Q&A with Chuck Austen – Wild and Wooly Press
Two months ago, I wrote a post titled Why Kindle Has No Comics. The response has been really good, but the best response was a comment made by Chuck Austen. He published one of the comics I mentioned in the piece and had to set me straight.
I claimed that the comic he published, Kindle Comics, couldn’t be making money due to the $.15/MB fee that Amazon charges per download, but he told me his comic is making money and he hasn’t seen any sign of being charged this fee at all. This got us talking and I decided to share our conversation on my blog.
I was really excited to hear about his experiences with digital publishing. If publishing comics on Kindle is a viable option for making at least a little bit of money with our comics, I wanted share that with others and get more comics out to readers.
Okay, here’s the Q&A…
TIM STOUT (TS): Thanks for agreeing to do this Q&A, Chuck. I’m very excited to learn more about e-publishing comics through Kindle from someone who is actually doing so. To start us off, could you give us your background in comics and what inspired you to start publishing on Kindle?
CHUCK AUSTEN (CA): I worked for a number of years, on and off, as a writer, inker, and/or artist in mainstream and independent comics. I’ve done everything from X-Men, to Superman, to Badger, to self-published and adult comics. I got out of the comics business about seven years ago and went back into television animation. I’ve created a series, storyboarded, directed and done some writing for various things, including King of the Hill and The Cleveland Show.
Novels, though, have always been real passion for me. I’m an avid reader and love books, so writing prose has always been a secret desire. I got into the Kindle because a good friend of mine, Allan Jacobsen, suggested I do an illustrated novel as a way to get myself moving in that direction, while possibly giving some added value to the book. I had some down time so I wrote a story that had been festering in my imagination for a number of years. It’s called Like Warm Sun on Nekkid Bottoms, and it’s about a minister, a stripper, a comic collector and a clothing executive who get trapped in a nudist resort. Yes, it’s a realistic, heart-warming drama. (laughs)
I actually published it first at LuLu, and got a few sales there, but mostly I got a book I could show my friends. Then my wife bought me a Kindle 1 when it first came out, and I was hooked in all ways. I immediately saw the future of reading. Digital, hand-held. I’d always believed that was the direction. There had been e-readers before. But Amazon support, thousands of potential books, paper-like reading—Kindle was it, for me. Since Nekkid Bottoms was already digital, in that I wrote it in Word, I just did some research and formatted it appropriately, then loaded it into the Digital Text Platform. It was relatively easy. I think it took me a week to get it right. Comics are even easier. I wasn’t looking to make money. I was just looking to get it out there. Making money was a bonus.
TS: How were comics easier? What did you do to format the file?
CA: If comics are created as single images for a Kindle screen at Kindle resolution all you have to do is load them into an HTML file in Dreamweaver, or some other similar program. Then save the HTML file, put it and the image files (jpg’s or gifs) into a folder and zip them together. Boom, you’re done. You upload that zip file to Amazon’s DTP, and that’s it. The Kindle knows each screen-sized image is a ‘page’ and automatically formats it accordingly.
Text is more difficult because of formatting, font-sizes, and porting the material from whatever word processor you used into the HTML program. There are ‘cruncher’ programs like Calibre or Smashwords that will do it for you, but the formatting is sometimes less than elegant. I’m a perfectionist, so I spend more time on text.
TS: We started talking when I got my facts wrong for my post Why Kindle Has No Comics (and I’m very glad we’re talking now so I can clear that up). I said that since Amazon charges $.15 per MB for each download, your comic, Kindle Comics, couldn’t be making money with a $1.69 price. In fact, by the math, Kindle Comics would be losing money. You said that’s incorrect and you are making money on Kindle Comics. How was I wrong?
CA: I’m not sure you were wrong (laughs). Amazon may have those policies, but are just taking pity on me. I don’t know. I haven’t looked into it, yet. Or maybe I’m losing money and reading it wrong (laughs). But I seem to be making a few bucks on it, so it doesn’t seem to be a losing proposition yet. I get a notice every month, and every month it seems to be a net gain, not a loss.
Over the course of a year I’ve made more money on that than I did on my last self-published venture through comic shops, in traditional print, pamphlet form. In a sense, independent publishers can’t NOT make more money than they do in comic shops. Most publishers lose money on pamphlet comics. I did on Worldwatch. They hope to make it up on the graphic novels. But that’s assuming you can afford to bankroll the loss until that point. I couldn’t. On Kindle, there’s no printing cost, no distribution fee…and Amazon stores the files indefinitely. It’s not a collectible market, it’s a readers market, and that scares some people. It’s a different approach.
