Digital Comics from the Academy?

Welcome back to the Comic Book Publishing Follies. I understand a lot of you are recovering from San Diego, but for the rest of you (like myself) who are busy working, we've got the real scoop on a new Digital Comics venture that just launched last week, including a few things to look for. What's weird about this start-up? It's being launched out of a business incubator at New York University, where it won a business plan competition at NYU's Stern MBA program. So without further ado, let's cut to an interview with Iconology's John D. Roberts, a man whose work you may be familiar with, but not realize it.

Publishing Follies: What is Iconology and how much is currently rolled out?

John D. Roberts: The purpose of Iconology is to provide software solutions for Comic enthusiasts, retailers and publishers. So far, the iCOS widget is out, and now the companion website.

PF: So currently, it's more of an interactive shopping list, then?

JDR: Currently, it is an interactive pull list, which allows you to compile a list of items you want, so when you get to the store you can remember to buy them. The next step is to allow users to send that info directly to their local retailers, so all the user has to do is go pick it up.

PF: Would retailer integration be part of an emerging revenue model for you?

JDR: Yes. Predictive modeling, pull list management, etc... The idea is to get the DB as complete as possible, so users can decide what they want up to 4 months out (based on Diamond's order forms) retailers can then use that info to help organize their orders.

PF: When you say predictive modeling, you're talking about sales trends?

JDR: Well, you know that issue #1 always has a higher order then #s 2, 3, 4. This happens because the retailer doesn't know how #2 will do. This way if enough users add #2 to their lists, they know to order more.

PF: Several years back, the New York Times used to cull their best seller list from a small number of stores, such that there were a few occasions of authors discovering which store was being audited on a given week and sneaking onto the list by buying a lot of copies at that store. What safeguards do you have to keep starry-eyed creators from attempting to inflate their pre-order status?

JDR: The user has to have a relationship with the retailer. You're familiar with the pull list system right?

PF: Right. So the projections will only be based on actual pulls?

JDR: Yeah, in order for the pulls to count the user has to set up an agreement with the retailer.

PF: Now for this to be a revenue stream you'd be providing the integration to the individual retailers?

JDR: Yes.

PF: When do you see that rolling out?

JDR: We have a retailer who's on our board of advisors, so we're working with him to develop the tools. My two partners will be in San Diego for the con talking to retailers.

PF: Q4?

JDR: Probably.

PF: Interesting. Now I know you've been working on digitally distributed comic books for a number of years. Is that in the cards?

JDR: Nothing is being ruled out.

PF: Ah, but the NYU/Stern website says its part of your business plan. Come clean, now.

JDR: Heh... this is your pet story, and I do have the experience, as you well know.

PF: Perhaps you should outline your background a bit for the readers. You've been hiding behind the curtains for a long time, now.

JDR: Ok, I was hired by Bill Jemas back in 2000 to develop online comics for Marvel, which was known as dotComics.

PF: If I remember right, you were there through roughly 2002, at which point you went freelance and started developing your own platform.

JDR: Yes, http://www.bebopdp.com which I worked on in conjunction with Kwanza of all people. And used on Jim Krueger's website.

PF: That would be DC Comics Web editor, Kwanza Johnson, formerly of "Marvel Dog" fame. Is Kwanza currently involved in Comixology?

JDR: Kwanza is not currently involved with Comixology, other then being the best man at my wedding.

PF: Now one thing that immediately makes Comixology a little different from recent comics venture is its award-winning status. Could you speak to your NYU award?

JDR: My two partners, David Steinberger and Peter Jaffe are students of the Stern Business School at NYU (Peter has since graduated). Stern has a "business plan competition," so David asked me if I wanted to take the iCOS widget (this was about a year ago) and develop a business plan around it and enter it in the competition. So I agreed, and during the process of developing the business plan I came up with the idea of the website, mainly to avoid developing a PC version of the widget, also to allow people who were using the widget at multiple locations to store and transfer their info from point to point. Plus I had been working on this massive database of comic book info, and I wanted to see if I could utilize it for other purposes.

PF: So the general idea is to integrate the database, pull list and widgets to create portable interactive content?

JDR: The general idea is to provide comic enthusiasts with the information they need each week to decide what they are going to buy. The whole thing started because I would get to the store and had forgotten what I wanted to buy. Then retailers started asking if they could have access to that info and one thing is leading to another.

PF: Any plans for content not based on upcoming releases (and indexing back issues)?

JDR: Yes. Ideally, I'd love for this DB to quintessential source for Comic book info. I have plans to import all the Diamond Shipping lists as far back as 1999 (I believe) and to set up an interface for trusted users to help supply item information ala Wikipedia.

PF: Any thoughts on the viability of original digital comics as paid downloads vs. paid downloads of print books?

JDR: With the success of iTunes, music, TV and movie downloads, original digital comics are extremely viable. Digital comic companions to their print versions allows for readers to have their "bagged" version and a version they can read as many times as they want.

PF: And when did you say you were expanding into digital comics?

JDR: Very slick

PF: We try.

JDR: There are things I cannot comment on at this time, don't want to put ideas in peoples heads. All I'll say is keep an eye on the site.

PF: So as part of your winning the business plan competition at NYU, I see you're on the receiving end of a lot of probono advice, and not just legal. How's that working out?

JDR: We won a nice cash prize, a lot of which went to pay for the incorporation of Iconology Inc. and trademarking comiXology™. Also to pay for all the legalese used on the site.

PF: And where should interested parties look for you?

JDR: The easiest way to reach me is via the comiXology website.

In case you were wondering, you can read a bit more about the Stern business plan competition, where the winners split $150,000 in cash and consulting services here and here. And yes, it does say "and soon purchase digital comics." Remember, Stern is known as a finance school, not a strategy school, and they let that cat out of the bag in two press releases. (And yes, I did take coursework at Stern in my grad school days, so I can talk.) John, however, is about as old school as you can get with digital downloads, so keep an eye peeled.

Giving a Reading, Not Just a Signing

Ever been to a comic book reading? Not a signing, but an actual reading? Many prose authors will get up a read a few pages of their book before signing copies. With comics, you don't see this so often. Not too long ago, Chicago's famous BookSlut had some comic people in her reading series and one of them, Nick Bertozzi gave an honest-to-goodness reading of his graphic novel, "The Salon." "How did he do that?" you might ask, and "Was it any good?"

Bertozzi got a little tricky with this. He converted the graphic novel into a Flash application and projected it onto a screen by way of a laptop and a digital projector. This involves a bit of work, but as long as you have a projector, you could dummy up something similar in PowerPoint. So the panels would pop up on the screen, Bertozzi would read them in funny voices and so it proceeded for roughly the first third of the book. Was it effective? It convinced me. I liked the product enough to part with my hard-earned money, so I'd have to say, yes.

You may not always have the physical set-up to do this at a signing, but if you do, I'd highly recommend "borrowing" Bertozzi's format. It makes the event a little more memorable for the audience and you might just end up selling some more comics.

And as long as we're talking about "The Salon," we should mention the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The Free Comic Book Day preview copy was what set off that fiasco down in Georgia. While it is absolutely not Bertozzi's fault that somebody gave a copy of a comic with a nude scene to a child (as a parent, he's very upset about that), he's still feeling guilt pangs and we'll pass along his request for donations to the CBLDF, which is footing the bill for the defense in that trial.

Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see http://www.BusinessOfContent.com. Todd even did a webcomic. Sort of.

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