This week Amazon announced it has bought ComiXology, a popular online store and digital reader for comic books, graphic novels and the like.
Now, there is a select group of you, i.e., comics nerds fans, to whom this will mean quite a bit more than it means to say, me. I am not a comics fan. Or at least — I haven’t been one.
Then I called up Douglas Wolk, a man who writes about comic books, as well as writes comic books, and I started to get pretty excited about comics and the economics behind them.
Wolk is currently working on a series called "Judge Dredd Mega City Two," which he describes as "probably the closest that incredibly violent sci-fi gets to a tribute to Joan Didion." I am intrigued.
Wolk says, part of why he can write crazy mash-ups like this is because of the weird way the comic books business has worked for many years.
"Comics have the strangest economics of just about any medium I can think of," he said.
Unlike regular books, where a store can return unsold copies, with comic books, a store buys a certain number from a publisher on a non-refundable basis. That means publishers of comics can gauge ahead of time how many copies will be profitable to print, so it's easier to take risks on books that might only appeal to niche markets.
And tapping into those niche markets has become even easier with the rise of digital comics, according to Calvin Reid, a lifelong comic book fan and senior news editor at Publishers Weekly. And that’s a good thing for comic book sales, since sales for physical comic books have reached a plateau in recent years.
"Even in the early nineties there were comics that hit real mass market numbers, a million or so," Reid said. "But now, you sell 100,000 copies, and everyone pays attention."
Even so, physical comics that you can hold in your hand are still a more than $600 million industry. There's just something addictive about flipping through the pages, says Jeff Ayers, a manager at Forbidden Planet, a revered comic book store in Manhattan that still does brisk business. It's great to be able to read a comic on your phone, Ayers told me.
"But I'm not inclined to bring phone in to the bath tub, where I would be a comic book," he says.
Reading a comic book tribute to Joan Didion….in the bath tub? I might try that.