

Marvel has taken things one step further by offering a subscription program; you pay a monthly fee of $10 or a yearly fee of $60 to have access to thousands of back issues and new releases; but the problem with this is that you can only access them through a web-based reader, meaning you don’t own the files (plus, again, what’s currently available is limited).  I know these types of services are becoming more common, with music as well, but I’ve never liked the idea for a couple of reasons:

1) What happens if I just don’t feel like reading comics for a while, or I get busy and don’t have the time?  Then my subscription money is being wasted.  I want to own the file, just like I would own a paper comic if I bought it, so I can read it whenever I want and not feel pressured.

2) What happens if I want to read them somewhere I can’t get an internet connection, or my internet keeps cutting out while trying to read them?  Having a boatload of comics to read while on a long train or plane trip sounds great — but I wouldn’t be able to do that if I had to access them online (or it would cost me a fortune to pay for an internet connection on a plane, for example).

So basically, I don’t see this service as being all that desirable, and I’m sure many others feel the same — and that brings us back to .cbr.

The publishers need to simply admit what works best and start directly selling .cbr versions of their comics through iTunes or their own websites, just like the music industry ended up doing with .mp3s.  It would mean the consumer has direct control over the files — which is what we always ultimately want — and they would be higher-quality as well.  Sell new issues for $2 and back-issues for $1, or something.  I would buy them, even if it was a locked, anti-copy format like .mp3s used to be on iTunes, because at least I could decide when and how to view them, and I wouldn’t have to squint at an iPod screen and be constantly tapping to enlarge the text.

This is inevitable.  It’s going to happen.  My message to the publishers: be the first to the top or risk getting left in the rubble.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. Saturday, December 19, 2009 10:54 am

    I remember many years ago, when Marvel ran an experiment and made semi-animated Flash editions of a lot of their Ultimate line, and put them out for free download. I think I read the first twenty-plus issues of Ultimate Spider-Man on my computer, along with a bunch of other titles. It was great, but they stopped doing it after a while.

    I agree with most everything here — except all the iTunes talk; it’d definitely help popularize the format (or whatever comic format they go with) quickly, but I wouldn’t want Apple setting the standard yet again. Even more so, though, I’d warn you against placing too much hope on owning the files. As transfer technology gets better and better, I think we may just be moving towards streaming for everything: music, movies, books, comics, TV.

    These companies don’t want us to “own” their media products at all; they want to maintain as much control over them as possible, and streaming (or web-based viewing, like you say Marvel is doing), is the way they can maintain it. (And if Apple manages to popularize the Internet tablet, as you’re pumped about over on Death From Below, then why wouldn’t Marvel continue to offer only web-based book viewing?)

    • Sunday, December 20, 2009 6:49 am

      Because there are still those major drawbacks to streaming — the fact that it’s still not assured you’ll be able to get an internet connection everywhere, or that in some places (like airports, cafes etc.) you’d have to pay for it and I think many people — me obviously — don’t like that.

      Or even if you can get a connection, sometimes it’s shit. At my hotel in Tokyo, I couldn’t keep an MSN conversation going because the connection kept resetting about every ten minutes or so, presumably to prevent people from uploading and downloading things and hogging bandwith. If it’s a flash-based player, it might time out and screw up in this sort of situation.

      Plus there’s still the fact I mentioned that with a subscription service it forces you to use it when maybe you’ll rather not at a certain time. I don’t like that either.

      Besides, right now we can own music, movies and books as files, so why not comics?

  2. Sunday, December 20, 2009 11:10 am

    I agree that most people don’t like it, and that right now it’s not good enough. I’m talking the future. In the future streaming will be good enough, and even if people don’t like it, the companies who put out all those things — music, movies, and books — love it. They don’t want us owning their products, and actually, if you buy any of those things through most of the popular channels, you don’t own them.

