Stela's Plan for a Better Comic Industry (Interview)

The comics readership has been limited for a while. Partially this is our own fault - because of our own inability to look past the Direct Market, to the other avenues available to us. 

But Stela is trying to change that. They're a new company working to put comics in front of a much broader audience by tailoring the comics they'll publish to the mobile experience and making them easily accessible to potential readers there.

Why mobile? Well, we get into that in the interview. But the readership potential is massive and it's largely unexplored territory for the American market.

To fit that market well, they adapted the typical comics format - adopting a vertical infinite scroll for the comics - though the stories are still broken up into chapters, and each chapter made up of individual panels.

There have been plenty of other great interviews on the platform so far (Here are a couple I recommend: ComicsBeat, ComicsAlliance) and I highly recommend you read them to get more context on the company.

For our purposes, I wanted to dive a little deeper and get more into the weeds of what creators actually want to know.

To that end, I spoke with Ryan Yount, the Creative Director & Editor-in-Chief of Stela Comics, as well as Jim Gibbons, Stela's Senior Editor, to ask some questions that had been on my mind.

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Why did you think Stela was / would be important to the comic industry when you decided to undertake it?

Ryan: I was pitched the concept by Sam Lu, one of the co-founders, and right away I was into it. Sam and I worked together at Ubisoft - the French video game company - and we would always talk about comics. You know, I came from AIT Planet Lar. I spent some time there and worked in publishing comics and published my own comics. So Sam, as a big comics fan, would always talk about comics to me.

We used to talk about the future of comics - what was going to come. My feeling has always been that we were never going to get back to the golden age of comics circulation. The death of the newsstand, the fact that you could only get the printed books in the stores - though now you can get them online - it’s just so limited to try and get people back into this market. I was always pessimistic about the idea that the gigantic Marvel Universe was going to be able to draw in massive amounts of new readers into comics. And partially because of genre. 

So, for me, the pitch on Stela was the perfect thing. It was something that Sam and I had been discussing before - it has to be digital, it’s just a matter of how do you make it mostly accessible on digital.

For us, mobile is that. More than tablets, more than desktop. It’s mobile. Everybody’s got a phone in their pockets.

I mean, I really believe in the concept - I believe that we have a good chance of expanding readership and at bringing new, awesome comics to folks who are already reading comics.

Jim: I came from Dark Horse and I had been working in print publishing for the past 5 years as an editor, and it was just one of those things where every time you have a new project coming up, the same conversations happen over and over again: okay, we believe in this project as a story, but how do we then get retailers to believe in it and fans to believe in it? If you’ve gotten your audience to believe in it, then you have to get them to go to your retailers to order it, and you have to hope that the retailers are then excited about it so they order a lot of it. Having a successful comic is like you’re playing darts and you’re getting farther and farther away and the dartboard is getting smaller and smaller. 

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Stela really intrigued me because of what Ryan was saying - the accessibility. We can beam comics right into your pocket and it takes out the difficulty of entry so people who are very interested in getting into comics or saw Arrow on TV and were curious where to go next. It’s a simple matter of going to the App Store on your phone and then you can get going.

There’s really no shortage of great comics out there, it’s just a question of how you get people to those great comics. By making it easier, we’re hopefully offering creators a platform unlike any they’ve had before, with potential access to an audience larger than they’ve ever had before.

That absolutely makes sense. Just from the premise of being on mobile and there’s also a huge commercial potential for creators to tap into an audience that’s not spending any of their entertainment dollars on comics at all. 

What you were saying, Jim, does tie into something I wanted to ask - which is that, in terms of the creative content, is there a difference in deciding what comics to publish on Stela versus what comics you might publish in the direct market?

Jim: You know, I think if anything, the difference is that we’re open to and able to do more different kinds of comics. I think the direct market - and just comics in general - there are all different kinds of things that work. You’ve got the superhero comics, you’ve got a lot of the speculative sci-fi that you see in a lot of new Image titles. You kind of begin to see what’s working in the industry. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. They work and they work for a certain audience, but there are so many more types of comics out there that you see when you delve into webcomics, self-published stuff, and comiXology Submit and Kickstarter, as well.

