The battle between digital comics and print comics hasn't been decided. In all honesty, it hasn't even begun, if it ever will. One important factor in the crossover to digital books are the retail shops that currently provide the bulk of the income for the comics industry, and publishers have been careful and conservative in the digital roll-out in part to preserve their relationships with their retail partners. We reached out to Amanda Emmert, Executive Director of ComicsPRO (the only trade organization for Direct Market retailers), for some feedback from the retail perspective. She responded back with candor and in detail, and you can read her responses after the jump.ComicsAlliance: The relationship between retail shops and digital comics is, thus far, almost completely unknown. Some think that digital will completely swallow up print comics, while others believe that the two will coexist with a certain amount of overlap. How do you see digital comics fitting into the current comics industry?

Amanda Emmer
t: I'd like to start by saying that as the Executive Director of ComicsPRO, I try to represent the opinions of our retailer members and even those outside our membership, but the digital discussion is one area where many retailers have varied opinions about each individual point!

I don't see digital comics swallowing up print comics at all. I have heard some retailer concerns that publishers, in their zeal to explore the digital medium, will start to create comics expressly for digital readers that won't work as well in print. Some retailers are concerned that creators may not be thinking about writing comics that are compelling as single issues in a print format. I know most publishers are savvy enough to keep that concern in mind and I don't believe publishers are looking to abandon print comics in favor of digital ones. There's just no way that makes financial sense.

As they have done along with every change in the industry, retailers will adapt. Digital comics are still such a small percentage of sales that they really don't affect current operations. Eventually, digital comics can be another product line. As bookstores sell digital readers and gift cards for digital books, and as entertainment stores sell gift cards for online games and iTunes, so will comic specialty stores eventually be able to get into selling digital comics. So far, the efforts to get that going have yet to result in anything concrete, but retailers are still testing each new ways to be involved as publishers come up with new methods to try.

Comic book retailers have been diversifying their stores for many years, and other product lines have always helped healthy stores stay profitable during the ebbs and flows of the print publishing schedule. That doesn't mean print comics are over. Print comics are still a very profitable product line, even in lean years, especially when you have a good point of sale program.

CA: One thing I've noticed while observing the march to digital comics is how willing publishers and distributors are to emphasize that digital comics sales should be additive to sales, rather than cannibalistic. Do you feel that companies have been operating in good faith with their retail partners in terms of pushing digital forward? Are they moving too slow or too fast? Are day and date comics coming too soon?

AE: I do feel that publishers are doing a lot to include comic book retailers as they explore the digital medium. All last year, starting with the ComicsPRO meeting and continuing on through conventions, Diamond summit meetings and small group meetings, many publishers were talking to retailers about their plans and asking for feedback.

Some retailers feel that our major publishing companies are moving too quickly into digital when it comes to how digital can interact with the print medium, but at the same time other retailers feel the publishers may be moving too slowly with their digital structure to set a good standard inside the digital medium itself. The only problem I see about the speed they're moving into digital is a lack of infrastructure -- it seems that a lot more work is being put on the employees internally but those employees have the same, if not fewer, resources. There's all new marketing, programs that loop digital comics back to print, programs to pull in new readers, new deadlines and a lot more work. Juggling that is going to create hiccups, but I think the effort is there to make this additive to the industry and not cannibalistic.

As for day and date, most retailers are always going to want a sales window ahead of other markets, and I think many see day and date working better for particular promotions rather than across the line. Many publishers seem to be experimenting with just that so far. About the particular day and date books which have already been released, our polls and anecdotal evidence are showing that day and date digital comics are having little to no effect on print orders and sell-through. The main concern there is pricing. If books go day and date and the digital price is more than a $1 cheaper than the print book, or a digital book has a lot of value added to it for a lower cost, then I think many retailers feel that will affect print sell-through.

CA: How much outreach have the publishers been doing to ensure that they aren't sacrificing print sales for digital ones? Are you in communication with them on that front?

