- Posted by Johanna on December 27, 2005 at 1:13 pm
- Category: Meta
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.