So you get to a point where there are many different comics audiences and they’re all in their own little corner, in a way. So, hopefully, what we’re able to do and what we’ve managed to do so far is reach out to people in all corners of the comic industry and say, “Hey, here’s a brand new comics platform, that’s going to have only some overlap with many comic audiences - whether it’s a webcomic audience, a Kickstarter audience, a Direct Market audience - but hopefully it leads to us being able to work with a much broader comics lineup than you might see from any one, individual, comics publisher.

Sure. But in terms of the content - and being on mobile - Stela isn’t the first mobile comics app. So how is what you’re doing distinct from something like LINE Webtoon and their featured line of comics?

Jim: I think the main thing that we’re looking at as the difference is curation. And, from a creative standpoint, financing. We’re paying people good page rates and doing a revenue share, so it’s not just a matter of good exposure and placement. We’re really trying to say, “Hey, we’re investing in your content, we’re partnering with these creators, we’re bringing them as part of our lineup and part of our creative partnership. We want to give you the opportunity to prioritize your comics, because you’ll be able to pay your rent a little bit better, or pay your utilities a little bit better, or whatever it is.”

As a result, they’re getting more marketing, editorial help where they need it, a company behind them - as opposed to just a platform. We hope to take the best aspects of comics publishers and mobile delivery and combine them into an app and a publisher, that will result in something that’s completely unique to the current marketplace. 

I think that, for me at least, in looking at Stela over these last few weeks - as more has been coming out about over the last month - you seem really poised to be a Netflix for Comics if that’s the direction you intend on going. But, from what you said, it sounds like you want comic creators to think about you more as a publisher, as opposed to a tech company or platform.

Jim: The quick and dirty we usually go to, is that we’re not really like Netflix, in that we don’t have tons of random content, and the crappy B-movies and the really top-level Hollywood stuff. We want to view ourselves a little bit more as an HBO Now, where you’re getting a good streaming service, so to speak, but with that next level of curation, so it doesn’t just feel like, “There are millions of comics on here!” - even though we hope we’ll get to that point. Instead, there are “a bunch of really, really good comics on here.” Hopefully we’re delivering nothing but hits, and not just tons of content.

Yeah. Absolutely. And I think one thing that’s interesting in your collection is that - I read that all the books that you’re bringing on are commissioned for a set amount of chapters, as opposed to being brought on as an ongoing series. Why was that an important decision to make?

Ryan: So, there are a couple aspects to that. One is an editorial aspect, and one is a practical aspect.

The practical aspect is that working with this new format, it didn’t make sense for us to be signing open-ended deals. I think that would have been a much bigger, and much more confusing, hurdle for us to clear as a publisher. And for the creators, too. Writing an ongoing series is no joke, you know. You have to be thinking about your overlapping arcs and how to do that, and that’s not an easy thing. We also know, too, because of how we’re releasing - on a weekly basis - that’s a really hard schedule to maintain as a creator. To be cranking out that amount, every week, can be overwhelming. So we knew at some point we would be having to go on hiatus and let people catch up, even if they’re doing a longer run.

Like Jim said, we have the freedom to try out different genres and try different types of stories and styles of stories from different storytellers. We can expect that the first 6 months to a year, we’ll obviously be building an audience. As that audience builds, we may see the audience demographic shift. Maybe we get a bunch of young readers at first and then the demographics start to age up as we go through the year? Maybe it’s the opposite. We don’t know yet, but that may sway how we program our slots, and editorially, we feel that there’s a really nice freedom in having shorter arcs, so that the arcs are contained, and we can give more variety to the readers. 

Because we have 5 slots, if we have 5 ongoing series - that’s a lot of pressure to put on those series that they have to appeal to a ton of people. And it’s a lot of pressure for creators to maintain that schedule. So for us, we just feel that at that point it’s better for us to do the shorter arcs. In the future, if we find the right creators, we‘re not opposed to maybe opening up and doing some ongoings, or even just doing some longer, longer runs.

Jim: I think that’s one of the big things that I love. Being a digital publisher, we’re in kind of a unique position to more quickly than a lot of other publishers, assess what’s working for us, because we’ll have instant feedback from our audience and say, “Hey, that first chapter really went well and we know the team is really on time, so let’s look into getting more going with them pretty quickly.”

