NYCC 2013: ComiXology Submit: The Future of Self-Publishing

Credit: ComiXology

ComiXology co-founders David Steinberger and John D. Roberts hosted the digital comics company's panel Thursday at the New York Comic Con, joined by Joshua Fialkov and Joe Infurnari, creators of the comiXology Submit series The Bunker. 

"This panel is on the Submit portal that comiXology runs for independent creators and small creators to submit their work to comiXology and to get it on our platform," Steinberger said. He announced that the company launched 10 new guided view native comics, designed specifically for the comiXology platform.

Walking Dead Season Four begins on Sunday, and comiXology has all 114 comics out for 99 cents each - or $100 for the entire set.

comiXology also launched a large number of DC Comics graphic novels, including the Earth One series and The Killing Joke.

Avatar also launched with comiXology this week, as well as Ape Entertainment. Fialkov, meanwhile, said that there would be free downloads for The Bunker available with a special sketch card at the convention.

"We launched officially at South by Southwest in March," Roberts said. "The process is quick and easy - you agree to the legal agreement, you enter the publisher entity information, you input the comics information, the creator information, you upload a PDF, you submit it, we review it - bad PDF formats are a huge problem, so make sure it looks good - it then goes in the scheduling queue, and then you go up on the platform."

Roberts then opened up a video for comiXology Submit featuring Too Much Coffee Man. They said you could learn more about the portal at submit.comixology.com. Submit has become the tenth-largest publisher on comiXology since its launch, Roberts said. Comixtribe, Becky Cloonan and Marv Wolfman are among the publishers and creators who have used the service so far.

Roberts then steered the conversation to discuss Fialkov and Infurnari's The Bunker. "It's about a group of college kids who, on the even of graduation, they go to bury a time capsule for themselves," Fialkov said. "When digging, they instead find a bunker containing information from the future telling them how they are going to grow up to cause the apocalypse." Each student has to make a decision over whether or not to follow their dreams, knowing full well what the future might hold for them.

Submit is "a perfect way to get your book out to people without jumping through hoops," Fialkov explained, adding that he particularly enjoyed the one-on-one experience for a reader as well as the control he has as a creator. "I knew that what I wanted to do next was digital."

"Doing digital in this way was very much instant gratification," Infurnari said, explaining that the project was well on its way to completion swiftly after receiving the script. "We were rolling in, like, a month or two. It was very, very easy."

"For us, it was important that it was as readable as possible in its native form," Fialkov added.

Rogers said that the digital platform allowed them to create and distribute the comic quickly without the costs of printing. Fialkov said that he's worked for many publishers with many different publishing styles - he said that publishing himself was the most satisfying, because he had control and the product always came out the way he wanted. But it was always the most expensive, and almost always at a loss. "Doing it this way, all the costs are done," Fialkov said. "We can make the comic, and we can be live while we do it. We can be one-on-one with our readers in a much more intimate way."

Steinberger asked if Infurnari was putting his art together to be put together as a printed page. Fialkov said that the page turn is the greatest tool that print comics has, saying it's the ultimate form of control - and there's that same ability to do that with digital comics. "It was about how do we tell the best story in the most effective way?" Fialkov. "For me, the book will always read better in the landscape format."

Rogers opened the floor up to questions from the audience. One audience member asked if all comiXology Submit titles were in landscape format. Becky Cloonan's Demeter and New Paradigm Studios' Watson & Holmes were two examples that Rogers cited as non-landscape successes. "There isn't a set standard - it's not, 'oh, you're not telling a story in landscape format, we're not going to run it.'" comiXology's bread and butter is digital translations of print comics - but Rogers added that more and more creators are starting to think about releasing books as digital-firsts.

Steinberger then asked Fialvko and Infurnari if they had tested their comic out on iPads and digital devices, particularly in terms of fonts. "Sadly not," Fialkov laughed. "For the most part, we winged it," Infurnari said. Rogers said that that was an additional advantage of comiXology, was that if necessary they could change the comics without having the cost of reprinting them.

Another audience member asked about comiXology's plans to further promote Submit. Steinberger responded, "There's a dedicated quicklink - Submit books make it into the main page every week... But point taken. It's not forward enough for you to find. We don't think about it as in the basement, we just see the most successful books floating to the top, the books that can stand toe-to-toe with the Marvels, the DCs, the Images."

Rogers said that the company sends out review copies to various news sites, as well as having a dedicated page for Submit on the front page. "There's a discoverability issue that we're aware of and that we're working on, but I don't think we're putting it in the basement."

One audience member, who described himself as an "entry-level writer," asked Fialkov about writing Batman for a digital-first story, particularly how to write for the guided view while also not alienating the readers who pick up the book in print. "It's a juggling act," Fialkov said. "It's harder, because your'e doing two things at once. My advice is just to start doing a regular-size comic, and start doing it that way." 

Citing "astronomical" printing costs and the difficulties of working with the print publishing process, Fialkov said, "while digital-first is somewhat new, there's been wide comics for decades. But the kind of process that we're going through where traditional mainstream comics are starting to go digital-first - this is the future." The risk on a digital comic is much cheaper than a printed product, he added.

"You can't be scared of digital, because digital is where we're going," Fialkov said, predicting that someday soon we would see a switch in the estimated 85%-15% balance between print and digital. "You're going to see that flop."

What is our review process? Bad PDF files are a big problem, Rogers said. If the images are too compressed, it causes a stained-glass effect. Adobe Acrobat Pro overly compresses TIFF files, Rogers added. He also said that the book needs to be professional quality - no using Comic Sans as a font, Rogers said, suggesting that creators use Comicraft and Blambot.

