Blank Slate's Kenny Penman on going digital with Panel Nine

Today Panel Nine launches Sequential, a storefront app that will make available digital editions of several publishers from the current U.K. renaissance in graphic novel publishing, including Blank Slate, Knockabout and Myriad Editions, with others set to follow.

I always think of Blank Slate Publisher Kenny Penman as one of the great patrons of the comic arts. One of the world's most successful comics retailers, his love of the medium has led him into also becoming one of its most innovative publishers. He's also not shy with his opinions. Recalling some distinctly anti-digital comments from him on Twitter, I asked him about his change of heart, and how going digital can only help spread the word about the great work coming out of the United Kingdom.

Robot 6: Didn't you used to be rather anti-digital? What convinced you otherwise?

Kenny Penman: In truth, personally, as a comics reader, I am still fairly squarely anti-digital. I think almost all comics are better read in the hand, and whilst I acknowledge that software is improving and there is, in fact, little need to be tied to historical formatting of comics, in my head they are still (simplifying things) six- or nine-panel grids that work best in a format that has long served them well. It's not really about me, though, and I have come to realize that I actually owe it to the artists who work with Blank Slate to make their work available in a format which is gradually becoming a real option for many people as their reading format of choice. There's also the hope that it will be an extra revenue generator for us and the artists and that can only be a good thing.

To get into publishing, you have to start as something of a bibliophile, right?

Yeah, I've pretty much always been a big reader. I wish I could say it was well-rounded but it has mainly been comics with a slight addiction to crime thrillers -- it's pretty much Cliff notes for most other stuff. I am a big collector of graphic novels and books about comics -- I've got well in excess of 5,000 now -- although a lot are packed away in boxes as my flat is to small to contain them. I still get a great thrill out of new books, though; just love the look and feel of them. Always have.

How much of Blank Slate's back catalog will be available digitally?

Eventually I would think all of it, but for now only five or six titles. There are some issues with foreign material, as mostly our deals originated prior to digital being much of anything. I would think we will get to most of them in time though.

When will the stuff be available? All from the launch date?

This is really in the hands of Panel Nine. I think the plan is to have five titles ready for launch.

And why've you gone with this Panel Nine platform over its competitors?

Russell [Willis] spent time and effort to come and see me and I liked him on a person-to-person level. He demonstrated the software and even I could see it was a step ahead of anything else around at the time (not sure if that is still the case or not). The art element showed very well, the load times were almost non-existent; all in all, it just seemed to work -- very well. Also the contracts we have signed are very flexible, which gives me a lot of reassurance, and Russel, l whilst he is also a pretty successful businessman (and clearly Panel Nine has a business element) you can see that he just loves comics. To some extent we have come to comics publishing in the same way - from a deep love of the medium and not from a strategized commercial route. Best of all I like the long-term aim of making Sequential into a one-stop shop for comics of a certain type and the prospect it can become like a Criterion Collection for the comics fan, with some exciting sounding enhanced editions in the works.

I'm always trying to put U.K. books in front of international readers. Digital publishing has got to be a great way to achieve this. Is this the goal? There's a generation of talent working here at the minute who really deserve a wider audience.

I totally agree with that: U.K. and many other European artists are producing some tremendous work. Digital clearly works for some -- witness John Allison parlaying his online strips into a deal with Oni. I still want to print books, and hopefully digital will be an adjunct which spreads the artist's name. Once they build their own market they can probably go of and maybe be their own digital publishers and hopefully make more money than what they get working with micro-publisher like Blank Slate.

What do you feel about digital yourself? Do you consume comics via it -- in an active, paid-for way, or just whatever is free on the web.? Do you see your future reading staying predominantly paper or will it be a share? If it is a share, do you see yourself paying for the content? I think Panel Nine and Sequential have some great ideas and I hope they work. If it can make digital comics "special" and not just a commodity or freebie, then I am right behind them.

Well, as a general rule, you don't get into my profession (of librarianship) without being a bibliophile, too. In fact, that's one of the reasons why I've loved what you were doing at Blank Slate right from your first releases: taking such care with the finished product, making lovely editions with spot varnishes, French flaps, all the stuff book lovers are suckers for. I'm a great believer in digital distribution, mainly because of my own consuming habits. If I hear a great track by a new band, I want to go and download it straight away, no matter what time it is. I want the same option for comics, too. I think it'll be great that someone could take a look at a few preview pages of Nelson (say, maybe at our parent site, right now) at 11 one night, and then be reading the whole book five minutes later. There'll always be a place for the well-curated retail experience, but in the middle of the night, maybe after a couple of beers, it's hard to beat instant gratification.

Right from the start of Blank Slate, there's been a place there for great translations of some outstanding foreign language works. I love Mawil's books, and Sleepyheads and Hector Umbra. I hope getting those titles into digital form doesn't involve prohibitive re-negotiations with licensors, because the proselytizer in me wants lots of people to see those books and fall in love with them, too.

You have made me gird my loins and approach getting them new digital contracts!

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