HeroesCon: Runton and Staros on "Owly's" Kindle Debut

Top Shelf announced this weekend at HeroesCon that Andy Runton's "Owly," the friendly all-ages title featuring forest animals speaking in pictograms, would mark the publisher's first entry into the Amazon Kindle marketplace. The first five volumes of "Owly" are now available on Amazon's ebook reader for $4.00 each, and a Kindle edition of the 2008 Free Comic Book Day issue can be puchased for $.99. CBR News spoke with Runton and Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros about the release.

Staros credited Runton and Van Jensen with initiating the Kindle adaptation, explaining that, along with "Surrogates" writer Rob Venditti, this group makes up the Atlanta, Georgia, contingent of Top Shelf, while another group headed by Brett Warnock and Leigh Walton operates out of Portland, Oregon. "Andy has been not only a cartoonist but was always sort of an insider as to the inner workings of the business side of Top Shelf," Staros said. "When we go to conventions, we're always in the car together shooting ideas around. We eat dinners together, stay at the hotels together, he definitely knows the insides and outs of how the publishing company works. And Andy is a graphic designer by nature, and a computer scientist by nature, so he's very handy with those sorts of things. In addition to being an amazing storyteller, he's always been the consigliere of sorts when it comes to doing digital technology stuff."

For his part, Runton said that he's "a big fan of technology and little gizmos." "It's kind of a passion of mine. In my former life, I was an interface designer, so I love seeing art on anything electronic. I'm fascinated with all the interface elements and all of the little pieces that make interacting with them so cool," the cartoonist said. "As soon as I saw the Kindle, I wanted to see 'Owly' on it. I was really busy, though, so I put it on the back burner. Last October, we were on our way to SPX in Bethesda and I think Van mentioned it. Before we knew it, we were looking into publishing for the Kindle."

The cartoonist continued describing how his passions for art and technology come together in the Kindle. "One part of me just loves customizing new technology. I think that comes from my previous experience with designing icons for the Mac," Runton said. "It's just really fun to see your work come alive on these little devices. I used to make custom backgrounds and icons for my Newton and now I do the same for my iPhone. I just want to make it personal. And then the cartoonist part of me loves to draw and tell stories, so I was able to bring these two parts of my personality together. Having all of the 'Owly' books on the Kindle is an extension of that."

Staros said that, since the late 1990s, there had been rumblings that ebooks were just over the horizon, but until the Kindle and iPhone there had not really been a viable platform. "I remember for the last decade, ebook companies have been coming up and putting contracts on my desk saying, 'we're ready to take over the ebook world.' And I'd ask, what's the business model, what do you plan on generating, and are you paying any advances? Are you putting your money where your mouth is on this? And it was always no, no, no," the publisher said. "You could tell there wasn't really anything being generated out there as far as sales go to make that ebook model work in a practical sense, so I was always hesitant to pull the trigger to make these things happen.

"In the last couple years, it's obvious there's a critical mass hitting the ebookish kind of world via the Kindle and, possibly even more importantly, via the iPhone. All of a sudden, you're seeing a ton of developers popping up offering very similar services, trying to get the same market through there, and you're starting to see real numbers being generated for Kindle and the iPhone," Staros continued. "It's obvious that now is the time. And it is a big goal of Top Shelf's by the end of the year to have several products on the Kindle and several products on the iPhone." He added that some series and formats may be developed in house while others would be licensed to other vendors. "The Surrogates," in particular, will see an iPhone release through iVerse media in conjunction with the upcoming movie.

Runton said that he would also like to get "Owly" onto the iPhone, but "some platforms take a bit longer to really figure out." "Once we looked into it, we realized the Kindle platform is relatively easy to understand... or so we thought. It took quite a bit of trial and error to get everything working," he said. "The cool thing is that because of my close relationship with Top Shelf, we'll now be able to apply that knowledge to as many books in the Top Shelf catalog as we can."

As to whether future "Owly" volumes would be released simultaneously in print and on the Kindle, Runton said that this was certainly possible. "There's no reason why not. In fact, because the books don't have to be physically printed and distributed, the Kindle books could theoretically be released before the physical books," he added. "That's something that Chris and Brett would have to decide, though." Runton hopes to have a sixth volume of "Owly" ready in 2010.

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