Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Books, young man. Books."

As I've said before, I'm not now and never really was a reader of comics, but even I can't escape the buzz emanating from DC Comics:
On Wednesday, August 31st, DC Comics will launch a historic renumbering of the entire DC Universe line of comic books with 52 first issues, including the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE by NEW YORK TIMES bestselling writer and DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and bestselling artist and DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee. The publication of JUSTICE LEAGUE issue 1 will launch day-and-date digital publishing for all these ongoing titles, making DC Comics the first of the two major American publishers to release all of its superhero comic book titles digitally the same day as in print.
A lot of people, and rightly so, are focusing on the "historic renumbering" part of the announcement, which, as I understand it, may or may not mean a full rebooting of the DC Universe. As an outsider, though, what I find more interesting is the announcement of "day-and-date digital publishing." That, right there, is pretty big news and potentially game changing, especially if it goes as well as I am sure DC hopes that it does.

Predictably, I can't say I'm too keen on the idea, as it's likely another cobblestone on the road to the eventual elimination of print media. Luddite that I am, I simply don't like reading books in electronic form, especially roleplaying books. That's why I'm not a big fan of PDFs. I tolerate them, because many RPG products are only available in PDF nowadays and I know that my dislike of them is a distinctly minority opinion, but they're not something I willingly choose when a print options is available.

Yes, yes, these comics will still be available in printed form, but will that be the case in 10 years time? I'm not so sanguine on that point, but then I'm pessimistic by nature, so take that as you will. Reading this news, though, I couldn't help but think of Wizards of the Coast and the way that D&D IV seems increasingly wedded to digital formats and delivery of new content. I have little doubt that this is profitable, likely more profitable than traditional methods, but I dislike it all the same. Fortunately, RPGs don't require anything more than a single rulebook to give a lifetime of enjoyment, so, even if the future of the book is as gloomy as I fear, I'm already set.

49 comments:

  1. I don't mind reading books on my Kindle, but my RPG rulebooks NEED to be printed. I've spent countless hours on Amazon tracking down print versions of ADnD books of which I already have a PDF.

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  2. I wouldn't start speculating on how profitable D&D's digital strategy is. All news I read is that 4e could be doing an awful lot better for WoTC and Hasbro. I'm not sure that has any connection to their digital strategy, but I do suspect that it doesn't help. Not everyone can have a computer at the table.

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  3. At the very least, trade PBs and HCs will still be around. I'm not too keen on collecting single issues of comic books anyway, as I much prefer reading the trades.

    But books aren't going anywhere; the very idea is laughable. It's not Luddism to point out that they'll always be a relatively cheap and convenient medium.

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  4. Reading comics in dead-tree format is probably slightly preferable for me, if only because I don't have to rotate the "reader" when I come across a double-page spread. HOWEVER (and this is a big HOWEVER) digital comics are insanely better when it comes to issues of storage. I am running out of space for both longboxes and graphic novel-storing bookshelves. It's much nicer having the entirety of Kirby's FF and Thor runs stored virtually instead of eating up half of my basement.

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  5. I came very close to buying a Kindle, but the one thing holding me back was the handling of PDFs: not as flexible as I would like, yet, and one goal I had in mind was having all my RPG PDFs in one place and searchable.

    Regarding e-format books, while I love the "feel" of a book, I don't regard the coming of e-books as something to regret or feel melancholy over. However, that picture you posted is from one of my favorite scenes in TOS, and that lawyer's little speech about books has always resonated with me.

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  6. As I’ve said before, PDF (and a good printer) is print-on-demand. Other formats are more appropriate for purely digital works. PDF is most appropriate for print, even though they have wisely added features to make “online” use a bit better. And print-on-demand has an awful lot of benefits over the old print-in-mass-quantities. Or rather, print a best guess at how many will be demanded. The modern book lover—while still collecting pre-printed books—also learns to bind books themselves or find a local company to do it for them. It isn’t the end of printed books. It’s just an evolution.

    (Although, I’m a big fan of e-books too.)

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  7. 4E D&D was definitely the first thing that popped to mind when I read this DC news elsewhere.

    And I must say the best thing I've gotten in years was a friend's gift of a handmade, hardcover bound collection of all the OD&D LBBs. OMG, I'm completely ruined for any other format now.

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  8. I never had an issue of reading comics on-line and welcome a digital subscription service.

    I don't want to read my books on a computer screen. For me the Kindle is the perfect balance between reading a printed page and the convenience of having a digital library. The e-ink screen is nothing like reading text on a computer screen. In addition I have the advantage of changing the font size to fit the circumstances.

