Everyone knows that if they want to find digital comics from the mainstream publishers, they can find those comics on Comixology. But where do readers find indie comics to read digitally? George Chen saw this as a major problem and helped to create Emanata, an app that's intended to make edgy and independent-minded comics available for comics readers worldwide. Recently I had the chance to talk to George about his app and how he sees it influencing the way that people consume indie comics.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Emanata does different things than Comixology and some of the other popular apps do.
George Chen: Yeah, what we focus is on is that initially when you launch the app, you see panels and pages, where you can just tap right in and kind of look at three or four pages. Often there's a full story that's free. If there is, you'll be able to read the whole entire story for free to see if it's got something you like to follow in the future.
Whereas in other comic book apps or readers, they are more or less a storefront, where you have to pick the title, find a genre title you like, and then even if it's a free title you have to download the whole book and then read it offline. The way we treat it it's more like instantaneous consumption. You go into one panel and look at the story or art that you might or might not be familiar with. If you don't like it you just jump back out and go to the next page. So user experience is a little different there.
CB: And of course what you present is very different from what most readers provide. You really go after the indie small press creators.
Chen: That's correct. That's also one thing: we want to have a good mix of, I personally call it anatomically incorrect comic books, where there's a tendency of the mainstream comic books, or the large publishing houses, what they focus on is something that they know is going to sell. We want to focus on interesting storytelling, slightly different art styles, and slightly edgier things if you will.
We have one artist, he's sort of doing indie-style work; the way he did it is, he picked stories or actual Craigslist's posting about missed connections. There are some really funny, interesting ones that he just picked and tried to visually illustrate what it's like and it turned into a hit among the staff and people out there. You wouldn't see that in other comic book apps.
CB: Did you specifically go out and try to find more indie-oriented creators to include then on your app?
Chen: Yeah, we do. It started in June as sort of reach-out project. We found a couple of artists that I personally liked that we reached out to them, like Malachi Ward, and then we also tried to find comic book artists that were looking for exposure. There were quite a few of them willing to participate and we got to the point where, initially, the first couple of books are free and then now they decided to do an in-app purchase with us. That's the big thing that we just launched, that some of these artists will be able to sell their story to us.
CB: So you're really able to give them exposure and it will allow them to sell books that they wouldn't be able to sell otherwise, I'd imagine, since this is material that's really self-published.
Chen: Yeah. I think that's how the premise of our app started, in the first place. The previous life of this project was a publishing tool on iPad. After we finished building the tool, we wanted to find content to test. I always had an interest in comic books and artist discovery.
Then I discovered a bunch of artists that are all professional; they either work at a video game company, Pixar, or Nickelodeon. They all have their own intellectual properties. They want to publish them, but they are very leery about signing the digital content rights away with the large publishers.
There are a lot of undiscovered artists, with their own style in storytelling that nobody can get to, and then I realised that building a tool for iPad just as a tool is not a very fun thing to do but providing a platform for all these artists to showcase their work is something that we, the team, find a lot more fulfilling. Plus, we were clearly giving them exposure too.
CB: What's the process of getting artists into the system?
Chen: Essentially, there are a couple of trusted artists that can just simply log into our system and upload their work, and we basically take a look at the file format, that the link back to their website is correct, and their Twitter handle is correct, then we'll just publish it.
The platform itself is self-serve, but we are cautious about the content in it. Our app is basically a PG-13 app, so if something is a little bit too racy or too violent, we tend to discourage artists from doing that.
So far we haven't run into any issues, but we make it simple. We basically want to become the YouTube of comic books, if you will, so we try to make it almost completely frictionless for anyone that has aspirations to create their story online. We also felt like the web is a great prep platform as well, but everyone expects the web to be free.
Navigation on the web, for web comics, to be honest, really sucks. Tablet devices like iOS devices or Android tablets are actually closer to reading a book than the web, so we felt that this is the right space for this work. Instead of posting this whole entire story on the web, they should try it on the tablet as well.
CB: So you're really giving people the opportunity to decide what they want to publish. You're not doing any sort of filtering?
Chen: No, not really.
CB: Curating might be a better way of putting it.
Chen: Yeah. No, we aren't doing any filtering. We're mainly just making sure we don't really run into any problem with Apple, but we basically say, "If you have a really good story and we've looked at it, it's fun, it's good, we'll put it in our app."
CB: Well that's different from Comixology and some of the other apps. They really do make sure that content is a certain quality, or style, or fits what they are looking for.
Chen: Yeah, I think we do do a little bit of contenting filtering, if you will. Clearly if it's just a stick figure — I mean xkcd is sort of a different case where stick figures are actually what you read — but we do screen the content a little bit, making sure it's not someone doing a comic book for the first time and expecting to monetize it. That's not what we're after, you can say we're aiming at hobbyist/professional that is doing this on the side.
CB: A way of getting more exposure for their passion.
Chen: Exactly. And in many ways I would say that these artists let off steam that they thought they couldn't do, draw or illustrate in a certain way, or do their own story at say Pixar or Nickelodeon. They can do something pretty cool and pretty outrageous, exactly the way they like.
Comics Bulletin: How was New York Comic Con for you?
Stephanie Palmero: Yeah, New
York Comic Con was super-crowded, but the Artist Alley was probably my favorite part of the show. It was huge. They had a giant hall just for Artist Alley this year, much larger than any of the previous years that I've seen.
