Robot 6

Red 5 founder talks digital strategy

Red 5 was one of the first comics publishers to jump into digital distribution, and Atomic Robo is one of the first digital success stories, so when Red 5 founder Paul Ens talks about his company’s digital comics strategy at, it’s worthwhile to listen in.

Red 5 led with the best-sellers, making their top titles, Atomic Robo and Neozoic, available for the iPhone back when each issue was a separate app. And Ens says the comics are selling, with both revenues and the number of comics downloaded increasing every month. “In terms of total sales revenue, it’s still small but growing,” he says.

Earlier today, Mark Millar expressed some concern that creators would not make as much money from digital comics. Ens has a different take, and I’m going to quote his answer at length, because I think he nails it:

As I see it, the main advantages of companies creating their own stores are more money and more creative control. The publisher can avoid middleman percentages to Apple or the technology partner. Also, the publisher can avoid having works from other publishers vying for the reader’s attention. Unfortunately, these are advantages for the publisher and not for the reader.

The advantages of using digital distribution partners are numerous. The most obvious is that they specialize in creating and constantly improving a great user experience. Red 5 readers benefit from those improvements. For example, our comics launched on the iPhone, and are now available on the iPad, the Web, PSP and Android devices . . . all with a single purchase.

Similarly, if Red 5 made its own exclusive reader, then our readers would not have a choice if they prefer another approach. By being on multiple platforms, our readers can select the ecosystem they like best.

Finally, we think comic readers ultimately want their collection in one central place. They typically wouldn’t keep their Spider-Man [comics] in one room of the house, Superman in another room and Star Wars in another. Nor would they want to go to one store to buy Batman and a second store to buy Atomic Robo.

Some of the single-publisher apps that cooperate within a larger technology infrastructure have some merit. From a long-term reader perspective, an isolated ecosystem for a single publisher doesn’t seem very user friendly.

Red 5 doesn’t do same-day releases of digital and print comics; they like to give the print comics a bit of a head start. Once that is done, however, they are quite aggressive: Ens says the entire back catalog is available digitally, and the company plans to release all this year’s comics that way too. And they have announced a line of digital-first comics as well.

With regard to piracy, Ens points out that it isn’t much of a problem so far for digital comics. In fact, all the piracy he has encountered so far has been scans of printed comics. He draws two lessons from the music industry: If the demand exists, pirates will fill it, and some people will never pay for their media. In short, he concludes, “The best way to combat piracy is to supply our product in the format the consumers want to see it. Otherwise, their choices are to steal or ignore.”

Ens is pretty sanguine about the future of the direct market; he seems confident that digital and retail can co-exist, and he likes the idea of including some sort of unique code with print comics that would allow the purchaser to download a digital copy.

While creators like Millar may see digital as a step down from their ideal situation, for creative publishers like Ens (and the very media-savvy creators of Atomic Robo, it must be said), it is a step up to a much larger potential audience than the print channels can provide.



With regards to digital and direct market, it’s not “either/or” it’s “and”. I disagree with him in one area though which is the single publisher model not working. The “room in the house” analogy doesn’t really work. People install and use lots of separate apps, people browse and use lots of different URLs. The digital/app model is not analogous to rooms in a house.

Except if a reader can get it all in one app, they’d do it, and they would appreciate it. I know plenty of people who have so many apps, that a lot of them just get lost in the clutter, and only a few they use often stand near the top.

If you have one app for every comics publisher, then you’d have to go through 6 or more just to see what’s being released and consider what you want to get. People would rather spend their time actually enjoying the content.

Now that there is a cross-publisher platform, the seperate apps don’t have much advantage, unless they are one of the bigger publishers and can pull it off having an exclusive app.

Thanks, Brigid, this is the best follow up to Millar’s statements that I’ve seen yet. It’s informative of some of the troubles new digital publishers might face but still suggests opportunities for moving forward in a medium that is still undefined by anything other than a few small successes.

The rather short-sighted cry of “how will creators make as much money as their used to?” or “why pay a big company like Apple to put the corner comicshop out of business?” doesn’t really speak to the reflexive changes in a print industry that’s bigger than just comics. The changes that are happening now are much more widespread and have to do with the practical and mainstream move of print to portable digital storage and devices. Comics and comicshops represent are rather small and specialized area of that shift in how we want our entertainment delivered. Speciality shops, which we’ve relied on for so long, have a way of making us forget that the comics we love have to thrive and sustain themselves in a larger world.

Ens notion of tagging “hard copy” purchases with some kind of coupon for a free digital copy is really solid and something I’ll be talking about a lot with friends and peers. It’s a very sound way of protecting the serious collector in a changing distribution. If Marvel or DC decided to grant every purchaser of one of their print comics the chance to download that copy for free, and then to buy successive back issue, wouldn’t this change the notion of how we see comics? Isn’t their a polarity for most comicshop customers between collecting and consuming? Why can’t we embrace the difference in why we want comics and provide two separate ways to get involved?

@ John, if you have one app for every publisher, the publisher doesn’t have to fight with other genres or more well known characters from other companies to try to get attention. If you have separate apps, you are eliminating the middle man. The greatest problem with this is that in addition to Apple’s judge/jury role, you’re now adding a third party app developer as yet another middle man. This is a simple aping of the comics code/Diamond Distribution models we already saw in the print world. It’s also the equivalent of centralized distribution, which imo is not the intended goal of digital distribution.

Consumers like the middleman. We like having a few places to shop that we trust and that offer a good experience. Comic book stores are middlemen, for example, and while you might be able to make more money per unit selling your paper comics directly to customers via mail order, not offering your comics in stores would be a money-losing proposition.

As a consumer of digital comics, I’m not interested in downloading apps or visiting web sites for all the publishers in the Diamond catalog. It’s too much of a hassle and too much clutter on my iPad. The ComiXolog app and the iVerse app have me covered, generally speaking, though on rare occasion I’ll download another app like the Scott Pilgrim app (which is affiliated with ComiXology).

@steve, but if you are an unknown publisher, and make your own app, only those few people who already know of you will find and purchase the app and then comics. Whereas in a centralized app, although you will be competing, at least you’ll be a competitor.

“He likes the idea of including some sort of unique code with print comics that would allow the purchaser to download a digital copy.”

I think that’s a brilliant idea. What readers want is the CONTENT — the story. Most people are getting used to reading it in a variety of formats — paper, electronic, on your phone, wherever.

I also really prefer just one app. The trick is finding THAT app that does it all… Everything’s still in flux on this playing field. Which makes it pretty exciting.

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