Off Season

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel that was part character study and part mystery. It was split between the now and the back-in-the-day sections as Arthur Quinn tells his girlfriend a story about a scar across his shoulder. The stories were told in alternating chapters with one in the now and one back then. The goal was to show the changes in the character and the way he pokes around in other people’s lives.

A few agents read the novel and hated the structure. As one said, “Just as momentum built in one story, you were whipped back to the other.”

SO, I cut them apart and let them breathe as separate things. One mystery is Smokin’ Hot Mess and Off Season is the other.

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Shawn Speaks!

I’m coloring SideChicks pages as I’m getting more content ready for comiXology. One of the things I like doing is playing with the shadow created by Shawn’s cowboy hat. Of course, if you want to read all 170+ pages for free, you can find the SideChicks strip on Tapastic.com. Just pick a story and dive on in.

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The SideChicks Are on Tapastic.com

The SideChicks strip was moved over to Tapastic.com which is a wonderful host for webcomics. The importing of and arranging of pages goes pretty easy. There is no way to get paid (meaning they control the advertising space), but as a place to purely display art, it’s a solid choice. I’ve been going back and coloring the black and white pages that never got a color treatment. This is a little sample. That image is a link, if you feel like giving it a read.

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Kindle Your Books-

The digital landscape for publishing changes from month to month. This week, Amazon opened up a can of Whoop Ass on the comic book category. Let me give you the new lay of the land from the perspective of an independent creator and small publisher.

On Monday, I checked the Kindle Best Sellers list again and noticed there was no change from the past few days. A growing dynamic marketplace will show a bit of change when it comes to what is selling. The Amazon list was static due to a lack of new content.

I checked in with a large comic book distributor that had been sitting on a submission of mine for five weeks at that point. The book in question, Strange Heroes #1 in a black and white comic written by Bill Willingham with art by Bobby Diaz, Kelsey Shannon, Sam de la Rosa and myself. As far as I can tell, no one has looked at it or moved it forward in any way in over a month.

I called another digital comic book distributor with the intent of moving forward with an approval of that same comic book that is stuck at square one at the other big distributor. In the five weeks since I sent the files in to the two distributors, this house had at least managed to get it formatted. The problem is that their site is so secure that I cannot get in to inspect and approve of the book. Between the two of us, we could not get me past the password to see the book. So I approved the book with the intent of buying a copy and inspecting the final version the old fashioned way, by reading it.

Still, that market at Amazon was calling to me. Over the past few weeks, I had tried using the Kindle Gen software to make a digital comic book from various types of graphics files. The experiments failed in a variety of ways too tedious to represent here.

I researched digital production houses and found a couple of places that would format a 24 page comic for $250. The time involved on the return on investment of converting backlist to digital sales keeps that from being a wise investment. I had the feeling that I was leaving money on the table, but the expense of reaching for it by paying someone to prep old comics for new platforms was too much to gamble.

When it comes to the digital comic book markets, Amazon has a small market share. I like to write mysteries and sell a few books through the Kindle Store. Amazon is a great place for selling fiction without pictures. I have a few books in the store and more on the way.

On Wednesday, Amazon released their Kindle Comic Creator. If the graphics used in the short promotional film look familiar, they should. Amazon used pages from Thom Zahler’s excellent series Love and Capes as sample pages during the demo of the book construction process. Using their free software, you can convert graphics files into .mobi files that you can then upload to the Kindle Store. Or send to a friend.

I’ve formatted a couple of comics using the software and I’ve learned a few things.

The Pros

The Kindle Comics Creator software works best when downloaded on its own and not as an add on to the Kindle Previewer which is bundled with the Kindle Gen software. The part of the process that takes the longest is getting the art pages into the correct dimensions. Once the files are tweaked in Photoshop or your software of choice, making a book is pretty easy. Anyone who has created a multi-page .pdf file with Adobe Acrobat will see similarities with the process of creating a comic book.

One of the things that keeps a certain type of fan from buying digital comics is the question of ownership. If you bought your digital comic book collection through one of the big digital distributors, you only get access through their proprietary software. If they go away, so do your books. And if they do something that creates a traffic jam on their site, you might not be able to read what you want when you want. Comics and novels bought through the Kindle Store can be downloaded to your favorite digital device or read from the cloud. Comics bought through the Kindle Store are yours to keep, a plus for fans.