"Lettering is one of the least expensive parts of the production process, and one of the most important," Fialkov added, urging creators to hire a letterer.

Another audience member asked if comiXology skewed towards superhero comics, sci-fi or any other genre.

"We don't care - what's important to us is good storytelling. You can even debate 'professional artwork,' because we have a lot of different styles, from sloppy and sketchy to very tight and rendered," Steinberger said. "You can skew outside the main demographic from the adolescent male comic book reader… I encourage you to tell the kind of story you want to tell."

comiXology is a top 20 publisher in terms of gross revenue, Steinberger said, responding to another audience member's question clarifying how big Submit is.

Another audience member asked about the agreement comiXology makes with its creators.

"Our agreement is a non-exclusive agreement," Rogers said, saying that creators can put their work up on Amazon and Apple as well as comiXology. "You're free to do whatever you want with it - we take no rights away from you. If you want to get it published, you don't even have to tell us, you can do whatever you want."

Responding to a question about the prevalence of the guided view comics, "these guys didn't make a guided view native comic - they just made a comic," Steinberger said. "A lot of our readers like it on the iPad as well." He said that 80% of comiXology readers felt iPad viewing was important, while only 40% were using it on their phones. Steinberger said that he predicts to see cleaner panel layouts and the use of gutters as guided view becomes more popular. He said that already they have "very cinematic transitions" already on the platform.

"Knowing this was going to be on comiXology and the guided view, generally the lettering stays within the panel, which makes it easy to convert it," Infurnari said, but added that that's not always the norm - sometimes there is art bleeding through panels, and that can be used to the creator's benefit. "Even though the art might overflow, the story is contained and is fed to you in a controlled way."

Fialkov said that the Big Two are also using two-page spreads in different ways. "Those don't work as well reading it on a tablet - now you're seeing big splash pages with a single balloon. That's how the medium has changed."

Steinberger said that comiXology has an entire team devoted to "How will the reader feel if the reader sees a quip, and then it pulls out to an expansive page?"

Another audience member, who had been accepted in the Submit process, asked about the scheduling process. Steinberger said that comiXology was already running behind on the production process, but said that if you are not printing a guided view only book, there is less conversation and instructions that need to be said.

Is there a maximum file size to be submitted? 1 to 1.5 GB, Rogers said.

Is there a minimum number of pages and issues you'll carry? "It can't be one page," Rogers joked. He said that eight pages are the usual minimum. "We don't have a hard and fast rule about a number of pages. One of the things about printing digitally is that you're not tied down to the rules of a printed book." The minimum price that can be charged is 99 cents, so they want to make sure that they want to make sure the story is worth that price.

Does comiXology worry about censoring? Steinberger said that if they're not sure about Apple, they'll show it to Apple. "If it's not incredibly sadistic - I mean, come on, we just launched Avatar," Steinberger said. "We do have an 18 and older section. We are sensitive to our partners, but we do have some edgy, sexual, violent content. We try not to be the censor of content. There are some things we will not accept, but we take them on an as-they-come basis."

If there are rejections based on professional concerns, Rogers said that creators have the opportunity to correct these issues and resubmit.

Another audience member asked who sets the costs for each book: "You do," Rogers said. There is a 50-50 split after channel costs, he added - this comes after Amazon, Apple and Google's cut, which is usually 50%. One audience member asked if they had considered a "pay what you want model" - Steinberger said that no apps on Apple currently do that. "There really is no option for any of those platforms."

One audience member asked about blue lines appearing in artwork, and asked how scanners might be able to remove those. Rogers said that with Photoshop, it was easy to remove the lines by converting an image to Bitmap or playing with the levels.

An audience member asked about issues with deadlines, and what happens if you produce a comic and not make money - how can you print another comic if that is the case? "The only way to build a name and a career for yourself is to put stuff out," Fialkov said. "Even if you were the greatest comic creator ever to walk the Earth, you have to educate people as to who you are." 

Steinberger agreed. "If you want to make comics, just make them."

Fialkov said that Submit was particularly helpful in that regard, because they were giving opportunities for more voices to be heard.

Once a comic is approved, what happens? One week prior to your release, you will get an email notifying you about the comic, particularly giving you a URL to help promote the book, Rogers said. Rogers also said that he tweets and retweets whenever a new book comes out. You get paid quarterly, 45 days after the quarter. There is a threshold, Rogers said, but you should at least get a report saying how much you have sold.

An audience member asked if it was a possibility to offer two versions of the same book - one paid and one free. Fialkov said, "You're not really giving them an option," adding that "pay what you want" is usually code for "giving it away for free." He said that "you're devaluating your own product - if you think your book is worth nothing, than give it out for free. If you think it's worth a dollar, put it at that price. If you think it's worth two dollars, put it out at that price."

Steinberger said that many people saw 99 cents as the magic number, but The Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman said, "Nah, my book's worth $1.99." He said that that helped with sales, as well, as they could drum up further interest with 99 cent sales.

Another audience member asked if it was possible to give a portion of sales to charities. Steinberger said they have done deals with creators who want to do that, but they haven't focused a lot of technology to that, as opposed to helping collate which readers want a specific book over another. But they did team up with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, so it is not unheard of.

Have there been many creators who have tried putting out just a first issue to gauge interest? Rogers said they've seen people do that. "But if you want to make comics, make comics," Rogers said. "If you're looking to do this to make money, this is the wrong industry."

"If we don't make a dime on this book, we're fine," Fialkov said. "We're doing this because we love working together and we want to put out this book."

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