Digging into Digital: Slave Labor Graphics Goes Digital First

In a press release, Slave Labor Graphics (aka SLG) announced today that they were moving to a digital-first publishing strategy.  Stating that "it is difficult to publish a 200 page graphic novel from an unknown artist" Dan Vado, SLG's President indicated that going forward, the company would distribute its comics in digital format first across a variety of formats and purchase locations, including its own website.

Here's the explanation of why they've moved to digital-first, from the press release:
 "The market has been pushing us away from serialized comics and more towards books and graphic novels for some time" said SLG president and publisher Dan Vado "However it is difficult to publish a 200 page graphic novel from an unknown artist without having some sort of lower-cost entry point like a comic book series to help build an audience, so going digital first seems like a good way to introduce readers to new creators and build an audience which we can build on for potential book releases."
Vado acknowledged that the digital market for North American comics is small at this time, but looks to the growth of e-books as a model.  Again, from the press release, quoting Vado:
"Digital has the virtue of being a great way to market and see if new creators and concepts can gain any traction and also has the potential to be a real growth area for the medium." 
As a person who is moving towards increased digital consumption of my comics and books, this move certainly makes me happy.  I agree with Vado that not only are books from unknowns a bit risky for the publisher, they are often crap shoots for the reader as well.  I've taken the chance on books and loved them, such as Plastic Farm.  But for every Rafer Roberts, there's (fill-in-the-name-here) who convinced me to get their book and left me with a severe case of buyer's remorse.  That means I'm often reluctant to spend money on a big book without knowing enough about it.  This initiative on the part of SLG addresses that concern, so I think it's a win for publisher and consumer.

For those wondering why SLG doesn't just make single-issue comics and sell those, think for a minute about your typical comic book store.  How many non-Marvel/DC/Image/Dark Horse/IDW/Boom! comics do they have on the shelf?  5?  10?  If you're lucky, maybe it's closer to twenty.  They're usually off to the side and only a few copies are available.  That's no way to create a market buzz, and a smaller publisher can't afford to do much in the way of incentive-based marketing.  Miss on one of those, and you might go bankrupt.  There's far less risk in a digital release (no print run) and the marketing goes viral if people like it.  (I find out about new comics all the time via Twitter, for instance.)

I will admit that despite how much I like digital comics (and my enjoyment just went through the roof with the addition of an iPad--more on that soon), I think Vado is being a bit optimistic about the growth of digital in the near term.  The digital vs paper books debate is still very much open, depending on who you talk to.  However, that's no reason to discount his thinking.  For a smaller publisher who relies heavily on word of mouth, digital might actually give them a sales boost that wouldn't happen in the direct market.

One of the things that impressed me the most about this news from SLG is their insistence on making their comics available to as large an audience as possible.  They are on the following sites, according to the release:
SLG digital comics can be found at the following places
www.slgcomic.com/eyemelt - it's own website
BN.COM -(For Nook and Nook Color)
As if that's not varied enough, SLG's website offers them in pdf, cbz, and even epub formatting.  For those keeping track at home, that means that it is possible to download and own Slave Labor's books that you purchase digitally.  That puts them in the company of only a handful of comics publishers right now--and gives them an "in" with the crowd of people who want to own what they pay for online.  They really should be making a bigger deal out of that, because I think it would give them a leg up on some of the competition.

It's interesting to me how prominent the nook is in SLG's announcement.  It shows that their color tablet is definitely getting some traction, even if I played with it and found it too clunky for my taste.  Noticeably absent from this group is Amazon.  I'll be curious to see if that changes when their nook-busting device comes out later this year.

Overall, this is an interesting step for the company and I hope it works for them.  I know I'll be checking them out soon, probably in the format that allows me to keep what I pay for.  (It's not a deal-breaking issue for me, but why not take advantage of it?)  The big question is:  Will anyone notice?  There's a lot of noise in the digital comics world right now, and I wonder if SLG will get lost in the storm.  That would be a real shame, but it's definitely a possibility.  What do you think, digital folks?