Jason Sacks: I’m here with Jim Gibbons, Senior Editor at STELA.
The goal being overall that comics are hitting this point in general pop culture where we’re seeing them in movies and TV. They’re all over the place. But it’s not necessarily as easy to get your hands on comics as it once was to become a new reader. You aren’t running into comics at the checkout at the grocery store on the spinner or at your local pharmacy or stuff like that.
Everyone has a phone nowadays. No one was really doing comics specifically made for your phone. Obviously you can read Comixology on your phone, but it’s not really the way the work was intended to fit on the smaller screen.
Our goal was to go out and get curated content, work with creators, partner with creators, to tell stories in a format, which on the phone is unlimited vertical scrolling. It’s stacked panels. The really convenient way is you read comics as though you’re using Twitter or Tumblr on your phone, which is one of those things I know for all of us who have been reading comics for a long time is very easy to jump in.
You know you start at the top left and then you go across. You follow the panels and all of that. But for someone who has never read a comic before, these types of little things can be small stumbling blocks. Our goal is let’s remove as many stumbling blocks as possible. Let’s put the comic book shop essentially right in your pocket. You always have it on hand. Then ideally it makes the barrier to entry for comics as small as possible. I’m going to segue a, but I read an article that said something along the lines of a fourth of the comic book market is like sixty years old or older.
It was one of those things that presented the fact that presumably in fifteen to twenty years, a quarter of comic book readers will be dead. It was part of that whole constant thought of how do you get new readers into comics because you don’t stumble upon them in the same way.
When I was interviewing for this job, I thought I would talk to the owners of STELA about this. It seemed like a really good way to form a symbiotic relationship in essence with the current comic book market. If people get into comics by the ease of having them on their phones, which especially for the younger generation is where more and more people are coming across all their media. I mean, kids have textbooks on their phone and iPads and stuff like that nowadays for school.
It was like, okay, maybe if we do that, they read something by one of our creators they really like, end up at a show like Emerald City, and then maybe they buy a few books. They’re supporting that and maybe jumping on Comixology and all that. The hope was we have a bunch of really great, exclusive content that people are going to what whether they’re new comic book readers or not, but we can also bring in the hundred million active iPhones currently.
If we could tap into one or two percent of that, that’s a hugely successful comic book anthology. That was the general idea. Obviously part of it from the editorial side is to go out and get tried and true creators, some exciting new creators, and also do stuff that we don’t have to worry about what its success might be in the direct market.
We don’t have to go get someone who’s written Batman and has a fan following that’s going to help their creator-owned book sale or their independent book sale. Let’s go out and get really good, interesting stuff that might not really work for print publishers as well. The goal being that we put a wide variety of stuff out there, hopefully bring in a wide audience, and then have a lot more people reading comics.
CB: It’s more of a Netflix really, where they can do the more edgy TV and if you aren’t interested in it, that’s fine. But they can still do something like Daredevil that’s going to be a blockbuster. It’s more about providing a wide spectrum.
Gibbons: We’ve been referring to ourselves like an HBO Go. That’s the idea. It’s the same concept as a Netflix, but instead of having a bunch of really shitty knock-off sci-fi movies in the mix, we’re ideally doing only really good comics instead of all of the other stuff that populates Netflix.
It’s that idea of you put a bunch of stuff out there, you make it easy, you subscribe for a low rate, and then people can explore and see what they want. They might love a comedy story. We have a title called Ghost FM right now. It’s a supernatural, all ages comedy book. That might be perfect for somebody.
Rome West is a speculative historical tale where the Romans have found North America early and they’re starting to populate it. That’s much more like a Game of Thrones or a Vikings type show. We have a something for everyone, ideally.
CB: It’s a tremendously diverse platform.
Gibbons: Anecdotally I’ll say something to get across what I’m talking about. When I started working at STELA, most of the people who work there came from mobile gaming. I was the first full blown comics guy who joined the fold. They were explaining to me a larger market than you’d expect in mobile gaming is soccer moms or soccer parents (soccer dads as well).
Five minutes here, ten minutes there. They’re waiting to pick some kids up at a carpool, so they’re jumping on Candy Crush or something like that. It’s a much larger market than you’d necessarily think. And it’s not one traditional gaming would seek out. But mobile gaming could.
It will be interesting to see as we go. Right now, we cast a pretty wide net with the type of content and the type of creators we’re working with. But in six months or a year, we could certainly find out that we have a huge amount of soccer mom readers who are really latching on to a certain type of content and not other types of content we include.
