Thursday, 28 January 2010

Comics on the iPad

Comics by comiXology concept from comiXology on Vimeo.
On the opening day of the Angoul√™me comics festival comes more news about Apple’s eagerly-awaited iPad and how it can be used for reading comics.

I was already a convert on the strength of just the iPhone. Paper comics are nice to collect, sure. I can hardly move around my study without tripping over piles of Hellblazer and B.P.R.D. back issues, never mind all the graphic novels (they live in another room). But from a commercial point of view print comics are on a hiding to nothing. High print costs and changes in distribution have taken comics off the newsstands and into specialized hobby outlets. New readers aren’t finding comics now, and meanwhile the shrinking hardcore who are reading them have driven the content more and more niche.

Graphic novels in print make even less sense, especially in the tiny UK market. Even if you include the USA, the average sales for an English-language graphic novel in print form are around 25,000 units a year. On a £10 retail price, the publisher is lucky to take £1.50 a copy after print and distribution costs – and out of that they have to pay editorial, advertising and the creators’ royalties. You could make more money by hollowing out the book and selling it with a frozen pizza inside.

Now flashforward to a world of iPad comics. You can now reach a much broader, and therefore potentially much bigger, market, as Eric Stephenson of Image Comics points out:
"There's tremendous potential for the iPad to make comics available to a much wider audience than we're currently reaching. Paper comics will no doubt around for a long time to come, but I think this is an important step in making comics more accessible than they've ever been."
A broader market means more accessible content, which will translate much better into movies and videogames and TV shows – which is, after all, the commercial goal of a lot of this stuff in a medium-agnostic world.

But forget the bigger, broader market for a moment. Just assume you’re a publisher and you get the exact same sales figures on iPad as you were getting with a print book. Now you’re selling for about $9, that’s £5.50. After Apple’s cut you’re taking £3.85 per unit sold – more than twice what you were getting with print books. And advertising and editorial overheads are still there, but you don’t have to worry about shipping crates of books to stores all over the western hemisphere.

Overall, once everybody else is paid, your profit as a publisher is going to be three to four times what you make by selling a physical book.

So what? We care about the content here, right, not the business model? Well, to that I’d say that the days when an author could live in an ivory tower are long gone. Nowadays you need to understand how the publisher is making money from your work, partly so that you can negotiate a fair deal and partly because you might be doing it all yourself before long.

But, okay, leave the commercial stuff to one side. As a reader, why should I be excited about comics on the iPad?

First of all: they look better. Leo and I printed up some copies of Mirabilis Book One on Lulu because we wanted to actually get our hands on the thing and show it to friends. And Lulu’s print quality is pretty good – better than you’d see in 90% of the graphic novels on sale in your local bookstore, if indeed you can find where they keep the graphic novels in your local bookstore. But you know what? Gorgeous as Leo's and Nikos's artwork is, it looks even better on screen.

I’ve been a comic book fan for forty years and yet I would prefer to read a graphic novel on an iPad. But you don’t have to choose sides on this. Based on trade paperback sales compared to monthly comic books, if 100,000 people buy an iPad comic, as many as 15,000 of them will also want to buy the printed book later.

Okay, sorry, I’m back onto the financials there. And you don’t have to plan your comic as a profitable enterprise. The good news is, even if you are only doing it for love, putting it out on the iPad still makes more sense.

On top of that, electronic publishing makes it a lot easier to give customers a free sample before they buy. With so much content around to choose from, who these days is going to walk into a bookstore and hand over $15 for a graphic novel they know nothing about? Affluent, dyed-in-the-wool, older readers – and not all that many of them. We’re acutely aware of this with Mirabilis, which is likely to cost around $25 at retail and that’s just the first book. You get a lot for your money, but still – it’s got to be preferable to read the first couple of chapters for free, and then make up your mind.

And on that note, there’ll be a new episode on the Mirabilis site tomorrow. If you have an iPad, why not take a look at it on that.


  1. Absolutely brilliant analysis of the potential and general direction of publishing that the IPad embodies Dave.

    I've already had a couple of emails from colleagues who are busily speculating about just what this new development could signify and I've sent them links to your posting. I'm going to post a link to this post on my blog tomorrow, it's essential reading for anyone remotely involved in the business of creating comics.

  2. The Comixology video shows the option to blow up single panels to fill the whole screen. I would say that's going to put pressure for more work on the art, because at the moment not so many comics are going to look good at that size.

