Blacksad v1 by iBooks logo

Blacksad and ibooks: The Incredible True Story of the Publisher That Brought Blacksad to America, Died, Went Bankrupt, and Sued Apple (In That Order)

“Blacksad” first saw print through Dargaud in France in 2000.

The series came to America in December 2003, distributed through Simon and Schuster via a company called — ibooks.

Again, keep in mind, this is the year 2003. Apple wouldn’t unveil their bookstore called “iBooks” until 2010. Hold on to that thought for later, though. We’ll get back to it.

This is the story of how Blacksad came to America, how a tragedy delayed it after a promising start, and a trademark kerfuffle with Big Tech. Also, there’s a forty year treasure hunt that will seemingly never end.

Who is Byron Preiss?

ibooks was the brainchild of Byron Preiss. If that name isn’t familiar to you, it means you weren’t reading comics between 1970 and 2000 or so.

Preiss was a noted book publisher, writer, and packager. He often worked ahead of his time. In the 1970s, he published graphic novels for adults decades before they were cool, including Jim Steranko’s “Red Tide”. He used the terms “visual novel” and “graphic novel” for his publications.

This was all done in the years before Will Eisner’s 1979 release, “Contract With God,” which is often cited as the first “graphic novel.”

For being ahead of his time, Preiss was not entirely warmly welcomed by the comics community, many of whom saw him as an intruder without proper geek cred.

The hostile response to Byron Preiss’s graphic novels indicates there was no concerted, uniform will amongst fans, creators, and publishers to change the status of comics in American society. Attempts to do so were greeted with the suspicion that something integral to comics was being abandoned by BPVP’s efforts to elevate the medium through book publication.

The Strange Case of Byron Preiss Visual Publications

In other words, fans hated change and rebelled against a comics publisher who was determined to avoid many of the aesthetics of comics (panel borders, word balloons, the very word “comic book”) that Preiss used to separate himself from the pack.

Jim Steranko Red Tide sample page.  It features two panels and a lot of text below them.
Jim Steranko’s “Red Tide”

In particular, some fans didn’t think these books were actually comics as they featured text that ran alongside the art, instead of in word balloons inside the art. Preiss said there would never be word balloons because adult readers wouldn’t take them seriously. Comics fans revolted. R.C. Harvey, notably, wrote that these books didn’t qualify as comics. (I wonder what he thought of Kyle Baker’s works a decade later.)

Beyond that, Preiss worked in all the “future” technologies you could imagine when it came to books. He won a Grammy Award for an audio book in 1985. In the 1990s, he worked on CD-ROM books, virtual comics, and ebooks.

He published celebrity children’s books before they were a dime a dozen.

He was 30 years out of line, 30 years ahead of his time.

Carl Reiner

He also wrote a book that caused a nationwide treasure hunt that still hasn’t ended. I will save that story for the end of this article, just to help keep us focused here.

Let’s move onto something that’s more directly on-topic:

The Dawn of ibooks

ibooks logo

Byron Preiss started ibooks in 1999 to facilitate putting novels into digital formats other than the fading CD-ROM format. He wanted to take on the nascent ebook market.

The name made sense. Apple launched the iMac in 1998. Apple said the “i” stood for “Internet,” but also for “individuality” and “innovation.” It launched a tidal wave of products whose names started with an “I”.

“ibooks” made sense for a book publisher that defined itself as an internet company.

Here’s how ibooks defined itself on its own website in 2003:

The world is moving faster. Publishers must move faster. ibooks harnesses the latest digital technology to get its books published at the speed of the 21st century. Shorter lead times and Internet promotion are designed to assist independent and national booksellers sell our titles at the speed of thought. In every category, ibooks™ is teaming up with major brands to balance its list between the best of the old and the best of the new.

(Note the careful placement of the “TM” after their name? That will play into our story shortly, too…)

Here’s how Publisher’s Weekly described the start-up:

Byron Preiss Visual Publications will launch a new imprint in September that will focus on books with content appropriate for marketing on the Internet.

Free chapters of all the books appearing under the imprint will be available over the Internet at ibooksinc.com, and in some cases the complete book will be sold through the site. “We believe this is a good way to use the Internet to market books,” BPVP president Byron Preiss said. . . . .

