Micah Baldwin leads Graphic.ly, which finds itself as one of the key players in digital comics. With apps online, on iOS devices and Android and content from many of the key publishers Graphic.ly aims to set itself apart from the pack by integrating social media and the shared community of comics readers into digital comics. Micah took some time to talk shop. Here is the transcript:
The Comic Archive – When did you first start reading comics?
Micah Baldwin – I’ve been reading comics since I was young. I guess most of my life I’ve been reading comics in some format or another. Also enjoying gernerally the artform outside of comics itself, sort of in the other entertainment worlds of movies and tv and videos games and what not. And I think that yeah, it’s been a big part of my life for most of it.
TCA – Was there one comic that did you in?
MB – I was never much of a collector, so it wasn’t that I was going after particular books, or one particular book. I would say that early on I was a big Wolverine fan and read a lot of Wolverine stuff, and that now it’s gotten to be a lot less superhero stuff and that it’s more story driven. So I was a big fan of Y: The Last Man, Preacher, sort of that world. I’ve been really enjoying, though I guess it is kind of superhero, Irredeemable by Boom. And then I’m also reading some of the Archaia books.
TCA – When did you decide to make a career around comics?
MB – So about summer of 2009 was when the conversation began about Graphic.ly and where it could go. I guess for me it’s less about the traditional comic book marketplace, you know taking a print book and making it digital, and more about the greater scheme of how people consume and share entertainment.
TCA – What were some of the first steps to making Graphic.ly happen?
MB – So there’s two questions that are kind of implied within that. One is, ‘how do you build a start up?’, ‘how do you build a business?’ And the second one was ‘how do we build specifically Graphic.ly?’ And in many ways they’re the same. I think the first one what’s important is really to take a look at who you think your customers are gonna be and spend time talking to them. You know getting outside of the business and the theory and really walking around and having conversations. So for us we ended up having a lot of conversations with comic book publishers, creators and consumers. There was kind of the three things that mattered most for us. And we spent a lot of time figuring out what was the best product for each one of those three constituencies. So for us it was talking to everybody from Marvel, who has it’s own needs and then sitting down with and individual creator and saying well what do you need out of something like this, what can we do to be helpful. So for us as a business we really looked at initially what is the universe look like, you know, what can we do, what are our potential customers, what are the potential revenue streams that we could create, what can we do from a revenue perspective, what can we do in order to help build and improve upon and participate in the community. So a lot of just questions being asked. And then once we sort of figure out that, we implemented against that.
TCA – Were there any surprises?
MB – Yeah, the one that was most interesting to me, if I could pinpoint one, was when you think about comic book collectors, when you think about building a quote, un-quote comic book company, which we’re not, but when you think about building a comic book company you immediately think of, “Oh it’s a passionate community of collectors.” Well at it’s heart a digital comic is not collectible. So answering that question, figuring how to rectify that within the industry is very interesting. So you talk to most publishers, they’re very concerned about things like the direct market and how close the digital copies replicates the print. Well the truth is is that the collector tends to not be as excited around digital because there isn’t that collector piece of it. I mean collectors like to you know, own stuff. And you can’t really own a digital comic, there really isn’t an after market for digital comics. So I think the biggest surprise for me going into it and thinking around the idea of collectors and realizing that in actuality we were building something that was exactly the opposite for a collector. That there isn’t as big of an excitement around what we’re doing around the core comic book community, the collector community, because what we were doing was inherently not collectible. And so for us what we really thought about was how do we provide additional value to that group, that allowed the collectors to be excited about digital in a completely new way. And I think that’s where shifts are to occur.
TCA – What were some of the things you did to try and make digital comics appealing to collectors?
MB – So for us we really look at comic books as having two sides. There’s the art and the storytelling and then there’s the sharing and the discussion. And collectors by the by, enjoy the sharing and the discussion probably more so than most. So generally the idea is that a collector loves back features and loves commentary and loves ways to learn more about how a book is created and about their favorite creators and writers, where the story might be going and thinking about those types of things. So for us it was really about how do we create a world where collectors can get more in depth information around the stories, characters and creators that they really liked.
TCA – Did you have any doubts about getting Graphic.ly off the ground?
MB – Doubts is a weird word. Like was there a question of our ability to get this business up and running? No. Is there a question about us long term being successful? Of course, I think every business goes through that. We’re not printing money as a business. Our business isn’t creating money, which is probably the only business where there’s no question about its long term viability. You know getting into the minting business probably has a better long term chance than any other start up.
But I do think that there are three things that go into a start up. There’s vision, team and traction, and in our world I feel like we’re getting all three. I wouldn’t trade this team for anything. I think our vision is extremely clear. I think that the traction we’ve gotten has been really great over the last six months, which is really when we came out of the gates. So no, I’ve never really questioned our ability to be successful. I think the biggest question I have is how big a success we can become and how quickly we can get there.
TCA – What was it like the first time you saw your app out in the real world?
