Pak Talks Comics: Comic books and the Apple tablet

Disclaimer: Everything written below is the sole opinion of yours truly based on personal experience and published news reports. I have no insider knowledge about any actual tablet or any company’s efforts to prepare for its coming.
By Greg Pak
In 1999, Apple changed my life as a filmmaker by introducing Final Cut Pro, a digital video editing program that allowed me to cut professional quality video on my home computer. Without Final Cut Pro, I might never have been able to make any of my post-film-school short films or my feature film “Robot Stories.” And so I might never have gotten a job working as a writer for Marvel Comics.
This month, I’m hoping Apple changes my life as a comic book writer by releasing the much-hyped but never confirmed Apple tablet, which according to the latest rumors is called the iGuide or iSlate, has a 10.1 inch touch screen, and will be announced on January 26, 2010.
In my digital comics fantasy, a gorgeous tablet computer supported by an integrated, easy-to-use and reasonably priced online store will lead to the exponential growth of the comics buying audience. Prices of individual comics will fall, but the circulation will be so much higher that profits will increase handsomely. A whole new generation will grow up reading comics every day, big comics will become blockbusters, small comics will build healthy niche audiences, and we’ll all grow sleek and fat and happy.
How can that fantasy become reality? Read on for one comic book writer’s two cents:

  • The tablet screen needs to be at least 10 inches measured diagonally
    I’ve tried reading comics on an iPod Touch. And maybe I’m just old and cranky, but the tiny screen has made it impossible for me to get through a single issue. The images feel cramped and cropped (because, of course, they are). I feel like I’m watching a Cinemascope movie panned-and-scanned to fit a 13 inch kitchen counter television.
    I’ve also tried reading comics on a laptop. This is a better experience, but depending on the program I’m using, a comics page ends up measuring 7 or 8 inches diagonally, which is less than half of the total area of an actual comic book. And the jutting keyboard on a laptop prevents me from holding it as close as I might hold a book. So the page seems even smaller.
    A tablet computer with a 10 inch screen will still be smaller than a current mainstream comic book, which measures about 12 inches diagonally. But I’ve had no problem reading comics like “Runaways” as digest size books, which are about 9.5 inches diagonally. A 10 inch tablet will provide even more reading area (assuming no space is wasted on program borders and graphics) and a backlit screen may make the art pop even better than it does from the newsprint of many of the digest editions.
    The trickiest question is how to handle double page spreads. Maybe the machine should show the first page of the spread with a circular arrow symbol in the upper right corner. Then you turn the machine sideways and the spread flips so you can see it in all its horizontal glory. The screen will be too small to read the detail very well. But by using the finger gestures familiar to iPhone users, you can enlarge and move around the page as you like. Ideally, there would be a simpler gesture command designed for the comics page. Maybe a single finger running along the screen could take you through the page panel by panel or section by section.
    But I’m optimistic about even the double page spread problem partly because if the 10 inch tablet is successful, Apple will almost certainly create a 13 inch or larger model within a year or two. These machines won’t be used just for eBooks, after all, and bigger screens will be a bonus for movie enthusiasts as well.

  • The tablet needs a built-in iTunes-like sales engine to make purchases fast, seamless and even fun
    I send out periodic newsletters to the Pakbuzz email list about the new comics I’m writing. But I know that people who know me from the film world, for example, can be hard pressed to drive to their local comic shop on the correct Wednesday to buy a copy of my latest book. But if people could click on a link and buy the product instantly for a buck or two to read on their sweet new iSlate, things could be very different.
    In the best of all possible worlds, new books would be just a dollar — matching the “what the heck” 99 cent pricing of the original iTunes store. Realistically, they’ll probably start off at $1.99. Older comics could be just fifty cents — or better yet, two bits (virtual quarter bin!).
    The system also needs an easy and fun mechanism to allow readers to instantly gift the book to a friend. You bought it and loved it? Send it to a friend’s account for a buck. Send it to ten friends and get a 10 percent discount. The idea here is to grow the readership. Pricing that allows people to pull in friends easily, quickly, and cheaply is ideal.

