Uncanny Valleygirl by Alex De Campi #9: Valentine Sales, ePub How-To And iPad

In this issue: Godot arrives; turning your comic into an ePub; theoretical formatting for iPad/iBook; Valentine sales figures; and further Amazon drama

But first, let’s sum up what’s happened in the world of Valentine since we last spoke. We got our numbers for the last two weeks of December, eg since our rather shaky and un-coordinated launch on December 16th. The numbers were excellent: nearly 5,000 downloads in 14 days across Android, iPhone and Kindle. English was in the minority, with only about 2200 downloads. Our next biggest single language was Chinese at around 400, Hebrew at 350, then French at 300. We had significant (120+) downloads in Irish, and anecdotal evidence is that students of Irish are using the comic to work on their language skills.

We’ve also added Russian, and are about to add Latin – at the behest/suggestion of a Latin teacher, who has offered to translate. (If you wonder why a comic in Latin is a good idea, you’ve never been a Latin student given Cicero as homework five nights in a row.) We’ve been on the front page of BoingBoing. Valentine has been, pretty solidly, the number-one selling comic for Kindle since its launch back in mid December. (Now, that doesn’t take much – we sold about 65 units in December and are on course for about 120-150 this month. By contrast to the Android and iPhone sales, the Kindle sales are 80% in English. This is in part due to a lot of Amazon Stupid in regards to international pricing. I note in passing that I’m unable to provide free versions of Episode 01 on Amazon, so all Amazon numbers are in fact paid sales.

I have no idea what will happen with January’s numbers. See, in January, people had to start paying to continue with the series. On the one hand, I expect a lot of dropoff as people read the free Episode 01, then decide they can’t be bothered to plonk down their 99 cents for Episode 02. On the other hand, we’ve gotten some very high-end press coverage (and are on course for a lot more, thanks to Publicist of AMAZING), and it really wasn’t until mid January that we were really firing on all cylinders, on all formats. We still have our final format to pull out, as well: web, which one of our distributors will launch soon, allowing anything bought for iPhone to be read on the web and vice versa.

Basically I’m expecting a hard, big dip in January (improved Kindle numbers notwithstanding) and then a mild improvement in February as the series gains momentum. The big game change for this series will happen when two things happen: first, we have a web view for folks who don’t have futurephones and futurebooks; and second, we have released the printed edition of Episodes 01-07. It’s almost impossible to get comics reviewers to review a project such as this (although we’ve not had any problem with book/fiction reviewers, strangely) so I foresee a big increase in the series’ visibility when we’re available on bookshelves as well as wirelessly. Still no word on a publisher for 01-07, but then again I haven’t actually begun looking for one yet. (Episode 07 ends with a major, major unexpected twist and represents the end of our first “season” of the story.)

Oh, crap. I was going to tell you about ePubs, wasn’t I? And here I’ve wittered on about sales figures for paras and paras. Well: ePubs. The iPad announcement made me very happy for a number of reasons. First is that among the winners for iPad compatibility – Comixology, Robot Comics, Panelfly and Britain’s own graphic.ly – I count two of my distributors, and two others to whom I am chatting. They’re all good people and great platforms. If you want your comic on the iPad, your first step should be to contact any and all of these four fine companies.

(The losers for iPad? All the Flash platforms. That’s you, Zuda, and you, Marvel comics viewer. And Longbox, “launching in Fall of 2009″, which – yes, I will say it: vapourware.)

Step Two for iPad is the ePub. The awesome thing about iBook is that it is a colour ePub reader, on the iPad’s 1024×768 screen. Compare this to the usual B&W 800×600* eBook reader such as the Sony, the Nook, and the Kindle. In short, it is a big step towards the wonderful land of Candy Mountain where we can all read comics and books on the same device in the same programme, and the rivers run with finest Islay malt. The reality is that 1024×768 could probably handle a manga page but would still be slightly too small for a standard American 6×9 comics page. And no, e-readers generally don’t allow you to enlarge or zoom in on parts of an image, or view double page spreads. So yes, Candy Mountain isn’t quite as promised and that’s Canadian Club in that there creek.

But if you’re publishing a webcomic, or working to digest size, start mastering the ePub. And here’s how. The ePub is a fancy zip file, and to play with it first you’ll need two bits of free software and one verifier. The software is: Sigil, a great WYSIWYG ePub creator (warning: won’t work on any Mac OS pre 10.5), and Calibre, which will take your new ePub and convert it into any other format including mobi (Amazon Kindle) and LRF (Sony readers). Yes, Calibre handles images very well, providing you have coded them right in the first place. The verifier lives here on the web.

Got all that? Good. Now let’s dissect an ePub. Download Episode 01 EPUB of Valentine here (if that fails, go here). The next step varies, depending on your comfort with html and code in general. In general, I’d recommend skipping ahead to the part that says “EASY WAY”.

ePubs the hard way:

I’ll give you a general overview of what’s inside and what it does, then give you your options for adapting it for your comic. First, change the *.epub to *.zip. Yes, it really is just a very fancy zip file! There is a file and two folders inside the ePub. The file is a mimetype, and the folders are META-INF and OEBPS. Do not change the titles of these, ever. The mimetype and the META-INF folder are also “don’t touch” – your doctoring shall be confined purely to the OEBPS folder.