We’re not necessarily waiting on preorder numbers, and then sales numbers. We’re able to see what success looks like more quickly and then potentially line up - maybe it’s a thirteen chapter series and then they’re going, “Hey, are we going to do more?” and then we can quickly go, “Oh yeah, looks like it’s working, we can do more.” 

The aspect of the chapter and limited run format that works really nicely is that it allows creators to, potentially, work with us while they’re doing another series. If an artist is signed on to do a 5 issue miniseries, they can’t sign on to do another 5 issue miniseries on top of that. But, they can sign on to do a 5 week, 40-page series for us, slowly over the course of 6 months on their weekend or spare time. I think it also affords us an ability to be more versatile with how we make deals with other creators, and allow creators a platform that can fit within their schedule that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from taking on other work while they’re working with us.

And it seems like there’s also a definite benefit for creators in terms of the work you’re going to be doing reaching new audiences outside of the Direct Market, to allow them to reach people who wouldn’t read comics and hopefully convert those people and have them follow them back to the other projects that they work on - whether they’re done independently on Kickstarter, or even within the traditional industry.

Jim: Totally. Even though we’re a digital publisher, we don’t really see ourselves as in competition with print comics, so much as we’re really hoping we can form a symbiotic relationship with print comics where we’re allowing creators a new platform to grow their audience and hopefully, in turn, that grows the larger audience of comics, so maybe we’re bringing people into comics, and then they go to their comics store and they become a print reader as well as a Stela reader. Hopefully, we’re offering enough exciting, great content for current comics readers that it just becomes a cyclical thing, where we’re bringing people in and we’re providing new and good content. So, it should hopefully benefit everybody.

Yeah, and I think that really shows the kind of positive intent that you guys are coming to this with. Particularly, through the deal you’re presenting to creators. From what I’ve read, I understand that the books are creator-owned and you’re taking nothing besides the exclusive digital rights, and even those are only for the duration the comics are on your platform, and that’s admirable to start.

But, then I learned that you’re paying the creators for the work you’re commissioning up front and sharing the profits. And with a smaller selection, the profit sharing is probably far more significant than it would be on a “Netflix-for-Comics” site. Taken together, the whole deal seems almost too good to be true, so I want to ask, “What’s the catch?” And how do you see the model working for you?

Ryan: We’ve actually gotten that feedback, more than a couple times, from creators who ask what is the catch here. The catch is that we’re putting a big bet on opening up a new audience. So what that means is, coming out of the gate, mobile is a huge potential audience, but it’s not an install base for us on Day 1. We actually have to go and do the footwork, marketing and advertising to get people into the app. So, that’s the bet that we’re making, and that’s the catch of it.

Now, when we grow that audience, then every creator that works with us benefits from it. Jim referenced earlier that we may get to the point and some creators are hungry to have an opportunity to have their stuff read by more people than they would in print. And that’s really exciting.

The deal is the deal because we think creators deserve that, and we want to be good partners with them. And the idea being, too, that if we can make this as successful as we want to make it, that we get to share that success with the creators that helped us to get there, and the creators that we’ll continue to work with to build on that success further.

That’s where it comes from. We want to do the right thing, we want to be fair with it. The catch is that there’s no guarantee of this. We have to do the footwork, we have to bust our butts to get the people into the app to actually read the comics

Jim: You know, the funny thing is, I’ve thought about this a lot because this has come up a few times where people ask us the same question, and the way I’m starting to think about is that it’s less like a catch and more like a gamble, and we’re hedging our bets as best we can, but we’re seeing the odds are in our favor. 

The mobile market is huge, you’ve got a hundred million iPhones out there, and then when we eventually expand into other smartphones, then there’s that whole market as well. But also we’re looking at a time period where, over the last couple of years, you’ve seen tons of people trying to analyze the growing markets in comics - whether it’s female readers, or young readers. With pop culture that much more full of comics properties, and comics becoming a larger, more diverse, more inclusive industry, albeit slowly, we’re seeing a lot of this growth. If you put those two things together, presumably, yes, there are people out there who are looking for easier, better, ways to read comics. There are also people who already love comics, who would be interested in comics that they can read more on the go, or take with them more easily.

