Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Image Comics Is Doing Digital (Mostly) Right

Digital entertainment is annoying.  I should know, I consume enough of it.  There's a lot to consider.  What format will it be in?  How is it downloaded - or is it just streamed?  How is it accessed?  Are there limits on it?  More often than not you're not buying the things you're buying; music, for instance, is more often than not licensed, which is why you aren't allowed to resell MP3s (although there's interesting legal ).  While digital entertainment is difficult and constantly changing, there are a lot of companies that are doing what they can to ease the pain.  Steam, for example, makes downloading, managing, and playing games very easy.  Humble Bundle lets you download games for multiple operating systems (usually), has a great payment system, and lets you download via torrents.  Bandcamp allows you to preview songs, download in a number of audio formats, and offers free and pay-what-you-want models.  These and others might not take away all of the hassle but they at least make it worth the hassle.

Comics are the new digital boys in town, having found great success with the Comixology app.  Comixology has comics from most of the major comic book publishers (seriously, Dark Horse?  You're going to make people use a separate app?  Blah.), you can read them on basically every device, and they have a nifty "Guided View" feature that goes panel-by-panel so you don't go blind reading full pages on your iPhone.  It's not, however, perfect: you're still forced to use a Comixology interface to read your purchased items, and while they're ubiquitous enough that this normally won't be an issue, what happens if, for instance (and God forbid), they go under?  There's a lot of money down the drain when you don't have Comixology to view your funny books.  It goes back to the licensing/leasing/renting issue.  And that's bad.

That's why I like what Image Comics is doing.  (First of all, you should like what they're doing creatively anyway.  They've released some of the best comics, creator-owned or otherwise, especially in the past ten to fifteen years.  Ever heard of The Walking Dead?  Yeah, that's them.)  Their books are available on Comixology, but they also have digital downloads available directly from their site.  Books are offered in four formats: PDF, ePub, CBR, and CBZ (the latter two are archive files primarily used for viewing sequential images - aka comics).  Payment can be made with either credit card or PayPal, and the checkout process is quick and painless.  From there, you're free to download your book(s) without DRM limits - read them where you want, when you want, back them up, and so on.  There are dozens of programs and devices that can read the file types, and their Support section has plenty of options, so you shouldn't find yourself wanting.

There are a few things that Image could do to make the post-purchase experience a little better.  Your profile, where you can find your purchases, is straightforward and not particularly pleasing, aesthetically speaking.  It doesn't necessarily have to be - all you're doing is downloading files, after all - but additional functionality would be nice.  For example, it looks like books are only sorted by purchase date, and only the series title and issue number are shown.  Features like grouping by series or creator(s), showing cover thumbnails, and so on would provide for a better, more useful interface.

One of my favorite features of the Humble Bundles is the choice between downloading a file directly or via torrent, and Image could benefit from that as well.  Torrents allow for quicker downloads and PDFs, for example, can get a little large.  Also, it would be nice to be able to download all four file types together, rather than one by one.

My biggest pet peeve is regarding availability; at this moment, my just-purchased Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Ríos is sitting in my profile with the following message: You have purchased this item in advance. It'll be available on 10/23 at 12pm PST.  Huh?  I have to wait until 3pm to read something that a) I've already bought and b) I could pick up a hard copy of at my local comic shop in the morning?  That makes absolutely no sense, it's frustrating, and this sort of windowing continues to be a problem in a digital world.

Image is doing things mostly right.  The above problems aren't deal breakers - I also didn't see any digital versions of collections, which should be addressed - although timezone windowing is an unnecessary headache that punishes customers for, as far as I can tell, no benefit to anyone.  I admittedly don't know how long Image has been offering their own downloads, so hopefully they're still working through the best practices and will continue to make the process even better.  Still, even as it stands right now, it's a large step in the right direction, and I think that outweighs any outstanding issues that can be easily fixed.

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