The boys at Webcomics Weekly, a podcast for webcomic professionals, talked about digital downloads for comics this week. They had to cut their show short this week and asked for input from the audience. It’s a subject I’ve given quite of bit of thought to, so what follows it what I wrote to them.

Dear Dave, Brad, Scott, and Kris,

You guys asked for thoughts about digital downloads, so I’m writing you. I’ll put the most important part first: your readers have no guarantee that your web offerings will be available tomorrow. You could go broke tomorrow or you could get run over by a beer truck without leaving any heirs. Soon enough your work disappears from the web, except for what remains in various archives which are harder to find and ultimately suffer from the same weakness. I know I archived my defunct webcomic Phantast Staffing Services at my personal website, but if you linked to back in 2005, that site it gone. I’m part of the audience that rereads things I like. Let me buy a digital download so I can have a copy in case you disappear. Or just one I can reread offline when I’m in an area where internet coverage sucks.

But I can already do that with your books, right? Right! To drag Kirkman into discussion, I can read his works as floppies, as trades, as Ultimate hardcovers, as Complete Library hardcovers, as an iPhone app, and as a comiXology download. Yes, there are overlaps in terms of audience, but the existence of one format does not mean another cannot be profitable. That, or Kirkman and his artists are losing a LOT of money.

The question is what digital downloads can offer that the other format don’t. Let’s start with webcomics: no ads, quicker rate of page turning in areas where the internet isn’t amazing, no bandwidth usage, no internet failures to worry about. Depending on the habits of the reader, there is another: the assumption that the download will be the only thing you are doing for a while, just like using your tablet for playing a video game or reading a book. If you’re reading webcomics, the odds are pretty good that you’ve got another tab open or you’re going to follow an interesting looking link in the notes to something else on the internet. That’s not a huge problem for daily comedy strips like yours, but what about the drama webcomics? Remember, different formats have different (if overlapping) audiences. Drama reads a heck of lot better in large chunks, which is why comedy dominated newspapers and drama dominated comic books. Dylan Meconis should probably have a download for Family Man and Bite Me! Jonathan Rosenberg should definitely have some for Goats, since the material already exists and he couldn’t make it profitable with just the web and books.

So the drama comics should absolutely do digital downloads, even if they’re like comiXology’s currently neutered style of downloads. The comedy strips like yours should consider if the time spent repackaging will pay off in enough additional revenue for the content. That’s especially important if you’ll just end up doing it again in ten years after the digital download market settles on a non-DRM standard like the music industry did, and you have to replace the clunky DRM versions with something more consumer friendly. Still, to get into a marketplace of digital download readers who only partially overlap with webcomic readers, it might be worth it. Sure, the middlemen take a piece of the action, but they also collect a lot of money-spending consumers in one space – sort of like the people who run comic conventions. You pay for your table, but you also gain access to a slightly different audience than just what your website brings to you.

Okay, back to downloads versus other formats. Let’s lump all the magazine and book types together. Magazines and books offer better resolution in a less eyestraining format, flexibility in size without a fixed screen size to fit into, don’t require access to electricity to read, and never suffer crashes. However, they take up shelf space, bend, rip, get moldy, and burn well. Phone downloads have a really small screen size that often require reworking the material to make it readable, sometimes in ways that really change how the material flows for a reader. Direct brain projection offers the crispest visual experience, but they still haven’t figured out to consistently prevent “traumatic afterimage episodes,” which are widely blamed for the increase in automobile accidents among projection users. And, of course, cave drawings are really hard for the consumer to carry around.

So, what should downloads feature? Ideally, no DRM. Ownership is a big selling point over just reading it on the web. By the same logic, the image quality should be high enough that a professional quality printout should be possible from the file, again for the creator-suddenly-drops-dead scenario. Yes, there are some new piracy risks that someone might make unlicensed hardcopies – for something the audience can read free on the web and probably buy cheaper in hardcopy directly from the creator. After that, a creator might want additional content for digital downloads of the sort that usually gets added to hard copies: behind-the-scenes-making-of material, original content, and/or commentary. A phone formatted version bundled with the regular version would also be a good idea. Video games, wallpapers, or other original electronic files should probably not be part of the download to help the market develop a standard format for digital downloads. However, bundling a unique code like the video game market currently does allowing access to such things might be workable, assuming the creator is willing to go through that much work. Heck, Sam Logan of Sam & Fuzzy did something like that so his book-buyers could download wallpapers, and he can’t even set up a RSS feed for his comic. It’s called Comicpress, Sam! Get with the times! I’ll click through to the main page as long as the feed reminds me that there’s something to look at, dammit, just don’t make me rely on this crappy memory of mine!

What was I talking about? Downloads, right. Okay, reading back through, it looks like I covered everything I can think of for the moment. Well, shameless plug here at the bottom then: if you know any artists looking for a writer, send them in my direction. I’m actively looking to produce things in public again, and I folded up Phantast because I draw slowly and poorly, not because I was having issues with the writing.

Keep up all your good work, gentlemen.