Monday, July 2, 2012

On the Announcement of MonkeyBrain Comics and the New Digital Model

You guys will have to forgive me.  My brain has been on vacation mode for several days, so while I was able to participate in the MonkeyBrain Comics kick-off press call (I KNOW.  Look at me all acting like a legitimate news source.), I was unable to muster an intelligent question during the MonkeyBrain Q&A.

The basic idea behind MonkeyBrain is as follows:

MonkeyBrain will be your middleman and promotions arm if you're a creator-owned comic that wants to start off in the digital world.  That said, this isn't for just any schmo off the street to submit their work.  MonkeyBrain is Chris Roberson and Allison Baker's effort to develop a direct-to-digital channel for creator-owned work.  It sounds like a non-exclusive, digital-print-rights contract that will enable creators to show up on Comixology on Wednesdays alongside players like DC, Marvel, IDW, and more.

You can read the press release here.

In short, it seems Team Roberson/ Baker looked at what was going on and saw a way to support independent creators by creating a channel for them to get into the same "newsstand" as the big boys.

The effort is the logical outcome of the past several years of (a) the big players not adjusting their model to take advantage of the ability for distribution of chancier works the internet truly provided (b) the infinite newsstand of the internet - but placing the comics where they'll be seen.

The end result is a cheaper product.  Chris and Allison said the initial offerings (all appearing on Comixology on Wednesday) will be available for about $6.  So, right now the price point for a digital comic coming from MonkeyBrain is between $1 and $2.  I don't know if you've checked the price of a comic book lately, but that's cheaper than almost everything on the stand by quite a bit (some Marvel titles are $3.99 for a mere 20 pages of content.  I KNOW.  You wonder why I'm moving on from superhero stuff).

In the past few months I've bought two comedy specials online directly from Louis CK and Aziz Ansari for about $5 each.  I'm sure there were production, server, money exchanging and other costs involved, but they'd managed to really cut the price down by going direct and online and not involving the instituionalized channels.   Last week I bought tickets to a Louis CK show in Austin December for about $45.  Which may seem steep, but the last time I looked at seeing someone perform in Austin, it was about $80-95, which meant I didn't buy tickets.  Where was all that money going?  Apparently Louis CK wanted to know, too, and he figured out he could manage his own ticket purchasing, manage his own business and drive down the cost to make shows (more) affordable.

I think MonkeyBrain could provide that same sort of cost control, that same channel between creator and audience and get an infusion of independent comics with some traction to them like we haven't seen since the black and white explosion of the 80's.  That would be good for all of us as comics fans.

It's amazing to watch the new modes of commerce pop up, and the opportunities we've been seeking for a while starting to find footing.  The trick, of course, will be MonkeyBrain, Comixology (the internet newsstand), the creator and the consumer figuring out if this all makes sense from a dollars and sense perspective - is the creator putting out a product that feels like its worth $1 - $2 and meeting expectations for readers?   And finding readers who aren't Wednesday shoppers?

While I love me some Kickstarter, the model is only going to take us so far.  After we've raised the money, so what?  What happens to get the album in the bin, the comic on the shelf or to get the product before those who weren't already converts?  This is the next step in the supply chain that hasn't really been sorted out yet.

Another challenge facing digital work has been that placing it online doesn't make it free, and the initial forays by DC and Marvel have actually made buying comics more expensive.  There's been an unspoken assumption that just everybody out there has the necessary hardware for reading comics online.  I, for one, don't really have a computer anywhere but work that I feel is appropriate for reading online comics.  When I ran the numbers on buying an iPad as a reader when they debuted, I didn't just figure in the cost of a comic, I figured in the overhead of an iPad at about $700-800 once I had all my doo-dads.  Suddenly the cost of reading comics had gotten much more expensive when, in theory, I was trying to save money.  But at $1?  at $2?  That's a different story compared to $3 to $4 a pop (or more).  It's a huge incentive to think about new devices.