According to Preiss, the imprint is actively looking for authors’ backlists as well as original works than [sic] can benefit from the relationship between print and the Internet. . .

Sound like Amazon’s Kindle store yet?

From a 1999 press release:

iBooks is the first publishing imprint designed to take full advantage of the promotional and distribution potential of the [I]nternet through downloadable free chapters, virtual reading groups and message boards between authors and readers.  It plays to make books available in traditional trade paperback and hardcover formats simultaneously with electronic text.

OK, so maybe Amazon didn’t create message boards, but…

The Amazon Kindle didn’t debut until 2007. This was hardly a mainstream distribution route at the time.

ibooks was no joke. It had New York City offices, big name authors, and several divisions to handle the different genres their books were in.

The ibooks catalog offered a lot of pop culture-friendly titles, including tv series tie-ins (“The New York Times on The Sopranos”, “A/K/A Jennifer Garner”), science fiction and fantasy novels, mysteries, and more. They also had a children’s line of books at ipicturebooks.com which was eventually acquired by Time Warner.

They started publishing graphic novels in 2003, featuring “Yossel” by Joe Kubert. ibooks even published a manga book created by Moebius and Jiro Taniguchi called “Icaro”, which is long out of print and fetching a multiple of its cover price on eBay today. I have to imagine that would be a big seller these days if Dark Horse could pick up that license.

How ibooks Published Blacksad

ibooks also imported comics material from Europe. That included a relatively new series from France called “Blacksad.”

The first Blacksad book, as published by ibooks

The ibooks edition of “Blacksad: Book 1” debuted in 2003 as an oversized paperback edition. It was huge. Compared to the later Dark Horse edition, it was a full inch taller and half inch wider. The reproduction values are as strong as they are with the Dark Horse edition everyone is now familiar with. The ibooks paper stock is shinier, and the production values are very strong. (Read my full review.)

The Jim Steranko introduction Dark Horse uses in their first collection is pulled from the ibooks edition, but it’s printed as black text on light gray paper instead of white on black, which makes it much more readable on the ibooks side.

According to Preiss, the book had 5000 – 6000 copies in print initially. (It sold 100,000 copies in France.)

ibooks' Blacksad v2 Arctic Nation

“Blacksad: Book 2” came quickly to America in March 2004. (Read my full review.)

ibooks Blacksad: The Sketch Files

A third book, “Blacksad: The Sketch Files”, released in 2005, contains interviews, page roughs, layouts, sketches, and other material covering the first book. I have to think it was published to keep “Blacksad” fans happy until the third book in the series was available to translate and bring overseas.

I honestly don’t know if “The Sketch Files” was produced for the English market directly. I can’t find any trace of a French edition of this book.

The third book in the main series, “Red Soul”, debuted in France later in 2005, but never saw print through ibooks for tragic reasons.

The End of ibooks

Sadly, Byron Preiss died in a car accident on July 9, 2005 in Long Island, NY.

The company never recovered. On February 22, 2006, the company declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy. That’s the kind where they sell off all the assets to cover the remaining bills. The creditors list ran 80 pages, while the company had “over 2500 contracts” in play.

An auction was scheduled for October 19th, 2006, but was then delayed until December. At that point, J Boylston & Company (another book publisher) won the auction with a $125,000 bid.

You can find them still in business and online today at ibooksinc.com. They list 57 books in their graphic novels line, though that includes everything they ever published, whether it’s in print or not.

Spoiler: The vast majority, if not all, of the books are not. It’s unknown how many of the contracts they picked up were doomed to expire, or had already expired, by the time they won the auction. It’s probably a big part of the reason why the company didn’t sell for more.

Without its visionary founder and his network, the fire that fueled the company was extinguished.

One irony from the mission statement of the company, as seen in a court filing we’ll talk about a little later:

Since acquiring Preiss’ companies, [J Boylston & Company] have continued to publish books under the iBooks imprint. The plaintiffs sell both physical books and ebooks. A spreadsheet that [John Colby, owner of J Boylston & Company] compiled and produced in discovery indicates that 98.17% of the books sold under the iBooks and ipicturebooks imprints from 1999 through 2012 have been physical books, while 1.83% have been ebooks. 

ibooks was created to be the internet-centered book publisher, but the final sales tally shows that the old school ways won out.

