Thoughts on PDF Review Copies

As new publishers look for ways to tighten budgets while still trying to make their name and their titles visible, more and more are using PDFs in place of traditional printed (or photocopied) review and promotional copies. There are two major audiences for these: reviewers/journalists and retailers. With the former, the hope is that the title will be recommended to readers; with the latter, that the book will be stocked and displayed for sale to customers.

The advantages of digital files to publishers are obvious. PDFs can be sent almost instantly, allowing for timely coverage at both points of the marketing cycle: during the solicitation phase, when the title is featured in the Previews catalog, and during release, when the book is new on the shelves. (The retailer audience is usually only concerned with the first cycle. If they don’t order the title, then the second phase becomes much more of a battle for the publisher, with readers unable to browse or buy the book. There are some few forward-looking retailers who do hand-sell promising titles, but with so many publications new every week, a publisher can’t count on that kind of support in any significant way.)

Since PDFs are near free in cost, once created, multiple mailings can be done (to those who’ve misplaced a previous copy, for instance, or to create bigger comp lists for more chance of getting the word out). PDFs can be excerpted for illustrations to accompany review coverage or as part of a retailer’s newsletter to her customers. They don’t require postage costs, and even if one is passed around more freely than the publisher intended, many customers will still buy the actual printed object. (Those that don’t probably weren’t likely to in the first place.) The small publisher fights an uphill battle for shelf space and mindshare in the traditional comic direct market, and so increased readership, even if they’re only reading a free online copy, is in most cases a plus.

They work better with a publisher’s schedule. Full PDFs can be created to show retailers exactly what they’re ordering (with the exception of paper quality). Without PDFs, a forward-thinking publisher has to either guess early at the number to print (in order to have advance copies available before orders are due) or use photocopies, which are expensive to create in quantity, not a good reading experience (especially for color comics), and more likely to be junked by the recipient. The preview copy recipient also can’t resell or trade the comic, so they don’t compete with the publisher for sales, and if they want a “real” copy, they become another customer.

But do PDFs work? It’s even easier to trash a digital file than it is a physical object, and some target recipients may refuse email attachments or have limitations on the size of files they can receive. If a publisher uses a hidden or password-protected FTP site, then the reader may have access trouble, lose the password, or simply not bother to visit and download.

As more publishers adopt this method, in-demand retailers or reviewers may feel spammed or resent having their mailbox flooded. If the publisher doesn’t have a cost for sending out copies gratuitously, then she has no pressure to be judicious in approach, other than courtesy. The two-phase approach is recommended: first a polite query email, introducing the product and asking whether the recipient would like to see a PDF, then information on accessing the file once an affirmative response is received. Longer stories and graphic novels should be delivered in file sets instead of one large file. (Another plus to this approach: the first segment or a selected chapter can be more widely released as a free reader preview.)

PDFs aren’t flashy or impressive; one file looks just like another from the outside. The recipient can’t be seduced through clever packaging or attractive tie-in materials that make a submission stand out from the pack. (Pistolwhip, for example, famously created a preview package that included character trading cards and a fake cigarette as a prop for their new-wave detective story.)

Physically, the reading experience isn’t the same, especially for those who use laptops or smaller monitors. Readers may not be able to see the entire page at once, concentrating instead on panels. Layouts that use a lot of vertical elements (panels that extend the length of the page, for instance) can’t be easily followed. Text resolution problems could prevent a quick or easy read. The need to scroll from page to page may insert artificial pauses between pages, and the publisher will need to consider how to handle double-page spreads and other special effects.

More subtly, if the reader doesn’t see something in the first few pages that catches her eye, it’s harder for her to quickly flip through the rest of the pages to see if the book later goes in a different direction or the art style changes. It’s also more difficult to refer back to a particular sequence for rereading (essential in preparing a review).

Additionally, releasing anything online demands a test cycle that publishers may not be equipped to deal with. At the least, publishers should be aware that the percentage of Mac users among the audience may be higher than in the general community.

