October 1, 2014

Digital Comics in Libraries: Q&A on Library Edition from ComicsPlus, and Keeping Tabs on Cost Per Circ

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Martha Cornog talks to Josh Elder of Reading With Pictures, now partnering with iVerse Media on the new ComicsPlus: Library Edition

Interview by Martha Cornog

Josh Elder of Reading With Pictures

Ebooks have been grabbing headlines throughout publishing, and librarians nationwide report mega-increases  in ebook circulations and requests. At the same time, a heap of comics publishers, biggie and petite, has gone digital in parallel with print—and the rest are probably planning something app-wise or thinking about it. But so far these trains don’t go to the same station very often. Libraries can’t circulate most eComics due to systems and DRM issues. And only OverDrive among the library digital vendors offers much in the way of recent release eComics, and that only a small fraction of what’s potentially available.

Now along comes the nonprofit Reading With Pictures (RWP), helmed by the ebullient Josh Elder, which has partnered with digital comics distributor iVerse Media to set up an interchange station. Dubbed ComicsPlus: Library Edition, the new service allows libraries to circulate a wide selection of digital comics with both user-friendly and library friendly features.

We’re delighted that Josh is willing to tell us more about their new venture and how it furthers RWP’s literacy goals—and the goals of libraries and classrooms, also.

 As I understand it, ComicsPlus: Library Edition will be an outgrowth of iVerse Media’s ComicsPlus, which offers over 10,000 current and back-title digital comic books and graphic novels from Marvel, IDW, Archie Comics, and over 100 additional publishers. With no upfront cost to libraries, some ad-supported comics will be free while “premium titles” will be charged to libraries on a per-checkout basis: $ .50 per checkout for a graphic novel and $ .10 for a comic book issue, with a monthly budget cap set by the library.

How did you and iVerse come up with this pricing model, which I understand is similar to the Freegal Music service in libraries? Could you give an example of an ad-supported title and a premium title?

Josh Elder: The pricing model came out of conversations I’ve had with public and school librarians all across the country over the past several years. They all said basically the same thing:

  1. They want an easy-to-understand and transparent pricing structure.
  2. They DON’T want fixed or upfront fees – only to be charged for what they actually use.
  3. They have to be able to set a budget cap so that a few power users don’t burn through their entire annual allotment in a single month.

This is the program and the pricing structure that librarians have been asking for. As for what titles will be free vs. paid premium, that’s going to be up to the publishers. However, we expect that the publishers will make the first issues and inaugural volumes of popular series available for free along with selected backlist titles. The idea is that even when the monthly budget cap is reached, the service will never “go dark.”

As for which comics will be available,  we’re still negotiating with iVerse Media’s current publishing partners as well as reaching out to new publishers on a daily basis. So while I can’t yet confirm it, early indications are that most (if not all) of our existing publishing partners will sign on to the service and that we’ll be adding several new publishers to the iVerse catalog in anticipation of the launch.

Platform options for iVerse Digital Comics

In designing the program, you did marketing research among librarians. What did you learn from the research that was especially critical?

Every librarian we talked to was excited about the possibility of dramatically increasing patron access to graphic novel content while keeping the cost/circ ratio comparable to print. However, they’d all been burned in the past by services with hidden fees or fixed, upfront costs that never paid out the promised return on investment.

So we took away that risk by shifting to a pay-per-use model with local budget control. We also made our sales/accounting process as transparent and fair to all parties as possible. We’ve worked hard to make sure that this is the service that librarians need, and the one that they deserve.

My mother is a school librarian, and I don’t want to let her down. Because if I did, I’d never hear the end of it….

You just went public and announced ComicsPlus: Library Edition at the recent Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2). What was the reaction to your announcement?

The response was phenomenal. I think my favorite was “Of course we’re going to sign up – there’s no downside!”

In fact, we’ve already begun fielding requests to join our Closed Beta. We want to plug the early adopter types into our system as soon as possible so that they can become a part of development process. We’re building this service, but it’s librarians who are the architects.

With some big print publishers mandating restrictive ebook lending policies, it’s gratifying to hear that your new service offers multiple simultaneous patron access and no limit to the number of checkouts per title. Do you think this use-friendly access will eventually become the industry-wide model when the dust settles on digital lending?

There’s no question about it, because that’s what the consumers/patrons/etc. are demanding. We’ll be first to market, but we certainly won’t be the last. Of course being the first isn’t as important as being the best, but we’re going to try our darnedest to be both!

The publishers available so far are those currently selling comics through iVerse Media, correct? Can other publishers join if they want to circulate their comics to libraries? Can self-publishers of comics?

The doors at iVerse are open to all publishers: large, small and everything in-between. We are actively recruiting children’s, educational, literary, and manga publishers for the library service right now, but all are welcome to submit.

Can libraries handle restrictions on checkouts by age and content? Or on comics already available at the library?

Librarians will have the ability to restrict access to certain titles or block them altogether. We know how important local control is, so those tools will definitely be available.

You mentioned that you’ll be doing “soft launches” of the service at selected libraries instead of beta testing. Could you say more about that?

It’s a little of “column A” and a little of “column B.” We’ll beta test the service at several libraries across the country, but our “soft launch” will also include a more in-depth and intensive experience at key libraries.

You’ve noted that this service will increase the access and availability of comics in libraries. Do you think that user data from the service could help show cultural decision-makers and the general public how popular and useful graphic narratives are?

We certainly hope so! I’ve spent the last several years working to bring comics into schools and libraries through my work at Reading With Pictures. Meanwhile, Michael Murphey and the code ninjas at iVerse have been using digital technology to make the comics medium more affordable, accessible and ubiquitous. We’re all comics evangelists, and every decision we make is guided by a single, overriding principle: Will this help comics? If the answer is yes, then we do it.

How can interested librarians learn more?

They can visit our website at www.iversemedia.com where we’ve set up a special “libraries” section just for them in the Products dropdown menu. Or they can contact me directly at josh@iversemedia.com. My door is always open to librarians. Because if it wasn’t, and my mom found out, I’d never hear the end of it…


Author Information
Martha Cornog is a longtime reviewer for LJ and, with Timothy Perper, edited Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Insights and Issues for Libraries (Libraries Unlimited, 2009).
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