Publishing is a hard business and the margins are slim so every dollar is important. At minimum, the share that goes to the publisher from sales through the Kindle Store is 35%. That rate is for books that fall outside of their sweet spot. On books that sell in the three dollar to ten dollar range, the publisher gets 70%. That beats your best deal by one of the other digital distributors by twenty points. This puts more cash in the publisher’s pocket.

Making comics is a hard process. Once your comics are ready for a read, you need to get them to your fans and future fans. If you work with one of the big digital distributors, you make a book and send it to them. If you use the Kindle Comics Creator, you control the pace of creation. You can get to it today or next week. You’re in control of the adaptation. I can take a stack of digital files and reformat them in a few hours. They come together quicker than that in the Comics Creator. You handle the adaptation process yourself and you can turn around a book in hours rather than waiting weeks for someone else to get to the job. With the Kindle Comics Creator, you control that work flow and release date.

After assembling the pages, the panel view needs to be created. The Comics Creator has an automated process that helps establish the progression of the panels. That sequence of panels can be tweaked before a final file for the comic is generated. By controlling the construction of the panel view process, the artist gets control of the flow of the story.

The Cons

Creating the guided panel view is a bit frustrating. You modify the panels by grabbing a corner and moving it to adjust two sides of the box that hold that part of the story. The area that you grab is so small that when you’re looking at the full page and attempting to resize the individual panels, the corner you’re trying to grab seems like it is the size of a pixel. It takes some time to get used to.

I had a chat with a big digital distributor and getting a comic book into the .mobi format does nothing to speed their process. They have their own way of getting that much data from Point A to Point B. No matter the format of the content you send in, it takes as long as it takes.

The Kindle Store is a finicky bit of software. Once books are posted to the Kindle Bookshelf, they cannot be deleted. A book can be pulled from the store and placed from ‘live’ to ‘draft’ mode, but once a book is on your shelf. it is there to stay. When you post a book, you are told that it wall take at least twelve hours for the book to go live. At about six hours, Amazon sends you an email to let you know that you have published a book and in that email is a link to your creation. That link does not go live for hours after the initial email goes out. Do not panic and fiddle with your submission as your book is being posted in the store. Any time you tinker with the book, you restart the clock.

I discussed the artistic limitations of the digital space with Derec Donovan, a like-minded freelancer and new publisher thanks to a lump of funding generated by Kickstarter. He complained that desipte the technological advances, the little view screens cannot get a double page spread right. He’s correct. The screen size is not large enough yet. But digital comics are not print in the same way that formatted-for-broadcast-TV movies lose something in the translation from the large screen.

Formatting comic book pages that do not account for digital is something of a pain. Fluid, dynamic story-telling shows the flaws in translation from print to digital. Check out the example of Neal Adams’ art in the classic story The Joker’s Five Way Revenge as an example. The consideration of the full page and the eye movement of Adams or Eisner is not possible with the current digital readers.

By Friday, Strange Heroes #1 was for sale in the Kindle Store and a couple of kind souls bought digital copies. The files that had been stuck on a hard drive are now earning for the publisher and the freelancers with an equity stake. Anyone with access to the Kindle App for their device of choice can buy and keep a version of Strange Heroes #1. That was not true at the beginning of the week.

The Winners

Kindle Users will clearly benefit from a bigger digital spinner rack. Readers will be able to own their digital comic book collection in a way not possible from other distributors. Amazon will benefit by being able to shelve a load of new content in their digital store without fronting the cost of adaptation. Publishers can be more hands on in the processs of getting a book to market.

The Losers

I have used eBook Architects to construct the digital files for the mystery novels I sell through the Kindle store. They offer to format children’s books and comics for a fee that starts around $250. They would have to offer a lot of value to beat Amazon’s fee: free. Graphic.ly may also fall into this category unless they add more service.

Anyway, that’s a view of the market today. Next week will bring more change to the digital landscape. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go format a few issues of Ex Parte, my comic book about an attorney that represents capes. I might even get the chance to do some drawing. My next project is called Mister Mystery. It is a graphic novel about a two-fisted World War II crime-buster who gets stranded in the alien world of 2013. Click on the guy in the hat to visit the production blog on FaceBook.

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The meatball math of comiXology Submit

The changes in digital comic book distribution have given independent creators new options and alternate channels to reach their readers. And there are changes that make it possible for artists and writers to get a bigger share of the revenue their work generates.

