iPad Publishing No Savior for Small Press, LGBT Comics Creators|
by Charles "Zan" Christensen
Anticipated as a potential savior of the comics industry, distribution of digital comics through Apple's iPhone and iPad is proving not to be the magic bullet many had hoped for. Format issues, pricing concerns, and censorship of content are hindering many creators, particularly those making lesbian and gay comics, from taking full advantage of this new outlet for their work.
For years, print runs of single issue comics books have declined, with some popular titles now at a mere 10% of their early-90s peaks. Many creators have turned to the web to distribute their work, but only a handful have been able to earn enough revenue through advertising to make a living at it. Full comic books are being widely distributed on the Web, but primarily as unauthorized scans, bundled and given away for free on file sharing sites.
The success of Apple's iPhone and iPod touch—with their built-in audience of tens of millions of users who can buy apps, music and other media using a stored credit card—was exciting to many in the comic book industry. Now publishers, or even ambitious individual creators, could create a standalone application for their comic or comics series and sell it through the App Store, and get a generous 70% cut of each sale, and there was decent, unobtrusive copy-protection to discourage piracy.
The announcement of the iPad, Apple's near-comic-book-sized tablet computer, seemed to seal the deal; comics apps from ComiXology, Marvel and IDW were available on launch day, and judging from the quality of the free comics that Marvel made available, it seemed that this would be the next big thing for comics, and help drive up public interest in the medium.
One of the iPad's primary selling points is its capability as an e-book reader, with an iBooks reader app that doubles as a store. Apple announced the same revenue split for books as for its App Store, with publishers getting 70% of each sale. With such a large share of each sale, and no printing costs, digital distribution through iBooks is very enticing for comic book publishers, especially small ones without the funds to finance big print runs and get low per-unit costs.
But Apple chose ePub as the format for books sold through iBooks; the format is not designed to support fully illustrated projects like art books and comic books, and presents them with large white margins on each page. There are only a handful of graphic novels available in the iBooks store; most have been modified to show a few panels per page to avoid shrinking the content excessively.
There are alternatives to trying to shoehorn a graphic novel into an ePub file; a handful of apps are available that specifically sell comics, in a variety of proprietary formats specifically designed to accommodate them.
"We have roughly 1,000 comics in our catalog right now," said Michael Murphey of iVerse Comics, "and the vast majority of them would be considered 'indie' by direct market comic book standards. I would say almost 75% of the catalog."
Unfortunately, the sales terms through stores like iVerse are not nearly as favorable to publishers as selling directly through Apple; in order to be a viable business, the comics apps need to take a cut of each sale in addition to Apple's 30% share. So even though operating expenses are much lower (no retail space rental, no physical storage costs, no unsold inventory cutting into profits, etc) the comics portals end up charging publishers the same 50% that brick-and-mortar comics stores do.
Many of the comics apps are devoted to a single publisher's books, presumably so the publishers can maintain the stores themselves and keep the full 70% of each sale.
Even if a creator happened to have the technical proficiency to write her own comics app, going from iBooks to a boutique comics app is hardly ideal for a small publisher or self-published creator. You have no opportunity to reach readers unless they specifically look for comic books; you don't benefit from the browsing and search traffic on the larger store and your books won't appear in searches.
But even if a creator or small publisher persevered and created and successfully promoted his own comics app, there is the last, and possibly most significant, hurdle to overcome: Apple censorship.
Long before the iPad launched, Apple made news by cracking down on all applications in their App Store that featured sexually suggestive content. The iPhone App Store was already free of nudity and explicit sexual content, but now anything that even suggested sex was forbidden.
“It came to the point where we were getting customer complaints from women who found the content getting too degrading and objectionable," explained Apple Senior Vice-President Phil Schiller, "as well as parents who were upset with what their kids were able to see.”
The initial wave of deletions removed not only apps that featured bikini-clad women salaciously "washing" your iPhone screen, but also titles such as swimsuit store app "Simply Beach," due to its pictures of bathing-suit-clad women. Apps by Playboy and Sports Illustrated, however, were left alone. When asked about the Sports Illustrated decision, Apple Senior Vice-President Phil Schiller explained.
“The difference is this is a well-known company with previously published material available broadly in a well-accepted format,” Schiller said.
The decision was widely criticized as offering leniency to larger players who delivered Apple more revenue. Since the rejection was entirely at Apple's discretion, there was no way to protest except in the media. After media attention to the ban of the "Simply Beach" app, it was resubmitted as a "Rated 17+" app and welcomed back onto the App Store.
Pultizer-Prize-winning political cartoonist Mark Fiore had his political cartoon app rejected by Apple not due to sexually suggestive material, but due to "defamatory" content: lampooning President Obama and others in political cartoons. The ensuing widespread media criticism led to Apple reversing its decision quickly.