    The problem with the Kindle is graphic heavy text like RPG Rulebooks. For that I will get a full color tablet. And hopefully have a few good apps to use at the table with.

    For now I love my Kindle for ordinary reading.

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  9. Luddites aren't allowed to blog, by the way ;).

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  10. I'm a fan of The Book as a media type. Even given a projected level of technological development, the book has a lot of advantages-- I don't think it will go away. Game-wise? I only use books-- if it is pdf? I print it out. A reader or a laptop at the table doesn't work for me. That being said-- comic book floppies are a weird & awkward medium. I don't want a row of longboxes. I see digital & trade paperback as being the best to methods of distribution.

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  11. I would love for all comics to be digital. As Rob Barrett says above I don't want to store comic books in my house any longer. I don't collect comics, I read them. In fact if I didn't feel they were works of art and need to be treated as such I would through out every comic I buy after reading it. Unfortunately my sensibilities keep me from doing this, so I am forced to store them or give them away (which, BTW, is harder than you would think). So digital comics can't come fast enough for me. I haven't read a DC comic in years but I will start as soon as they go digital.

    As far as my RPGs go I only use printed material. PDF products are banned from my group. If we can't get it in a professionally printed and bound form we don't use it. Not a big deal for us because even though we play 3.5, we don't use any splat books. So the only things we buy are modules or Adventure Path volumes.

    As far as reading generic books, at this point, I am about 70/30 Kindle. My default is to get a book I want to read on Kindle, if I can't, I will still occasionally buy dead tree books for reading. I think PDFs are terrible on a Kindle, btw.

    So I think that pretty says what the future of the printed book industry is. The majority of reading will take place on electronic devices of some kind and printed material will live on indefinitely in niche groups and markets.

    Electronic books won't dominate the way electronic music is so dominant today but they will be the majority soon and will be from that point forward. Until, you know, the big collapse of civilization as we know it.

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  12. I see comics as being a medium that will, as a medium, fundamentally change as it becomes digital. So many of the elements of the comics medium are tied to paper and standard comic sizing -- panel size, panel number per page, placement of text, etc. These elements become fundamentally rearranged in a digital format, as the reading technology can only be somewhat anticipated by the artist. What's a half-page panel in a print comic may technically be a half-page panel in the digital version, but, depending on your reader, you may not be able to see the whole panel at once. I think that's a big deal for the current medium of comics.

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  13. What the Prof just said: we haven't even begun to see what long-form comics will look like once they shift to assumed digital production. (Although I assume that the Big Two will lack behind for a long time since they will still be tied to book production in the form of GNs.)

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  14. I was really pro-paper comics until I had to clean up my office on the weekend. After BAGS of bag stuff and books went to our local donation place I still LIKE books... but I don't know that I want to be holding onto stuff I'm only planning to read once.

    For that I think my iPad might be a better choice. I don't really read comics much anymore... but if anything were to get me into that again, I think I'd prefer digital over print at this point.

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  15. It's important to remember that while the comics industry and the rpg industry share one thing -- a dwindling and ageing audience -- that there are a great deal of differences. For one thing, the rpg industry lacks anything approaching a single issue of a comic, which is all that's really changing here.

    Much as they'll try to spin it as such, this is not about a revolution in publishing. This is about trying to escape the distribution dead end the comics industry left itself in when it created the direct market. You'll still find the collected editions in bookshops, but the single issues will gradually disappear, and specialist comic shops are going to take a hit from day-and-date digital comics, but this is a sacrifice the publishers are willing to make in their attempts to regain their lost audience.

    I'm sure there will be lessons to be learned for the rpg industry from this, but it's far from a case of like for like.

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  16. I own a massive collection of old rule books and dearly love them, have run epic campaigns with them.

    However, these days nothing delights me more than bringing my laptop to the table and using it as a command center. One click on a tab and there's anything from a chart to a graphic for the players, to sound effects. No clutter, no fuss. This is the kind of progress I like very, very much. It's like spending years grubbing in the dirt with one's bare hands, then being given a spade. So, game materials going electronic pleases me to no end.

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  17. I love books and am an avid comic book fan. However, as others have stated, I just can't afford to house longboxes of comics anymore. I have roughly 10,000 comics in my garage. I'd love to keep key issues and certain runs, but for the most part, I'm liking the digital stuff. In fact, I had been subscribing to many Marvel titles in print, but once they offered their digital subscription, I cut out the print versions all together.

