During the publisher's digital comics panel at HeroesCon, IDW announced that it would be adapting Jeff Smith's beloved epic "Bone" and edgy ongoing "Rasl" for the Sony PSP system. The comics will be distributed through the Playstation Store and appear in the catalogue viewable online at playstationcomics.com. IDW has been fairly ambitious among larger publisher in entering the digital arena, with most of its titles now being made available on the PSP and on Apple's iPad and iPhone about one month after print publication.
CBR News caught up with IDW's Director of ePublishing Jeff Webber in the wake of their announcement to get all the details on the deal for "Bone" and "Rasl" and learn what else the publisher might have up its sleeve for mobile publishing.
CBR News: First, I wanted to start by talking about the announcement of "Bone" and "Rasl." I was wondering what formats these are going to be in - is it just PSP, or also iPhone?
Jeff Webber: It's just PSP right now. We'll see where things go from there. "Bone" has already been out on the iPhone through Uclick, which is actually where I used to work.
Were you involved with that?
Yeah, I used to be in charge of mobile content at Uclick, which is a division of Andrews McNeel Universal. They are a newspaper syndicator. We had actually been doing mobile phone content as far back as 2003, when we were just starting to get the internet on phones at the time, with "Garfield" and things like that.
Will "Bone" and "Rasl" be offered as single issues, or in trade paperback-sized downloads? I know "Bone's" been out for a while, and at this point might be more familiar in book form...
Right. The way things function on the PSP, they will be out as single issues, but they are coming up with a bundling system if people want to buy more than one issue at a time. As much as anything on small devices, the download time is a factor.
Right, right, I would think you'd want to keep the file size small for loading, too.
Right. Exactly. [Sony has] a neat system that they've built. That's the difference between the PSP and Apple is that Sony elected to build their own ecosystem and all their own tools, and use those tools to publish comics, whereas with Apple it's more build-it-yourself. On the plus side, there's a standard that they've developed, so that once you learn one system, you know what to do.
Getting into the Sony system, then, do you send the files to them for adaptation or do you format them in advance?
They provide their proprietary tools and we adapt them. We have a production artist to do that. That includes - I can't say for sure whether this is happening with "Bone" - on some IDW books, special features like creator commentary.
Do you have a sense of whether Jeff Smith's books will have any special features like that?
I don't know yet. I can't say that for sure. He's a busy guy. I can't say for sure whether he has some audio that he could possibly incorporate, or he might be interested in doing some voice over. I doubt he'd have a voice over for the entire series. [Laughs]
Since you mentioned that the books would appear in single issue format, does this mean you'll be using black and white editions of "Bone," or will you be using the later colored versions?
I believe we'll be using the color. That's the plan so far.
And these will be priced at $.99, $1.99, or has that not yet been determined?
They'll probably be $1.99. That's where most of the content [is]. But if you buy it as a combo, you will get a discount.
Do you have a sense of when the first issues will start coming out?
If we can put it all together, we're aiming to have something ready for Comic-Con [International in San Diego]. At least an issue of "Bone" and an issue of "Rasl." Usually, you're talking about a 3-4 week delay from when we deliver content and when it's published.
How did the deal with Jeff Smith come about?
Well, we had worked together with the iPhone before, and he was interested in taking these books to new places, introducing them to new readers. We're releasing these onto the PSP under the Cartoon Books imprint. If you're a consumer coming on there, you won't see this as an IDW book, you'll it under the imprint of Cartoon Books, which is the way IDW tends to work in print a lot of times, too, like with Desperado and some different publishers we work with. So that's another benefit, that they can bring it to the device under their own brand.
At the HeroesCon panel, you mentioned that audiences for the PSP and iPhone tend to have different tastes. Do you think this is a function of the format, or of the audience for the device itself?
I think there are several reasons. One, on the PSP, they are actually marketing comic books as a category. The Playstation Store has an icon for comics, whereas on the iPhone and iPad, it's more up to all of us as publishers to get the word out. So it tends to be [the case that] on the iPad and iPhone the bigger mass market titles do well - they're recognized from movies and those kinds of things. It's difficult to get creator-based content to sell well on the iPhone and iPad. On the PSP, it seems like there are titles - "Transformers" does really well on PSP - but a lot of the indie stuff is doing just as well and sometimes better, particularly things like Ben Templesmith's "Wormwood" series, "Zombies vs. Robots," a lot of things that are sort of gamer and horror titles do well. Some kids' titles do well, too. Big-branded games don't always do as well as independently-produced games, and I think the gamer audience is more willing to look at independent content. What's nice, though, is that between the two platforms, it's nice that we can get the independent content doing well on the PSP. Another title that we are doing with Digital Manga is "Vampire Hunter D," which is a pretty successful manga title. Manga's done really well.
I know IDW was a very early adopter with Playstation Comics. I think a lot of people were surprised at how successful Playstation Comics has been, given how late the shop came in the PSP's life cycle. What led IDW to develop for the device before it was a proven platform?