"Fiore’s app will be in the store shortly. That was a mistake," Apple's Steve Jobs said of the matter. "However, we do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone. Folks who want porn can buy and [sic] Android phone."
These stricter guidelines apparently cover not just App Store submissions, but anything sold though any app.
Digital magazine store Zinio, like all content suppliers for iPhone and iPad, agreed to Apple's "Regional Content Review" for all items sold through their app. This means that all "in-app purchasable" content must be approved by Apple to be acceptable to the broad U.S. population (the United States is one "region") or it will block it.
The more obvious targets for censorship in the Zinio store included Playboy and Penthouse magazines, but Vogue France was also rejected because it features artistic and occasional use of nudity. Vogue France is also not stocked at Wal-Mart stores for the same reason.
Stories have surfaced about comic books being blocked as well. In February, Stephen Lindsay, the creator of Jesus Hates Zombies, discovered that a link to buy his book through the ComiXology app had stopped working. A ComiXology rep explained in a tweet that Apple "deemed it inappropriate according to their SDK guidelines" and they were forced to remove it.
"Here's the thing," said Lindsay. "Jesus Hates Zombies doesn't involve any sex whatsoever. None. It has violence and swearing, but that's because it's a mature readers horror comedy. But the violence isn't even intense. And being a black and white comic, there's zero red blood, which means any gore is dramatically cut down."
Rejection of comics from distribution by Apple is less like being banned from Wal-Mart and more like being rejected from Diamond's PREVIEWS catalog. Even if other outlets exist, Apple has the single largest digital media distribution system for portable devices today. While there are numerous "stores" through which to purchase comics for an iPhone or iPad, if Apple doesn't like your book, you're blocked from all of them.
"Jesus Hates Zombies is one of the top downloaded comics on the Android market, through Robot Comics," says Lindsay. "and I'm sure it would do just as well, if not better, through iPhone and iPad Apps."
Apple's iTunes store allows music to be rated "Explicit", films to be MPAA rated, and TV to be rated by the TV Parental Guidelines, but there is currently no way for someone with a book or magazine to provide a content guideline.
"There is a parental control system that allows you to rate apps based on the content just like movies, music, or anything else," Murphey said, "In our store, iVerse Comics, since we have material that is 17+ we have to rate the entire app that way so that a parent knows what is being downloaded. We have no problem with that. That's why we have [separate] apps like 'Archie Comics,' and offshoots from our publishing partners at IDW like 'Transformers', 'Star Trek' and so forth. We'll have more of that kind of stuff in the future too—we don't want a kid looking for Archie books to run into a 'mature' comic anymore than Apple does."
According to Murphey, iVerse almost never gets submissions of books that they have to reject because they're worried about running afoul of Apple's guidelines.
"Apple has actually been much more loose about this than people seem to realize," Murphey said. "Ever since they included the parental controls, things have been pretty smooth going. Just look at Kick-Ass as an example—Apple is giving equal time to comics as it does to R rated movies in its iTunes store now. Apple has to mark every thing we sell as 'approved'. So they had to do that with Kick-Ass just like all our other titles."
Kick-Ass is a comic from Marvel Comics' ICON imprint that is famously ultra-violent, and which was recently made into a feature film. The preview images from the book show that it clearly contains graphic language, situations and nudity. Not only is the book available for purchase through iVerse with Apple's approval, it does not appear to have been censored at all.
When asked if it would be fair to say that any comics with content that would fit in an R-rated movie (violence, brief nudity without explicit sex) would fit into Apple's guidelines, Murphey agreed.
"Apple has those exact things that you mentioned listed as part of their guidelines—you can check those things off, and the book will be rated appropriately. The only area that Apple is really saying 'no' to, from our experience at least, is pornography, or things that come very close to being pornography."
"People seem to think that Apple is slamming our hands down every day saying 'No — we shall oppress this material— you are not permitted to do anything that we do not deem to be family friendly'… and that's not what's happening at all," Murphey continued. "Apple has not censored what we publish in a way that we feel has been terribly oppressive. When things first started in 2008, before they had the parental controls in effect, they were much more strict about what could and couldn't be allowed in the store. Now things are much better."
When asked if iVerse adopts Apple's guidelines for all books they carry, or if they might offer Apple-rejected titles on Android devices, for instance, Murphey indicated that the rules are the same for both.
"If we felt like there was a book that really should get published but wasn't able to because of guideline restrictions," Murphey said, "Sure we'd offer it on Android—but keep in mind Android has the same 'R' rated restrictions as Apple does if you want to be in the Android Marketplace. So far, that hasn't happened."
"My problem with Apple banning [Jesus Hates Zombies] is simply this," says Lindsay. "They allow the Marvel book Kick-Ass. How in God's name is my book worse than Kick-Ass when it comes to content? The simple answer, it's not. But because Kick-Ass is a Marvel book, it gets a pass."