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  18. Regarding the decline of print books in general--I don't wish for it, but neither do I perceive it as anything to bemoan unless one makes a living selling dead tree products. As far as consumption goes--I'm sure folks were wringing their hands as tablets and chisels were replaced by parchment and quill. It all turned out just fine.

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  19. I have a fairly huge collection of RPG PDFs. Very rarely I open them on my laptop for quick reference, but that's pretty unsatisfactory. I find that *most* of them are just fine for reading on my Kindle... DX. That is, the giant iPad-sized 10" Kindle. Most 8.5" x 11" PDFs are quite good at that size. It's how I read most retro-clones, all of The Minotuar, and a lot of technical books that require full page diagrams.

    When I really want paper, I've been sending indie PDFs to Staples for printing and spiral-binding. It's about the same price as buying the book from the publisher's POD, but I get lay-flat spiral binding, and can skimp on some options if I want to save a few bucks. (I perhaps naively assume that the profit margin is better on the PDF.)

    What I can't stomach isn't the books as PDFs, it's the knock-on effect that you hint at. With 4E's online reference compendium, it has become very simple for 4E "fixes" to be issued every few weeks, *drastically* changing classes. They changed the rule on whether a Magic Missile requires a to-hit roll! They just majorly changed Turn Undead rules! Look, I don't mind if you want to really go for game balance to start with, but if you keep changing the rules so that the printed book is wildly *wrong* after two or three years, I can't get behind that.

    What I worry about with online publishing is the fact that the text isn't set in print. You can't run a "rules as printed" game, if you can only access the "rules as live online." Again, this isn't a problem with PDFs. If we end up with all PDFs, I'll think it will be a little sad -- I like being able to identify used RPG books by their spines -- but not very.

    If we end up with all "RPG game books as a service," I will throw up my hands in despair and stick to Mazes & Minotaurs.

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  20. "If we end up with all "RPG game books as a service," I will throw up my hands in despair and stick to Mazes & Minotaurs."

    I agree there. The stream of service can be problematic. It's a blessing and a curse with computer games--the companies all too often stray from patching a few bugs to releasing half-baked products and counting on massive patches to "fix" things.

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  21. It is inevitable that all content will be provided in a digital format, there is too much risk in producing a hard copy that may not sell.

    What will also inevitably occur is cheaper and higher quality "print on demand". I email a pdf to Wal-Mart and use a touchscreen to choose my book style (black and white, glossy soft cover, gold tinted hardcover etc) and voila, $25 bucks later I have my book.

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  22. I would not call DC's retro-active reorganization "historic", as DC do reboots and retcons ALL THE DAMN TIME! Years ago, the DC Universe got so cluttered, they created a multi-universe, and open the floodgates to the whole "Infinite Earths" arcs. Its kinda like when TSR tried to tie all their settings through two overreaching settings: Planescape and Spelljammer.

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  23. You know what...DC needs to dump all its existing titles and organize a single comic title that is published daily. A single Weekly Graphic novel covering a story line involving every hero with multiple teams working on producing 52 issues a year.

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  24. It's funny that Wizards of the Coast was really trying to embrace the digital format, but stopped selling PDFs of their DnD 4e after the first half-dozen or so books that came out. I suppose that they still have their digital character builder that, for a subscription fee, stays up to date with the latest character options that they release, but I usually prefer to build my characters by hand; if only to help internalize the rules inside my brain.

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  25. And I must say the best thing I've gotten in years was a friend's gift of a handmade, hardcover bound collection of all the OD&D LBBs. OMG, I'm completely ruined for any other format now.

    I own something similar, actually. I have a single hardcover volume of the LBBs and a second one with all the supplements. They're really convenient to use at the table and just feel right.

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  26. If we end up with all "RPG game books as a service," I will throw up my hands in despair and stick to Mazes & Minotaurs.

    Ironically, the one thing that may ultimately prevent this is that tabletop RPGs are small potatoes, revenue-wise, when compared to stuff like computer games. That may prevent this model from ever taking root successfully.

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  27. It's funny that Wizards of the Coast was really trying to embrace the digital format, but stopped selling PDFs of their DnD 4e after the first half-dozen or so books that came out.

    I know; it's very odd. I once had hoped that WotC might have opened up its back catalog of TSR era products more widely and even offered a POD service, whether through Lulu or Amazon, for those old titles. I doubt it would have made them a lot of money, but I doubt it would have cost them much either and it would have generated a lot of good will from old schoolers. Had WotC gone that route, I can tell you I'd feel a lot warmer toward the company, regardless of what they're doing with D&D "brand" and I doubt I'm the only one who feels this way.