  3. Peter - thanks for yet another plug :) Yes, I find all this very exciting as I think it will empower comic creators and get our work out to a wider readership than we could have ever hoped to reach before. And this is still only the beginning!

    Anon - I thought the same thing, but I reckon Mirabilis is one of the ones that will show up well on that score. Those fake Silver Ages covers we ran, for example:
    - those are mostly single panels by Leo and Nikos and they look fantastic blown up to iPad size!

  4. After watching the video, I'm afraid I was left a bit hollow...Dave, I think you mentioned in an earlier post how an electronic medium could improve on the comic reading experience? The quick camera movement from one panel to the next that made it clear the person who created the video was coming from a traditional comic background, not a film one (and the motion made me feel a bit ill!).

    Don't get me wrong, I love a good page layout and think it could (and should) be maintained - the iPad looks like a good way to display full pages. But I think the panel transitions should be done in a way that makes the most of the new medium. I love the idea of panels treated more like film storyboards, with cuts, dissolves, and large panel pans.

    I think moving to an electronic medium is an oppotunity for comics to take a big step forward, potentially appealing to a whole new audience - and presentation could be a big part of that. I hope people explore its full potential.

  5. The emergence of the iPad adds a heap of momentum to the points you've been making in your previous posts on this subject, Dave. I hadn't even stopped to think about how much it might enhance the digital comics experience - too busy drooling over videos of the lovely thing. Interesting times ahead, hopefully.

  6. Sandy, I'm with you on the use of effects like pans and zooms, though I don't think it has to be either/or. Those panel-by-panel views are going to be best for small screens, whereas I'd be perfectly happy to just use the iPad to read full pages without FX, like a regular comic.

    The main pressure to bring in all the fancy FX will not be to enhance the reading experience (though I agree with you that they can) but because that justifies parcelling the comics up in an app and charging for them. If I'm just releasing "unenhanced" comic pages, that might as well be a PDF and lots of folks will feel they should get it for free. Personally I don't mind - as I've said often enough, I'm happier with 50,000 readers paying nothing rather than 3000 readers paying the price of a book. And a fair number will pay even just for PDF comics (look at DriveThru, for example).

    Most likely you wouldn't actually be looking at PDFs but at comic page images within a epub wrapper. Nearest equivalent is something like our flipbook episodes over on the main Mirabilis site. This video shows how it works for a regular prose book:

  7. I think you're right that most consumers will expect more than a PDF if they are going to pay for it. Newspapers are experiencing that pressure right now, and if they don't find ways to expand the experience beyond text on a page, they are going to have a hard time of it.

    I wonder what other interesting ways comics could use iPad features to enhance the reader's experience? Maybe there is an opportunity here to create a new storytelling medium.

  8. There is a certain irony that you could offer a great comic like Sandman, say, on an e-reader and people will say, "I want it for free." Whereas if you stick it in an app that does no more than flick from panel to panel, then they'll give you a dollar for it.

    I like the idea of putting a bit more cinematic oomph (that's the technical term, trust me) into comics with focus pulls and so on. But that is going to mean more work for the comic creators and I'm really concerned that publishers don't come in with their greater resources and continue to grab control. This revolution is about putting power into the hands of the people who actually create the stories!

    One solution is to do the preparatory work for a motion comic right from the start. That means planning how you'd pan across or push in on each frame, preparing the art in layers and organizing a library of the parts of the image you want to animate. But before you go to all that work, you release the unenhanced comic, and that probably is free. And you use that to build an enthusiastic fan base, and then you can either raise subscriptions or go to business angels to pay for completing the motion comic - which you can then charge for.

    Anything, anything, basically, so that some suit with cash can't come along and buy your golden-egg-laying goose on day one!

  9. With comics I think that there will be no problem charging for PDFs on line as well as apps on the ipad. The issue is getting confused with the problem newspapers are suffering. The two media are very different because papers are writing about what is essentially a public domain event, while the comic is one story exclusively made and owned by the creator.

    I think we bow to this weird terror of the "buying public" perpetuated by company marketing departments, and that only their deep insight into pricing is the solution. Basically we made the thing, we own it and we can charge what we want, assuming of course, it's above a reasonable quality level. It's probably a pretty straight forward graph. Charge more and fewer people will buy it. Charge too little or nothing and people won't value it. Also, direct selling over the internet requires far fewer sales to make the same money the creator would have made after a traditional publisher and all the other middlemen have plundered the pot. Perhaps fewer people will buy it, and some will pirate it, but so what, I reckon one would still be ahead of any traditional model while still retaining control.

