I have to admit, I don’t always enjoy telling people that I make comic books. Not because I’m embarrassed, but because there seems to be a general lack of public awareness as to what a comic book actually is. So I usually have to do a bit of explaining, and even when I do, I rarely feel like the person I’m talking to ends up with an accurate idea of what I’m describing. I sense that when most people hear the words “comic book”, they imagine the typical DC or Marvel superhero stuff because, well, that’s what dominates the market. Not that there’s anything wrong with those books, but they aren’t the type of work that I create and their audience is not the same audience I hope to attract. You see, I like to create animation-inspired all-ages comedy. While there have been a few great examples of successful all-ages books like Amulet or Bone, I’ve always imagined that such books could find a wider audience. An audience like that of the newspaper strips in their heyday. Largely thanks to Pixar, animated films have been able to branch out and find that sort of broad appeal, but no comic has yet to do so, and I believe this is largely due to the way the public perceives the comic medium. I find this particularly strange because comics, at least comic strips, have been around longer than film. Will comics ever rise to the level of cultural prominence enjoyed by the likes of film and literature? I believe they may and that the current shifts in technology and how we take in media may have a lot to do with it.
But this article isn’t just supposed to be a personal rant about the place of comic books in our world, it’s supposed to be a story about my experience with digital publishing, so I’ll step back and give you some insight into where I’m coming from. Two summers ago, while lying in my bed, I came up with an idea for a graphic novel that I just knew I had to make. I couldn’t fall asleep the night I thought of it; it was that kind of idea. Now, I’m just out of animation school and I’ve been drawing comics and telling stories my whole life, so this is something I’ve been heading towards for a long time. During the writing process, I’ve always had a pretty clear, linear vision in regards to the story, but my opinions on the best way to get it out to the public are constantly changing. For a while, I was planning on going the traditional route and submitting the book to publishers when I was done. But that plan changed when my friend Ethan Nicolle made a comic called Axe Cop with his little brother, put it online, and watched it become an overnight success. Within days, Ethan was getting over 50,000 regular viewers. Book deals and merchandising opportunities soon followed. Another mutual friend and comics veteran, Doug TenNapel, was inspired by the success of Axe Cop to make his own web comic called Ratfist, which also built up a good following. Apparently putting a comic online for free, building up an audience, and releasing a book later was the way to go. That would open one’s work up to a much wider number of people than any limited print-run ever could.
I’m young and un-established, so I’m not attached to any traditional method of distribution. I’m more than open to a paradigm shift every now and then. So that’s what I’d do, I’d put my graphic novel online. I didn’t think the traditional method of posting a page a day would best fit my story, but it was divided into chapters, so I could post a chapter every couple of weeks or so. The most successful web comics don’t do it this way, but novels used to be published a chapter at a time in magazines and most print comics are successful in the serial format, so I didn’t figure my idea was too farfetched. Thus, I finished my script, bought a domain with some web hosting, and was ready to go… Until I came across another Idea.
One day, I happened upon a Wall Street Journal article about a woman named Darcie Chan who wrote a novel and self-published it in Amazon’s Kindle store as an ebook. Within half a year, she had already sold over 400,000 copies. After releasing it, she priced the book at 99 cents, which would let her earn 35% of the royalties, and waited as she sold a few copies here and there. Soon, though, her book received several reviews and was mentioned on a couple of e-reader blogs. Sales grew exponentially from then on. The gears began to turn in my head as I started to reconsider, yet again, how I would distribute my graphic novel. I didn’t necessarily assume I could repeat Darcie’s success, but the whole process seemed so quick and simple. Selling an ebook would give me the limitless potential audience of a webcomic along with the direct revenue stream of a print book. Actually, I could make more money from self-publishing online, as the typical royalties given to a print author fall in the 10-15% range. So now, as I saw it, I could sell my book in the Kindle store and I would use the website to post a few chapters for free as a sort of promotion in the months leading up to the release.
One other thing that appealed to me about this idea was that, while the Kindle store has been a huge success for text-based books, comics have yet to share the same prominence on the platform. In my mind, I actually saw this as an advantage. Whenever you hear success stories about entrepreneur-type folks, they always see potential in an area where that potential hasn’t yet been realized. They find an opportunity that may only exist in their imagination at the moment. But really, why shouldn’t a self-published comic artist be able to find the same success as somebody like Darcie Chan? I actually think it should be easier, as a potential buyer can view the artwork and get an immediate sense of the book’s tone, and whether or not it would be something they might like to buy. With a prose book, one needs to read a significant portion of the text before he or she has any idea whether it’s any good. I like to daydream about these kinds of things, anyways.
It seemed like I had put together a pretty good plan for my graphic opus. There was only one problem: It would be a while before I could see how this all worked out. You see, I’d written a rather weighty script. As to its specific length, I’ll leave that up to your imagination(it’s long). Taking the time required to draw this book would be a huge investment for such an untested enterprise. But I determined to gut it out… until I remembered that I had something I could immediately test this idea on.
