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E-books Unbound: An interview with Aaron Thacker

The two brothers from Indiana who sell downloadable comic books in PDF through Unbound Comics are feeling positive over future prospects for their site – which they run together from a considerable distance from one another. But this physical distance between Aaron (who lives in San Francisco) and Matt Thacker (in Chicago) hasn’t limited their success with Unbound Comics, a site that offers new and out-of-print comic books in e-book format for nearly half the price of their print counterparts. Unbound Comics is physically based in Chicago (where Matt Thacker receives paper submissions and converts them into downloadable PDF files), but Aaron’s office is “a Dell laptop that I’ve carried across two continents and four U.S. states since Unbound Comics launched.” Lucky for us, he was able to sit down and answer a few questions while on a short jaunt to Los Angeles over the weekend.

“When I was a really young kid, my parents would take Matt and me to a barber in town for our haircuts. He had a small stack of EC comics – couldn’t have been more than a half dozen of them – and I would read those while Matt was getting his haircut -- must have read each one of those books a dozen times.

“I started thinking about Unbound Comics in 1999. There was a lot of talk about how the direct market had failed, particularly how it had failed smaller, independent presses. This was also when the dot.com boom was in full swing, and the entire publishing industry was talking about e-books. I had a book that I wanted to do – the comic book staging of Hamlet that Ben Templesmith and I had been working on – and I thought that the Internet and e-books might provide a good alternative to the direct market. So, I started learning the technology and talking with other creators about what I wanted to do. I got great advice from a lot of people, and we put together the basic framework of what would become Unbound Comics. Then we launched the site. Since then, we’ve been growing and refining, adding books and learning the best way to approach this business.

“Different things inspire me on different days. Lately, I’ve really enjoyed working with the [William] Messner-Loebs benefit book. John Roberson put together this incredible book with contributions from a who’s who of comic book creators. It was really a brilliant idea on his part. We had already worked together on Plastic, and John knew that, by working with Unbound Comics, he could get the benefit book published quickly and for free and have it available for sale all over the world. We are sending almost 100% per cent of the sale price right to the Messner-Loebs family, and it feels like the best thing we’ve done so far.

“Most of the creators and publishers have come to us – some right before we were planning to go to them, actually. We’ve received so many submissions that there hasn’t been much time to go out and try to recruit individuals, but we definitely all have our own list of our favorite books and creators and publishers, and I don’t think it will be long before we start going for the people on our list.

“If there’s a good story there, I’ll read anything. Unbound Comics was created, in large part, because I wanted to try and create an outlet for genres and themes that weren’t getting a fair shot in the direct market. I will say, however, that lately I’ve been looking for a good superhero storyline to pick up.

“We want to find creators who can tell good stories. That usually breaks down into two groups of material. On the one hand, you have incredible books that have been published and are now out of print – such as Nick Abadzis’ Hugo Tate or Tim Truman’s Wilderness or Jamie Delano’s World Without End. On the other hand, you have incredible books that have never been published, because their creators haven’t been discovered yet – such as John Ira Thomas and Jeremy Smith’s Numbers.

“The technology changes so quickly that I almost always have a site revision on my desk. And we’re always working on ways to expand and improve. Recently, that meant working out a deal to get Unbound Comics books on the sites of other big retailers – Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and so on. Today, that means working on two very cool projects that I’m going to keep to myself for a bit longer. I usually have some contracts that need to go out to creators, and Matt usually has some books to be converted.

“There are some trends in technology that are irresistible. The first is the increasing availability of computer memory and processing power – the first computer we owned was a Commodore 64, with 64K of memory and a cassette tape drive. The second is the increasing availability of bandwidth. And the third is improved computer displays. You can buy LCD monitors that will rotate into portrait mode. [You can buy a tablet PC with comic book dimensions.] When I put those together, I have an easy time seeing a future when we’ll read all kinds of books in digital format. Then it’s just a matter of having the best team and the best game plan. I couldn’t ask for a better group of creators and publishers to work with, and we have built a foundation that has carried us through the dot.com implosion. I’ve seen a lot of competitors fold up shop while Unbound Comics continues to grow. And now we’re starting to get into some very good display technology, which is the key.”