George Chen: That's interesting. We just had APE in San Francisco. We had a great time. It's pretty relaxed, a pretty chillaxed show, but we had plenty of random walk-in traffic and people buying books and people sharing things and checking different things out. I think it's a slightly different vibe than Comic Con.
CB: Oh, yeah, it's got to be. So one of you went to New York for the big show, one of you went to a much more small press oriented show, which is maybe a better fit for what your app is all about.
Chen: I think a little bit of both. That's the reason why we needed the extra help from Stephanie on the New York Comic Con side, but for location reasons, our company is actually based in the San Francisco Bay Area, so it makes it easy for us to go to Alternate Press Expo and to many of the artists.
San Francisco is a big town for indie comics and I would say we met up with 5 or 6 different other artists, who are actually based in the Bay Area and then we just basically tell them that "this is our booth, we're exhibiting this and showing our app to the artists and audiences. Hey, do you have books that you want to sell?" We don't really have anything physical to display at our booth, so we did a little trade and gave them some of our postcards to put up on their table, and then we asked them to grab their books and put it on our desk to promote them. It's almost exactly what we're trying to do digitally for them, but doing physically at the show.
CB: So who are some of your favorite people that you're publishing in the app?
Chen: Malachi Ward is definitely someone that I really like personally. He's based in LA and he also worked with Matt Sheean who's his partner that does sci-fi work. Definitely take a look at his work.
Whenever I mention we have Malachi Ward in our app, many of the artists themselves, other artists, they slightly freak out too. His bit is a very kind of quiet, sci-fi story, getting a lot of inspiration from the old Start Trek type work; that's something that I personally really like.
Who else would I recommend? I would also recommend Jess Smart Smiley. Jessie is a friend of mine based in Utah, and his work is more like children's book illustrations but with a fairly sophisticated grown-up theme at times, but very flat, very 2D. In many ways you wouldn't expect to find that type of content in other comic book apps, but you'll find it here in Emanata.
CB: So if an artist wanted to get involved in the app, how would they be able to do that?
Chen: Right now, they just need to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be moving to a space where any artist can just go through the website and sign up, but right now they just need to contact us and we'll give them a URL and how to log in and upload files, etc. We'll basically work with them on teaching them how to use the system.
But pretty much if anyone's interested just send us an email and we'll explain how the whole process works.
CB: And for someone like me who's really a fan more of indie comics, how do you recommend I jump in? Should I just click around and find out who I like?
Chen: Exactly. Just look around, download the app on the iPad and also I just mentioned to Stephanie earlier today, we are in the midst of finishing up the iPhone version of the app and so even for folks that just have an iPhone and don't have an iPad, they'll be able to get their hands on Emanata on the iPhone sometime in November. So that's coming this month.
One thing that we're trying to do, for the paid content right now, is this month if the artist sends us their story, we'll post it the first month, after Apple's 30% platform fee, the full 70% is going to them, but after that the artist is basically doing a 50-50 revenue sharing with Emanata.
As far as the reader's concerned, if you like the content, follow the artist and the artist will know how many followings they have. If you share it on Facebook and Twitter, the artist will also know about it and the sharing of the free stories, from Emanata itself, the link is getting posted on the web. So when you share it it's not necessarily just iPad users that will be able to share it, to see the content. Anyone with a web browser will be able to read what you share.
So that's the whole premise really. Find the artists you like, follow the artists you like, and support those indie artists.
CB: So what's your dream for the app? A year or two from now, what would it mean for your app to be successful to you?
Chen: I hope this platform will become, like I said earlier, the YouTube for quality comics. I guess Vimeo would be a little bit better. Just to use the video analogy. You can find all kinds of things on YouTube, but on Vimeo you're able to find quality video content. We're hoping this is the platform where a year or two from now, based on my preferences and taste in comic books, I'll find something that's similar to it or friends would recommend certain comic books or stories that are new artists that I'll be able to keep coming back and finding new story and story arcs and artists.
CB: My site, Comics Bulletin, is very oriented towards indie comics and self-published work, so I'm sure we'll be using your app quite a bit to find interesting content.
Chen: Yeah, exactly. We felt like there's something there, I think. The publishing worlds is clearly changing, the medium of consumption is clearly changing. Digital comics have been around for a little bit, since the '90s and people would just do scans or print the comics to a stage where everyone tried to read on the web, but it hadn't really taken off. Then two years ago the tablet format came about and then the mainstream stuff started to happen.
With all the social stuff happening, all the artists that we work with are very socially savvy. They are on Twitter and Facebook promoting their own work. So they understand this, but I think this is still a place where publishing industry, the new technology and then the social part hasn't quite cracked the exact code on how an individual storyteller can be able to tell their story visually. So we're kind of in the middle of it and it's interesting to see if there's something there.
CB: You get to be on the cutting edge and still deliver stuff that people will enjoy. It's a nice position to be in.
Chen: It's somewhat niche, but I feel like this is niche enough that if we can get all the indie comic book fans out there to look at this, they will say, "Hey, this is something I always enjoy and I'm finally finding my tribe."
CB: Great. Anything else you want to make sure to mention?
Chen: One thing for any artists is that if they're really interested in contributing some of their work, sending us an email, reaching out to us, is probably the best way to get started. Oh, and the iPhone version of the app is coming very shortly.