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  28. I'm very much with you on the preference for printed books. If a game book isn't available to me in print, I can tell you that it won't get used at my gaming table. I use PDFs to determine if a particular game is worth following up on (and for archival purposes, just in case I have a need to print it out at a later date), not as something I'd use to actually play. It's one of the most annoying things about Traveller 5th edition and most of the GURPS line right now.

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  29. It's one of the most annoying things about Traveller 5th edition and most of the GURPS line right now.

    T5 actually exists? I long ago gave up hope of its ever seeing the light of day and haven't bothered to look into the matter in, literally, years.

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  30. Digital is the future of books.

    As a hardcore book collector it is hard for me to admit, but it is so clearly the truth.

    Like all technologies it doesn't mean books will go away, they will just be relegated to the side while ebooks - and all they promise - get the spotlight.

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  31. Thomas Denmark: Yeah, and computer games are the future of narrative. Doesn't mean I have to play them (well, except for Darklands and Dwarf Fortress - what I mean, of course, is that they will never be my primary source of narrative). When digital books improve considerably, I will consider going there, but for now they are too clumsy (especially for the particular sorts of use that game texts see), there are problems with issues of ownership vs. "licensing", and they are too expensive for initial entry, among other potential problems.

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  32. Only on CD-ROM, as a set of PDFs.

    How odd. Even leaving aside my own personal distaste for PDFs, I'm amazed that Marc Miller hasn't used some POD service for T5. There are many reliable services of this sort and it wouldn't cost him a dime to use them.

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  33. I wonder that about GURPS, too.

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  34. I wonder that about GURPS, too.

    Yes, I do too. It's funny how many game companies are strangely averse to using POD technology to keep older stock "in print" or to make their PDF releases available in hardcopy for those of us willing to pay a higher price for the privilege.

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  35. The weirdest thing about SJGames's policy is that some of their products are released as POD versions (Mysteries, Supers, the first four of the Dungeon Adventures series, the first one in the Spaceships series, Mass Combat, several others). They seem to only do so, though, for products that already have sold heavily in PDF form. I find that annoying. Considering the number of hobbyists who release quantities of POD products, it doesn't seem that it would take all that much employee time to set one up (since the interior is already done for the PDF version). Whatever, it just means that they end up getting significantly less of my money than they would otherwise.

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  36. Whatever, it just means that they end up getting significantly less of my money than they would otherwise.

    That's the truly sad part about this. Most game companies aren't exactly rolling in money, so you'd think they'd welcome additional revenue streams, especially when those streams require almost no investment of time or staffing on their part.

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  37. Agreed completely. At one time, I was quite the SJG fanboy. GURPS, for a long while, was my go-to system if something else wasn't prescribed explicitly. My name shows up in quite a few products as playtester (including the infamous GURPS Cyberpunk, which had to be reconstructed from memory with limited time, and so was not exactly what we had tested). Then, with the 4th Edition, policies changed, all the books were in hardcover (a policy they've thankfully backed away from finally, but too late to save the game as a viable core product driving SJG's business model), and anything that wasn't fundamental to Steve Jackson's vision of the game was released in PDF only (later adding the POD policy I outlined above). I wasn't able to follow along until fairly recently, as I lost my job just as the game was being released, and I haven't found any compelling reason to go back to it as my main system. Thus, the OSR, which feeds my ideas of gaming even more completely than GURPS did, especially with thinking about going back to Classic Traveller's 3LBBs and doing the rewiring (as it were) that we all did before the Imperium became so overwhelming there - adding new tech, taking away stuff we didn't like, tweaking the rules, and so on. That's more or less what you did with Thousand Suns, right?

    But I guess I'm just pining for an industry that is gone, that left us over 15 years ago for the most part (SJG being the one partial exception - but even there, I now understand the arguments against some of GURPS's design choices). And this has gotten longer than I'd thought. Good discussion.

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  38. "When digital books improve considerably, I will consider going there, but for now they are too clumsy"

    I experience PDFs just the opposite. A laptop with neatly tabbed files is a piece of cake and far more versatile than stacks of books and papers and certainly as quick or quicker than flipping through a binder. I appreciate that personal preference trumps all, but there's a reason power point and digital presentations are how boardrooms roll.

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  39. imago1: "I experience PDFs just the opposite."

    That's cool. Enjoy them.

