One of the bets perks of being a comic book fan is how much public libraries are getting into carrying comics. Nearly every library across the country has a deep and diverse selection of graphic novels available for free. Now Hoopla Digital offers free access to graphic novels for anyone with a library card at a library that works with Hoopla. I sat down with Ken Balog – Vice President of Content for Hoopla Digital at San Diego Comic-con to discuss Hoopla’s new digital offerings.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: My local library in Snohomish County, Washington uses Hoopla. I know that you have a diverse amount of product that is available. What made you decided to move it aggressively into including graphic novels in there as well?
Ken Balog: Well, libraries have been asking us for a long time to get into additional content. They weren’t satisfied with all the business models that we out there providing content to them. So giving them ebooks and digital comics was just a natural extension of Hoopla. The comics were especially one of our big areas we wanted to focus on.
In meetings with a number of the comic book publishers, they were telling me that for three years or so, they had been looking to get into digital in the library. They didn’t feel that there was a platform out there that represented their brands well enough that they felt comfortable getting into an agreement that would allow that to happen.
CB: They didn’t feel comfortable with brands that represent them well enough. What do you think Hoopla brings that other companies haven’t brought to this space?
Balog: Well, from the design of Hoopla in the beginning, the first thing we said about the platform and the services was it had to be as good as any consumer service out there. So not just library platforms, but as good as, if not better than, any consumer platform out there. So that focus initially allowed us to really I think bring to market a really nice user interface that’s easy to use. And then with comics, we are one of the few companies in the world that created a panel view. We call it action view. Most of the users on Hoopla consume their content on a mobile device, whether that is a tablet or a phone. If you were trying to just read a static comic page on a smartphone, it would be challenging.
CB: Yeah, it’s almost impossible really in a lot of cases.
Balog: Now with action view you are able to just go panel by panel.
CB: I played with it a little bit. It’s similar to the Comixology model. You guide yourself through the story.
CB: You probably use similar technology I would imagine.
Balog: Hoopla was a hundred percent created in house.
Balog: We have a great team of developers. We add new features, new enhancements, bug fixes, etc. every four to six weeks.
CB: So working with comics has got to be very different from working with video, audio, and books. Comics are their own unique challenges.
Balog: Oh, yes.
CB: How did you deal with some of that?
Balog: Well, we throw a lot of resources at it. To be truthful, we wanted to make sure that quality was there. Midwest Tape is a twenty-six year old company. It’s been servicing only libraries for the entire existence.
We have a great reputation in the libraries of never bringing something to market until it is right. So we don’t rush things. We just wanted to make sure that was the same thing, that the comic experience on Hoopla is the experience that librarians have had with us. But now it is kind of direct to the patron.
CB: Do you curate the content at all? I know there’s got to be different requirements for what is available at libraries versus even other services in terms of content and such.
CB: It’s just a very logical place for users to get comics these days. Whenever I go to the library, I see shelf after shelf of them. It’s the best comic store in the world and it’s free. Having all of this available in an app is even better. It’s kind of no stress. How do you manage the DRM aspects of it?
Balog: The DRM is an internal DRM. It’s 256 bit encryption with a key. The keys are separate. We’ve got through actual security audits from not only studios, but also major publishers. Before they will allow you to put their content up, you go through them.
CB: Sure. I am sure in that way it’s not that different from any other media that you work with. Everyone is very concerned with that these days. It seems like your system is very locked down in that way.
Balog: It is.
CB: It’s also very user friendly.
Balog: Yeah. The beautiful thing though also on Hoopla versus other platforms that are out there in the libraries is all content is always available. There are no holds. So if five hundred people at Seattle Public Library want the same title at the same time, they can all get it.
CB: That’s unusual in the library market.
CB: How did you work that aspect of the deal?
Balog: When we were developing Hoopla, we were talking with librarians. We were talking about the EST model, or what is the one user-one copy model, and the transactional model. Ninety-nine percent of all the librarians we talked to said, “We want as much content as you can give us so that our patrons have access to all of this, versus just the top ten to fifteen percent of titles.” So we actually just pushed EST to the side, one use-one copy, and went full boar on the transactional model.
CB: I know from my experience, it is very tough to get the publishers to commit to that sort of thing. It must have been a long process to get that going.
Balog: Yeah, absolutely. For the publishing world especially, it is a very new model to them. Slowly more and more publishers are trying it. Some of the major publishers, we are hitting their audio books first. Hopefully they are going to see how well we do with those and that will lead them to additional titles.
CB: Got to prove the efficacy first. To me as a consumer, that’s exactly what I want. I want to be reading the same book that everyone else is reading and talking about. I don’t want to be forced to go out and buy a copy because my library has only been allocated ten copies of it in digital form.
Balog: Yeah, because that’s all they could afford because of the price for the one user-one copy model.
CB: It’s the same as the print copy price, right?
Balog: No. Well, the print price for libraries, yes.
CB: Yeah, that’s what I mean.
CB: So from their standpoint, there’s really almost no gain in a lot of ways.
Balog: Yeah. But it is really just physical and digital clothing. That’s how I like to refer to it. There’s no difference in physical the way those models are. With ours, there are over 350,000 pieces of content in the platform now and we are adding more every day. And it is all in one app. So even Amazon takes five apps to do what we have in one.
CB: Absolutely. So if you are a comics fan, why do you want to download Hoopla and what are you going to find on it?
Balog: Well, you are going to find right now about twenty different publishers. So you have DC Comics, IDW, Top Shelf, BOOM!, and Zenescope. You have Image launching in a couple of weeks, so that content will be live. By September 1st or maybe October 1st, we should have the entire top ten publishers of comics having content on Hoopla.
CB: Which means wherever you are, you are only a few clicks away from downloading your favorite comic or graphic novel or the next thing on your list.
Balog: That’s right. For comics, you borrow them for three weeks. On a mobile device, you can download them directly to your device and you are able to read it as much as you want for three weeks. If you finish it, you can return it early. If you don’t, at the end of three weeks, literally from the moment you borrowed it, it will return itself and totally wipe it off your device.
CB: You never have to worry about getting back to the library.
Balog: There’s no late fees.
CB: Publisher knows you aren’t going to be stuck with it.
Balog: Yup, no late fees.
CB: Anything else you want to mention about the comics aspects of Hoopla? Or anything else from the consumer standpoint?
Balog: I think something that people really should understand is that libraries like you mentioned are that place of discovery now. So many bookstores have closed. Yes, there are a lot of comics stores out there. But so many of the major bookstores have closed. There are more library branches than there are Starbucks or MacDonald’s. There are more main library systems than there are Wal-Marts and Targets combined. It’s a place for people to come in and discover. The launching of comics this year on Hoopla coincided great because the summer reading program for public libraries across the country is based on superheroes this year.
CB: So we are really penetrating the library market, aren’t we, as comics fans?