  • The tablet needs interactive technology that allows creators and publishers to create a sense of an “event” while disincentivizing pirating
    More than just about any form of popular media, comics have nurtured a culture of fan involvement. With smart use of interactive technology, a tablet computer could bring that involvement to the next level, creating a “premiere,” event-like feeling for every new comic book release.
    Imagine each individual digital comic book having its own live letters-to-the-editor page. As soon as folks have read the book, they can see what other readers have to say about it and they can post their own comments. There could be an edited section that looks like an actual letters page, with responses from editors or creators. And there could be another free-wheeling section that looks like a Newsarama or CBR message board. The only catch is that comments can only be made by people who have purchased the book and are reading it on their authorized tablet computer.
    But there are ways to take this interaction even further.
    When I was doing improv comedy with the Pollyannas in Manhattan, one of my colleagues would always talk about the need to make every show feel like an event. New Yorkers have approximately one billion options when it comes to an evening’s entertainment. We needed to somehow find a way to make our little show feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The same principle applies in independent film distribution. I traveled around the country for two years with my film “Robot Stories” because I knew that we had no hope of competing with Hollywood movies’ advertising budgets. But if I showed up in person, audience members would have a chance of meeting an actual filmmaker. And if I partnered with a local group to throw an opening night party, we’d have an even bigger sense of a dontcha-dare-miss-it event.
    I’ve never quite been able to figure out how to make the same feeling apply in comics. Comic book conventions come the closest, of course. But the tablet could provide a way to create a kind of mini-event for the release of an individual comic book. With the tablet computer, people around the world could buy the comic book at the same time, on the same day, without even leaving their homes. Virtual events could be created with creators liveblogging — or live video blogging — on the evening of the comic’s release. Readers could interact with each other and the creators. Special “director’s cut” style images or details could be released during this kind of event, which would only be open to authorized purchasers of the comic book.
    Books with niche audiences could make particularly effective use of these kinds of events. A horror comic book might partner with a horror film festival to host an event that’s broadcast live via the tablet, for example. Or creators with comics with historical or issues-related content might partner with a local university, simulcasting a Q&A session in a classroom.
    Of course, many of these elements are too complicated, expensive, or time consuming for creators or companies to generate for every comic book release. But the biggest boost in sales is likely going to go to whomever figures out the best ways to use the technology to create a sense of expectation, urgency, and fun.

  • Publishers need to use the technology to make buying interconnected storylines seamless
    One of the challenges new readers always have when delving into the ongoing storylines of mainstream comics is figuring out who everyone is and what the heck’s going on. The tablet creates a great opportunity to simultaneously acclimate new readers and sell product. The actual digital comic book files should include links to the storylines that immediately precede and follow. In the actual body of the comics, if there’s an editor’s note that mentions a previous issue or storyline, it should be a clickable link that lets you instantly buy the referenced book. Even if there’s not an editor’s note, just rolling over the dialogue that mentions a previous event should reveal a link to the buy page for that storyline. These kinds of links should also be provided for free content like the recap “Saga” material that Marvel periodically creates for big storylines.
    And of course the recap pages should include links to essential stories. And after you finish the book, you should be provided with a way to buy or pre-buy the next issue, along with any other related storylines.

  • The tablet’s built-in program needs to allow for smart and customizable organization of purchases into a manageable library
    With weeks of the tablet’s release, third party programmers will be providing apps to do anything you can imagine. But for comics sales to reach as many people as possible, the built-in program for the tablet needs to feature a way to organize books that’s as intuitive and attractive as iTunes. The program needs to allow for customization — for users who want to file “Incredible Hercules” #113 immediately after “Incredible Hulk” #112, for example. And we’ll need something like the Gracenote technology in iTunes, which automatically recognizes files and fills in title and creator data.