In short, there’s an artificial barrier inserted into the experience, with technology mediating between the reader and what’s being read. The experience of reading an on-screen PDF isn’t completely faithful to the experience of reading the actual comic. This may only be a minor issue for some, and some projects will be better suited for PDF distribution than others. As with any promotional tool, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and publishers should consider all the factors in making their decisions.

That includes the pluses to the recipients. The busy retailer or reviewer has less paper to haul around, wade through, or dispose of. A laptop user can carry files with her, making it easier to evaluate the product for review or ordering on her schedule. There’s less guilt involved in quickly eliminating a product that’s not suitable for purchase or recommendation; the reader isn’t throwing away physical work, but simply erasing bits. Especially in cases where the reader is already interested in the material, a file is more effective for all parties.

Personally, I’d rather save the trees.

21 Responses to “Thoughts on PDF Review Copies”

  1. Chris Arrant Says:

    I prefer PDF copies, except when the physical format of the book is so important (James Jean’s PROCESS RECESS and Fantagraphics’ IGNATZ line), but I understand that some publishers are worried about PDFs being re-distributed too freely.

  2. Johanna Says:

    I tried to address that point to some degree above, but I suspect those who have that concern won’t find my argument compelling. I actually haven’t heard anyone express that worry directly, so I can’t tell how likely it really is. Do you know of any cases where it became a problem?

  3. ADD Says:

    Just to be contrary — but honestly so — I wish if publishers are going to send digital previews that they would format them as .cbr or .cbz files for easier handling and reading. I really despise PDFs for their generally clunky handling and almost never am able to force myself all the way through a full PDF preview.

    I realize I may be in a minority of one, here, but I’d rather previews are either formatted for CDisplay, or sent as hard copies (xerox or printed books, either is fine).

  4. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    Generally speaking, I don’t mind PDFs, and usually suggest them to publishers offering comics for review, especially those that I’m not already interested in. Save the trees and the postage, I say.

    Something like paper quality plays a pretty small part in my overall impression of a book, especially if it’s a publisher who typically uses good paper. Even when it’s not, though, it may not make a difference for me, ie: the excellent Nat Turner on the not-so-excellent newsprintish paper stock.

  5. Chris Arrant Says:

    While doing research for an article on online comics piracy, I did see .PDF copies with no scanning tags but with publisher credits. i don’t know if those were publisher distributed, or an alternate fan-scanning method. It was a rarity, but it might increase.

    I don’t know of any specific cases mentioned by publishers, but I have had editors/ marketing people specific mention not to redstribute the PDF due to piracy issues.

    Regarding going with .cdr or .cbz format, I could see where publishers would be reluctant. PDFs are widely available to readers, but the software to adjust it isn’t so readily available. .Cbz and .cbr are just .zipped files of .jpgs of the scans, so giving those out through an offiical capacity would be more easily helping piracy efforts.

  6. Chris Arrant Says:

    I’d also like to say that some mainstream reviewing places are known to require galley copies well in advance of release. No digital exceptions.

  7. Johanna Says:

    Alan, I don’t think the CBR format is well-enough established to be seriously used by professionals. I had a hard time even finding word of a Mac player, and I understand that CDisplay is no longer supported software.

    Guy, my main concerns with paper quality and similar relate to providing an accurate description of what I’m reviewing. There’s a small chance that the printer screwed up or the resolution is off or something else happened between digital and print stages, and I don’t want my review to inaccurately represent the product to readers for reasons beyond my control. It’s a small concern, yes.

    Chris, good point about CBRs being easier to crack and alter. And yes, print publications (especially those with roots in the book world) do want advance galleys. I might should have made a greater distinction between short comic issues and longer works when it comes to choosing a format.

  8. Shane Says:

    I know with Flash you can now track where your flash file has went to on the web with an embedded link in the file that gives you stats on the file as well. I wonder if there is anything similar with PDFs. Is flashpaper an option? Using that when combined with the tracking option could solve some problems with distribution issues.

