Lacking the monthly sales charts of his print equivalent, the size of the digital comic market has been the subject of much guesswork, rough estimation and outright skepticism over the last few months, especially as publishers such as DC and Marvel move to release the majority of their lines digitally on the same day as print release. But now we have what may be the first real benchmark for a reliable idea of how big digital comics are, as ComiXology has announced that it has downloaded more than 50 million comics since launch, with 10% of that coming in December 2011 alone.The figure comes from ComiXology CEO David Steinberger, talking to industry website ICv2. He described the 50 million number as a milestone that "shows the tremendous demand for digital comics from ComiXology and the strength of our partnerships and reach, from device manufacturers to publishers to brick-and-mortar retailers." ComiXology was launched in July 2009 for the iPhone and iPod, (iPad and web interfaces followed in April and July of 2010 respectively, and an Android app released in December of that year), meaning that it has taken a little under three years for the company to download 50 million digital comics to customers.

The majority of those downloads have likely come in the last twelve months, with publishers following the leads of Archie Comics and releasing their entire line simultaneously in print and digital formats in addition to growing their digital back catalogs and availability. It has been estimated that the digital market tripled in value in 2011 from $8 million to somewhere in the region of $25 million, a fact somewhat supported by ComiXology's announcement of over 5,000,000 comics downloaded from the company in December 2011 alone.

To put that number in some context, Diamond Distributors estimate somewhere in the region of 6,400,000 comics and graphic novels released into the direct market in the same month, although that number represents retailer orders and not final sales to customers, which will be considerably lower. To make matters more complicated, ComiXology arguably represents a smaller part of the digital market than Diamond does for the print market -- Diamond has a virtual monopoly on direct market distribution, whereas ComiXology has to compete with, iVerse and other services such as Amazon's Kindle and iBooks sales; additionally, Diamond deals with more publishers than ComiXology -- but can count "back issue" sales each month, unlike Diamond's order estimates, making a straight comparison between the two figures more difficult than it may first seem.

Ultimately, though, any comparison may be missing the point: Unlike other media, digital comic sales seem to be additive, rather than replacing print sales, meaning that 5 million digital downloads each month isn't coming at the cost of the print market but, potentially, bringing new readers to the industry and medium as a whole. The question is no longer "Will digital comics kill print comics?" but "What happens when digital comics are bigger than print comics?" It's possible that we'll get our answer to that sooner than many expected, judging by this news.

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