Image launches DRM-free digital comics storefront

Amidst the admittedly splashier publishing news coming out of the 2013 Image Comics’ Image Expo event in San Francisco, the creator-centric publisher is also pushing forward on what may be the final frontier for digital comics: DRM-free downloads.

Starting today, Image is selling high quality PDFs, CBRs, CBZs and ePub formats of new comics via their website, with no restrictions on sharing or copying. Or, as the company’s Director of Business Development Ron Richards told CBR, “You buy it, you own it.”

After the initial wave of books available for purchase hits this week — including a full edition of Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s webcomic “Scatterlands” — Image will start adding new releases every Wednesday. Pricing on releases will work similar to how the publisher releases its books via DRM-based apps like Comics by comiXology — cover price on par with print editions to start with a price drop after a month.

“Because we have a very large back catalogue, to start we’re doing the new books and will add them every Wednesday moving forward,” Richards told CBR. “Then we’ll be slowly populating the back catalogue for the rest of the titles.”

The move comes on the heels of waves of discussion online about whether or not readers who purchase their comics through apps that store the final materials on their own servers are actually buying their books or only purchasing access to a company’s system. And while Image is certainly trying to stake its claim on being the first publisher to offer a wide range of truly downloadable digital offerings, the big questions out the gate may be ones of competition and piracy.

“Our theory on digital has been that it’s not going to hurt print sales,” Richards said, addressing the former. “Digital will just emerge as another channel that has the potential to reach a different audience. Image has been doing digital since ’09, so there’s a few years of data now, and we’re seeing growth in the direct market, growth in the book market and growth in the digital market. Now, if there was growth in our digital market but decline in the direct market, then you could maybe posit that there was cannibalization happening. But there’s growth in both.”  

“The digital market is broken up. There are tech-saavy Wednesday warriors who are getting digital singles and then moving into trades, and I think that’s a small population. I think the larger population are people who don’t live near comic book stores at all and who are buying on iBooks or Amazon’s Kindle or comiXology. They’re discovering comics again after being lapsed readers. Furthermore, I think that people are buying digital comics and then buying hardcovers and collected editions of the stuff they like.”

Asked about the perception that Image will now be competing with partners such as comiXology and Amazon in the digital market, Richards said, “Yes and no. I think the tech savvy comics fan who cares about things like DRM will come to us, and there will be a loss of sales in other marketplaces. But I think there are people who are loyal comiXology users who have built up a collection there, and they can continue to do that. We’re not ceasing any agreements or partnerships with comiXology or iVerse or Apple or Amazon. All that stuff will still be there. So the Kindle Fire owner who buys stuff from Amazon can still do that. This is for the person concerned with ownership who wants to go direct to the source.”

Though for the question of whether or not DRM-free offerings will encourage more piracy and filesharing, Richards was more confident in the outcome. “Our thought on piracy is that the only content hurt by piracy is bad content. Look at the example of ‘Game of Thrones’ on HBO. That is the most torrented television show on the internet right now, and it’s also HBO’s highest-selling DVD set. Clearly, people are pirating it, sampling it and going, ‘I want that for my DVD collection now.’ If that’s happening, it’s happening. You’re never going to fight it. You’re never going to stop it all. But if people pirate a bad comic book, they’re going to stop pirating it — and they’re going to stop buying it, too.”

Aside from a promotional edge for Image with readers wary of digital comics apps, the publisher is also anticipating more benefits for its creators.

“I can’t get into specific contracts, but basically there is no middle man,” Richards said. “There’s no cut for comiXology or Apple or any other piece getting taken out. Ideally for a creator, sales through the Image website gets them the most money per sale.”

As for the future, the publisher is not ruling out digital original offerings, though no major pushes are expected on that front. “s part of the digital launch, we’ll have the exclusive release of ‘Scatterlands’ by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard. That’s been previously released as a webcomic on Warren’s blog, but it will be collected for the first time through us for $0.99. That’ll be our first digital-first book,” Richards said. “We will be considering doing more digital-first stuff. It’s clear that the stuff DC and Marvel have been experimenting with are successful, but for us it’s less about ‘Okay, we need to have a digital-first product. What can we do?’ and more about the fact that we want to have compelling content from good creators. So it hasn’t been for want of technology; it’s been more about a focus on content and creators.”

Overall, the move to downloadable comics marks a turning point for Image’s digital plans but not an end point.

“Our mission with digital is to be wherever people want to read comics,” Richards explained. “If some new platform emerges or some new model for selling digital comics is built, we’ll be there. We don’t have any plans to develop our own app or anything at this time, but maybe down the road we will. Who knows? Right now, we’re happy with comiXology, iVerse and doing our own thing. Giving people more options and more choice is not a bad thing. And since we’ve run into issues with content in other platforms, if we’re selling things directly, we don’t have to worry about that. We’re the arbiter of what we’ll publish. So if Apple deems ‘Saga’ or ‘Sex’ or ‘Black Kiss’ or any of our other awesome titles inappropriate for their app store, then people can come to our site and buy it directly.”

Stay tuned today and all week on CBR for more from Image Expo.