SDCC ’11 | Top Shelf goes digital

Top Shelf announced yesterday that it is going digital, starting out by making over 70 of its graphic novels available via the Comics+ app, which is powered by iVerse. Prices range from 99 cents to $9.99 for an assortment of graphic novels, including Andy Runton's Owly, James Kochalka's Johnny Boo, Jeff Lemire's Essex County, and Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole.

This announcement raised all sorts of questions in our minds, and fortunately, Chris Ross, Top Shelf's director of digital publishing, was here to explain it all to us. Read on for lots more info, including the answer to the burning question "Will we ever see Lost Girls on digital?" as well as whether they will do same-day print and digital releases.

Robot 6: Why did you choose to go with iVerse over the other distributors?

Chris Ross: Actually, our initial offering is with iVerse, but we're planning on using many distributors over the next few months. They were the first to approach us, so they're the first one out the gate.

Robot 6: Did you consider doing your own Top Shelf app? If so, why did you decide against it?

Chris: We have and we will. We'll be creating two apps in 2011—a company branded app and a kid's club app.

Robot 6: Have you considered other modes of digital such as Kindle, Nook, or direct download?

Chris: Right now, we offer two books, (Veeps and Voice of the Fire) through Amazon Kindle, Nook Store, Apple's iBooks, and Google Editions. We also offer the first four Owly's and some FCBD titles on the Kindle. One problem is the Kindle (the most popular ebook platform) isn't designed to be a great platform for reading comics, so any solution is a shoehorned solution and there are more issues than fixes. It's really unfortunate because Amazon has been an awesome company to work with, and we're really looking forward to their solution to comic creation.

Apple is unique in that the implementation of ePub via iBooks can be altered, or at least their alteration/mod of the ePub specification (fixed-content ePub) is sort of the temporary lifesaver for comics. Right now, we plan to roll out Kid's Club children's books via iBooks within the next few weeks.

We'll also be offering our books via Google Editions.

Our basic goal is to have every book we possibly can available through as many channels as possible. There might by technical limitations, or social limitations, or creator limitations, but that's where we're headed.

Robot 6: How much of your catalog is available digitally as of today?

Chris: 70+ new titles via iVerse, with two titles via our ebook partners.

Our plan is to have everything we are able to have available up and running by the end of summer. That includes backlist and Out of Print stuff that we still have rights to publish.

Robot 6: Do you plan on making it all available eventually? Are there books you would not release digitally?

Chris: We would love to make everything available, but we also want to make sure our authors are comfortable with a digital release, and that our content partners realize that we're a publisher that publishes books ranging from Owly to Lost Girls, from Okie Dokie Doughnuts to Chester 5000, from Blankets to Lucille. The only books I foresee us not publishing digitally are books where the creator has asked for us to wait, or where we don't have the digital rights (like if we licensed the print-only North American rights on a foreign edition).

Robot 6: Some of the books on the app are pretty new, such as Nate Powell’s Any Empire. Do you have any plans to release to digital the same day a book goes into print?

Chris: Yes we are. The plan forward is to do day-and-date releases of print and digital on all future titles.

Robot 6: How do you determine the prices of the books?

Chris: Usually we start with the list price of the physical book, and then remove distribution and physical book considerations, and we talk about what the lowest price we can see selling a book for, what are prices competitively for long-form graphic novels, and try to get to the lowest price we are comfortable with. This will be an evolving thing, of course, as the whole world of pricing structures is in flux. But the nice thing is that prices are easy to change in the digital world.

Robot 6: Apps like Comics+ bring in readers who are already reading comics, but Top Shelf books have a wider appeal—it’s easy to envision a lover of fiction who doesn't think of herself as a comics reader picking up a Top Shelf book. Are you doing anything to promote the digital books to those readers?

Chris: Our first big push digitally, after we settle our catalog via iVerse and our other partners, will be our kid's club, children's book initiative. We have so many people come up to us at conventions saying that they love Owly, that they love Johnny Boo, and asking when they can get those books on their iPad for their kids. Right now, Apple has cornered the market for digital children's books in that 1) they're relatively inexpensive and 2) Because printing considerations aren't taken into account, they can be experimental and flexible in terms of form. We're also seeing a lot more parents reading to their children via an iPad or other touch devices.

Robot 6: You have kids’ comics like Owly, Korgi, and Johnny Boo alongside some fairly sophisticated adult comics. Do you have any plans to market your children’s books separately, perhaps in a comics for kids type app?

Chris Ross:Yes, we will have a KIDS CLUB app that will be specifically designed to only feature our all-ages material. And our Top Shelf app will be for mature audiences that'll carry all our titles (mature reader, and the all-ages ones as well). So, this way all readers can have access to our books.

Robot 6: At the other end of the scale, will we ever see Lost Girls on digital?

Chris Ross:Absolutely. It may not initially be released via iTunes, but via other channels to get it to people who want it.

Robot 6: Do you have plans for any specials, bundles, or promotions in the near future?

Chris Ross: Right now, no, but we do con specials, yearly round-up specials, etc. We'll probably do something like that again in the future through our digital initiative.

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