    Partial animation, fades and pans, etc. are a red herring. I don't think it adds to the experience of reading a comic at all, just confuses it's medium with another. Worse it could irritate the reader as they wait for the designer's imposed pan, or whatever, to finish before they can read the next frame. My experience of reading comics is to dash from bubble to bubble rapidly consuming the story while taking in the images at an almost subliminal level (assuming the story is gripping enough!). Then at the end of a page go back and enjoy the art. It's the way I like to read, and I love this control given to the reader. I think it's a unique strength of the comic medium. You sometimes see comics turned into semi-animations in games cut scenes.. it runs the risk of looking cheap, as though they didn't have the budget for proper animation.

  10. Definitely would echo your comment Leo about allowing the reader to make their own way through the experience rather than guiding them. Everyone has their own way of absorbing the comic experience and the thought of seeking to assume control of that experience rather than handing over to the reader would I think be creatively to act as a tour guide through the world that you have created rather than unlocking the gate and allowing people to discover for themselves the myriad delights within.

  11. I feel that any comic reader app worth its salt should give a range of choices so that the user can configure it to suit their own preferences. Eg this iPhone demo of a Fantastic Four comic:
    Admittedly that demo doesn't provide a lot of customizability, but it's early days yet.

  12. This is a fascinating thread: I'm with Dave on the 'unenhanced' version of the comic, because to be honest, the 'enhanced' comics I've read (Robot 13 for iphone, for example) have bugged the hell out of me: they take over the reader's reading of the comic which rather defeats the object of it being a comic, in my opinion.

    It's like ebook readers that 'scroll' the text for you - you want to do it at your own speed, not one imposed by someone else.

    I'm not saying 'enhanced' comics shouldn't be done - and many comic creators have experimented with pushing the form almost as soon as web comics came along back in the 1990s - but it's been hard enough convincing a lot of of people to even read on screen, let alone then hijacking their experience with poor navigation and unwanted bells and whistles.

  13. Sorry, It isn't Robot 13, it's "I. Robot" that I wasn't too pleased with.

  14. Pans and zooms... to quote an oft-used comic strip exclamation: "Noooo!" Motion comics have been around for a while and I've never seen one yet I enjoyed. With lots of experimental digital comic-reading experiences, the story (if there is one) gets pushed to the back as all your attention is taken up with the whizzes and bangs. I'm in favour of a digital distribution model (I've experienced the positives of it first-hand), but it's going to be difficult to beat a paper book - so much of the reason comics work is in the way the reader has complete control of the reading experience, unlike, say, a film. A comic succeeds or fails on the story alone - what makes it great is the space where the visual storytelling of the creator meets the imagination of the reader.

  15. I'm not into motion comics myself, and I agree with you, Garen, how off-putting they are. But then, we're "older" readers (ahem) while the upcoming generation have the attention spans of crack-fed goldfish and need something whizzy to make them sit up and take notice :-)

    On small screens (iPhone, DS, PSP etc) there definitely needs to be a quantum leap in the way the reader apps display the story. Most of the ones I've seen are slaves to the page, treating the screen like a cut-out window that you're peering through at a comic book. Seeing as it's got to be a one-frame-at-a-time experience on those devices, they need to bring something to replace the way a whole page becomes greater than just the individual panels. Personally I'd prefer an e-reader with a bigger screen, like the iPad, because seeing the entire page is important to me. A comic is more than just a storyboard.

    The good news: we're living in an interactive age. There should be a little button that lets you choose: regular comic or motion comic. That way everybody gets to read the way they like best.

  16. Just for the record I wasn't imagining a forced pacing or anything. The reader should get to decide when they want to advance, and I wouldn't want over-the-top effects that would annoy or distract from the story. But I think full-page comics with complex layouts can be intimidating to inexperienced readers whose only exposure to comics is the Sunday paper. More reading options might encourage new readers to give them a try.

  17. I agree, Sandy. The more choice that's available (print or e-reader, auto-read or manual scrolling) the more people we'll get reading comics. There's No One True Way that we should try and force everyone to follow.