The largest digital comic book distributor is comiXology which just had their 100,000,000th download. (It was one of mine, Bill Willingham’s Pantheon #3.) They have systematically added large to mid-sized publishers since the debut of their comics reader and store in 2009. But they have shut out individual creators and the smallest of publishers.

A friend of mine went by their booth at the San Diego show this year. He is a fifteen year professional with a new project in the works and he was flatly told that he’d have to come in with a bigger publisher. I hit a similar brick wall when I made a few inquiries about dealing with them direct for upcoming projects. That has changed with the announcement of their new program, comiXology Submit.

This new service will allow independent comic book creators and artists to sell their works directly on Comixology and split the profits with the distribution hub. The split is 50/50 with half going to comiXology and the rest to the small presser. This is a new deal compared to the existing opportunities available to freelancers. Currently, an art team can make a comic and partner with another publisher who has access to the digital marketplaces. That deal is offered by Alterna and a few others. Under that type of arrangement, Apple gets 30% for sales through their stores, comiXology takes their cut of 10% and then the rest is split by the publisher and the creative team. For small press folks this is a deal changer because for online sales, half goes to the creative team. Here’s a visual-

Looking at the chart, the question the creative team has to ask itself, is whether it is worth going with a publisher or with comiXology Submit. Does your the association with the publisher compensate for their share?

There is still a quality metric that has to be hit, and I would argue it is higher now than ever. Back when the one way to get your comics on the shelf was through a distributor like Diamond Comics Distribution, your book would hit the shelf with the other comics of the week. Your competition was the other fifty to a hundred books on that one shelf. Now, as many as three to four hundred comics a week hit the app stores to sit on an infinite shelf. To make a splash in that environment, your work has to be outstanding.

If it is, you stand to make more cash than ever.

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Kickstart It!

At the San Diego convention in 2010, I stumbled into a conversation with Scott Kurtz and others about Kickstarter, the webservice that helps artistic types with a type of cloud fund-raising.  As I came in to the discussion late, I was asked what I thought about it.  My answer was pithy and accidentally on the same side as Kurtz, so it was the two of us against the mass on the other side for the rest of the debate.

When asked I said, “Oh you mean the site that encourages digital panhandling.”

At the time, I looked at the site as an equivalent to holding out an electronic ‘Will Make Music Videos for Food’ sign, but in the year since then I have come around to the other side of the argument.  In my current opinion, Kickstarter is actually a way around normal distribution channels to sell personal (and some times grossly inflated) items to your existing fan base to fund current projects.

I am sure that some creators think of themselves as a Michelangelo smooshing folks together to make one good Medici.  I think that it is better viewed as a way around some of the gatekeepers.

From either perspective, Kickstarter works for some so it will be a fixture of digital life.  Garrett Gibbons has put together an impressive post that compiles data to show what works best and what fails to raise the desired funds.  You can find it by tapping on the link below.

* link stolen from Neil Gaiman

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Inking the Bumblebee

Timelapse of inker Mike Furth inking a pinup for Chew from The Comic Archive on Vimeo.

This is a video of what an inker does, adding clarity and depth to a piece of pencil art so that it can be reproduced for other media. It’s kind of like being an interpreter.

WARNING: The camera moves for the entire duration of the piece which is more than a little dizzying. To enhance the experience you may want to match these images to… Flight of the Bumblebee.

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Not Brand Echh

A few weeks back, Rick Klaw asked me if I would like to write about great comics that have not been collected for the modern age. As a break from my crushing deadline, I wrote a few notes about the Marvel Super-hero satire series Not Brand Echh which featured Marvel’s best and brightest making light of their own creations. I hated it at the time, because I was infatuated with superheroes. Times changed.

In the note, I sound a little angrier than I usually am.  The irritation (if any is there) is aimed at the pervasive darkness of the genre and the over-used tropes not at the super-hero per se.

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The Future of the Book

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

The reading experience and the delivery of text can be very different in the brave new digital world as this video demonstrates.  The section on Alice and the talk of parallel chapters and unlocking content is loaded with potential.

But is it the chance to add content, or to knock people out of the narrative?