 

Blacksad’s Second American Life

Dark Horse's Blacksad hardcover

Dark Horse Comics eventually picked up the North American license for “Blacksad”, but it wouldn’t be until 2010 that they’d publish a hardcover compendium (affiliate link) of the first three books in the series, under the title “Blacksad.” That included the first North American publication of the third book, “Red Soul.”

The “Sketch Files” book that ibooks published remains un-reprinted to this day, and fetches a high price in the aftermarket.

Dark Horse has the license to this day, publishing the fourth (“A Silent Hell”) and fifth (“Amarillo”) books in the series, with the sixth book (“They All Fall Down – Part 1”) on the schedule for the summer of 2022. They also produced a softcover omnibus of the five books last summer.

Blacksad’s 2010 release from Dark Horse earned it a lot of attention and critical acclaim. It’s funny what will happen when a comic book in the Direct Market gets reprinted through a publisher in the front half of the Previews catalog. People notice it. Review after review of it I read from 2010 start with the writer mentioning how they had heard good things about the book but never read it until Dark Horse took it over.

That’s when I turn into a Blacksad Hipster and show off my ibooks collection… (See above pictures.)

Apple vs ibooks

Judge's gavel
wPhoto by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

The last twist in our story is a legal one.

Apple has a history of licensing or taking over a trademark for a word they want to use:

(If you’re curious, Apple maintains a list of trademarks it owns.)

Specific to this case, Apple entered into a deal with Family Systems, the owners of the “iBook” trademark, in 1999. They agreed to limit their usage of it to computers only, while the software company agreed to stick to its core business of software used to create ebooks.

In 2010, leading up to its announcement of the iBooks Store, Apple completely bought out the rights to the trademark from Family Systems.

So, what about “ibooks”? Byron Preiss gave his company that name in 1999. The official trademark paperwork for the publisher’s name was filed on August 27th, 1999 for “BOOKS, NAMELY, A SERIES OF FICTION BOOKS; NON-FICTION BOOKS IN THE FIELD OF SCIENCE”.

Press releases from the company included the “TM” indication next to the word and everything.

When Apple announced an ebook store named “iBooks” in 2010, you could imagine lawyers rubbing their hands with glee. This was a slam dunk case. A publisher of books named “ibooks” with a trademark on that word should easily win in a suit against a company creating an ebook store with the same name.

Right?

On June 5, 2011, iBooks’ owner, J Boylston & Company, filed a lawsuit against Apple alleging trademark infringement and confusion of the marketplace.

Except…

Apple won.

You can read the whole ruling (I subscribed for a trial month to read it), but it’s tough to read. It’s 71 pages of a font that will make your eyes bleed.

Here, as they say, is the “nut graf”:

Apple moves for summary judgment on all of the plaintiffs’ claims. The defendant’s motion is granted. The plaintiffs have failed to present sufficient evidence that their ibooks mark is entitled to trademark protection or that their mark is likely to suffer from reverse confusion with Apple’s iBooks mark

Judge Denise Cote

By the way, “summary judgment” means the judge thinks the plaintiff’s case is so weak that it’s not worth even going to a full trial.

If you do read further into the filing, you’ll better understand why this decision makes sense. ibooks, a company that had gone through bankruptcy and liquidation, had abandoned their trademark on the term in July 2003. Apple, in doing their due diligence found another trademark on “iBook” from 1996, three years prior to Preiss’ company. They bought that company’s term outright.

Oh, and then it started to look like J Boylston and Company was trying to cash in on a forgotten trademark. After the Apple iBooks announcement is when the publisher suddenly started to capitalize the “B” in their imprint’s name. They told the judge that Apple was confusing the market with a too-similar name, but then changed their name in the one small way it would take to make their own name identical to Apple’s. You can’t have it both ways.

The rest of the filing explains in graphic legal detail how the publisher did not make a strong enough case and why the case should be dismissed outright. The judge builds a strong argument that the plaintiff (J Boylston & Company) failed spectacularly to make their case. There’s a lot of case law cited, as you might imagine, but the stuff specific to this case is entertaining to pull out.

