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Digital December: Fantagraphics and Getting On The Digital Train

The bulk of the conversation about digital comics, both here and elsewhere, have largely revolved around the Big Two of Marvel and DC Comics, other mainstream publishers, and indie comics, in that order. Mostly absent from the conversation have been publishers like Fantagraphics: companies that make handsome, well-designed books that do not necessarily appeal to the bulk of the Direct Market. A publisher with the stature and catalog of Fantagraphics being that quiet on the digital issue is interesting, so we reached out to Eric Reynolds, Associate Publisher at Fantagraphics books, about their digital plans.


ComicsAlliance: Since Fantagraphics has been pretty quiet in terms of digital comics over the past year, I want to start with the biggest question on everyone’s minds. What are Fantagraphics’ digital plans? Do you have an average, or maximum, price point in mind for your digital books?


Eric Reynolds
: Our digital plans are still very much in the formative stages. I’m not going to lie; we’ve definitely been slow to move on the digital front, but not for a lack of interest. In fact, I’ve really enjoyed your interviews on the subject [in Digital December], especially the one with Chip Mosher. We’ve been paying close attention for the past year or more and have been slowly developing a strategy, exploring all of the various third party apps out there, and playing with most of them.

We’ll likely go that route before you see a dedicated Fantagraphics app; I’d prefer to see us take a more diversified approach, working with several different partners. We’ve had talks with several folks. The iPad was a big tipping point for me in believing that we’ve come to the point where the technology is ready to service demand for digital delivery of comics.

I anticipate we’ll have some announcements to make in 2011.

I don’t have a firm price point in mind, exactly, but my gut tells me that $1.99 is about as high as we’d want to go for the digital equivalent of a standard comic book. But one big question for me, as a company that primarily publishes books, is how much of a market there is yet for entire books in digital form rather than the periodical model that’s largely driven things thus far.

CA: Fantagraphics has published a mix of Eurocomics, children’s comics, indie comix, art comics, and several other types of books over the years. Are you going to focus on one specific area or types of books of your line to push out digitally, and then expand into other areas or types of books once you’re established in the new marketplace?

ER:
This is one of the big questions. Our backlist is massive, with hundreds of books. Which ones to roll out digitally has been an important question. For me, it’s less a question of whether we focus on Eurocomics, all ages comics, etc., but rather which comics — regardless of what category they fall into — will lend themselves to a digital experience. Without citing specific examples, I do believe some books and comics lend themselves towards the digital format more than others.

We place a lot of value on the aesthetics of book packaging and design on top of the actual content, and digital delivery is never going to fully replicate that fetishistic love of a well-printed and packaged book. So I still have some concerns about the aesthetic experience of reading our books on a screen. I realize that digital comics are here to stay at this point, even as they continue to evolve, and so I know it’s something we have to address but I don’t simply want to do it for the sake of it, for whatever financial windfall there may be. I want the material to be as well-served as it is in book form, if that’s possible. It’s only been in the past year that I’ve seen that potential approach reality.

CA: As a side effect of such a varied line, Fantagraphics undoubtedly has to negotiate with several creators and rights holders before they can begin their digital roll-out. Is this causing a certain amount of difficulty for you, or have you found that most people are in favor of turning their works into digital comics? Have there been any unexpected pitfalls or stumbling blocks?

ER: Not really, this is a very minor concern. Some authors invariably don’t want digital editions of their books and frankly, I can completely respect that. We have plenty of books and comics to choose from and no matter how fast we begin offering digital comics, it will be a long time until we’ve dried up the well of material to choose from.

CA: Where does Fantagraphics stand on ownership and digital comics? Is purchasing a digital comic a license to read it, or do you own the file the same way you own a printed comic book?

ER
: At this point, I think it has to be a licensing relationship.

CA: Would you consider digital-only releases or previews of longer works? Like short, free digital releases of work by Ivan Brunetti, for example?

ER: This is a possibility. I think in some cases, some larger books, especially anthologies or collections of short stories, could be better served digitally by being broken down into smaller pieces.

CA: There are several hundred volumes of The Comics Journal. Are you planning to offer archival online releases, or digital releases of the new format for TCJ?

ER: I think this is definitely a possibility and would make a lot of sense.

CA: There are a few obvious benefits to the iPad in particular, but I’m curious. What specifically does that platform have that mobile platforms or computer-based reading do not have?

ER: Well, in addition to the large, well-proportioned color screen, I think the portability factor is key: being able to snuggle up with it on the couch and let it sit in your lap, more or less like a book. Even a traditional laptop lacks this comfort factor.

CA: Since Fantagraphics mainly publishes complete books, would projects be reformatted to fit a more comfortable (shorter) digital reading experience? Meaning, you would release the massive Love & Rockets collections in three or four parts, depending on page count/price/etc, rather than one monster volume? If so, is that an area where Fantagraphics would be able to replicate some of the intricate design of your print books?

ER
: I’m not sure about replicating the design, but yes, I do think reformatting is a possibility. With the [Hernandez] Bros, for example, you could break [Love and Rockets] down into complete stories regardless of page count.

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