Then maybe we adjust our model. I always think it’s really nice to be in a position to publish a wide variety of content. But at the same point, it also puts you in the potential position of becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none. Hopefully as we keep going, we find out more of our audience. Maybe our audience loves the variety and then we can find that out, too.
CB: Right. But the audience is also giving feedback as there’s definitely a feedback loop inside the app as well, which is interesting.
Gibbons: Right. You can opt in so we can get even more information on where you live and stuff like that, just to better understand our audience.
We know how many of our readers are male versus female. We know how many times you will open a new comic versus how many people will read to the end of it. That’s the type of thing that obviously at this point we’ve been live for five weeks, so our feedback is very limited on the data.
I’m fascinated to find that out because I spent years at Dark Horse where I was constantly trying to find out how to talk to the marketing department, to talk to the retailers or, to talk to the fans. There are so many different channels you’re going through. Then you have a ComicsPro event that has been created specifically so retailers and publishers can get more information from each other.
But at the same point, then you aren’t still getting response from fans directly sometimes. There are so many different ways to try to gather that information. I’m really excited about the fact that we’re going to get a lot of that information right off the bat and have a better idea of what to do next, what books to get, what books we need more of, and all of that.
CB: Amazon talks about that being the secret sauce of the Kindle, where they get so much specific user data. All that stuff is gold for a publisher.
Gibbons: Some of it too is like when you go into an issue number one. An issue one might sell at thirty thousand copies, but then you have a twenty percent drop off to issue two. Then you get a drop off until whenever. I heard someone tell me recently by the time you get to issue twelve, maybe if you go that far, that’s usually where your books stabilize at whatever their readership may be. But that may be five thousand versus the thirty thousand you launched at.
A lot of the metrics we use for success in the comic book industry and the direct market in traditional publishing are about the difference in sales between a number one and a number twelve. Your trade sales are also supplemental to your single issue sales. It’s hard to figure out what is sustainable and figure out what is a hit.
Obviously certain hits skyrocket and they’re very obvious. Many other books disappear after a little while and you never hear about them again. But there are a lot that fall into the middle ground where you don’t know that much.
It’s a tough thing. It’s why you’re seeing a lot more creators turn to Kickstarter because they can say, “Hey, I need this much money to do this thing.” Then they have that fandom, that have that audience that will ideally give them that much money to do the next thing.
But then when I was at Dark Horse, we’d run into that thing where we’d be like, “Well, this book had a successful Kickstarter.” Then you’d look at how many people supported it. You’d be like, “Well, it made fifty grand, but it’s only supported by maybe twenty-five hundred people or something like that because they’re donating more to get the push rewards and all of that.” Then you’re going, “Does this book only have an audience of twenty-five hundred people or if we were to publish a new version of it, could we find through our distribution a much larger audience for it?” It’s tough. I talk to a lot of creators at these shows and you talk to a lot of publishers. There’s a lot of guesswork. There’s a lot of calling retailers, talking to fans, and trying to find out what that secret sauce is so to speak.
CB: You get to do a whole end around that.
Gibbons: Yeah! Ideally people come and read our stuff. Then we learn that right off the bat and then we can proceed.
CB: Do you have certain series you’ve really enjoyed working on?
Gibbons: I came in and we needed roughly (because we run five series at a time and we publish a new chapter each day five days a week) fifty series per year to fill that out. Again, some stuff runs longer, some stuff runs shorter, so that’s the guestimate. But that’s what we aimed for, like, “Let’s get fifty series, maybe more than that in case stuff falls through.” I’m editing thirty-two series!
I can tell you this; of the stuff we have out already that I have worked on, Ghost FM, which is that comedic paranormal kids comic, is a blast. It’s by Caleb Goellner. Wooki-Jin Clark is the artist. It’s really funny. It has that purity of entertainment that a regular show or Adventure Time does, which is really nice.
Jen Bartel and her husband Tyler Bartel did a book called Chaos Arena: Crystal Fighters, which is a magical girl fight club comic. It’s really fun.
Instead of listing nine other series I’m super excited about, I’ll use this as an anecdotal one. Jen’s work I knew from when I worked on Zodiac Starforce at Dark Horse. She did a fan pinup and was starting to get some cover work. I was really hoping if we did another series of that series, we could get her in to do covers or something.