TS: Well, that’s great! I’m very glad to hear we can make money on our comics through Kindle. Under further investigation, I’ve read that some people are charged and some are not. Even Publisher’s Weekly is confused. Have you been charged the $.15/MB fee for Nekkid Bottoms?
CA: At the moment I’m not being charged. I’m going to adjust my pricing, though. Just to be safe. I may just be lower on the list.
TS: What titles have you published for Kindle, thus far and what has been the response from readers?
CA: Like Warm Sun on Nekkid Bottoms, which has done far better than I ever dreamed it could. It’s gotten four out of five stars at Amazon and sold remarkably well for something with no history, no name writer, and no promotion. And Kindle Comics, which was a favor for a friend, which doesn’t sell big numbers, but it’s consistent. I’m working on two more novels right now, as well as helping other friends get their work up there, either through me, or showing them how to do it themselves. I truly believe it’s the future of publishing.
TS: You had an earlier online publishing experiment with www.e-spinnerrack.com . What was your experience with that and how did it influence your decision to try Kindle?
CA: Well, that was mostly a test. A proof of concept for a new approach to comics specifically designed for digital platforms. It showed people what we’d been talking about, in as much as you can’t take a comic and squeeze it into a Kindle, or e-reader, or onto the internet. You need to consider the pluses and minuses of the new technology and use them to your advantage while still making it a ‘reading’ experience, unlike ‘motion-comics’. So it worked in that sense, but when people are used to one approach—in this case print—they’re surprisingly resistant to new approaches. So it failed to get people to move over to new ways of thinking.
TS: Have you considered turning those comics into apps for the iPad?
CA: Yes, we’ve considered converting them, but I think we need to rethink the process. We’re one-man operations, John and I. Or three men and one woman. It’s small-time, really, and with limited creative resources we want to put the best ideas first. Are superheroes the best thing for Kindle? I’m not sure. Should things follow traditional print genres? Romance, detective, sci-fi? This is a different market. I think shoehorning superheroes into it might not be the best use of time. Fantasy is more likely a better fit. Romance. Comedy. My webcomic, Kirby and Me, for example, would be a better fit. Time spent on one idea is time not spent on another. Worldwatch takes from Kirby and Me, and do I want that?
It’s a question I’ve long wondered about, and I think only by doing it—testing various ideas out—will we discover the best approach. I’ve actually been doing digital comics and content for years. Mark Badger first did digital comics by making them Quicktime files you ‘stepped’ through. Some friends of mine and I worked on something called Mindstorm many years back using software especially for that project, and then John Eddings—a fellow animator—and I put together e-spinnerrack about five years ago, mostly as a test to see how we could approach a reading experience with digital technology. Those were all done in Flash. Some other program might be better, especially for iPad and iPhone with their finger-flip, ‘page’ turning.
The different approach for comics also means additional work unless it’s designed specifically FOR the new readers. Comics pages can’t be translated straight to Kindle. The screen resolution is too low for easy reading. iPad works better, but even then, it needs to be re-thought. Why continue doing traditional pages when you’re not limited by print signatures anymore? When you have access to sound, and music? A newer approach is called for, I think, than simply porting one format over to another.
So we’ll be doing something, but those specific comics? Not sure, yet. I’ll know in a month or two.
TS: What advice would you give to those thinking about publishing their comics to Kindle?
CA: Do it. Period. Right now it’s a no-lose proposition. It costs nothing other than your time, which most people have already invested, and you might get something out of it. Who knows? You could be the next Amanda Hocking.
TS: What are your future goals with e-publishing?
CA: At the moment, keep publishing my novels. Maybe some comics. Definitely look into Kindle Comics and see if it’s costing me money! Maybe do an upgrade. It was created when Kindle 1 was still the only Kindle. It needs an updating if it’s going to stay available. I make a good living in animation, so right now it’s a fun hobby that more than pays for itself.
But in the future? It would be great to publish full-time, comics, animation and novels—whatever interesting hybrids this new tech allows. That’s the dream goal.
TS: Thanks, Chuck!
CA: Your welcome, Tim.