Sony started coming around and talking to publishers about a year and a half ago. They were kind of aggressively coming to all of us and seeing if this was something we wanted to pursue. I think they realized that there is such a correlation between the gaming audience and comic audience. It's also the interesting that the main comic office for the PSP is out of Sony's UK office, which is actually where they do all their software development and a lot of the marketing. I think the PSP life cycle may be a little different in Europe and the UK than it is in the United States.
Just to make sure I haven't missed any, let's just run down the list of platforms and services IDW is using for digital content: I know you have iPhone apps, iPad, PSP, Graphic.ly, iVerse...
iVerse is our technology partner for the iPhone and iPad. They have different storefronts that we use - we have four different iPhone storefronts.
We also started releasing some Blackberry comics. Pricing and everything is different for the Blackberry, you have to do a higher price point. So there we sell whole graphic novels. Over the past two or three weeks, we've put out a "G.I. Joe" graphic novel, "Transformers" and "Star Trek." I don't know that we'll have the big volume with Blackberry that we do with iPhone and iPad, where we're pushing close to 500 comics. We just put some of our best titles out there and see how they perform.
We have just a handful of books that are out on the Kindle right now and more will be coming soon, as well as the Barnes & Noble Nook. We are in the midst of a project that we're starting with Nokia right now that we'll be talking about at Comic-Con. Our goal is to be on a lot of different devices, not just the Apple platform.
Anything going on with Android?
Android will be out in the summer also. Android is finally kind of coming into its own. The problem with Android initially, even though it's a nice platform, is that nobody wanted to buy content on Android, they just wanted free content. But I think Android's coming together. The good and bad of Android is that you can get a lot of different Android devices; you can have a physical keypad or super features, but that also makes them a little more difficult because you have to design for so many different things, everything's a little bit different. But Android's user base is starting to really pick up now. So that's good, it'll keep Apple on their toes.
Regarding digital content in general, in adapting comics that were originally intended for print onto new devices, I would imagine decisions have to be made about flow and other presentation issues. Are there some series that can't or should not be adapted for mobile devices?
[Laughs] There are definitely some that are really hard. I don't know that I'd say "shouldn't," but there are definitely titles that just don't read well on a small screen. Especially older books, those tend to be harder to adapt, even old "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" from the '80s. It's also much cleaner nowadays when we've just got the layered Photoshop files. But it always helps when comics have a more widescreen approach to adapt. Andy Schmidt talks about this with artists for some of the titles he edits, "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers;" he doesn't restrict creators, he doesn't say "only work within panel and never break edges," but at the same time he wants to make sure they're aware that the content is going to make it onto a digital device, to keep that in mind. When it's on the iPhone and we break it into panel-by-panel, we do actually go in and change the font sizes, sometimes do a bit of minor retouching, change the word balloons around.
Our overall goal when it's on a different device is to make people not always realize that it came from a printed page. Especially on an iPhone, it's better if they're not thinking about navigation around the page and not always reinforcing that it came from a different medium. It shouldn't feel like it was shuttled into another medium. We do also have some projects that have been done directly for digital, and others in the pipeline that will probably be happening before too long.
IDW had begun inching closer and closer to its print release dates with the digital releases, before finally announcing that most books would come out about a month after print. I know it's still pretty early, but how is this schedule working out?
It's fine, but I don't know if it's that cut and dried. The main takeaway is, whether it's a month or six weeks or what the exact dates are between issues released, we're roughly in that month timeframe. It's mostly that we're trying to stay current. We're not a year out or anything like that.
In general, [digital releases are] a month after a book comes out so that basically the next issue is in stores. I said this in the panel at HeroesCon, too - the print side of our business generates a lot more sales, a lot more revenue than digital. It's not that we want to jump ahead of the print schedule. But we've seen the information out there, for something like "Star Trek: Countdown," it really seemed like we were picking up print sales once the digital came out, and we think a lot of that happens because people get exposed [to comics] that they never otherwise would have seen.
There's a whole range of different buyers out there. On one hand, we'll hear from people that bought all the print books and they bought 'em all on the iPhone/iPad, and if they had a PSP, they're buying them there, too. Those are your hardcore fans. Then you have other folks at the other end of the scale that never even knew there were comic books for "Transformers" or "Star Trek." Those are the people who never walked into a comic shop. Hopefully we're expanding the pie by exposing the titles to a lot of people that are typical comic fans. It's kind of what the industry needs: more new readers.
I want to touch briefly on Marvel's announcement that they will be publishing "Invincible Iron Man Annual" in print and digitally on the same date. Marvel has generally been a bit more conservative with their digital schedule than IDW has. With this announcement, did this change the way IDW thinks about digital strategy at all, either by pushing internal debate in one direction or the other, or altering your own thinking about how things should be scheduled?
Not so far, because we have a schedule worked out. Just in the past week, getting back from HeroesCon, there hasn't really been a discussion about it yet. But it's certainly interesting. When you get Marvel or DC doing that kind of a thing, it's different than IDW or [another publisher] doing it. I think we're sticking to a basic time range [of about a month delay]. I'm going to be interested to see what the final fallout is on that.