    " there's a reason power point and digital presentations are how boardrooms roll"

    Yes, because boardrooms are part of companies, and they think of the bottom line. PDFs take more time to load than just grabbing a book out of a stack (depending, of course, on the size of the stack, but I only keep a few books at the table when I'm playing). They can't be flipped through like a physical book. There's no sense of location (since all of the pages are on the same actual surface). Physical books don't need to worry about power issues. As I've said, there is a substantial monetary overhead to begin to use digital books which is not necessary to use physical ones. And so on. Yes, it's personal preference as to which limitations of format one is willing to accept, but both formats have limitations. It's simply not the case that one format is clearly superior in all ways to the other. I prefer physical books, not least because that's what I grew up using, and I know them and their quirks with a deep understanding. I know how to get around most of their limitations in very efficient ways.

    I'm not saying to anyone that they shouldn't use PDFs. I am saying that I prefer to use physical books, and those games not available in a physical format* are not ones I will be likely to own (unless free) or play (even if free).


    *Don't even bring up the argument that "you can print them out". It's more expensive, in terms of resources and time spent, than just buying the format I'd actually be using, and I'd have to buy the PDF on top of that.

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  40. That's more or less what you did with Thousand Suns, right?

    Pretty much.

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  41. *Don't even bring up the argument that "you can print them out". It's more expensive, in terms of resources and time spent, than just buying the format I'd actually be using, and I'd have to buy the PDF on top of that.

    I'm with you on this score. While it's true that I can print out a PDF, doing so does have costs of its own, not to mention that, unless one has a very good printer and the ability to bind the print-out, this is a sub-optimal option. Don't get me wrong: I appreciate the ability to print off random pages of a PDF for use later, but it's not the same as having an actual printed book.

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  42. I'm the first one to defend print media, as my boxes and boxes and boxes of books that will never see print again will illustrate.

    That being said, I have found digital media to be extremely easy to use. To read a book on my smartphone no longer requires a light source, and a tap on the screen turns the page. I'm not limited by what the print size is (my aged eyes not being what they once were), I can adjust the text size to whatever I want. I can take this phone just about anywhere and read on the commuter train, while standing in line, etc. Makes the Kindle look like a toy in comparison.

    Also, rather than toting 50 lbs worth of rulebooks over and having to flip through them to find a rule, the find function on my PDF reader (also on my phone) can find a rule quicker than a simple perusal.

    There are many qualms I have about the digital age, but having the convenience of being able to read, check my email, and browse the net wherever and whenever has been a godsend.

    But I don't want print media to die, either.

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  43. Faoladh, I wasn't knocking books, just refuting your bold assertion that digital is clumsy. I think the assertion is dead wrong, and the apparent transformation of our civilization to one of massive digital-consumption is kinda backing my play, I daresay.

    As for slow loading PDFs--that's the kind of problem one invents to bolster a dubious claim. Prior to a session of D&D I used to take the time to unpack my books, maps, notes, etc--talk about slow loading, eh? Now I press the start key on my computer and load the appropriate programs so a shiny row of tabs are all ready for action--before the game even starts!

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  44. :I'm the first one to defend print media, as my boxes and boxes and boxes of books that will never see print again will illustrate"

    Me too--just about everything that was ever printed from Blue Box to the first 3E. Not tossing stones at anyone in particular, but a lot of the handwringing and intimations that digital is inferior or a usurper, boil down to a bit of mechanical ignorance or trepidation regarding tech, a dash of hardcore OSR "in MY day we did it like this!" and/or Change=Bad.

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  45. All I can tell you is that, as a comic book shop manager - this is nothing but bad news for me.

    DC is now getting into distribution, which will put a LOT of people in the secondary markets that have supported their company for DECADES out of work.

    (and yes, I know, "change with the times" and "more realistic business model", but you'd be getting the same dirty look from the people who sold records in stores 10 years ago as you're getting from me now, if you try to trot any of that stuff out - this is how you kill an industry)

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  46. "Not tossing stones at anyone in particular, but a lot of the handwringing and intimations that digital is inferior or a usurper, boil down to a bit of mechanical ignorance or trepidation regarding tech, a dash of hardcore OSR "in MY day we did it like this!" and/or Change=Bad."

    Unless you sell people comics in a store now - and then it's not handwringing - it IS usurpation.

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  47. PapaJoe-You have my sympathy. Bookstore folks and distributors are certainly getting their ox gored.

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  48. PapaJoeMambo : Well what is the world to do? Shall we bring back 8-tracks, ice boxes, horse drawn wagons, or floppy drives? At what point should the technology stop and leave things as they are? Do you own a car or coffee maker or computer? If so you have gored someones business as well. Do you own anything made in China or bought at Walmart or a dollar store? Then you have helped gored entire industries and livelihoods.

    I'm not trying to coy or callous or cold but, seriously, where should the line be drawn? At the door of your business or mine or hers? Whos?

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