Thursday, April 17, 2014

My Experience with Image's Digital Comics Store

An Open Letter to Image Comics
I just bought Stray Bullets.  All 41 issues of it.

Image's digital comic store is a bit rough around the edges.  But I'll get to that in a moment.

In a previous blog post, which was really intended to be a companion piece to this one, I talked about how I want digital, not physical comics, and how I won't be buying (or reading) any comics I can't purchase as DRM free files.  Which pretty much leaves everyone out but Image and (very few) indies.

And, surprisingly enough, I've spent more money on digital comics in the past few months than I ever remember spending in a comparable amount of time on physical comics, even back when I used to visit shops regularly.  Part of this is because I'm playing catch up, and part of this is because I make way more money now than I made back then. Anyway...

Dear Image Comics:

I'm incredibly glad that you have gone DRM-free digital.  It had to be hard.  The data says the sky isn't falling due to piracy but it's one thing to see the data and entirely another one take a major leap based on it.  And you didn't just go DRM-free digital, you want day-and-date DRM-free digital.  My job has me in the middle of nowhere right now, and I'll be here for another month or two.  I have broadband access at my place of work, and spotty cellular access at home that's good for email, rss feeds and that's about it.  So I have to say I really, really appreciate your digital store.  The fact that I can buy and download comics from work (with my company's permission, or course) take them home on a thumb drive, copy them to my tablet and read them at my convenience seems simple enough, but it's a process that every other large comics company seems to want to deny me.

Let's be honest, if I can get DRM-free comic files for free on any of a hundred piracy sites, why can't the publishers themselves offer me the same content after I've paid?  Do they think that giving me a locked down version of an issue is going to unpirate it?  Or that treating me in such a way is going to make me eager to come back to a marketplace that presumes I'm a thief, even though I'm here, offering my money, instead of on The Pirate Bay downloading it for free?

But why am I telling you this?  You clearly get it.  I hope you're getting a nice boost in sales over this.  I'm trying to do my part, spending-wise.

So far I've bought all of Three, the first arc of Pretty Deadly, the first two arcs of Saga, the first arc of Sex Criminals and, well, that might be it.

Oh, and I've just bought every issue of Stray Bullets (save for any of Killers, I'm waiting for a finished arc on that too).  Yep, that's right, I just dropped $74.63 on Stray Bullets, in spite of a few heavy details, such as:
  • All the issues in the collection you're printing up are/will be going for $60.  Why you're charging $15 more for digital files with (presumably) less overhead and less middlemen I don't know.  It's bordering on insulting, but it is a new medium for you guys and I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.
  • In a few months or at least within a year I bet you'll have another store-wide sale, with everything 50% off or similarly discounted, and since I've already read all of Stray Bullets (except issue 41) I could have just sat back and waited for such a sale.
  • Also, I bought these issues in spite of how difficult it is to buy forty-one issues of a comic on your web site.
First, why did I buy them?  Why not buy them cheaper in print form?  Why not just download them illegally?

Well, I wouldn't buy the print collection because I find the print form less convenient.  I've moved enough times to be intimately familiar with how much each of my boxes of comics weigh.  I'd rather carry all the comics I'm currently reading on my tablet than in a duffel bag.  If I want to read Stray Bullets on my lunch break tomorrow I can---or Saga, or Private Investigator (not one of yours, but still DRM-free digital), all I need is my tablet.  Ten years ago if I wanted to read a comic I had to have it on me.  I carried a backpack with me at all times, with books, comics, CDs, paper, pencils, etc.  I'm very glad that a phone and a tablet has completely replaced that backpack.

As for why I didn't download them illegally or wait for a sale, well, that was the deal.  You see, I did download them illegally (all but the then-unpublished last issue), about a year ago.  I told myself that once they were available for sale in a format I wanted, I'd buy them.  And they are.  Okay, they have been for a few months now, but I kind of forgot about them (sorry).  But then I saw your email that the new series has started and I decided, well, time to pay the piper.

I'm super-excited to finally read issue 41.  I'm appreciative of the opportunity to pay money for these issues and download them and keep them, not worrying about servers crashing or companies going out of business.  They're mine and I own them.

Now, I don't know what your pricing policy is, but you might want to do something about that disparity.  Is there any good reason, like I said eariler, why a paper format which requires printers and shipping and middlemen and stores and more shipping should cost the end user less than a digital file going directly to them over the internet?  Really?  This is the kind of thing that might turn people against going digital.  And if comic books are anything like prose books, then digital ones have a much bigger profit margin.  Much bigger.

Now, let's talk about your web site.  It's not great.  I'm sorry, but as someone who plans on spending a lot of time and money there, I have to be frank.

When I was looking at Saga, I couldn't see a link to issue #1.  I saw a link to issue #9.  Hmm.  I clicked the link to issue #9, and the issues it recommended were the most recent ones.  So I edited the text in the address bar, changing the "9" to a "1".  That took me to the right page, I downloaded the issue, and after I read it I did the same for issues 2-6 to buy them.

Then today, when I was looking at Stray Bullets, I was looking at the issue listing that stopped at like 33.  I knew I could edit the address bar, but that's ridiculous.  There must be a better way.  I tried looking around for a different listing or directory, but found none.  I scrolled down to the bottom of the page to look for a contact link so I could email someone and ask them.  I was looking there when a second later links to a few more issues popped up at the bottom of the list, pushing the site footer out of my view.  Oh, okay.  So that's how I get the full list.  I scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page, wait a second (even though there's no animation letting me know something's loading) and then it pops up (this is in Firefox, by the way).