MB – So the iPad app, we’ll use that one as an example, we released, literally on the day of San Diego Comic-Con. And we had a few iPads there and we’re showing them around and it was really cool watching people interact with them. So I think what was important for us was how well would the community take what we were trying to build and the reception was very very positive. I think our image quality on our iPad app is second to none. The other thing is is that within a start up you sort of, mentally what you do is you try to create what’s called a minimum viable product. I mean there’s kind of two different schools of thought. You either develop, develop, develop internally and then release something that you think is basically perfect, or you release something you think is just good enough and continue to iterate on it. And so for us we’ve focused on trying to release something that we felt was just good enough and then figuring out what people liked, where we could go with it, what types of things do we want to add to it, you know, a lot of community interaction on those things. So I don’t think there’s an application that we have out in the marketplace right now that I’m particularly proud of but most of those applications I’m particularly excited about.
TCA – What are some of those changes you’ve made in response to interaction with your users?
MB – There’s dozens and dozens, from little tiny things to gigantic things. We send out a weekly newsletter email and in that email I always include my phone number, my IM and my email address and every single time we do that I get a phone call or an email or an IM. I probably spend an hour to an hour and a half a day talking to community members and through that they give me a thousand different ideas of things to do of which many are amazing. A few are a little silly, but generally they’re pretty cool. And so they get implemented. Things from icon size to book layout to finding errors, I mean it’s really hard to pick out one that’s quote un-quote the best, but I would say that our community has been extremely involved in the growth of our business.
TCA – Can you describe the process that you go through to get any given issue out on the app?
MB - It’s really simple. The same for everybody. They create a digital file, most of them have digital files that they give printers and other things. We take that digital file, we cut it up so that it fits within our system so you can do the various views that we have. And we tag characters and things like that. We upload that into our system and then it goes live. On the outside it’s a relatively simple process. It’s certainly a little more difficult than people think, but in essence that the process.
TCA – Do you have any thoughts on where digital distribution is heading?
MB – Well there’s a million different ways to look at that. You can look at it purely as an ebook market. And I think kindle announced a week or so ago that their ebooks are outselling their paperbacks, so there’s certainly an opportunity there to take market share on the print side. There was a great post on ifanboy today or yesterday [Click HERE for the article] that took a look at some of the bookscan numbers, and if you look at those you’ll see that the overall revenue generated from print sales has decreased over the last three years. Not huge numbers but it’s certainly decreasing. The question is can digital take what’s going down or is it just that the content isn’t solid and therefore people are leaving the comic book world. There’s two things that happen when sales go down; one is that the product isn’t as good or that people don’t like the format or it’s too expensive. So in our world I don’t think the content is getting bad, I think there’s tons of content that’s solid out there. I think Diamond by definition reduces the ability for some of the independent stuff to be seen. Which is purely a business decision not an editorial one. I think in terms of digital being able to take over some of that space I think there’s certainly an opportunity there. I think there’s a certain opportunity for people to just, rather than reading the paper they’ll actually read the digital. But again in comics it’s weird because the people buying print tend to be collectors sort of, and collectors really don’t dig digital, so what’s the output? And I think that at the end of the day the output has to be that we’re providing something bigger and better than just a digital representation of print. So I think that’s one side. The other side of it for the creators; I think that creators need to start thinking outside of the box. And I think even the Scott McCloud infinite canvas concept is antiquated and old. I think that the opportunities within the digital space to create a really engaging and interactive experience is huge and it’s easy to do now, and that creators need to stop thinking about 22 pages and a panel layout. They need to start thinking about how do I get my user, my reader to actually engage with my characters and build real community around those characters. And I think until that happens we’ll continue to see the slide in comic books.
TCA – Graphic.ly recently got a nice injection of cash from fundraising. What’s the plans for the future?
MB – So specifically with the announcements we had from the fundraise is to build out just what I talked about; building out a really engaging immersive experience and allowing creators to really… and I’ve said this a hundred times and I’ll say it again is that I think technology by definition limits creativity and what I want is the ability for creativity to really drive the technology. And so that’s where we’re focused on; is can we create an experience where we literally are reaching in the brain of the creator and helping them put that into a space that becomes really interesting. So eventually I can imagine on Graphic.ly you’re gonna be buying books that aren’t anywhere near looking like books. I don’t think they’re be motion comics, I don’t think that they’ll be interactive games, I think they’ll be a mixture of all those things.
TCA – What’s been the best part of working on Graphic.ly?
MB – It’s always the people and the community at the end of it. This is the sixth start up for me and the ones that I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones that had a really defined community and focus. So I think for us, this team is solid, the team that we have is really good now. And I think that the community that is around what we’re doing is really solid and interesting and engaging and for me the best part of my day is interacting with our community. And I know that always sounds so flippant or a little hippie-ish, but at the end of the day it’s just true. Nobody takes a comic book goes into their basement, reads it and never talks about it. It just doesn’t happen. It’s inherently a social activity. And giving people a platform to allow them to integrate and to engage and to have that social interaction is great. So for me the community is really the best part of all of this.
For us what’s really important is that we’re very open to creator owned properties. We’re very excited to try and help out both the reading community as well as the creative community. And everybody has my contact information, I’m happy to hear from anybody.
Many thanks to Micah for taking the time for this inteview.