As with other digital books, publishers of comics and graphic novels are itching to know whether — or when — the tipping point will come.
The talk lately on the success of digital books focuses mostly on electronic readers. With the premier of the iPad in April, many folks think we're about to make the transition to purchase more e-books.
I think there are more hurdles to jump. The biggest one is price. Web consumers, who are accustomed to free or drastically reduced prices for content, expect the same of e-books, and more specifically e-comics. A common thought is that a printed book that costs $25 should cost far less digitally because there's no printing involved.
Publishers, on the other hand, note that the cost of printing books is only a part of publishing. There are other costs associated with putting together a book — paying the authors, editors, graphic designers, and promotion, to name a few. Those costs are constant no matter how the book is published, so even e-books cannot be published as cheap as some would expect.
Besides price, prose books and comics differ in another key aspect: delivery of content. In prose, content is delivered in words, so how they are presented is not so critical, as long as it's legible. With comics, the art is part of the content, so how it materializes in the e-format is essential.
Currently, a shortcoming of reading comics digitally is being able to display pages as they would appear in a printed book. In a print comic, you can fully appreciate the art on a full-page palette or in a two-page spread, allowing the reader to take in the panels as individual pieces as well as the page as a whole. In most cases, the traditional square-panels/grid format works best. But experimenting with paneling and layout in e-comics is usually difficult because it often requires the reader to toggle up and down the display, which is less than an ideal way to enjoy a comic.
New e-readers can overcome this problem by displaying full pages and making it easier to move between pages. And some free online comics, such as Act-i-vate Comix and What Things Do, are doing wonderful things with comics online. I especially like how WTD presents its comics using a continuous scroll.
I think with new e-readers, new online comics formats and attractive price points, consumers will take to buying e-comics.