Since the release of the Kindle, Amazon’s popular digital reading device, a few publishers have started to experiment with converting their comics to Kindle editions. But while the recently released and upgraded Kindle 2 offers an improved design and a better screen experience—unlike the first Kindle, the Kindle 2 offers a 16 tone grayscale screen—reading comics on the device is not an altogether enjoyable experience.
Comics on the Kindle 2 can look dim and small; word balloons are often difficult to read even when enlarged—indeed the Kindle’s zoom and enlarge feature is often inadequate. Nevertheless, while the publishers PWCW spoke with had varying degrees of success converting their comics to the Kindle, they all stressed the importance of carefully examining and understanding the kindle digital format, emphasizing that the device and its technology will likely improve in the future. “At this point, it’s just to learn what it takes to get these books into the format under the assumption that the technology will get better,” said Neil DeYoung from Hachette’s Digital Media Group. “When that does happen and the market is ready, we’ll already have the chops needed.”
Hachette’s graphic novel imprint Yen Press has released at least two titles in Kindle editions, James Patterson’s bestselling teen fantasy adventure series, Maximum Ride, illustrated by NaRae Lee, and The World of Quest by Jason Kruse. DeYoung emphasized that while sales of the Kindle editions were unimpressive, “that’s not the purpose though, we’re just testing.” Audry Taylor of California-based original manga publisher Go! Comi, which has released Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan by Aimee Major Steinberger as a Kindle Edition, said that the book was “selling pretty well in the category,” as the second best-selling Kindle comic. However, Taylor acknowledged that the Kindle edition sells about a tenth of the sales of the printed book. Yet, Taylor said, this was a “good start moving in the right direction, just exploring the advantages and disadvantages.”
Macmillan, which publishes numerous comics under several imprints including First Second Books and Tor/Seven Seas, has made the comic adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass (with drawings by David Mazzucchelli) available as a Kindle edition through its Picador imprint. “It’s unquestionably experimental” said Macmillan senior v-p Fritz Foy. “City of Glass had all the pieces in place first, an excited author, and the format worked.” Foy also explained they have more projects planned with First Second and are “experimenting with different ways to render [comics] into the format. We’re taking a look at all our properties to see which will work in 16 shades of gray and can have the color redone, and which make the most sense as a panel level iPhone app or a page level kindle edition,” said Foy.
Pantheon has released Craig Thompson's Goodbye Chunky Rice for the Kindle as well, but they declined to comment on their experience. And calls to Amazon.com about the Kindle and graphic books were not returned.
Most publishers said having digital rights drove the decision about which comics to release on the Kindle. Since most of Yen Press’s books are licensed Japanese titles, DeYoung commented, “we’re working with Yen on the ones we have the rights for, there’s not many left after that.” At Go! Comi, Taylor said they can convert their original properties, “but we're negotiating for digital & e-book rights for our Japanese manga. Japanese publishers are cautious with the new technology and are worried about [digital] theft, even though theft is not an issue with the Kindle [proprietary format].” “Also, the manga-kas are worried if it will look good,” continued Taylor, “but the Japanese have a foot in the door with manga on cell phones.”
The difficulty of making the comic presentable and readable was also an issue some of publishers pointed to when choosing which comics to release as Kindle editions. “The simplicity of Japan Ai lent itself to the format,” said Taylor. Go! Comi also plans to release Stienberger’s upcoming book, Cosplay Ai, as a Kindle edition. “It’s a natural fit, simple and lots of text,” explained Taylor.
“The biggest concern for comics on the Kindle is readability,” said Pablo Defendini of Macmillan’s Digital Marketing Department and Tor.com, which is a separate entity from Tor Books and offers short story comics for free online. “You can’t just shrink down a full page of artwork and expect people to read it,” Defendini said. Transferring comics into a format readable on Kindle’s small gray-scale screen, as well as using a format that was convenient for the content, posed problems for some of the publishers.
“It was challenging to figure out the best way to get onto the Kindle,” said Taylor, “we actually spent an agonizing number of hours reformatting Japan Ai in an attempt to get it to work with Kindle's proprietary format.” Eventually, Taylor said, they decided to create it as a PDF, since the Japanese typefaces in the appendix could not be converted to the Kindle’s format. Go! Comi distributes the PDF of Japan Ai through MobiPocket, an e-book software format owned by Amazon.com that will run on virtually any handheld device. City of Glass is also in the PDF format. “It was fairly straight forward putting it into a PDF,” said Foy. However, not everyone had such success with PDFs. “Because you have to shrink it down, the PDF makes it so small it’s practically unreadable,” said Hachette’s DeYoung. Instead, Hachette is using the standard epub format for their titles; calling it “perfectly suited.”
Defendini said Tor.com is making all their short fiction available in the mobipocket format, epub, html and PDF, to support a variety of reading platforms and noting that “epub is developing into the [ebook format] standard.” Defendini also pointed out that the epub format is not supported by the Kindle: “It’s a big failing of the Kindle that it doesn’t support epub.” Foy referred to the lack of “a true standard of conversion,” as one of the Kindle’s flaws.
But the benefits of keeping up with the technology outweigh the poor graphic quality for those experimenting with the Kindle. “It’s not the optimal place for comics, with a small screen and gray scale," said Defendini. “The fact that the Kindle has great press [and consumer popularity] is forcing everyone to develop an ebook strategy,” continued Defendini, “we’re in a good position; we’ve been putting our foot in the water for 12 months.” Taylor echoed Defendeni. “When Amazon announced they were making the Kindle, we started looking into it. Amazon’s such a horse in the market, we had to do something with it.” While the Kindle 2’s graphics are better thanks to the new 16 tone grayscale screen, Defendini was quick to note that the improvements weren’t made to accommodate graphic novels. Down the road, he said, “the Kindle 3 or 4 will be more suited,” to reading comics.
Looking to the future of comics on handheld devices, both the iPhone and other devices were cited. Indeed, Kamikaze, an application that lets the reader download graphic novels to the iPhone, was released right after the recent New York Comic-con in February. Genus Apps, the company that developed Kamikaze, has licensed Will Eisner’s literary comics from W.W. Norton. DeYoung cited Plastic Logic, a new and forthcoming black and white digital reading device that features a screen the size of letter paper, and said that it was more suited for graphic content.
Nevertheless, Go! Comi’s Taylor views the Kindle’s larger screen size, over the smaller iPhone, as “a good format for comics.” But the iphone is also being explored as a format, Defendini said, “for comics on mobile devices, we’re looking more at iPhone based viewers, uClick is doing interesting stuff, and with comics the iphone has the big advantage of a color screen and higher resolution.” On the other hand, DeYoung also dismissed reading comics on the iPhone as a “degraded experience,” because of its size. Nevertheless Go! Comi is experimenting with making Japan Ai into an iPhone app, incorporating navigation and clicking functions that connect the reader to Google for additional information on the book's content.
Macmillan’s Foy predicts that, “in three months this will be a different conversation,” due to the quickly advancing technology of digital reading devices like the Kindle 2. “We’re in active talks with Amazon about making additional graphic novels available on the Kindle, not only active conversations but daily,” said Foy. He also divulged that over the next 12 months they plan to “actively move more content into the format,” focusing on new properties, and eventually striving to “attempt simultaneous publication of digital and print.”
Indeed all the publishers emphasized the importance of understanding how to transition comics and other print material to digital formats. Defendini said that publishers need to “figure out how technology changes what a book is and how the reader can interact with it on a fundamentally different level, not just as passive engagement.”
[Additional reporting by Calvin Reid]