Can you give an overview of who Panel Nine are, and what Sequential is?
Panel Nine is a digital publishing company specializing in digital comics and graphic novels. It's actually an imprint of iEnglish.com, a software development company based in Tokyo which does a lot of educational apps for companies like Oxford University Press.
Sequential is a digital graphic novel storefront app, which we launched in May this year . We offer a range of graphic novels and comics, tending towards the more literary stuff rather than going down the superhero route. It has a Storefront where you can see new releases and browse books to buy, and a Library where you can read the books you've downloaded.
How did you end up at Panel Nine - did you work in publishing beforehand?
After a degree in Philosophy and Theology, which unsurprisingly proved useless in the real world, I worked in children's publishing for several years, writing and editing magazines and activity books. Then my boyfriend and I moved to Tokyo in March 2011 (that's right - just before the big earthquake) and when I was there I got the job at iEnglish. I worked over there for a couple of years, and then when we decided to come home earlier this year, the company asked if I'd stay on and work from London.
And what is your role within the company?
I'm the Editorial Director, so I work with publishers and artists to decide what we put on the app and when, and then oversee the process of getting the books digitized and releasing them. Basically keeping everything ticking over. We're a small company, so I also pitch in with a lot of the production stuff, getting the layouts and extra features just right. I do a fair bit of business development as well - Sequential isn't the only thing we do and we always have other projects to work on.
What's involved in turning a book, such as The Rainbow Orchid, into a Sequential title?
After we get files from the publisher, we redo the pages to fit the iPad screen, take out blank pages, maybe put in some extra bits if necessary. Any double-page spreads are put together as proper spreads, so you can pan across them rather than just seeing the left and right pages separately. We create the panel links so readers can zoom in to Panel Mode, then other resources such as thumbnail images, contents, the main menus and 'about' screens etc. Some books, such as The Complete Rainbow Orchid, have extra features only available on Sequential, so we'll put all those together too.
Then when all the resources are ready they're bundled together and tested very thoroughly. When we know everything's perfect, the book is ready for release on the app, along with information on our Storefront about the book itself, and the creator and publisher.
Can you explain some of the features that are available with books on the Sequential platform?
Each book has Page Mode and Panel Mode, so you can zoom in and see panels in more detail, or read panel by panel. We worked really hard to make everything intuitive, easy to read, and pleasant, too - super-fast swiping, no horrid pixellated images, or waiting for pages to load. We can also add a whole range of things - extra content such as interviews, sketches and artwork, audio commentaries, videos, webviews, and HTML 5 content - almost anything, really.
We also have a new way of reading comics, which we're calling Sequential Mode. This is where, instead of swiping to the next page, you tap or swipe and one image is replaced with another, using any kind of transition you like. It makes for an interesting new way to present sequential images and tell a story. There's a freebie called Fictions which you can download in the app if anyone would like to have a look.
What are some of the other titles available through Sequential?
We're working with a whole load of brilliant publishers, so we have books from Jonathan Cape, Knockabout, Myriad, Blank Slate, plus a range of stuff from smaller and indie publishers like Great Beast, Tabella, Soaring Penguin, and Metaphrog. So you'll find a whole range of things from the greats like Alan Moore and Gilbert Shelton to more small press titles from people like Dan Berry, Terry Wiley and Isabel Greenberg.
We aim to provide a fairly carefully curated selection, and we're quite picky about what we put on the app, so you won't find any superheroes and you won't have to wade through loads of substandard stuff trying to find something decent to read. (At least, that's the idea!) And we add new books every week, so there's lots of good stuff coming soon. We're always interested to hear what readers would like to see, too.
Is Sequential available on any other platforms, besides iPad? Any plans?
It's currently only available for the iPad, but we're working on an Android version which should be released next year. Watch this space...
Is there much resistance to digital comics, from either readers or publishers? Do you think it's something people are embracing, or is there still work to do?
I think there's definitely still work to do. Digital's still fairly new, really, and a lot of publishers are understandably cautious about how and when to make the leap to digital. Having said that, people are reading digitally more than ever so there's definitely a need for it.
Often I hear people talk as though there's some kind of war between print and digital - as though if they read a digital comic they'll be betraying print, or aiding its decline. I don't think that's the case, and at Panel Nine we're certainly not trying to lure people away from print - I wouldn't work here if we were, I love my huge piles of old books too much. We're trying to provide an alternative, so you can find books you might not come across in your local comics shop (if you even have a local comics shop), or you can give your groaning bookshelves a bit of a rest, or if you fancy reading a gigantic tome like From Hell on the bus but you don't want to lug it round with you all day. And of course, digital comics can often include things print versions can't - audio, video, other bells and whistles. So I think print and digital can complement each other and there's a time and a place for both.
Another assumption people make is that all digital is the same, which frustrates me every time you see a bad comics app which is unresponsive, or difficult to navigate, or where you're not sure where to tap or what will happen. Just as print books can be designed well or badly, or be high-spec or low quality, so digital comics can be smooth and intuitive, or clunky and annoying to use. But all digital tends to get tarred with the same brush and I think a lot of people have tried a low-standard app or reader and thought 'that's it then, digital's not for me'.
Were you a comics reader before your involvement with Panel Nine?
To be honest I wasn't much of a comics reader. I'd read some random bits and pieces - Posy Simmonds, Scott Pilgrim, Ghost World, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I mostly stuck to my 19th century novels and I wouldn't have said I was a comics fan. I've read a lot more over the past couple of years though!
Do you have some favourites (digital or not)?
It's an obvious choice but From Hell is one of my favourites - it's just breathtaking in its scope and scale. I just got round to reading Alice in Sunderland and it kind of blew me away. Favourite newer ones include The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon and Eustace by SJ Harris... and I'm looking forward to reading The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg - I haven't found time yet but it looks amazing. I also try and read stuff in Japanese; comics can be a really good language learning tool because of the visual element, so I'm working my way very slowly through some Tintin at the moment. Oh, and I do love The Phoenix... I'm biased because we do the iPad app, which is great because it means I get to see Bunny vs Monkey before everyone else.
A huge thanks to Chloë for taking the time to answer my questions, and for providing such interesting answers! You can download the Sequential app for free here, and you can see my video tour of The Rainbow Orchid on Sequential here.