  9. Matthew Craig Says:

    “with Flash you can now track where your flash file has went to on the web with an embedded link in the file…”

    What, you mean Spyware? I would hope that people wouldn’t willingly compromise their privacy in that way. Distribution issues be damned.


  10. Matt Butcher Says:

    Is there any way that these guys can get press without PDFs? My comic shops don’t carry half the big two’s lines, let alone underground comics. Is there any way to get a look at these PDFs? I am just a regular comic reader…

  11. Johanna Says:

    Shane, I wouldn’t be interested in seeing a Flash comic copy — I have a hard enough time finding the place I want in a PDF, let alone something where I can’t control the flow.

    Matt, there are any number of titles and publishers who provide previews of their works, either at their sites or places like Newsarama.

  12. James Schee Says:

    It’s sort of odd really. I can read comic strips on my Comictastic program and have the same, if not better, experience as reading them in the paper.

    Yet trying to read comics on my computer screen, I can just never really get into it.

    Oh and yup, please publishers be aware that not everyone has high speed internet. I had a publisher sending me Zip files of 20 MBs or more, that my dial up just couldn’t handle.

  13. Johanna Says:

    I was the same way, James, but now I prefer PDFs. The odd part is, I’m not sure why. Looking at what I wrote above, the minuses outnumber the pluses, but I’d still rather have the digital file in most cases.

    It might be that I’m a lot more tired of moving stacks of comics to look at around than I thought.

    It’ll also be interesting to see how this plays out for publishers. Will it give them the results they want, or is it another marketing trick (like sub-dollar-priced comics) that only works until everyone starts doing it?

  14. Lyle Says:

    My partner is very privacy-paranoid (we’re both highly risk-adverse) so the few (very few) times I’ve been offered review copies I’ve ended up not giving those books a look-over, since he doesn’t want me giving out our adress (while he does see the odds of someone turning into a stalker over a bad review as very low, his feeling is that you only have to inspire someone into a murderous rage once, so why roll the dice)… so I’d prefer PDF submissions, definitely.

  15. Johanna Says:

    Oooh, good point. I hadn’t thought of that, and I should have.

  16. Chris Says:

    Lyle- I have all of my review copies/etc sent to The Beguiling, since most folks know that I work there anyway. Obviously that’s not an option for everyone, but I hear that post-office boxes aren’t that expensive, only a couple bucks a month (which might be worth it just in the number of manga you don’t end up buying!)

    – Chris

  17. James Schee Says:

    I use my post office box for review copies (as well as most online transactions), its been in the family since before I was born.

    $36 a year for the box, and you get your mail done first.

    Johanna, with the limited space I have (and knowing the huge amount of stuff y’all have:)) PDFs do seem the smart way to go.

    I keep meaning to retry my Spider-Man CD collection, which is all done on PDFs. Maybe the more I read them, the more open I’d become to them. (or at least I’d get used to it)

  18. Comics ‘R Cool » Interesting Tidbits Says:

    […] Elsewhere, Johanna Draper Carlson discusses the plusses and minuses of publishers and creators sending PDF preview copies of their work to retailers and reviewers. […]

  19. Shane Says:

    “What, you mean Spyware? I would hope that people wouldn’t willingly compromise their privacy in that way. Distribution issues be damned.”

    No, not spyware. All it does is track where the flash document goes. So say you have a flash file on your server and someone puts it on their server. It sends a link to yours so you get referred and you know where your flash document is being served from without your say so. That’s all. Not everyone is out to get you. If that’s compromising your privacy don’t ever visit or link to another persons site, they may be able to find out you’ve been there.

    “Shane, I wouldn’t be interested in seeing a Flash comic copy — I have a hard enough time finding the place I want in a PDF, let alone something where I can’t control the flow.”

    You can, it has pages just like a pdf. It’s not animated or anything.

    Just an idea.

  20. James Schee Says:

    Ack!! Sorry about the ping, new blog with new tech so didn’t know what it did until I just saw it.

  21. Johanna Says:

    That’s ok, I like the pings, it’s helpful to see where else the conversation continues.




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