AE: Each company is trying new and varied programs, but many publishers are putting effort into using digital to drive readers to comic book stores. I don't believe many of the programs are up and running yet because we're still getting asked for feedback. Even comiXology is interested in promoting retail stores, and we have brought several issues to them about how customers perceive their site, or how brick and mortar retailers are displayed, or how comics are advertised, and comiXology has always been receptive to comic book retailers' opinions and the company has made many changes. They're still working on improving several things like their store locator and they've asked for retailers' help and feedback with it.

Many publishers have the same attitude. They don't want digital sales to infringe on their profitable print lines and they want our feedback about what we think will affect sales.

CA: If you had your way, where would the average price point of digital comics sit? On par with print, cheaper?

AE: The quick answer to that is cheaper, but not so much cheaper. And not so much more valuable, as I was saying above. A digital comic at $0.99 that comes out at the same time that a print comic retails for $3.99 is too much of a spread. Prices within a dollar seem more comparable.

CA: The timing of the rise of digital comics is pretty unfortunate. We're in the middle of a recession, there have been several high profile comic shops in danger this year, a tremendous glut of movie-related material, and comic book and graphic novel sales are fluctuating in new ways. Generally, are digital books viewed as another threat to the viability of the modern comics shop? Or do retailers see it as more of an opportunity to evolve, or something else entirely?

: The threat level of digital comics seems to mainly depend on a retailer's attitude about diversifying stock and ability to adapt to changes in the market, so it's nearly personal. What I can say, though, is that often it's not the existence of digital comics that makes the average retailer wary, it's the emphasis they see being placed on them.

In reality, digital comics are a very small revenue percentage of comics' sales, but some bloggers will tell you the print is already dead. Will that lead any companies to put more of an emphasis on this new medium than the revenue will warrant? I think that is more of a concern than the actual existence of digital books, and publishers are having to take the time to reassure retailers that they aren't going anywhere.

Every recession is an opportunity to evolve. Retailers without a good, comics-oriented point of sale system are losing money every month because gross sales don't equal profits. Months of decreasing sales force retailers to watch profit more closely, and sometimes in years where gross sales are down, profits are actually up. When the market is more difficult, we are all forced to be more savvy, to use better operating systems, to diversify. Anecdotally, sales in Q4 looked like they were up in general from the previous year, but many retailers' orders for comic product that comes out in January and February 2011 are down from previous months -- but that is directly related to the products in the catalog and not to the presence of digital books.

CA: Where do you see the comics industry in five years? I realize that's a wide question, so you can be as general or specific as you like, but it seems like five years from now, digital books and retail shops will have reached the point where they really and truly coexist. What do you think that will look like? Will we still be buying the same kinds of comics from both shops, or will they service different markets?

AE: I see the industry adapting in many ways, but five years may be too soon to see many major changes. Comic book specialty stores which can survive weak markets seem to evolve into entertainment stores that carry a wide range of products. Incorporating digital comics as a product line doesn't have to be difficult, but we all have to watch how the programs get rolled out just as you would when you introduce any other new product line.

Single issue print comics can remain viable and are still very profitable, but much of that is dependent on factors such as developing exciting stories and then effectively selling them to a larger reader base. Digital comics can be a way for comic book publishers with small budgets to afford a far-reaching promotional campaign and it would be great to see them use digital that way. But digital can't be the only way that publishers advertise and promote print comics, and retailers must start focusing on advertising themselves. Comic book retailers can't be passive and wait for their product lines to get more popular nationally and rely on that for increased sales. Strong stores create their own brand and their own local trends.

Digital comics are a different product than print comics. To make both viable, they need to be treated differently, and not just as the same item in different packaging.

However, to improve comic sales overall, another industry focus should be on increasing the number of places that you can find comics. The more places you can buy comics, the healthier our industry is. The more attention that comics get, the better. In the glory days of millions of issues sold, you could buy comics at the grocery store and the gas station and from stores all over the country, not just specialty shops.

ComicsPRO retailers volunteer countless hours helping new stores to open up, and we encourage them to open up in underserved areas. Digital comics are a different product than print comics, but if they are managed in a way to make our industry brands more visible they can help improve our popularity, as well.