While the marketplace for digital comics has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year, the web is still in its "Wild West" phase in terms of how comics are distributed, sold and shared across web sites, phones and tablets. Today, comics reading platform Graphicly is announcing changes to its distribution model along with a redesigned website at Graphicly.com focusing on an embedable model that allows readers to share any books in the Graphicly library across web platforms like blogs, social media sites and more.
Micah Baldwin, CEO of Graphicly, spoke to CBR News first about the changes explaining that the new version of the network (which already holds books from publishers like Marvel, Top Cow, BOOM! Studios, Archaia and more) came as a growth of the model they've already built rather than a wholesale revision of their system. "The redesign, which we call a redesign and an evolution, is really the beginning of what we've been talking about since the very beginning. We've talked about a lot of things as we've been a comic book reader with a little bit of social media, but this takes it up to the next level," Baldwin said.
"We started in 2009 with an eye on being 'the iTunes for comics' and trying to work with every single publisher. Our added benefit was that we had the social component as well as a downloadable app. We went forth saying that we were literally following the iTunes model. What became evident over the year, or I guess it's been years now, is that while that business is really interesting and something we do well at, it's just the tip of the iceberg of what we could do with the storytelling world. We started to add back features and bonus content and commentary and interactive panels, and we saw a huge uptick of people using them and like that material. The social component was another piece that people really took to."
Baldwin said the choice to redesign came at the hands of new technology which enabled the platform to meet two specific needs for the comics community. "One is that there are a lot of really good storytellers – tons and tons of great creators and some of which you've never heard of because they don't work for Marvel and DC. But the other thing we discovered is that there are tons of fans who really want to talk to creators and discover new content. Our new focus is around that.
"Rather than being the iTunes for comics – which if you've seen Apple's announcement this week, they want to do that themselves for all publications – we want to be more of a YouTube for comics and storytelling. Anybody can now load up content to our system. It's all reviewed and curated by the community as well as us. And then, just like YouTube, you can take any comic that's in our system and embed it just like you can with a video in any blog, Facebook or anywhere else you'd want to put it. Essentially, any place you can see a YouTube video, you can see one of our comics." An example of an embedded comic can be seen below.
The move won't change the functionality of the Graphicly Apps that users may have already downloaded, but it will expand the potential for what readers can do with Graphicly on the web. "Our Android App right now is the one that probably fits the closest to the web environment. It's the most feature-rich. We have doubled down pretty hard on HTML5 in our believe that we need to offer an experience that isn't locked down to an App Store. With that, you'll be able to read any of our comics on any device. We're leaving it up to the user and the storyteller as to where they want to put the content."
From today forward, Graphicly has opened its site to be "pitched to" by any number of publishers or solo creators hoping to allow their comics to connect with readers on their own terms. "Every publisher and creator will have complete control over their own project," Baldwin explained. "For example, if a creator decides that they don't want their content shared – Marvel does this through a fractured strategy where they work with different partners on different platforms – they'll be able to restrict what platforms it's going to be on. But our process is a two-tiered process where we first check ourselves that the submission is not heavy porn or copyrighted material. The second process is where the community itself curates the content to let the best stuff bubble up. It'll be going through a review process once it's on the site. People can see books and review them, and once they achieve a certain level, they'll enter into our promotional engine. Up until then, it'll be the creator's job to promote their own content."
The interface of the new embedded content will work much like video sites have operated in recent years, the CEO explained. "To start with, there will be a full experience where you can go full screen, read it panel-to-panel or page-to-page or bounce it within the widget or out of the widget. And then very rapidly, we'll be introducing multiple sizing, so there can be a lot of customization so people can have a lot of control. Vimeo is a good example of how that works where they allow for a lot of control over the look and feel of the widget once it gets embedded. In essence, we want to provide as much functionality as possible in the simplest package possible."
Part of the reason to rethink the model of a digital comics provider came with the fact that many publishers like Dark Horse have moved to a model where they own their own Apps to sell comics through rather than providing content to third party companies. "For us, we said there's two options," Baldwin said of the change. "We could compete in the marketplace and battle with even the publishers themselves, which is a version of what happens now, OR we could make a product that we felt enhances what they're doing. In no way does this concept take away from what Dark Horse wants to do. In fact, if I was Dark Horse, I'd be very serious about wanting to use this widget around thing around movies and other kinds of digital content. The readers they have now will continue to do what they do best: to be readers and to provide that content to people. What we want to do is enhance that content.
Launch content on Graphicly.com includes the company's previous slate of books as well as new embedable offerings from Platinum Studios as well as Top Cow and Milo Ventimiglia's "Rest." Baldwin explained that the platform's next ramp up will be around hotspot technology for publishers to make their content more interactive. "Basically you'll be able to touch anywhere on the screen and have something occur – video or audio or what have you," he said. "We've been talking to people about the idea that you'd be able to click on a character and get either a small video about who they are or a mini book about them or a game to play. All of those are coming, and in the next month you'll see non-traditional comic book people to utilize the Graphicly format to tell an extended story.
"For us, the last six months have been amazing. More than a book a minute is getting downloaded on our system. We've doubled users over the last several months, and that continues to grow. It's clear to us that people love story and that they want more than the digital representation of print. They want to discuss it and share it, and it's clear in our minds that the way that every person who ever got into comics in the history of mankind did it because one person handed it to another person and said 'Check this out.' That's what we're doing here."