Famed cartoonist Jeff Smith launched his latest property, Tuki, on the web in late November, a radical departure from his previous strategy with Bone and RASL of releasing new stories in periodical comics first, then books.  We talked to Cartoon Books Publisher Vijaya Iyer about the new business model for Tuki, and when it will appear in print.
One of the things going on the Jeff Smith world is the print release of RASL, which we hear is doing well.
Yes, we’re getting a lot of good feedback and good reviews.  It spent a little bit of time on The New York Times Bestseller list, and may be back on there this week.  Jeff has a couple books out this fall.  RASL, Best American Comics and IDW just released one of their oversized, collectible Bone volumes—an Artist’s Edition.
RASL is doing great.  It’s definitely a different audience and I think we’re reaching them.  Publishers Weekly just picked it as one of their best books for 2013, so that was very exciting for us. 
You seem to be taking on a new business model with Tuki.  The schedule is unusual; can you go through the schedule of how the new content is being posted?
We had to come up with a way to do this because of the way Jeff works.  He works on his own schedule.  He’s a very competent cartoonist but we had to work within the confines of what he could put out.   We decided to release it in what we’re calling "seasons."  A page is going up on our website every other day—Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  It started November 25, and it’ll go probably go through late January.  The nice thing is that he has the flexibility to decide how long or short to make it.  Then we’ll take a hiatus and we’ll come back for Season 2 on April 14th.  And that will run through mid-June.
How many pages will it run?
Probably 44 to 48 pages.
That’s a nice number for a collection. 
That is correct.  And that is actually our intent.  A couple of years ago someone introduced me to webcartoonists Scott Kurtz, Dave Kellett, and Brad Guigar.  These guys are super-savvy business people.  They’re making a living doing Web comics.  They have these huge audiences—tens of thousands of people visit their websites every single day.  That got me thinking that we might have an opportunity to build a larger base by offering free content first.  And hopefully the content will be beloved and when we release a lovely collectible object, a portion of those people might want to possess it.  That’s the new route we’re taking. 
Because we are deeply rooted in the direct market, our collectibles will be available to the direct market only.  We’re not exactly sure of the format, we’re going to have to talk to the comics retailers and get some feedback from them. 
You called it your first "collectible?"
I’m getting ahead of myself.  The second season will finish in June.  We’ll have 48-50 pages so we think that will be a good time to release a book.  It will be a perfect-bound book, but as far as size and things like that, we want to talk to the retailers.  It’ll probably come in June or July. 
There have been people successful in building an online audience and then selling the product later.  You’ve got advertising on the website, is there any other revenue stream on the site?
We’re tossing around maybe doing some t-shirts or something.  We are going to have to merchandise this in some way.  I think until we have a little bit of content under our belt we’re not going to really be able to market this until we really start to hook people.
One of the things that some of the webcomics people do very successfully is the direct interaction with the fans.  I was looking at the Tuki blog page—how are you managing that?  Is there a group of people rotating?
We’re a small business.  There are four of us, including Jeff and I and two other people.  Because the last couple of months he’s been on tour for RASL so he’s not really been here that much, we kind of rotate.  Whoever has time to do the blog.  What Jeff does now, when he posts his new page, if he has a comment on it or something to say about the comic, he will do that.  He does blog, but right now he’s deeply into researching and creating this new idea of his. 
Researching?  Is Tuki "historically" accurate?
It is a fiction, but as with RASL, it will be well researched.  Jeff did whole bunch of research for RASL on string theory and had other astrophysicists that he was in contact with.  A lot of the information in there is accurate, current physics.  As with that, this will be paleo-anthropologically correct.  That’s a mouthful.
What’s the response been like to the first few pages posted?
We’re not getting a ton of feedback right now. Unfortunately we have disabled the comments on our website because we get a lot of spam.  But on Facebook we’re getting a lot of good feedback.  When I tweet about it, we’re getting a lot of retweets.  So I think the intent of building an audience might just work.
What are you doing to publicize it?  We’ve seen some press releases and social media.
Pretty much that’s it.  It’s going to be social media.  We’re hoping the word of mouth will get out there.  We’ll do some more press releases once the season’s finished; we’ll definitely reach out to the press again. 
Jeff’s probably talking it up on his travels?
Yes, he introduced Tuki in November at the CBLDF [Comic Book Legal Defense Fund] fundraiser at the Society of Illustrators.  It got a little bit of press there.  We’re rolling this out in a way where there doesn’t have to be this huge release because you can go out there at any time and access the content.  We weren’t as concerned to have this bang release like we were with RASL because we had a lot of money invested in the print run and things like that.  We needed to get out there more quickly.

I think the word of mouth will build and we’ll be able to pick up an audience that way.
So you’ll do direct distribution to the comic stores and then potentially a book publisher edition down the road?
Since we’re releasing this in color rather than in black and white we’re going to wait until the story is complete before we go to the book market.
Is there a vision for how long the total story is going to be?
Nope.  I’m sure Jeff has an idea, but when he begins a story like this, it’s pre-written—he’s written the whole thing.  But sometimes the road takes twists and turns. It’s always longer than he anticipates.  If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it will be around a 500-page book, but don’t hold me to that.