INTERVIEW: Lillian Diaz-Przybyl of Sparkler Magazine
Lillian Diaz-Przybyl is one of the co-founders of Sparkler Magazine, which is a project that I am currently pretty excited about. They have an amazing collection of talents, graphic novels, written fiction and audio dramas under their belt — and all of it need a lot of more love from more readers. Check out our interview with Lillian below and she will tell you all about Sparkler, the work behind it and what’s in store in the future for this unique online publication.
Tell us about Sparkler Magazine’s superhero origin story. Who are the creators? Where did the idea come from and how did it become a reality?
So basically in the mid-90s, all of us got hit by the Anime Bug, and were turned into rabid otaku—I mean. Uh. Actually, that’s kind of what happened… Three out of the four of us founders were Sailor Moon junkies in one way or the other, and after I graduated with a double-degree in nerdery (read: Japanese & English, with a side of running my college’s anime society) I wound up working at TOKYOPOP for several years, where I got to know Lianne as a freelancer (actually, she applied for the same staff job I did—no hard feelings!) and a friend. Lianne and Becca have been friends since middle school, a time during which Lianne describes herself as the local anime pusher, and Jill’s a proud otome gamer and has a real job in the finance industry. We’re lucky to have found her!
The idea for starting Sparkler basically all came from Becca and Lianne, though. The summer after TOKYOPOP went under they came to me (literally—they drove up from CT to visit me at my mom’s house near Boston, where I was on vacation), and pitched the company to me. They’d been working on Tokyo Demons, Lianne’s serialized illustrated novel, for a couple of years, and wanted to basically quit their day jobs to go full-time on the publishing side, so we started to put together a plan for how to make that happen. Continuing Tokyo Demons was more of a side benefit than part of the main plan, but it’s been our test-case for a variety of different aspects of the company (from testing out what sorts of content people are willing to pay for, to having Kickstarted a strategy card game!), and it’s one of the centerpieces of our content library, since there was already so much of it, and with a lot more in development. (Plus, it’s great!)
Another key from the start, and this is in part where I came in, was that one of the goals of the company was to resurrect Off*Beat, a comics series I’d edited for TOKYOPOP, and use it as the core of our launch. I worked with Stu Levy to purchase the rights for the series, and then Jen worked her butt off (with an infant in her lap!) to complete volume 3. The long awaited final volume of Off*Beat is now officially in print and available to readers everywhere, and Jen is busy digging into her new (and very different!) series, Gatesmith!
What is the most challenging aspect of publishing digitally? Are there limitations?
I think that finding and keeping an audience is the most challenging aspect of digital publishing. There’s so much content out there these days that making a real impact and getting attention has proved to be even more difficult than we anticipated. It’s funny, but as out of fashion as bookstores often seem to be these days, there’s still a lot of people out there, particularly in the teenage/credit-card-less set, who discover new series simply by browsing the shelves of the manga section at Barnes & Nobles. There are a lot of downsides to that market, especially as a small publisher, but that ability to just poke around in brick-space is still really valuable, and it’s tough to be missing out on that, at least for the moment.
We’re working on it, though, and we’ve learned a lot over the past year, so I feel like we’re so close to a real breakthrough that we can taste it! It’ll be interesting to see what it will be that pushes us over that last bump into a solid, stable audience. J (Maybe this interview will be it!)
The secondary thing is that it’s still tough to get people to pay for digital content. As great and powerful as the free web has been overall, for content creators, it’s important to get people compensated for their hard work, and it’s a real challenge to convince people to throw down that monthly membership fee. Our membership drive is off to a great start, though, and it’s been really heartening to have random people come out of the internet woodwork to remind others that we can’t continue to exist without that financial support.
What are the biggest advantages to publishing online versus print?
The biggest advantage is flexibility and instant fan feedback! With TP, we’d finish a book, send it to print, and it’d be at least three months before it even hit store shelves, and then however much time on top of that for people to discover it and get excited about it. That’s a really tough wait for a creator who takes inspiration and energy from fan responses, and from a publisher/editorial side, it’s tough to get useful feedback on what’s working or not in a timely enough way for it to be interpolated into the ongoing story. It’s really great to be able to talk to fans directly and get a read on how we’re doing and what we can be doing better! The responsiveness of the digital space is really great.