The experience of smaller publishers producing books with LGBT characters and situations also seems hard to reconcile with Murphey's assessment of Apple's guidelines.
Tom Bouden's adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest was rejected as an iPad app for the App Store, again due to "materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory." A handful of sexually suggestive images depicting men, some extremely mild, were specifically flagged as problematic in the 80-page graphic novel.
"The app was rated 17+ from the beginning but that didn't seem to make a difference," said Peter Bonte, the publisher. Bonte resubmitted the app, this time with large black boxes almost completely covering the "offending" panels, but the app was rejected again; perhaps to avoid calling attention to its restrictions, Apple did not allow black censor bars to appear in content.
Apple eventually changed their policy and allowed the censored version of the book to appear in the App Store, and the publisher posted the censored pages on a website so that users can see them and judge for themselves whether the content should be blocked.
Yaoi Press packaged their graphic novel Zesty for submission to the App Store with the assistance of digital provider Fika Publishing. Yaoi usually contains sexual situations, often graphic, between men, but Zesty was described by publisher Yamila Abraham as unlike other Yaoi they publish.
"Zesty is not yaoi as many people define it," said Abraham. "There are no sex scenes. It's kisses and comedy."
Due to a warning by the provider that Apple was "strict," some content was changed while the project was being reformatted for the iPhone, in anticipation of potential Apple objections. For example, in one panel, a character described his sexual orientation by saying, "I'm strictly dickly!" This was changed to "Don't get burnt, girls. I'm flaming!"
The book was rejected without explanation.
"I'm not as hopeful about the iPad as I was this morning," said Abraham in an article about Manga on the iPad for About.com. "The iTunes store just rejected Zesty, our tamest graphic novel, without citing a reason. We thought this could be a bright spot for us, akin to our sales on Amazon Kindle, but we're very discouraged right now."
"Our partner for distribution via iTunes, Fika Publishing, would not continue to work with us after Zesty was rejected," said Abraham. "If our young adult title was too extreme then it is doubtful any of our titles would be acceptable. We have snuck onto Apple platforms through the Kindle app."
A search on Amazon's Kindle Store for Yaoi Press titles yields a wide range of prose and graphic novels, all of which can be purchased and synced to an iPad or iPhone. Kindle purchases do not happen "in-app", and are not required to be reviewed and approved by Apple. Amazon appears to have no content restrictions with regard to sexual content; even explicit sexual material appears to be fair game for Kindle books.
Bonte submitted The Importance of Being Earnest to Amazon for distribution as well.
"Amazon doesn't seem to have a problem with the story," Bonte said. "They accepted it for digital distribution. The problem with Amazon is that they take 70% and Apple only 30%, plus the platform is absolutely not usable for comics. Very low quality, they actively degrade the images, different screen sizes, not in color and Amazon charges $3 extra for non US sales even when bought via Wi-Fi."
Comics pages are reduced in size and float in the center of a virtual "book" page with a wide margin around them. Enlarging pages to show detail is an inelegant process that interrupts the flow of reading the book. Image quality can be very poor.
Bonte has not been discouraged from pursuing Apple's devices as a market for comics.
"It is the best bookreading device on the market and will only grow," Bonte said. "I'm sure it will get better if we expose these practices to a bigger public, that seems to work sometimes. The big problem for now is the random nature; I can see the problem with 'boob-apps' on the iphone but genuine literature and art is the victim of this."
"iTunes and the iPad will most certainly conquer the digital book market," Bonte said, "so it's very important they don't censor it too much. I hope they loosen up."
Recently, Steve Jobs has been personally answering some questions emailed to him, and his responses have ended up in the news. In one recent, heated exchange, Ryan Tate from Gawker Media took Jobs to task on recent changes to the developer agreement for iPhone/iPad development, and about Apple's ban on any adult content on their devices.
"If Dylan was 20 today," Tate wrote, "how would he feel about your company? Would he think the iPad had the faintest thing to do with 'revolution'? Revolutions are about freedom."
"Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data," Jobs responded. "Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin', and some traditional PC folks feel like their world is slipping away. It is."
Apple was contacted for comment about their content review policies, but they did not respond.
June 14, 2010 Update: Peter Bonte reports that Apple developer relations has contacted him and apologized for the rejection of the comic. An uncensored version of the book, as well as uncensored version of another book by the publisher, Canterbury Tales, were submitted and accepted to the App Store.
Charles "Zan" Christensen was the Founding President of Prism Comics. He lives in sunny Seattle with his fiancé Steve and their two cats Noblet and Geoffrey.
Prism Comics promotes the works of the LGBT community in comics. It does not implicitly endorse any other material or products associated with those works. Any opinions expressed are those of the author(s).