I hate to say it, but J Boylston & Company should have been happy to have people assume they were published by Apple. It likely would have done better for their business than this lawsuit, in the end.

Today, by the way, you can buy Dark Horse’s Blacksad books via Penguin Random House digitally in Comixology, Izneo, and — Apple’s Book Store:

Buy Blacksad on the Apple Books store

In September 2018, Apple ditched the iBooks name completely and now refers to its digital ebook store as “Apple Books.”

That is the long, strange history of the ‘ibooks’ trademark and why it doesn’t even matter anymore.

The End-ish

That brings to a close the saga of ibooks and their publishing history with Blacksad. The series got off to a great start, and is still in solid hands now with a publisher who shows great care and respect for the material. We have five glorious books to read with more to come.

It’s a happy ending. It was just a bit of a wild ride getting there.

ibooks (back to the lowercase “b”) still exists to this day as one of several imprints in the J Boylston & Company catalog. You may also see them under the name of Brick Tower Press. I’m not sure how active they are, to be honest. Looks like they haven’t issued a press release in a year, but COVID can explain a lot of things. The website is still up and running at the old ibooksinc.com URL. That’s the home page for J Boylston & Company, as well as Brick Tower Press.

For those of you who are still curious about Byron Preiss’ nationwide treasure hunt that’s still ongoing, 40 years later, this one’s for you:

Bonus: “The Secret”

The Secret by Byron Preiss cover

In 1982, Preiss co-wrote and published a book called “The Secret.” It’s a series of 12 detailed and elaborate images with associated poems that, together, can lead you to specific locations across America where you can find buried treasures.

This wasn’t a theoretical thing. It was real. In the year leading up to the book’s launch, Preiss went to those locations and buried actual boxes to be found. Once you found the box, you could exchange it with Preiss for some kind of valuable jewel.

He also commissioned an artist to create 39 sculptures of the characters in the book, which were then photographed for publicity purposes. 36 additional characters were hand drawn for the book.

To this day, only three of the treasures have ever been found. The first was found in Chicago in 1983. The second was discovered in Cleveland in 2004. Most recently, a box was located in Boston in 2019.

This is no easy puzzle.

In today’s internet age, activity in solving the remaining nine mysteries remains high. Podcasts and websites are devoted to it. The Travel Channel even did an episode of their series, “Expedition Unknown”, about it.

Finding the treasures today is harder than ever. Landscapes, such as the parks Preiss buried the treasures in, have changed. It’s possible that buildings have been built on top of them, or that roads have been paved, sealing them into the ground forever.

It’s also trickier now to get permission from city parks departments to come dig up their land in search of a long-lost treasure, based on a guess. Go figure.

For a deep background on the book, the puzzles, and the history of treasure hunters looking for it, I recommend reading “The Secret Armchair Treasure Hunt.” There’s also a documentary in production, but I don’t know if it’s available anywhere past this trailer.

Everyone has a theory they “know” is correct for where the NYC treasure is buried. I got caught up in exploring a few of the theories. They start in very similar places and then follow the clues to vastly different locations.

It’s hard to imagine anyone pulling a publishing stunt like this today. The internet makes pooling resources and figuring out the answers much easier today. Modern safety and preservation concerns would keep would-be authors/marketers from digging holes in public lands to hide boxes

Except… Forrest Fenn did it in 2010 (complete with a poem filled with clues!), and five people died looking for his treasure. The treasure was, however, found in 2020, a couple of months before Fenn died.

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

2 Comments

  1. Fascinating story.

    What surprised me most in this piece is seeing the excerpt from Red Tide in color. The first french printing I have is in B&W, like Eisner’s work in the same collection.

    A quick search of the Blacksad french wikipedia page shows that 3 special art books have been published
    Very likely the first one is the one you mention. The ISBN number makes it easy to find on amazon.fr

    Liste des albums hors-série en français
    HS 1 Les Dessous de l’enquête…, Dargaud, 2001
    Scénario : Juan Díaz Canales – Dessin et couleurs : Juanjo Guarnido – (ISBN 9782205052909)

    HS 2 L’histoire des aquarelles, