Standardization, Experience, Community: E-publishing (From a Comics Perspective)

By:  Adrienne Nunez
Adrienne is a multi-media artist and current MFA student at The Center for Cartoon Studies.

With support from the Center for Cartoon Studies, I was recently able to attend the 2011 IDPF Digital Book Conference.  This was a small part of the larger Book Expo America where e-book industry leaders gave updates on the status of the digital book industry.  Attendees included representatives from publishing houses both large and small; some independent authors; and the occasional multi-media type (audio book, interactive tech folks, etc.)   We were all gathered to hear the latest news about ePUB3, innovation in digital book design, as well as distribution and marketing.

IDPF introduces their newest version of ebook publishing, EPUB3

For folks that are unfamiliar, the current e-book industry is a confusing mess of data and devices thrown into a traditional business model that leaves the industry fairly inaccessible to creators. This mess is getting cleaned up a bit with the development, and advocacy of EPUB.  EPUB is a file package format that allows for cross-platform re-flow of e-book data.  With growing acceptance of this format as an industry standard, EPUB will likely be (and in some places, already is) the key to distribution through major channels.  For example, to date, if you intend to self-publish your book through Barnes and Noble, the data must be in EPUB format. EPUB3 (the most up-to-date version, set to be released later this year,) was introduced and explored at the conference.  With increased support for highly visual content, fixed layout, and interactive media, EPUB3 should open the industry to many more participants including folks like us: comics creators!

The increased support of various media within the EPUB package as well as the growing acceptance of EPUB as an industry standard, are helping to redefine “the book.”  At various points throughout the Digital Book Conference, the idea of “book as experience” was presented.  This concept was backed up with examples of interactive and multi-media elements added to e-books in order to create a “unique user experience.”  The emphasis in these presentations was on making stories more accessible (for example, through audio for the visually handicapped) or enhancing a story (adding authors notes/commentary) and all to better market the experience rather than a story.  Although I am excited about the possibilities of various media employed in digital storytelling, and fully support the rethinking of the concept of “the book”; I would argue that authors, artists, and specifically comics creators have always considered the “experience” of their narratives! From concept to design to style to distribution, comics are intrinsically multi-media and experiential from start to finish and beyond.

Media rights manager, Sandy Schechter & comics historian/cartoonist Craig Yoe

(both have also donated books to the Schulz Library!)

It is this new landscape-the territory after the finished piece-that is one of the biggest challenges for the traditional publishing model.  Every role in this industry is being redefined, new positions are being created, and new business models are appearing.  The most popular business/marketing/distribution concept presented at the conference: Community.  This is, no doubt, stemming from the use of social media devices and digital communities to quickly and effectively promote, distribute, and market content, ideas, and product.  Again, this concept is old news to comics creators!  Our conventions and clubs have allowed us the means to support one another creatively, financially, legally, politically, and personally for quite some time.  As well, independent digital comics publishers/distributors have been utilizing convention community as well as digital community to create a market.

A handful of these entrepreneurs are weaving “community” elements like creator and consumer commentary, criticizism, and fan art; into applications designed specifically for the distribution of digital comics material.  By employing applications and in-house content coding/packaging rather than adhering to EPUB standardization, these new businesses are able to explore interactive media and new ways of storytelling. These independents, operating on the fringe of mainstream distribution channels, retain an extensive amount of control over content display, distribution, and marketing but seem to be very much reliant upon the community as market.  Because the focus of the conference was on promoting EPUB as an industry standard, there was little mention of applications and even less of the comics-or should I say, “graphic novel”-industry.

All of this brings about a slew of concerns and hopes for the future of digital comics. First and foremost, will the continued development of independent applications and community (niche)-oriented digital comics markets distance comics from book-books?  Will this serve only to deepen the imaginary divide between comics readers and graphic novel readers?  By participating in these communities are we not inadvertently erasing the hard work of our forefathers and mothers whom raised comics to be socially accepted as literary and artistic objects?  Some digital comics publishers are charging very high percentages for sales, higher than large book distributors, what will happen as we continue to apply capitalism to our valued support community?  How will we expand our readership if we do not participate in the movement to standardize?  How do we reach folks outside of our community without participating?  What is the solution for file sharing and piracy?

With all these questions come exciting possibilities!  Digital may be a way for us to continue the efforts of the generations before us by making our creative content accessible to many different people, globally.  As EPUB is essentially a package of web-coded content (generally html & CSS,) this could be a solution for web-comics creators to see some financial return.   Because Adobe and other companies are working to simplify the data packaging process, the industry is opening up to more and more creators.  In addition, digital provides an opportunity to sell shorter items like strips and comic short stories without having to package in anthologies or collections.   All of this digital may give physical books and artisan books an added value.  The change in the industry will provide new jobs requiring different skill-sets and open the overall market.  And (Richard Nash got me thinking) perhaps it is time to redefine copyright and business strategy based upon copyright.  Oh, the questions and possibilities!

Overall, the Digital Book Conference seemed focused on helping publishers to successfully adapt to a new and unknown model.  Nonetheless, attending the seminars and discussing various issues with a multitude of attendees has certainly fueled my excitement for the future of digital publishing and raised my awareness of key issues in the industry.  Although I personally adhere to the standardization of e-book packaging overall and specifically in regards to the distribution of comics to a larger audience, I also support the innovative development and distribution of comics through applications.  I am proud to be a part of the larger comics community from which various creators and distributors have laid the groundwork for a new publishing industry focused on accessible content, reader experience, and progressive business models.  As the publishing world is in the midst of change, the comics community leads the way!

For further investigation:

International Digital Publishing Forum
The creators of EPUB.
Transcriptions of seminars from the 2011 Digital Book Conference will be available here in the coming weeks.

Richard Nash
Encouraging radical change in publishing.
Revolutionary new cross-platform comics application/
publisher/distributor/community.   Truly shaping the new publishing environment.

I didn’t mention Blurb in the post, but stay tuned for this print-to-order publisher to be releasing a streamlined EPUB creator focused on highly visual content.

One of Adrienne Nunez’s own digital comics with a feel for the physical.

This article was written by Adrienne Nunez. Adrienne is a multi-media artist and current MFA student at The Center for Cartoon Studies.

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2 Responses to Standardization, Experience, Community: E-publishing (From a Comics Perspective)

  1. I wonder if epub 3 will be taking image into consideration. From what I’ve seen epub is designed with text in mind and not nice crisp images. Also I would love it if eInk tech was a bit more hires for the above reasons

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