You see, each summer for the past few years, I would make a short(between 20 and 60 pages, if you consider that short) comic book and take it with me to the San Diego Comic-con to show to different professionals and artists. I got some great feedback, but never walked away feeling like my work was up to a professional level yet. That was, until this past summer. This year, I had written and drawn a 42 page story called Kemp: Point Receta, about two private investigators in a goofy, contemporary fantasy world that I thought was actually pretty good. I decided against showing it around to editors and professionals at the convention, though. That had always left me frustrated and discouraged, when I’d really just gone there to see friends and have a good time. I did show it to Doug and Ethan, though. They had been pretty critical(in a supportive way) of my work in the past, but this time they had only good things to say. I felt a really strong sense of affirmation, but I still wasn’t ready to take it any further at the moment. So I went home, posted the book as a photo album on Facebook, got lots of nice compliments, and then mostly forgot about it. A couple times between then and now, I had thought about sending the story out to publishers as a pitch for a series or maybe a larger book collecting that story and a few others featuring the same characters. But those thoughts were fleeting. I decided that would be a distraction and determined to continue working on my epic graphic novel. Not two weeks ago, though, a light went on in my head and I made a connection between my plans for self-publishing with Amazon and this book that I thought was professional quality but hadn’t done anything with yet. I immediately took a break from drawing the great American graphic novel, and went to throw the Kemp book up on the Amazon store. This would be quick and easy. Well, sort of…
Like just about everything else I anticipate in life, the process was a little more complicated than I thought it would be. I had originally heard that when a book in the Kindle store is between $2.99 and $9.99, the author receives 70% of the royalties. This is true but, as I found out, it comes with a catch. Amazon also has a “delivery fee”, which means that they take 15 cents for every megabyte of the book’s file size. This isn’t really an issue for a book that’s mostly text, but for a comic book, the size can get pretty huge. Point Receta, at a relatively brief 42 pages, was just over 5 mb after I scaled the images down to an acceptable size. Fortunately, though, Amazon has an option for the author to take 35% of the royalties with no delivery fee, regardless of the price. That worked for me, since I didn’t plan on selling the book for over $2.99 anyway. So once I had the pages scaled to the optimal size, I just had to figure out how to create the right kind of file to upload. Creating my account, by the way, was such a breeze that it’s hardly worth mentioning. If you already have an Amazon account, you can go to the Kindle Direct Publishing page, click a couple buttons, put in some information, agree to the terms, and you’re all set.
Now, I should say a little more about formatting the pages. There are a lot of different approaches people are currently taking in order to format comics as ebooks. The Comixology app, for instance, allows you to view the full page, but also has a feature where you can highlight the individual panels and cycle through them at full-screen. The Kindle app doesn’t have any such fancy features, so my biggest concern was how readable my book would be on different devices. The first thing I did was download one of the many free comics in the Kindle store and see how readable it was on the Kindle Cloud Reader. I quickly discovered that the pages weren’t displayed large enough to read the dialogue and that there was no zoom feature. The reason for this is that the Cloud Reader is designed for text-based books, so you have the option to enlarge the text, but no option to zoom in on images. That was discouragement number one. Discouragement number two came when I uploaded a sample file of my comic onto the submission page and clicked on the preview option. When you preview your file, a little application pops up, showing what your book will look like on a black and white kindle device. This was also too small and lacked a zoom feature. At this point, I was beginning to think that this whole enterprise was a waste of time, but then I realized I could download the Kindle app on my laptop. I immediately did so and found that, unlike the Cloud Reader, the Kindle app would display my comic at a very readable size. It also had the option to view two pages at a time like an open book, which I found rather nifty. Ok, so that would work. Next, I downloaded the kindle app onto my iPod Touch. The pages were obviously too small to read on there, but it did have zoom functionality. If you place two fingers on the screen and spread them apart, you can zoom in as much as you want and then you can scroll around with your finger. Turning the page is as easy as placing your finger on the screen and pushing the page left or right. Ok, so it wasn’t ideal, but my comic would be viewable on iPods and smart phones without much difficulty. Now, I don’t personally own a tablet, but I figured it would be safe to assume that reading my comic on such a device wouldn’t be a problem. I had tried reading Axe Cop and Ratfist on an iPad in the Apple store, and they looked great. My comic has similar dimensions at 11 by 16 inches, so I knew I’d be fine. Plus, Tablets have the same zoom feature as smart phones. They are obviously the ideal devices for e-comic book reading.
As far as I was concerned, formatting was no longer an issue. Yes, it was unfortunate that reading my comic on a black and white Kindle wouldn’t really work, but that never would have been ideal anyway, and anyone with a computer can read it on the Kindle app. Would it be nice to have a panel-to-panel feature to make smart phone reading easier? Sure, but it’s still possible to read on those devices without too much difficulty and, just like the black and white kindles, they never would have been the ideal to begin with. The comic would look good on a personal computer and great on a tablet, so that was good enough for me.