Let me tell you, that is really annoying.  Incredibly annoying.  Especially considering I was trying to read your site's footer at the time.  Do you think people enjoy the bit that they're trying to read constantly popping out of view?  If I were on the Walking Dead's page, I never would have gotten a good look at the links in that footer before going insane.  It took three or four pauses at the footer to get all the issues to load.  Could stand to be streamlined, don't you think?

Why spool them out a few at a time?  Why not just load the whole list?  Or better yet, how about a nice cover thumbnail grid, displaying all the available issues at once in less space?  Does your current way really save you any bandwidth?  Do you want it to take longer for your users to see what comics you have available digitally?  And for that matter, why don't you have the option to sort by issue number or release date?  I get that most customers are going to prefer to see the most recent issues, but at some point a lot of us are going to need to get to the first few issues too.

Okay, after the setback of just finding links to the issues, how am I supposed to download forty-one issues of a series?  Click on each one individually, click "add to cart", wait for it to (rather slowly) show up in my cart, hit back twice to get back to the issue list, click on the next issue, add to cart, etc?  Okay, well what I actually did was I scrolled to the bottom, scrolled, scrolled, until I got to issue number one, then I opened each issue's page in a new tab.  Then I went to each tab individually, clicked "add to cart" went to the next tab, clicked "add to cart".  I clicked add to cart 41 times.  Then twelve more times, because even though the pages for issues 14, 19, 21, 29, 31, 32, and 35-40 said they were added to the cart, they weren't in my cart, so I had to back up a page on each tab, re-click "add to cart" and then they showed up.  I know I clicked on the button the first time because it took me to a page that said the issues were added to my cart.  I probably overloaded the system or confused it or something, as many tabs as I had open, but isn't there a better way to do it?  A text field that allows entering a number range, or at the very least a list with check boxes by each issue would have saved me a ton of time.

(Also, if I were you I'd offer a discount on large runs, or full runs.  A certain percent discounted on runs of ten issues, slightly more discounted on runs of 20, et cetera, but that's your business, not mine.)

Then we get to downloading.  Once again, I had to click *every single link*.  Five or six files could be downloaded at a time, so I have to wait for one of them to finish before I could click the link to start the next one, and so on.  My work internet connection is pretty fast, but still.  I don't know if users would want to install a downloader program just for your comics, but how about letting us check or select the files we want (and choose a file format), and give them to us in a zip file?  Or give the option to download just the recently purchased issues in a single zip file?

Okay, that's it for this particular shopping experience.  I don't know how long it took me in total, a half hour or an hour.  A bit too long, don't you think?  A few upgrades and that transaction, download included, could have taken less than five minutes.

Now for some general notes:

Subscriptions.  I know pre-ordering is important for physical issues.  Here's the deal:  I'm going to buy every issue of Pretty Deadly, for instance, that gets published (digitally).  But I like to wait until arcs are finished to read them.  So how about a service, kind of like a watch list, where I tell you what series I'm interested in and you email me when their current arcs have finished?  We both know these lists won't translate 1:1 to sales, but after a year or two I bet you'd be pretty good at predicting their sell through rates.  I know you already have a mailing list, and you usually do notify when an arc is finished, but I rather like the idea of me letting you know that I intend to buy something when it's at a stopping point, especially with all this talk of how important pre-orders are to a series.

Are you going to make trades available digitally ever, or only single issues?  My understanding is that trades have different back matter content, I'm just curious if that extra stuff will ever be made available digitally through your store.  It would be cool if you'd make it available to people who own the issues digitally, or at least available to buy as a supplement at a reasonable price for those of us who are completionists.

I read somewhere that you guys are constantly putting new digital issues up of old series.  Is that still true?   Do you have a list of what's just been added?  You should.  A weekly email of what's been added to your store would be nice, especially because there are a lot of your series that ComiXology has that you don't (Mara you only have one issue for sale digitally, for example).

You should consider releasing a torrent of all your free #1 issues.  I'd download them all, browse them casually, and buy the first arc of whatever series piqued my interest.  I think that would bring many of your series a lot more attention (without giving away anything more than you already are).

All in all I'd say my final grading of your site gets a solid "B".  There were no crashes, the closest thing to a bug was issues not showing up in my cart when they should have, but I was pretty well spamming them in there.  There is a product there and I could access said product, so it's doing it's job.  Now to recap, here's where I saw room for improvement:

Opportunity #1:  Pricing.  Digital shouldn't be more than print, and certainly not that much more.  Unless digital costs you more to distribute, in which case you should probably let your customers know that so we can try to avoid getting angry over it.

Opportunity #2:  Don't spool out your list of available issues, find a way to make all that information available upon first loading. Even a block of hot-linked issue numbers in the sidebar would do in a pinch.

Opportunity #3:  Have a way to buy a range of issues.  Or if there currently is a way, make it more obvious, because I sure as heck don't know about it.

Opportunity #4:  Have a more convenient way for people to download the full runs they've bought.

I'm so glad that a major comics company is finally leading the way into digital DRM-free comic sales.  As you can see I've been trying to take full advantage of it, and I intend to continue to do so in the future.

Thanks, and I hope this info dump has been at least partially helpful,


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