LONGBOX Aims To Be the Digital Future of Comics, Part 1

LONGBOX: The Digital Future of Comics?

As more and more comic books reach a $3.99 price point, an affordable and efficient way to create revenue-generating downloadable comics has become something of a holy grail for the industry. Rantz Hoseley, editor of last year’s Eisner-winning anthology Comic Book Tattoo, has helped create what he hopes be the breakthrough application for online comics. Developed by LongBox, Inc, LongBox is a new platform for downloading comics at a suggested $0.99 price point, with options for trades, subscriptions, and the like.

In his most extensive interview to date, Hoseley discusses the development of LongBox, how it will work, and its implications for the industry in this first part of a two-part talk.

Newsarama: Rantz, what inspired you to start developing LongBox?

Rantz Hoseley: There are a lot of different factors, but as a whole it come down to being such a huge fan of comics, and my concern with watching the market contract and not really “move forward” in the same kind of growth we’ve seen with other media and forms of entertainment and storytelling.

As a fan, it is frustrating that, with the ever-increasing price of print comics, I have to really measure out what I have to read, versus what I’d like to read. For most people, especially given the current economic climate, disposable income is very limited. So if you have $50 and the choice becomes, “Okay, I have $50 to spend on ‘fun’ for the month. Do I spend that on 10 comics I can read in a day, or a videogame that will take at least 2-3 weeks to play?”

That puts an incredibly unfair pressure on each individual comic to be the “next Dark Knight" or "the next Watchmen", rather than just being a really good, fun, entertaining comic. You can’t really change that cover price under the print model... there are too many components to it that have to be paid, and the profit margins for most of the components in that chain are not very high.

Another aspect is that there’s been, for years now, the ongoing discussion of “how do we get new people in the comic shops,” and I’m very much of the belief that the majority of people... well, no matter what you do you are never going to get them in a comic shop.

I think comic shops, especially good comic shops, are a fantastic thing, and it’s an experience that you cannot replicate in any other form. It’s social, environmental... it’s like a bar in a way... you can drink in your house, but people go to comic shops to meet other comic fans, talk comics, buy comics surrounded with like-minded folks. That’s great for people who are already into comics, but it doesn’t serve the purpose of outreach to a mass market audience.

The final aspect is that I will say, in 20 years of working in the comic industry, it has never been so exciting in terms of the number of creators who are “doing their own thing” and doing it well with a unique authorial voice or visual style. Creatively, it’s an incredibly rich field right now.

However, most of the indie creators I know, and we’re talking about people who have been nominated for awards, won awards, are considered “fan favorites”, etc., are in the sucky position of having to have day jobs in order to pay the bills, rather than being able to just do their comics and earn a living from it. Not get rich or wealthy mind you, but just break even and take care of themselves and their families.

(Kieron) Gillen and (Jamie) McKelvie have both spoken at length on this on their respective blogs. That isn’t going to change under the current print model, and rather than try and figure out “Okay, how can we change things in this current model,” LongBox serves as an alternate, additional channel for distribution and sales. One that potentially reaches a much larger audience, and allows for us to keep our per-unit pricing low enough that you can read comics just for the enjoyment of them and still have the creators and publishers make an actually living doing what they are best at.

All of these, again, come back to being such a huge fan of comics, and being passionate about the power and potential of the at form, and my lifelong love for them.

Nrama: Explain the actual process of developing LongBox -- what you did, and what your "dos" and "don'ts" were for the project.

Hoseley: The development of LongBox has been a very long one (no pun intended). I started discussions initially about 3-4 years ago with publishers about bringing digital versions of their comics on to the PSP.

Across the board, there was nothing but resistance. Every excuse from “People don’t want to read comics on a screen” to “you’re destroying comics” to “digital comics look like crap”... all of the standard condemnations of digital comics.

However (and maybe this speaks more to my sanity than anything) I thought “Okay, this will happen... so what needs to happen to make it viable for everyone. Publishers, creators, fans, business... what aspects need to be addressed in order to meet every party’s needs?” Which lead to two years of silent running, doing R & D, market research, business planning, and design.

Our philosophy on LongBox has been driven by two: things:

1.) Don’t show something until it’s ready. Don’t talk details until it’s solid, etc.

2.) Don’t get “precious” about any one piece of the design or business model. Be ready to redo or jettison anything at any time if it doesn’t work to reinforce the greater whole.

To expand a little, in the first criteria, there are a lot of people and companies running around saying “I’ve got the Holy Grail of Digital Comics,” like some crazed version of Sean Connery in Medicine Man. Too many times, it ends up being a tin cup... if there even is a cup, if you know what I mean.

Look at just the last 2-3 years at the number of “digital comics initiatives” that have surfaced, sank, or not delivered what they said they would. Across the board, none of these efforts has been a comprehensive, multi-publisher, multi-device, platform for digital distribution.

We knew that, because of the lay of the land, and because so many people have been talking the talk, we had to be ready to deliver the goods before showing anyone... publishers, creators or fans, what we were up to.

