Sam Humphrey: Graphic novels go digital via BitTorrent gone legit

Sam Humphrey: Graphic novels go digital via BitTorrent gone legit

Editor's Note: A part of Orna O'Brien's London Book Fair Insights Seminar Programme, Graphic Novels Go Digital — But Will Anyone Read Them? has been organised by SelfMadeHero's Sam Humphrey. Scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Thursday (16th April) in the Club Room National Hall Gallery at Olympia London, the session will also feature Steve Walsh, Russell Willis, Leah Moore, and Sam Arthur. And in his writeup today here at The FutureBook, Humphrey looks at the important role BitTorrent — once dismissed as an enabler of piracy — might play in delivering the work. Because, he writes, "Nowadays, people are willing to pay good money for good content." — Porter Anderson


In the early 2000s, BitTorrent’s association with piracy was perhaps as inevitable as it was unfair. At that time, the file-sharing protocol accounted for up to 60 percent of all Internet traffic in the US, largely because it was the favoured technology for people sharing pirated content.

The technology itself was (and still is) brilliant. By breaking large files into segments that can later be stitched back together, BitTorrent allows its users to download files from a number of places simultaneously, rather than from a single server. It’s a faster, more efficient way to distribute large files, particularly popular ones (say, films or songs), across the Internet. That the protocol would be exploited by illegal file-sharers might have been predicted. Nor should it come as any surprise that BitTorrent Inc., the company that developed this “peer-to-peer” technology, should have struggled until recently to dissociate itself from piracy.

Over the past few years, the San Francisco-based company has gone some way towards reclaiming its brand. The BitTorrent Bundle has been at the centre of an ambitious campaign to legitimise file-sharing in the eyes of creators, publishers and consumers. This has made for some refreshingly positive headlines: in recent months, Moby, Madonna and other household names have joined the growing number of independent artists using BitTorrent Bundle to market their work.

The concept is simple: an artist makes two “bundles” of content available on a personalised BitTorrent landing page, one of them freely downloadable and the other paid for with an email address. The former might contain a single track or trailer; the latter will contain “premium” content – often a number of tracks, unlocked by signing up to the artist's mailing list. The potential reach is impressive: BitTorrent has 170 million monthly users, 40 million of whom return daily.

As well as working to improve discoverability and to increase newsletter subscriptions, the Bundle acts as a signpost to artists’ Web sites, social media feeds and, more importantly, to paid-for content (on Amazon and elsewhere). Sceptics will point to the irony in the fact that the same technology used in illegal file-sharing at the expense of creators is now being pitched to artists as a way of improving their income. But the truth is it seems to be working, as the first author to use BitTorrent Bundle found.

When Timothy Ferriss released his book The 4-Hour Chef in late 2012, it wasn’t just his snubbing of the major publishers in favour of a deal with Amazon that created a stir: it was his head-turning partnership with BitTorrent, a company at that stage still struggling to shrug off its association with piracy. Whatever we make of a deal with Amazon, the BitTorrent partnership appears to have worked: Ferriss’ Bundle was downloaded two million times.

Even for a platform that attracts 554,000 daily page impressions, this is remarkable – this is an author, remember, not a pop star. What’s more impressive, though, is the click-through rates, which according to Ferriss were “orders of magnitude higher” than anything he’d experienced through paid advertising. 362,000 users were led to Ferriss’ Web site, close to 300,000 to the book’s YouTube trailer. The result: sales exceeding 250,000 copies. If users were visiting BitTorrent to get free content, they got it: in this case, a 62-page extract, videos, behind-the-scenes photos and more. But what should cheer publishers and creators is that many of them were intrigued enough to look further, even to pay good money for it.

Last year, SelfMadeHero launched a BitTorrent Bundle for Ricky Rouse Has A Gun, a graphic novel by Jörg Tittel and John Aggs.

Ricky Rouse is a book that takes a satirical swing at Western attitudes towards copyright, particularly the attitudes of an entertainment industry which clings desperately to increasingly irrelevant and uninteresting intellectual property. It questions why audiences would value copyright when original content is scarce, when all they see is sequel after sequel, remake after remake. But SelfMadeHero’s “leaking” of an extract through BitTorrent was not so much a nod in the pirates’ direction as it was an excited leap into unknown territory.

If the BitTorrent Bundle could work successfully for an established author like Timothy Ferriss, could it do the same – albeit on a smaller scale – for debut graphic novelists?

The answer was emphatic: the Ricky Rouse Bundle was downloaded 250,000 times. Of those users, close to 5,000 used their email address to unlock “premium content”; thousands more were directed to the book’s landing page on Amazon.

When, at the end of last year, Thom Yorke began selling his new album through a “paygated” BitTorrent Bundle, it didn’t require much imagination to ask whether this might point to a new way of distributing ebooks.

The principle behind the paygated Bundle is the same: in the case of Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, users can download a single track without charge, or they can pay $6 and get the whole album.

Yes, it’s cheap. Yes, it’s shareable. But if the 4.5 million downloads across free and paid-for content is anything to go by, it seems to have worked. Thom Yorke is not now $20 million better off, as some amusing misreports suggest, but one thing is clear: fans are willing to go elsewhere for digital content.

The book industry should keep this in mind as it struggles – and it should be struggling – to find new ways to sell ebooks.

Last week, SelfMadeHero’s BitTorrent experiment continued when it became the first publisher to sell an ebook through the newly launched paygated Bundle scheme. Now, as well as gaining access to free content, users can download Ricky Rouse Has A Gun in its entirety for $5. We realise this is cheap. We realise it can be shared. But if we lose control over what happens to the file once it’s downloaded, we gain control in other crucial areas: we can price it as we please and bundle it with as much additional content as we like, all the while avoiding per-MB “delivery charges” that can cripple a publisher that deals in large files.

For digital graphic novels, unlike for prose ebooks, the larger tablet is the preferred reading device.

Despite efforts to resize pages and to encourage panel-by-panel reading, the Kindle Fire is considered too small by the majority of readers. The fact that Amazon isn’t the go-to store for digital graphic novels means that we can focus our attention on editions that are not specific to any one device or application – and this leads to a better user experience. Prose publishers should be cheered by the shift toward reading on tablets; it means they can do the same.

BitTorrent no longer accounts for such a large proportion of Internet traffic. We shouldn’t read too much into this: though it has been reported as a “decline”, the decrease in traffic can be attributed largely to the company’s deployment of a more efficient protocol (µTP) in 2008 – one that recognises congestion and yields traffic to other applications.

What’s more, a look at the most recent Sandvine report into global internet traffic suggests that, with the paygated Bundle, BitTorrent are heading in the right direction. In North America, Netflix now accounts for 34.9% of downstream traffic during peak evening hours.

Nowadays, people are willing to pay good money for good content. We just need to find new ways to deliver it.

BitTorrent Bundle might be one of them.


Images provided by SelfMadeHero