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Interview: Jeff Kinney on The Wimpy Kid going digital

When I got the news a few weeks ago that Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books were to be published as e-books, I had to smile: The very first incarnation of the Diary was on the website, where you can still read an early version. So in a way, the move to electronic form is a return home for Greg Heffley and the gang. The e-books are more sophisticated, though, and in particular comiXology’s releases use their Guided View feature to allow readers to zoom in, making the books easier to read on smaller devices such as smartphones (check out the video embedded in this post if you’re not familiar with it). The books, including the brand new Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel, which just came out this week, are available via Kindle, nook, and iBooks as well as comiXology (which even has a dedicated Wimpy Kid app).

Kinney was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the new e-books—and to answer a few questions from members of his core audience at the end of the interview.

GC4K: What challenges did the diary format present for converting the Wimpy Kid books to e-books?

Jeff Kinney: I think the challenge for us was to make sure the book looked right on the e-reader screen. My books are set up in a very particular sort of way, so oftentimes the text is followed by the punchline, which is the image. Before, in the earlier e-reader versions, you couldn’t couple the text with the images in a way that felt really snappy, so we wanted to be sure we could fix the format so the pages are laid out the same as in the book.

GC4K: Do you read e-books? What’s your preferred platform, and what do you like and dislike about the experience?

Kinney: I have read e-books and I like the experience very much. I have liked everything I tried. Each device brings some difference to the table. Today on the plane, for the first time ever I downloaded a few novels and some magazines, and I really enjoyed being able to go through Time Magazine and People, but I also like the less backlit version of it like the Kindle and the nook, where it’s really easy on your eyes.

GC4K: Diary of a Wimpy Kid was originally online—that’s how I discovered it. What sort of changes did you make when bringing it to print?

Jeff Kinney: I just think of the web version as being the first draft, even though it was edited by my boss at the time. I was trying to stretch a single story across a whole year. It’s hard to keep a narrative arc going [that long], so once we got into the 217 page format, that made it easier to focus on a few storylines and let them breathe. Also, any cartoonist develops their style over time, and although I try to keep it consistent, mine has developed over time as well.

GC4K: Have you thought about what the most likely platform will be that kids will be reading this on?

Kinney: I think that kids are getting used to the content-anywhere model, where a kid is playing on the Xbox and they want to continue that experience on a tablet when they get in the car. I think in that same way, kids are going to be very agnostic about the device they use, whether it’s a projector that comes out of their wrist or on paper. I don’t know if it really matters to a kid. That’s how our kids are going to grow up: The delivery mechanism is just that. It’s just a vehicle.

GC4K: Would you consider adding any digital bells and whistles such as augmented reality, limited animation, music, or other special effects to your future books?

Kinney: It’s hard to know how to do that. A lot of these devices are going to allow for interactivity, but is that going to create better books? I’m not sure. My books are very timing based: There is a setup and a punchline, and if you have dancing, something that is going to distract the reader, that could change the experience. Certainly in the style I’m working in, animation could be good, but I want the humor to come through without distraction.

GC4K: One of the challenges with digital comics and with webcomics, and with children’s graphic novels in general, has been to connect the kids with the material. How will you ensure that kids know about these e-books?

Kinney: I think that comics, this is a guess, comics are a little bit hard to decode. If you open up a sophisticated graphic novel, or even a manga, you need to know how to read it. It almost needs an instruction manual to know what order to read things in and how to follow the panels, so in a way the comics community is a little bit niche; it’s people who are willing to put that work in to decode their stories. I think my book is very straightforward. I take the guessing out of it—it’s image-text-image. I think comic strips are successful in that same way: You know how to read the panels, you just go from left to right. I think directing the reader really helps make it more accessible.

GC4K: Why did you decide to go on the comiXology platform as well as the standard e-book platforms?

Kinney: It was something comiXology wanted to do, and we thought it was a smart move. We thought it was worth trying something different. It was a fun experience, I liked the way that it brings some liveliness to it, the way the zoom and focus feature works. I enjoy reading it that way.

GC4K: You and the Abrams folks came up with a brand name and logo for your e-books. Why did you do that?

Kinney: It was just too irresistible to have the three sprigs of hair coming off the “e”. Also, we wanted to make a big deal about it because we had held off for a long time and only recently made the decision to put these in e-book format.

[Editor’s note: The following four questions were suggested by my niece and nephew, Brendan and Maeve Reynolds.]

GC4K: What is your normal writing schedule?

Kinney: I’m getting into a gag writing part of my schedule—that means two or three hours a night of trying to think of jokes and usually not and falling asleep. That’s what I’ll do for a few months, and then I’ll go into a situation where I need to write my manuscript, that’s three weeks or a month, and drawing takes as much as three months.

GC4K: Have you ever done a writer’s workshop?

Kinney: I never have.

GC4K: Where do you get your ideas?

Kinney: I get my ideas from my childhood memories and my grownup life, and now from my own kids.

GC4K: Will there be any new characters coming after Book 7?

Kinney: I think so. I don’t know who they are yet. I don’t have a plan really, but I think a lot of time in properties that start to sag, they try to inject them with fresh life—they add a puppy or a cute kid. I’m going to try to resist that.

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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