Inside OEBPS are folders marked Images, Text and Styles, plus content.opf and toc.ncx. You probably don’t need to mess with the Text folder. It contains xml files corresponding to the “pages” of your comic, and those xml files only reference an image file in the Images folder. (Note that I’m not using SVG images – Adobe’s frankly quite elegant auto image resizing system -due to the lack of support for SVG across most non Adobe platforms.)

Styles just contains CSS, and I’ve smacked around the original Adobe Reader stylesheet to stop putting in margins (important for text, annoying for images). You shouldn’t need to adjust the CSS.

For Images, name your images EXACTLY the same as the images already in the folder, and replace. Try to keep your images lightweight (circa 200kb/image), and remember that most current e-readers have 800×600 black and white screens. If you want to do an iBook/iPad trial version, obviously go colour and 1024×768. There is no sizing information in the xml files so it doesn’t matter if the images are a different size or orientation than mine. First image is the cover. (Yes, I have the cover image repeated. Not entirely sure if only putting it in once will work, you can try.)

If you have fewer images and thus fewer pages – say you only have 24 – you will need to do the following:
* Delete the redundant xml page files beyond the number of images you have
* Delete references to the redundant xml pages and images in content.opf
* Delete references to those pages in toc.ncx (the table of contents/ “spine” file)

In content.opf, you’ll also need to change the metadata (author, reference number, summary, title, etc) to refer to your book. If you want the comic to display correctly in Stanza, add the line of code: <stanza:pictureBook content-mode=”aspect-fit” />to the metadata section of the content.opf file. Then your images will resize perfectly in Stanza, letterboxing where the aspect ratio of the screen is different. Note: this only works in the most recent edition of Stanza.

Now, zip it all up again (important: you must drag the mimetype into the zip folder FIRST, otherwise the epub won’t function, and don’t compress the zip) and change that file suffix to *.epub. Run it through the verifier – no, seriously, I don’t care how good you are at code, run it through the damn verifier as ePubs are very persnickety and love to sneak into the lake of FAIL when you aren’t looking. Also, it’s really embarrassing to post a non-working ePub.

ePubs the EASY WAY:

Here’s the simple-simon version for those not wanting to dick about with code. First, process your comic so that it is available in discreet “pages” of exactly 800×600, cutting up and letterboxing against black where necessary. Remember that e-Reader automatic image resizing doesn’t really exist, and when it does exist, it’s the image-formatting equivalent of asking Jason Voorhees to perform your plastic surgery. Even if everything else is in black and white, make sure your cover is in colour else it will look drab against the colour prose-book covers in readers’ e-libraries.

Open the Valentine ePub in Sigil. Replace my images with your images. Delete any unnecessary pages. Change the metadata (tools -> edit metadata, from memory) so it has your name, title and summary on it. Save. Close. REOPEN and double check (Sigil occasionally introduces new errors when it writes your ePub, it’s always best to double check by reopening the new, saved ePub). Voila, finito. Now open Calibre, add your ePub, and export it into any other format you so desire. Put it up at Mobileread for people to enjoy, and you’re away!

The most likely way for us to get our ePub comics on iBook (and in other major e-stores) remains Smashwords. Fret not, their Meatgrinder/ePub bypass functionality will launch soon. I can’t wait – although I’ve posted on places like Mobileread (the best forum for eBooks, great how-tos and very welcoming/intelligent community), we’re only selling ePubs on the Valentine website at the moment and our ePub sales lag behind everything including our Kindle sales, simply due to lack of visibility. But eComics adn eBooks in general are still an evolving technology where there is as yet no standard (and great publisher/retailer drama) so sometimes you just have to hang tight and wait for other people to launch their software.

(Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have been gone for some time. I shake the Excuse-a-tron and here is what it provides me: I got wrapped up in postproduction for my new Los Campesinos! video, then was spirited away to rural Mexico to do lead camera on a documentary shoot, had an animation of mine featured on Channel Frederator plus an interview, then suddenly Episode 04 and all its attendant work was upon me. But! Episode 04 is so pretty.)

Now that Valentine is up and running, this column risks being overkill if published weekly. I simply don’t have that much news, or useful things to say. Uncanny Valleygirl will continue to ride, but only monthly, or when occasion warrants.

As always, you may follow me on twitter, befriend me on facebook, or watch my videos. And because you’ve read all the way to the bottom of this motherf*ng long column, have a free mixtape made by an awesomely talented friend of mine.

Alex De Campi writes comics, publishes digital comics, and directs music videos for people you might actually have heard of.

* Thanks to Canadian cartoonist superstar @VonAllen and the nice folks at MobileRead, I’ve learned that 600×800 is NOT in fact the best size for the B&W e-readers; you’re better off at circa 750 x 562. My 600×800 images were clipping slightly on the Sony (one of the most popular e-readers).