Aside from the members of the LongBox advisory board, no one except the development team saw anything we were up to, or knew any real details on the business model, etc until February at NYCC. By then we felt confident that what we had, at that moment, even though technically at a “pre-alpha” state, was far beyond what anyone else was doing.

More importantly, it had been vetted by some real hard-asses from all of the different angles... the business model, the payment structure, the user experience, the marketing approach and so forth. We knew going into any meeting with a publisher that they’d be able to see how LongBox was different... that this wasn’t just some tech group that kinda dug comics, or a comic guy who got together with some friends and put together something.

On the second criteria, I’ve been working in software development for going on 16 years now, and whether it’s at a big company like Atari or Disney, or a smaller indie developer, the biggest danger that you see time and again... the thing that runs projects off the rails and right into the ditch... is the design or management team falling too much in love with their design or a feature set.

They start to lose their ability to be critical, objective, and downright brutal towards their own product. They get so enthralled with an aspect of the game or software, that they forget that the end user experience has to be holistic. That all of the aspects, across the board, have to reinforce the core “message” or experience.

I’m incredibly self-critical, and part of me felt (and still feels) at the end of the day, I am putting my reputation in the two industries I’ve worked in for the majority of my life, software development and comics, on the line here and I cannot afford to have this not deliver the goods.

Over the last year, every month, many times multiple times a month... I’ve questioned myself and the team very bluntly “Is it good enough? What is the ‘suck ratio’ on it? What is in it that would drive me nuts or piss me off if I was a user or publisher and not the designer?” That’s lead to no fewer than seven complete redesigns of the UI.

I looked at the first couple of them last week, from a year and a half ago, and just f***ing cringed... Even in terms of things like the StoreFront, the version we showed at HeroesCon and SDCC was completely different than the one we showed at NYCC.

That’s cause, while all the publishers and creators at NYCC were happy with it, and saying very nice things about it, I knew after going through 52 demos, and using it on the flight to NYC and back to California, that people might like it at first... but over time, they’d get annoyed by the format, the layout... how information was displayed, what options you had as a user, etc. So, after I got back, I gave the team the redesign and we went to it. Better to do it right, than just “do it,” if that makes sense.

Nrama: What do you feel has been the biggest flaw with previous online comic databases?

Hoseley: Ahhh... I don’t like to bash anyone, or “talk smack”. I think that does no good at the end of the day. I do think that most of the comic DBs that have been attempted haven’t been comprehensive. In terms of Publishers, categories, creators, etc, etc... I think that has largely to do with the fact that, in order to do a truly comprehensive DB on comics, that is a hell of a lot of work.

Most of the DB initiatives are volunteer, or their funding isn’t very... robust, shall we say. Under those conditions, where you have a team of volunteers trying to fill the gaps, and fill the need... I think the efforts have been pretty impressive. Combine that with the fact that there isn’t really a standardized format for a comic DB, and you end up with a lot of smaller groups trying individually to fill the gaps, instead of pooling their efforts.

It’s all a pretty natural part of the evolution of an emerging market or field, you get the people in the ‘frontier’ trying to stake out the guidelines and definitions... some get taken up as standards and others fall to the side.

Nrama: The service is compatible with .cbr and .cbz. scans. How do you feel scanned comics "changed the game" for the industry?

Hoseley: In a couple of notable ways. The proliferation of torrents of comics, often on the day of when the print version is released, combined with the “justification” that many torrenters give that “well, there isn’t a legitimate digital alternative, so I torrent”, has added pressure to publishers finding a viable, legitimate, system for digital distribution and sale.

That has come up time and time again in meetings with publishers... that we’re giving them a way to legitimately provide a digital version, without increasing their production time, and that removes that argument or justification for piracy.

The other way is that it has put to rest the argument of “people do not want to read comics in digital form”. Having tracked torrent numbers for a year and a half, even with the assumptions of re-downloads and statistical errors that get bandied about, the numbers are still double, triple, and in some cases 10x what the print sales are.

They can argue, if they like, that those people won’t pay for digital comics, but we believe that’s an erroneous assumption. As iTunes, Amazon Digital, Netflix, Steam and the like have proven that consumers are willing to buy digital entertainment content, even when it is available through... less than legal means... if the quality and ease of access and use is there, combined with a low price point

Nrama: You've talked about some of the publishers you have signed up for this service -- while we understand if you can't name names right now, are you in talks with any other major publishers for LongBox's launch? Conversely, have you encountered resistance from any major publishers regarding LongBox?

Hoseley: Publisher reaction across the board has been incredibly positive. Every publisher, or indie creator/self publisher have their own concerns, criteria and “needs” that have to be met in order for them to be able to participate. Some of those discussions and the associated paperwork have gone, or will go through quickly, others might take significantly longer.

Because of NDAs, and the nature of these negotiations and discussions, I can’t give “hints” or imply that anyone is participating prior to an official announcement. I can say, we’ll be announcing more publishers prior to launch, and that us launching with ‘enough publishers’ isn’t an issue... Right now it’s a matter of which ones will be best as part of the launch group, and which ones are better rolled on in the months following the initial launch.

Come back Wednesday for Part Two!

Zack Smith (zack.zacharymsmith@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.

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