  • The industry needs to figure out how to simultaneously support brick-and-mortar stores
    I love comic book stores and I love comic book retailers. We creators owe our careers to retailers — they order our books and host our signings and talk up our storylines to their customers. And their stores provide a physical place where the day-to-day human interactions that fuel the comic book enthusiast’s passions can take place.
    So how can digital sales of comics be used to fuel the purchase of physical comic books in actual comic book stores?
    Collected trade paperbacks and hardcovers are the easier part of the puzzle. Collected trades can contain extras that aren’t available online. And digital comics will almost certainly continue to feature ads, so the lack of ads can help make the print collections feel like the special premium experience. To encourage sales of these print editions, publishers could use links within digital comics to connect readers to their local comic shops. The technology could even allow for geographically dynamic links — so as you move around with your tablet, the links change to show you whatever comic shop is closest to you.
    To encourage the continued sales of individual physical issues, I’m imagining multiple strategies. Just a few possibilities:
    Maybe the comics sold in stores will feature covers that are only available on physical books. Maybe the physical books will have some other kind of incentive material — a special backup story that’s never available online, for example. Or maybe the physical comics will be available earlier — on the traditional Wednesday, while the online version will come out on Friday. And to encourage collectors tempted by digital comics to continue to buy the physical issues, physical comic books might come with an unlock code that allows buyers to download the digital version for free.
    (P.S. Click here to find your local comic shop!)

  • Creators and publishers need to milk the technology for all it’s worth
    Ten years ago, Final Cut Pro allowed me to reduce my short film finishing costs from thousands of dollars to about twenty bucks. But just finishing my shorts didn’t miraculously bestow sales or employment upon me. I had to chase down every opportunity to get my films out into the world and build a career.
    Similarly, the Apple tablet will provide an incredible vehicle for getting comics out to the wider world. But comics won’t magically start selling millions just by virtue of being in the tablet’s store. It will be up to publishing companies and individual comic book creators to take advantage of the technology and work every angle in getting word out.
    On the giant corporate level, we need comic books in Apple’s actual advertisements for the tablets. Making comic books part of that massive advertising push will make millions of people suddenly realize that they could actually buy and read comics. Similarly, let’s have the websites and the digital versions of the giant comic book movies include links to the purchase pages for the comic books.
    On the individual level, publishers and creators will have the challenge and fun of finding a billion different ways to get word out about our books and make buying the individual issues an exciting event that no one will want to miss. One immediate, practical consequence is that email newsletters and social network announcements will have a much higher chance of turning into actual sales once direct links to the tablet store are possible. So it’ll become even more valuable for creators to build newsletter lists and social networks.
    Thinking more broadly, creators’ strategies for press might change. Right now comics sales are determined by retailer preorders. So an article that comes out about a book the week it’s released might help a book sell out, but it won’t affect the book’s circulation unless the book is reprinted. And press that comes out after the book’s released can be all but wasted. In contrast, in the digital world, there’s no preset print run. So any press at any time can sell additional issues and generate dollars. Furthermore, there just might be a greater willingness in the non-comics media to cover comics if they know the books are available through the tablet store.
    Finally, it occurs to me that for the first time, comic books may be getting a shot at going viral. The death of Captain America sold hundreds of thousands of comics. If the tablet had been kicking around then, could that comic have sold millions?
    No doubt someone will nail the Zeitgeist and use the tablet to hit the jackpot with the highest selling comic book in generations. But I’m actually more interested in the less flashy but more lasting success of many books across the line increasing readership and revenues. There are hundreds of comics that wider audiences could embrace if they just knew about them. This is the biggest opportunity we comics creators will have in this decade to reach them.
    So… wanna sign up for my newsletter?

Further reading:
Andy Ihnatko: LongBox digital comics store adds to Apple tablet frenzy
John Gruber: The Tablet
David Carr: A Savior in the Form of a Tablet
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