    When you buy a song at iTunes or a book for your Kindle, the EULA states that they still own the file and the money you paid merely lets you use it and they have the right to revoke it whenever they want. It’s not so practical for them to revoke at any time with the current technology, because when it’s on your hard drive and you’re offline, they can’t access it. But streaming gives them the near-100% control they’ve always wanted and, somewhere along the line (or maybe right from the start), started to feel they had a right to. And we, by embracing these technologies mostly on their terms, have shown we’re cool with that.

    When Amazon or Apple or Microsoft or Sony or whoever comes out with the first device that offers 100% global onlineness, and includes with it a store where you have access to stream-instead-of-download any and every song, movie, book, game, program, or comic — probably with a marketing approach of “why are you still using up all that hard drive space?” — people are going to embrace it wholeheartedly.

    • Sunday, December 20, 2009 11:24 pm

      I completely understand your argument, and you may turn out to be 100% right, but I completely, 100% disagree with you.

      If anything, I think it more likely there will be two camps: the netbook owning, ‘stream everything’ camp, and the multiple-TB hard-drive ‘own everything’ people. I would fall into the latter category.

      I really don’t think the companies would be able to fully get away with what you’re proposing. I think there would be a lot of negative feedback if they went solely that way.

      In the same way that I don’t think Internet 2.0 is going to take off the way people predict, because I don’t think people feel comfortable storing their primary files online; uploads, sure, but not the primary files.

      Only time will tell, of course.

  3. Monday, December 21, 2009 6:35 pm

    Time’s a chatty cathy.

    And I’ll just ask this in my argument’s favour: how many people, when they first started selling music files online, said, “Count me out, I want to own the physical CD”?

    Answer: pretty much all of them. And who (under 40) is saying that now?

    • Monday, December 21, 2009 10:47 pm

      You got numbers on that? Ha.

      But, actually, I think that plays into my argument more, doesn’t it?

      Now, people would probably say “Why would I want to own the physical comic when I can just own the file.”

      Like I said, I think it would fall into two categories: people who stream and people who own. And, of course, people who do both. For me, there are some things I would stream — like, maybe a TV show or movie I haven’t seen so I don’t know if I like it or not — and things I want to own, like books, movies, shows and comics that I would want to read many times. Read and cherish.

      But the point is, I think people need to be given both options, or the piracy is never going to abate.

  4. Tuesday, December 22, 2009 12:42 am

    My point was that, while people right now and in the near future may want to say “Why would I want to own the physical comic when I can just own the file?”, once the technology allows the producers to push streaming-only and people get comfortable with it, they’re going to say “Why would I want to take up my hard drive space with a file that I don’t actually own when I can watch it on my device at exactly the same quality streamed any time I want?” My point was that the new stuff that feels weird and wrong right now won’t necessarily feel weird and wrong in time.

    And the reason companies will want to go streaming-only is because piracy isn’t going anywhere, and if they release, for example, their music albums via on-demand streaming only, it’ll be a lot easier to put effective piracy countermeasures on them. One of the main reasons they want more control is because of piracy; allowing people to own files on their computers makes distributing them for free very, very easy.

    • Tuesday, December 22, 2009 1:29 am

      Well, that could be true — could be a generational thing; we come from a time when owning artistic works was the way it was, so we would react more strongly against streaming-only type services.

      Maybe the kids growing up in the next 10 – 15 years will just think it’s normal.

      Or maybe streaming technology will not be perfected for a very long time — maybe you’ll constantly have to worry about bad internet availability or server outages or service disruptions which will make this type of service not so great.

      But I don’t think the companies can ever hope to make their media completely, 100%, one-on-one exclusive. Even now, you can share your files in iTunes with up to five people (just as you can buy a CD and lend it around). So I don’t know if people would ever go for something that’s completely non-sharable.

      And besides, hard-drive capacity is currently going through the roof, so I don’t know if running out of space is an issue, really, unless you’re storing media files (for, unless you take thousands of photographs or something, what else are you going to fill up a 500 GB drive, which is becoming the normal standard, with?)

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