From the New York Times:
When Pixels Find New Life on Real Paper
By NOAM COHEN
IT’S not exactly Quentin Tarantino directing Ibsen, or Jeff Gordon racing go-carts, but the idea that Randall Munroe, creator of the online comic strip xkcd — wildly popular among techies the world over for its witty use of programming code in its gags — would for the first time publish a book is still something of a head scratcher.
Not a book for Kindle, I should add. A print book — you know, dead trees, ink, no text search, nonadjustable font size. The plan is for an initial press run of 10,000 copies sometime around June. And judging by the enthusiasm of the strip’s fans, who frequently act out the concepts in the strip in real life, those copies should sell quickly.
So, are we seeing an all-too-rare example of the triumph of print books over digital content? Does even an online legend like the 24-year-old Mr. Munroe crave the respectability of print? (Mr. Munroe once before climbed the respectability ladder when in October he competed against the illustrator Farley Katz of The New Yorker in a “cartoon-off.” No winner was declared.)
In fact, the xkcd story previews the much more likely future of books in which they are prized as artifacts, not as mechanisms for delivering written material to readers. This is print book as vinyl record — admired for its look and feel, its cover art, and relative permanence — but not so much for convenience.
The print xkcd book is not being published through a traditional company but rather by breadpig — which was created by Alexis Ohanian, one of the founders of the social-news Web site reddit. The site has sold high-concept merchandise like refrigerator magnets or T-shirts, but never a book. (Its profits go to the charity Room to Read.)
“We never made any projection — 10,000 seems like a good run,” Mr. Ohanian said, adding that this lack of research “is laughable from the perspective of anyone who knows the book industry. It’s what makes sense.”
The book — with the working title “xkcd,” though Mr. Ohanian says it may carry a subtitle like “a book of romance, sarcasm, math and language” — will not initially be sold in bookstores, and probably never in the big chains. Instead, it will be sold through the xkcd Web site.
“It doesn’t need to be in bookstores,” Mr. Munroe said. “I don’t have hard numbers about this, but the impression I get is that the amount of eyeballs you get from being on the humor shelf at Barnes & Noble — it is almost insignificant.”
Mr. Munroe said he had been contacted by large publishers, particularly those that specialize in comics and graphic novels. “The traditional model is they send us a royalty, and they handle getting it sold,” he said. “We figure that most of our audience is people who know us from the Internet — normal publishers weren’t as interested.”
Naturally, without an established publisher and with a devoted fan base online, the book will not be promoted through traditional publicity. Rather, the plan is to rely on word-of-keyboard.
Such online recommendations, Mr. Ohanian said, were how he discovered xkcd. “The first time xkcd showed up on reddit — it was just good,” he said. “The Internet really facilitates good stuff being read.”
Will there be review copies sent to newspapers and magazines? Good question, Mr. Ohanian said. There’s no reason why not, he quickly concluded.
While Mr. Munroe conceded a nostalgic love of books, remembering how he devoured books of a favorite comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes, he said he is now a committed Kindle 2 user, preferring it to print. Still, he said: “I have this urge. You want to print them out and put them up on places. There is something good about collecting them together.”
Publishing a book is an extension of the selling of items like T-shirts and posters, which pays the bills, he said, to a “free culture” mind-set about the cartoons themselves. “We have been encouraging people to share things, saying that it is a good business decision,” he said. “Instead of trying to convince people, why not make a bunch of money?”
The book will have 150 to 200 of strips out of more than 500 so far published online and is expected to sell for $19. The selection was made by a fan who is also doing the layout for breadpig. “I took a few off and added a few others,” he said.
The book will include a foreward from Mr. Munroe as well as red-ink commentary from him on the most popular strips. One trick in transferring the material from online to print has been how to recreate the “title text” that comments on the strip when your cursor hovers over it.
“It’s not supposed to be a punch line, but hopefully if you didn’t laugh, you’ll laugh at this,” he said. The title text will appear where the tiny copyright notice would appear on a traditional strip.
Does that mean that the book won’t carry a traditional copyright and instead take its lead from the online comic strip itself, which Mr. Munroe licenses under Creative Commons, allowing noncommercial re-use as long as credit is given?
“To anyone who wants to photocopy, bind, and give a copy of the book to their loved one — more power to them,” he said. “He/She will likely be disappointed that you’re so cheap, though.”