We had a really flexible schedule for our first year as well, with different series updating weekly, under the monthly issue banner. That meant if something was running a little behind, we could push it back a week and pull something forward if we needed to. We’re giving up on that in our second year, since we suspect it wound up confusing people more than it helped drive site traffic, and having one big release a month feels more like a magazine, but the digital space at least let us play around with our release model in a way we never could have in a million years with the strictures of print.
How do you decide what kind of content to produce (comics, audio drama, etc) and how did you find the talents behind them? How did you decide which genres and media to mix with the magazine?
Well, we’re openly basing our business model on the Japanese media industry, which has serialized comics and illustrated light novels running in monthly (or even weekly) magazines. The audio component is also something that we’re borrowing, although Japanese dramas usually get released as one-off albums, rather than having monthly updates. Audio is Becca’s baby, with Lianne throwing in enthusiastic support (back when she freelanced for me at TP, Lianne would send me care packages of drama cds for my listening pleasure.), and so we were hoping to really break out of the podcast niche a bit with something fresh and different.
As for talent, it’s a mix of people we’ve known for years, people we’ve found through our submissions process, and people who we’ve stalked online (I, in particular, spend a lot of time tracking down artists on tumblr). It’s always a matter of finding the right people for the right project so it’s good to have a pool that we can recruit from. Genre-wise, we’re open to a lot of different things, and in fact, diversity of both content and our casts of characters is a key component to what we’re trying to do with the magazine. We’re avoiding doubling up too much, so we want a mix of both contemporary and non-contemporary stories (whether that means historical, high fantasy or sci-fi), both queer and straight romances, and a mix of genres. The essence that ties all our varied works together, though, is the emphasis on FEELS. The kind of emotional connection and reaction we get from our own favorite series is what we’re really striving to replicate in all our various formats.
What are your favorite projects in the magazine currently, or what are you most looking forward to watching grow?
We try not to pick favorites. I mean, with comics, I don’t sign up series I’m not excited about, although I’m particularly psyched to be working on a new series with Jen Quick, and I think Kosen’s Windrose really has the potential to be our big breakout hit.
On the prose side, it’s interesting to watch how we fit into the overall landscape. We’re targetted a little older than your standard YA stuff, but not quite as sexy (usually) as your average urban fantasy, plus our stories have occasional illustrations. And while fanfic readers are more used to reading stories as works in progress, a lot of people expect prose to be a complete, already-finished experience, so the serialized factor is new to many readers. So I’m interested to see how we continue to find our niche in the context of what’s already out there in the indie/small publisher space. Lianne’s put together an amazing line-up of creators, so now we just need to keep on getting the word out!
I think audio probably has the most growth potential, though, mostly because no one else out there is really doing quite what we’re doing (and Becca’s good at what she does!). More on that in your next question!
I think the audio dramas, like Awake, are really amazing. Are you hoping to get more people excited about them and how do you hope to expand this genre?
I was so excited to hear that you enjoyed Awake! Becca’s really done amazing work on that series, and we’re all so pleased with how it’s come out. We’re definitely hoping to get more people excited about them! The success of things like Welcome to Night Vale is hugely heartening, so we hope we can get on that bandwagon and keep expanding the medium beyond the “retro radio drama” format that I feel like we’ve seen enough of already (I’m all for 1940s nostalgia, but let’s see something fresh!). Audio’s a different experience from either comics or prose, so certain stories definitely work better than others in the format, but there’s still a lot you can do beyond the standard “radio play.” Anyway, Awake is going to wrap up in a month or so, but we’ve already got the next drama signed up, and while it’s something really different, I think it’s going to be a great addition to the magazine.
If the creators of Sparkler had superpowers, what would they be and why?
I’ve always wanted to be able to fly. I used to have dreams about flying all the time, and I still love being up in high places, looking out over the world…and boy would flight powers make it easier to get around in traffic-filled Los Angeles!
Can people collaborate creatively with Sparkler? If so, how can they reach you?
Sure! We’re opening up submissions for prose of all types (serials and shorts) in September, and we’ll open for comics shorts in October—audio will likely open up again next year, . Beyond that, we also run a distribution service for other independent creators who share our market niche. As for team-ups, we’re always looking for new ways to get our audience excited, whether it’s a bonus feature of some sort (we run a monthly member exclusive for our paid readers), or a marketing cross-over/ad trade or what-have-you, so hit us up on Tumblr or Twitter or at email@example.com if you’ve got an idea that you think we’d be into!
Check out Sparkler Magazine at www.sparklermonthly.com.