By Alex de Campi
BROOKLYN: Imagine a graphic novel series, released every month simultaneously in 14 languages and across all major wireless platforms (Kindle, e-Reader, Android phone, iPhone), hopefully soon via the Web and, eventually, in collected print editions. Every month, you pay 99 cents and get 70-75 screens of action, adventure and suspense. In its first fortnight after launch, in the difficult final weeks of December and with no marketing and without all our distributors yet on stream, the first episode had 5,000 downloads — of which English was in the minority. (There were over 100 downloads in Irish, which some call a “dead” language! And Latin is next…seriously.) So, what is this and what innovative publishing house is behind this, you might ask? It’s Valentine — an original supernatural thriller set during Napoleon’s retreat from Russia that I am co-writing with artist Christine Larsen — and, at the moment, none.
It’s just two American girls who got in over their heads.
Valentine became what it is due to a combination of philosophizing about future models of publishing, and the real-life need to have the book start paying for itself quickly. This was one of the reasons behind our choice of wireless distribution: it’s easier to sell downloads on phones and e-readers than charge people for a Web site. We are a Creative Commons work, which means that we acknowledge that there will be what some people may refer to as “stealing” but honestly, we’d prefer folks just enjoy the story rather than be demonized for how they obtained it. Hey, their sins may be scarlet, but at least our book is read. We’re also deliberately setting our price point very low (99 cents, versus $3.99 for a US comic book of similar length/content) to entice purchasers.
To my mind, the three most interesting aspects of how we are publishing Valentine are: the translations, the multiplicity of distributors per format, and the flexibility/scalability of the model, which allows us to dovetail nicely with the traditional publishing model.
The translations came about because in my other life as a filmmaker, I am always complaining about how not releasing films simultaneously in all geographies and all formats is basically what causes “piracy,” — a corporate term for “people wanting to see a film but having no other affordable way of doing so other than torrenting it.”
So if you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk, right? I also have a lot of friends around the world with whom I like to talk comics, and having written for French comics publishers and being a devotee of Japanese comics (to name but two markets) I am very aware of how comparatively tiny the English-language comics market is. Hell, there are individual French bandes dessinée and individual tankubon that regularly outsell per volume the entire annual output of the US comic book industry.
To find our translators, I put messages up on Twitter and Facebook. It really was that simple. Our first six or so translators were friends of mine; the next seven ranged from friends of friends to complete strangers. Most have professional translating experience. The translators receive 50% of the net sales of the book in their language, which gives them an incentive to blog, tweet and otherwise market the hell out of Valentine. Everyone has been warned though that 50% of our net sales for the first nine months or thereabouts is unlikely to earn them more than enough to buy a cup of coffee.
I can’t say enough good things about the translation team; they are amazing individuals (they range from an Anglo-Italian pop starlet and a Serbian artist to one of Rolling Stone’s Brazilian correspondents) and, for something organized via Twitter, there has been absolutely zero drama or flake factor. (Actually, that’s a lie. My first Spanish translator went AWOL, but a good friend, the artist Felipe Sobreiro in Colombia, stepped in at short notice.) The translations come in on time, perfectly done; clarification is often asked for and given — a loose network of individuals acting to an extremely high, professional standard.
Another exciting thing about Valentine is the relative frictionlessness of wireless distribution. We have two “publishers” for iPhone: Comixology and Robot Comics. We could add more if desired; there is no exclusivity. I always say this is like having your comic book published by DC and Marvel at the same time — or Glenat and Casterman, or Kodansha and Shogakukan. As we really start hitting the e-reader stores we will have the same distribution reach (though not the same marketing muscle) as any major publisher. In today’s publishing world, you have to be everywhere people look.
And that also means, eventually, landing our product on store bookshelves. I love printed books. Part of the thinking behind Valentine was how to achieve three things: an immersive, high-quality reader experience specific to small-screen devices such as the iPhone; a true right-to-left reading experience for our Japanese, Hebrew, and (eventually) Arabic readers as well as our native left-to-right; and an equally good reader experience in our eventual printed collections. The idea of publishing Valentine as a paper book was embedded in our plans from the very start.
Each “screen” is a stand-alone comics panel. There are no “pages” of multiple panels, just infinitely flexible single panels which act as building blocks, shown singly on iPhone screens or rearranged to a traditional comics page for a book. Episode 01 opens with a five-panel panorama of a battlefield that not only creates a wonderful feeling of movement and space when reading on the iPhone, it raises the quality of the print version, where that five-panel spread will become nearly ten digest-sized splash pages.
Though there is no animation or “motion comics” in Valentine, because we are basically dealing with panels of all the same size and orientation — panels shaped like a cinema screen — we have created a very cinematic experience for the reader, in our expression of space and time.
I am beyond excited for when we reach the first major “break” in the Valentine story, at the end of Episode 08, when we will have the first volume of the story complete and ready to look for a publisher — or indeed publishers, as I doubt one will be able to handle all our language editions. (We already have interest in the US edition, but are actively looking for overseas publishers…write me.) The story is set to run to 24 episodes, which in book terms will equate to three volumes of 250-300 page full-color digest size graphic novels.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s difficult. I work four days a week at a bottom-level job to pay my rent, and I could really use those days to improve the Valentine website, work on our marketing, and write my next series. We make mistakes. We are very much learning as we go along. But sometimes I pause and look back over what we’ve accomplished so far, and it strikes me just what a giant thing a small, informal group of people has achieved. And we have so many exciting places still to go! Episode 04 of Valentine is out on February 17th for iPhone, Kindle, Android, and eReader.
VISIT: The Valentine Web site.
DISCUSS: Are Graphic Novels Ideally Suited to Digital?