I don't want to miss a major point here:  the tremendous value MonkeyBrain may provide could be the business sense Allison and Chris can bring to the creators.  I'm waiting to see if they can't get them as organized as Image was in 1992, without devolving into the mess Image seemed to become by 2000.  Clearly people are reading comics online, legally or otherwise.  Chris and Allison are creating the connection and making it make sense as a business to support and develop creators and get their product out there.  Comixology provided a platform which DC and Marvel have popularized, but it's time to use that cow path for a road to better things.

We know this can be done poorly, but MonkeyBrain takes the record label idea, strips it down to reduce the tremendous overhead and expenditures, and gives the comics involved an umbrella under which they can share promotion and other costs.  Online comics are nothing new, and the models have been entirely too divergent and at cross-purposes, from free comics you get in your RSS feed to pay sites you pay for in bulk as a subscription, to DC's mind-bogglingly poorly conceived Zuda effort.  This is simply comics on a shelf, with a namebrand label behind them to support them.

I'm still not financially certain I want an iPad at the moment (and am waiting to see what this new Microsoft device is like), but I am going to be watching MonkeyBrain closely, especially as we head into the San Diego Comic-Con where I'm certain Allison and Chris will be swarmed by creators looking for an opportunity to get their creator-owned work out there.

This, by the way, comics fans and creators, is how you put your money where your mouth is.  We all talk about the rights of the indie creator, but at the end of the day the folks who actually run DC and Marvel, the ones who don't know a Jack Kirby from a Kirby vacuum, the accountants and lawyers, have absolutely nothing invested in making a better life for the widows and heirs of dead artists who signed standard contracts while Kennedy was in office.  You can't count on them to do anything but increase the value of corporate stock.

But what we readers can do is find new works that mean something to us, and if we like the work, buy it and read it and hopefully the rest will take care or itself.  It's a bigger, scarier world out there putting your comics up next to the big boys at Comixology, but it's also a hell of an opportunity.  I look forward to seeing exactly how this looks come next Fourth of July.


Simon MacDonald said...

This seems like a great idea. Without a banner to sit under it'll be hard for people to have there work discovered out there in the digital world. Discoverability is such a key in having your digital product become a success.

The League said...

I agree. I wasn't sure what the MonkeyBrain effort was going to be, but this makes a lot of logical sense in an industry that usually eschews logic for expedience.

I'm also excited that the contracts and copyright are being handled this way. I think Roberson & Baker will be able to help a lot of these folks make this a viable option and get them set up for better exploitation of their IP.

Simon MacDonald said...

You have no idea how many times I wanted to chuck it all and help artists/comic book pros navigate their way through the digital world. Sadly, as I don't know any comic book pros I would have had no idea where to start. I considered applying to Comixology but I don't want to move to NYC.

The League said...

Yeah, every once in a while I've thought about "what do I know from working in IT that could help?" I think this MonkeyBrain business paired with Comixology makes the most sense of pretty much anything I've seen. And I like the fact that MonkeyBrain feels somewhat portable across distributors and I can't wait to see where this goes.

RHPT said...

You should look into the tablet Google just announced (Nexus 8) or the Amazon Kindlw Fire 2 (coming soon). They'll both be about $200 and pretty good for eBook reading and basic web surfing.It's about 70% as good as the iPad at 40% the cost.

Simon MacDonald said...

If you just want a device to read and do some light web surfing then I'd go with a Kindle Fire 2 once it is out. The Nexus 7 tablet from Google looks very impressive and it will be one of the first devices with Android 4.1 Jellybean which shows how the OS is quickly evolving.

Although if you want the best tablet on the market you want an iPad. Yes, you are going to pay more for it but it is certainly worth it. Mind you with the new iPad out the iPad 2 is $100 cheaper which makes it a good alternative.

The League said...

Looking at my cashflow on the other side of a vacation, it may be a while before I start looking at any sort of device. However, I read the books on my laptop last night and they all displayed just fine. Comixology has really improved the online reading process.

Simon MacDonald said...

And there are persistent rumours of a iPad mini coming out later this year which would compete with the Kindle and 7 inch Android tablets. I'm not too sure if that will ever come to pass but they keep bringing it up.

I haven't tried the Comixology on-line reader in awhile. I should go re-read some Atomic Robo.