When I moved over to STELA, I emailed Jen and I said, “Look. I don’t know if you’re busy. I don’t know if you’ve ever wanted to do your own book, but would you be interested in maybe doing something?” She was like, “Me and my husband Tyler actually have this idea. You know, I know we’re new to this and he has never really written a published work and all of this, but what do you think?” I was like, “Let’s take a shot on it. Your art is really good. This will be good.” I had some faith that if it was terrible, I could hopefully at least help them through it.
But Tyler is a phenomenal writer for a first timer and Jen is super talented. They work so well together that by the time I get some of the stuff, it’s so fully formed. Coincidentally or by happenstance, we have another book that’s coming up soon and it’s by a writer/artist named Sandra Lanz. Her boyfriend Matthew Seely is coloring. They work in the same space. I’m working with like six couples.
I didn’t mean to do that, but it’s great. Because they’re always in the same space, there’s so much synchronicity between their work that it comes in and it’s mostly me being blown away, pointing out a few things, and then me going to the next chapter.
CB: In a way they’re each other’s own editors anyway.
Gibbons: Oh, absolutely! I had no idea that that was the key to making your job as an editor easier. Work with couples and be done with it!
CB: That’s going to be part of your screening process now: “Are you married? Do you have a steady partner?”
Gibbons: “What does your husband or wife do?”
CB: “Do they like comics?”
Gibbons: “Can they letter for you? Can they color for you?”
CB: If I’m a user, what will I pay each month to have access?
Gibbons: $4.99 is the subscription price. That will get you the five currently running series that are running Monday through Friday and currently gets you access to the entire archive as well, so everything that previously ran on the site.
We have fifty series in the works. That’s content that should take us through to spring of next year. That’s the thing that a lot of people… We have had a pretty good amount of installs. The last I heard from our tech people is our conversion rate is around ten percent, which I’ve heard is quite good.
The thing I’ve wanted to stress to a lot of people is we have a lot of really good content coming in the next couple of months that we haven’t even started talking about yet. We have a series called Stolen Smile by Jeremy Lambert and Arielle Jovellanos.
That’s the thing. We churn through so much material. Every month and a half we’re having new series pop up on the app. New series are being announced for us weekly. It’s just one of those things. If I could talk to every potential STELA reader, I would say, “Look, what you’re seeing now is really just the tip of the iceberg and every week or every other week you’re going to be hearing about potentially your new favorite comic book series.”
The thing is, we’re so young. And it’s weird because I have been doing this now for eight months so it doesn’t feel quite like that. But we’ve only been live for five weeks. Stay tuned. There will be more. Jump on now and you’ll be well ingrained by the time all of these new things come in.
CB: What’s your feeling with how working with a vertical scroll affects the way people approach their work?
Gibbons: We’ve definitely had some people that have struggled with it because it’s new. It’s not a way that a lot of people have thought about how they produce their comics. Some of the older creators we worked with had more of a hard time than a lot of the younger creators. The younger creators are on Tumblr. They’re doing web comics. It’s more natural.
The great thing about it’s the more people we’ve had working in it, the more people we’ve watched discover little tricks and little innovations and little ways to use the format that other people haven’t thought about. As people are reading the comics and as we’re sending samples…
Some people are like, “Oh, can I see a script to the art so I can get an idea of what to do with my scripts or how to plan the panel layouts and stuff like that.” We’re seeing what has been an exciting thing to be a part of, which is creators feeding off of creators and learning and innovating as they go by working in the same format that’s a constraint in certain ways. It’s been pushing them to come up with creative solutions to use it really well.
It could’ve been boring. It could have been dull, I guess. But what we’re finding is there’s a book we did called Breaker, which is written by Mariah Huehner. Kelly and Nichole Matthews did the art. Mariah’s script was great and she set up some certain things, like, “Well, maybe this is a place you can use the scroll, but when you get there check it out.” The way Kelly and Nichole have utilized those longer scrolling sequences blew me and Mariah both away. I mean, we had high hopes, but they surpassed them.
Now that people have seen that and they’re like, “That was really good. I want to figure out how to do something like that.” It’s been very cool. A lot of people I talk to in writing or art, having some of those restrictions, while initially I guess maybe feeling it might mess with your creative flow, seems to for a lot of people to encourage them to find creative solutions. A lot of creators crave it and a lot of them don’t really realize that they crave it until they’re going through it. But thankfully that has been our experience at least.