TOC wraps up: Thrillbent and Brain Pickings

The final in this series of live dispatches by if:book’s own Meg Vann from the O’Reilly Tools of Change Publishing Conference in New York City.

Last session from TOC 2013!

Firstly, a big congrats to the Startup Showcase winners:

Keynotes from Mark Waid: Thrillbent

‘It’s Valentines Day, and this is is my love letter to comics.’

Mark writes comics and graphic novels, and addresses the challenges they face going into digital media:

  • Format leading the eye down the page in portrait style doesn’t work in landscape style ie on screens
  • You don’t get the canvass as it was intended, nor is it taking advantage of the things digital can do – akin to reading a book or watching a movie through a cardboard tube
  • Motion comics are the devil – mini things with voiceover, but not comics – cheap animiation that leads you by the nose through the story

The north star philiosophy about what makes comcs comics and graphic novels a unique reading experience is that you are in charge of the pace of reading.

Thrillbent gives away free web comics that experiment with digital tools that retain what makes comics special but retains the unique and valuable properties of comics:

  • Sequence pages – adding and substracting new images to give whole new context to the sequence – different elements give more or less weight to the story and need more or less time on the page
  • Writers know putting exposition across is the worst thing in the world, especially in comics which is visual based – so exposition needs to be visual, not balloon after balloon of dialogue with no attention to the art – not page after page of guys in business suits standing around talking about stuff – that might be an awesome use of TV screen time, but a terrible use of comic book real estate because as a reader you’ve just paid a few bucks to watch a bunch of guys sit around
  • Every word is a diamond, but use images from previous installments in a segment of the image sequence to recap exposition
  • Taking advantage of what digital does – you can do this in print but it takes up a lot of real estate and doesn’t look as good
  • Formatted especially for browser space – landscape optimised fonts, responsive size and shape depending on platform, panels load dynamically no page reloading.

Business models:

  • Comics are doing well in print but the problem has been production costs, the same with all print – a comic selling for $3.99 – publisher gets $1.60 return from distributer – then the main cost is the printing (not marketing, overheads etc) and that cost keep going up – printing costs $1 of $1.60, so 50c has to cover all other costs.
  • Thrillbent gives away free web comics so gets exposure: model is weekly, packaging them 4 weeks at a time with a little bonus material eg new cover and selling them through comiXology (main distributor) and those sales alone recoup production costs – not making a billion dollars but everybody gets paid, and that’s just one revenue stream – nobody gets rich, but everybody gets paid.
  • Also iPad apps, Kickstarter – other revenue streams to explore – comics are not a high-overheads medium so they can play around. Do it for free online and find revenue elsewhere – three guys doing it in the spare time.

Comics are made of static images – on a craft level, what an entire industry has been doing since the 30s – but at Thrillbent, function doesn’t have to follow form, form now follows function

Take what you’re doing and think outside what the print page loks like – the beauty of digital devices is we are not selling you pictures of books, we are selling you a whole ‘nother publishing and reading experience

Try some stuff that fails, some succeeds – worst case scenario: no money, hit by a bus – if the next guys in digital comics go through the Thrillbent wreckage and find and used what works, then that’s fine – Mark just wants to take the football the next 30 feet down the field.

(mv: This keynote made me love both comics and Mark Waid. Awesome. Go check out Thrillbent right now! I’ll wait right here for you. Then you can come back and read Maria Popova’s Brainpicking goodness.)

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Keynotes Maria Popova: Brain Pickings

(MV: Okay you have to visualise Maria wearing a bright yellow shirt – yes, that’s Brain Prickings yellow – if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out her twitter avatar. SG: I can picture that.)

Maria is discussing ad-supported media and sponsored feature stories – the history, dangers and alternatives:

  • Xerox paid $55,000 in 1976 to sponsor an Esquire story – a lot of money, and Esquire were very proud to usher in this new future for journalism >> EB White said it was the “end of free press” and “an introduction to corruption and abuse”, especially for “a pubilcaiton having a hard time to making times meet” – just like publications today.
  • The Atlantic – sponsored content on scientology – tried it, got flack, pulled it down and apologized, explaining they are trying >> Andrew Sullivan said it was “Ad-whoredom of a particularly aggregious variety”
  • recently in the NY Times online, an ad company had been hacked, which led to a malware warning when you tried to visit the site

We see online the same ad supported news that has been going for decades – tension between editorial and advertising departments:

  • Decades ago, Brice Bliven was writing about syndicated material with more ads and more dumbed-down more pictures – all still contemporary topics
  • Alissa Walker “The 5 things that bother me about this headline” – the success of bulleted lists, evidenced by user metrics, changes the way she approached her writing, and made her question whether she was a writer vs ‘content creator’

“A writer has a duty to be good…lively…accurate – shape life, not just report it” – EB White

When that dynamic is inverted so that public opinion shapes journalism, it’s dangerous.

Digital publishing is simple but neither easy nor cheap, see beautiful handmade pic of slide of Brainpickings costs:

  • web hosting
  • email delivering
  • design etc
bar graph slide image of Brainpickings' running costs

Brainpickings: running costs

Interesting revenue models and tools:

  • RadioLab
  • Flattr
  • Science studio
  • Spot us
  • 99% invisible
  • its okay to be smart
  • Atravesado

The new ways are up to young people coming up – it is vital we give them the hope that there are other ways of earning a living and that they can invent them.

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Okay, TOC 2103 is a wrap. Thanks for sharing it with me by reading along (SG: No, thank you). There were a lot of heavily tech streams that I didn’t cover here because they were mostly over my head (SG: Boo!), although they did present lots of great opportunities to follow Kate Pullinger’s advice and hug a technologist!

The main session I would have loved to cover (but got caught in a meeting) was Hugh Maguire’s ‘Book as API’ – I hope the slides go up at toccon.com – otherwise, you can read his book, written with Brian O’Leary, Book: A Futurist Manifesto. Also, check out this great example of the potential of book as API: Dracula Dissected.(SG: Also keep watching if:book, we’ll have more to show you on this topic soon).

Ubergeek Kirk Biglione assures me that at TOC this year, tech-wise, the general tenor was one of ‘getting down to business’ – the attending publishers no longer require convincing of the need for digital strategies – they are now interested in practical solutions to the issues at hand. Hopefully Australian publishers will be at that point soon, too.

I’m off to for a post-TOC drink and debrief, and then some ice-skating in Bryant Park. At sunset. On Valentines Day.

Now that’s a damn fine end to a damn fine TOC.

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This is the future of the book, but not the one you were expecting.