So, hopefully, it’s not really a catch, so much as it is a safe bet, but one that still has an element of risk. But we’re seeing that the audience is growing, there are people looking for new ways to read. We’re hoping to provide that, so that at the end of the day we’re reaching a large audience, we can keep paying our creators well, because we’re selling comics to a whole brand new group of people alongside current comics readers so it remains a very viable plan for already.

That makes a lot of sense. I think, also, in terms of mobile users, if you look abroad where the digital experience has kind of leap-frogged traditional computing and gone straight to mobile - with mobile completely exploding over there. Does Stela have plans to make moves in that markets and go beyond English language?

Jim: One step at a time.

Ryan: We haven’t launched in the States, yet, so once we do that we can start looking at other opportunities, but there are tons of possibilities, and that’s certainly one of them.

So, coming back to the creator selection, from what I understand you’ve hand-selected the creators you’ve approached to discuss collaborating with, which totally makes sense for launch. But will there be opportunities for open submissions, for creators who might not, traditionally, already be in touch with you.

Jim: The way we’re thinking of it right now is that we’re not necessarily having open submissions, but we are open to submissions, is the way I’d phrase it. I’ve had creators we’re working with put me in touch with friends of theirs that are interested in the platform. Maybe one day, down the line, we’d open it up to submissions, but at this point - going back to the idea of curated content - we’re able to go out to the people we want and have them pitch us stuff and, right now, we’re filling up on that. 

Again, it’s one of those things. One step at a time, and who knows what we might do in the future. But, at this point, we’re able to really go out and pick the people we think are going to do the best job in the format and allow us to put out the best product and have a lot of fun making comics with them.

Ryan: Heck yeah.

Got it. I do have another forward looking question, so no worries if you can’t address this - it’s just the kind of thing I can’t not ask. It’s obviously important for you to keep the level of quality high by curating the selection, but could you see a “comiXology Submit”-style portal be added to your offering down the line?

Ryan: We could, it’s similar to the last answer in that we’re not closing it off at this point, but we don’t have any specific time table for that.

Jim: I don’t know that this answers the specific question, but once we got rolling - initially some of the people we approached, it’s a brand new publisher, it’s a brand new thing, and it was a little bit more “Okay, what is this?”

As those conversations continued, it’s led to people being more and more aware of us, as we have the conversation and we ask them to pitch us stuff and, especially since we put out the word a few weeks back.

What that’s all led to is a lot of people when we talk to them saying, “Oh wow, I’ve been really wondering when someone’s going to do this in this platform or do mobile-native comics in the English language and when this was going to happen.” So, a lot of people have just been excited about the opportunity and excited to tell their stories. There’s no shortage of good creator-owned comics out there, many creators are like, “I’ve got like 9 ideas,” and you’re like, “Great! Let’s do some of them. Let’s have some fun.”

So I think a submit program down the line - who knows? We’re not closing it off - but I think the great thing is that right now when it’s just us reaching out to people the excitement has been so high that getting new content has been a lot of fun. I feel like we’ve both been a little bit like kids in a candy shop with the stuff that we’re signing up. Because it’s just like, “Oh we’re going to do a comic with this person? Sounds awesome, let’s do it!”

And you can definitely count me among the number of people who are very excited about what you’re all working on. 

So, I want to be respectful of your time, so I guess I just want to ask when should people expect to hear more about Stela and what’s the best way for them to stay up-to-date on it until then?

Ryan: Early 2016 is our launch, so that’ll be coming up soon. The best way is just to keep up on our information is by going to ReadStela on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook. So we’ve got all of our social media in place and that’ll be the best place to keep up on us.

You can also go to Stela.com and sign up for our newsletter, so we can send the news to you, instead of you coming to us.

And then your piece will hopefully be one of many more to keep people informed of what we’re doing in the future.

Thank you both so much, I really appreciate your time.


Hope you enjoyed the interview, personally I had a blast talking with them and getting to test out Stela for myself. I can't wait for the app to make its proper debut and to see what the reception is like.

Personally, I think this is a great opportunity for creators and the comics industry at large. I hope it works out well for all of us - and for the team at Stela, too.