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E-book conversion houses

Like a lot of prose writers, I have a few projects on my hard drive that I thought could stand to see the light of day. The readers out there might have a different take than the agents and editors who had passed on the projects for whatever reason. These books have been out there in a half-considered e-book form and I thought they could use a little tweak and a new coat of paint. That put me up against the bottleneck in the path to the wonderfulness that is the Kindle Store.

Thanks to trailblazers like Joe Konrath, there is a flood of material headed to the e-book conversion houses. I had two projects that had lived on WOWIO‘s server for a year or two and rough versions of the books were on the Kindle Store. Making more polished versions of the existing books for the more competitive marketplace seemed like a good idea. I’d hate to have a bad conversion job make a reader feel cheated.

These three conversions were done to test the listed services and here are the results of that work. The projects all looked fine and marketable when completed with a slight edge going to the work done on TOKYO BOUND. Completion time is calculated from the time the book is sent and its receipt acknowledged by the production house and not from first contact. The conversion houses were sent rtf files and not existing digitized content.

Kobo

I’ve made a distribution deal with the nice people at KOBO which used to be called Shortcovers. This Canadian company is in business with Borders and they manufacture their own e-reader. In dealing with their production people, I informed them of the time delay I’d be suffering before being able to send over the completed digital files. I was having a hard time finding someone to do the conversions quickly as most services are on a delay that can run up to two months. The nice people at Kobo informed me that they deal with a Canadian production house and that their service has good rates and does good work. They offered to run it past their people for a quote on the digital conversion. So I sent them TOKYO BOUND, that reworking of a short story collection and waited.

There might have been a few days lost from the time I loaded the book to their server, but it was not many. They sent me a pile of docs and I had to fax them permission to charge a credit card of mine. It felt like I was going back in time like the next notes would be sent by Telex II, but I was just doing business in Canada. I should not make fun of them because they converted a 90,000 word manuscript into a Kindle friendly format in record time and at a fraction of the cost of their competitors.

After further study… CANADA ROCKS

If you can convince Kobo to sign a distribution contract with you, they are easily the best option.

Cost $31.05

Completion Time 21 days

eBook Architects

This Austin- based service was recommended by fellow Austin author Alan J. Porter. As a part of a marketing approach favored by ice-cream shops and crack dealers, I wrote a short promotional set of stories titled YOUNG & FOOLISH. These three stories feature my Arthur Quinn character and are meant to be given away in the attempt to lure readers into purchasing an e-book like the Quinn short story collection TOKYO BOUND or the upcoming Quinn novel THE MILK RUN.

I hit the webpage ebookarchitects.com and followed the dance steps that led me to a nice guy named Joshua Tallent who is the founder of the company. I told him my story and due to the clipped length of the project, he was able to move me up in the line. When I contacted him, the stated turnaround time was 5-6 weeks and according to his cost structure only $100.00. There is a bright dividing line based on a word count of 17,500. Anything over the line has a base cost of $150 and my promotional book was under that line at 12,000 words. Graphics are extra and they offer additional services such as scanning existing books in print to make digital files. Remember, any extra services typically cost more and add to the completion time.

The turnaround time was a flat two weeks. I had the feeling that this was a courtesy or a first time customer deal. I was informed that other books would face the standard completion time.

Cost $100.00

Completion Time 14 days

52 Novels

Joe Konrath is an inspiration to independent writers. There just has to be a generation of frustrated writers that are emulating him and hoping for a fraction of his success. Along those lines, I contacted the guy that Joe uses to format his flood of e-books. www.52novels.com

The project I sent to him is titled THE CLOCKWORK BRIDE which is a collection of sword & sorcery meet urban fantasy stories. Its high concept and its fun and it mostly works. But there is clip art in a few places which makes the formatting chore more complicated. His turnaround time varies by the amount of books in the queue. The time to completion was more or less when promised, but there was a note apologizing for not having the work done sooner. This was such a backburner project that I had not been worried about it. To be fair, there were a few images in the book, so maybe there are a few extra dance steps involved in the process.

Cost $175.00

Completion Time 53 days

There was a Peanuts cartoon that was a favorite of mine where one dog was complaining to Snoopy about the big dogs eating all of the food. Snoopy described it as “Survival of the Fattest”. In a lot of business, the big dogs get first shot at the best deals. The same is true with eBook conversions. If you can make a deal with a digital distributor that has what is an essentially in-house production service, that is the way to go. If not, either eBook Architects or an independent like Rob Siders at 52 Novels are respectable choices.

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