The last hurdle I needed to overcome involved uploading the file itself. I hear Amazon is introducing a new format called the K8, so my experience might no be the norm for long but, currently, there are a few different types of files you can upload that Amazon will convert to be readable on their devices and apps. You can upload a .doc file, but organizing my images on Microsoft word seemed counterintuitive at best. The second option is to upload a .pdf file. I tried that, but in the preview, it treated the whole thing as one image, displayed it horizontally, and split the pages where it saw fit. Yeah, that wasn’t gonna work. The last option is to create a .zip file out of a folder that contains all of the images and an .html file telling the program how to order all of the pages. After doing a little research, I found that this was the ideal method, but I had no idea how to write .html coding. Fortunately, after a bit of googling, I found that a couple of comic creators were kind enough to put together a template for Kindle formatting. So I downloaded the template, tweaked it to contain links to my pages, and adjusted the table of contents accordingly. The only other change I made was to center the pages, as the template had the pages aligned to the left side of the ereader. I then uploaded the file and found that it looked exactly the way I wanted it.
After finishing the submission form and less than a day of waiting, my comic was finally up in the Amazon store for all the world to see. I can edit the book’s information as I please, check my monthly sales whenever I want, and even change the price on the fly. Now I bet you’re wondering how the book has done since then. Well, you see, as of the time of this article’s writing, the book has been on sale for less than a week. It’s only sold a handful of copies so far, and it doesn’t have any reviews yet. If you’re looking for an inspiring success story in this column, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait for the sequel…
So remember my rant at the beginning of this article? “What does that have to do with his process of selling that book on Amazon?” you might ask. Well, my opinions on the mainstreamity of comic books have a lot to do with why I chose to publish on Amazon. If what they say is true, roughly 70% of all ebook sales come from the Kindle store. Plus, everyone and their granddad has an Amazon account. Speaking practically, I just figured that would be a good place to start. Philosophically, though, I think if comics are going to succeed as ebooks, they should succeed in the same place as every other book. If comic books were viewed in the same light as novels, it would open up a whole new world for creators to express themselves to and a whole new way for many consumers to be entertained. Obviously comics do have a place in our society, but their scope is unnecessarily limited. Now, none of this is to say that I have anything against other ebook retailers, or that I will never publish outside of Amazon, but… Yeah, you get the point.
I’ll conclude my rambling with two quotes by Carl Barks, the creator of Uncle Scrooge and one of the greatest comic book creators of all time, from a 1972 interview with Paul Ciotti*. He shares his thoughts on the comic book medium with sentiments that I heartily echo.
The first quote, in response to a comment by Ciotti that his Scrooge McDuck stories have a timeless quality that carries them through the years:
Well, I hope so, I hope there was something in there that will live on and on. People read Treasure Island and those stories; they are great classics. I hope some of my stories could be classics, too, at least some of my stories, to be remembered and read over and over in school libraries and such places…. The real surge in comic books came during the late 1930’s and the next twenty years after that. And they certainly did leave a mark on literature, they certainly were a new form of literature, and they certainly did leave a mark on the whole darn world, you might say. Every kid that read those, he remembers those stories and the way they were presented, not just as a page of type, but as a combination of pictures and words, and it was a new way of presenting ideas and certainly one I think is going to stick around for a long time.
The second quote, elaborating on a comment he made, that his publisher didn’t see any value in comic books:
“Well, of course that’s just my idea, based on correspondence I’d had with them. And when I’d go in to the office, the attitude of the editors and everyone around there was that comic books were just a fly-by-night thing, might die any minute, just enjoy it while it’s here. I kind of had that idea myself. How many years are comics going to go on? But at the same time I did have an idea that comics would survive and go on to become great literature, as a graphic combination of pictures and words, and eventually would become hardcover books in which novels and stories are presented in that form rather than just flipping pages of type. Of course, I still have that kind of dream in the back of my head. I think that someday we’re going to see novels done that way. It might make them too expensive. I just don’t know what the cost would be.
In his lifetime of nearly one hundred years, Carl Barks did witness the birth of the graphic novel format, but I don’t believe he ever witnessed the greater population embracing comic books as great literature. Could the shift to digital distribution help bring comics to that level of respect? It could certainly take care of the cost issue Barks mentions, at least. Will I ever see comics make that leap in my lifetime? And will my work have any part in it? Well, I can dream…
Oh, by the way, you can buy my comic book at the link below. It’s only $1.99 and it’s great fun for the whole family!
*The interview originally went unpublished, but a transcription of the recording was later printed in the book Carl Barks: Conversations (Conversations with Comic Artists), edited by Donald Ault.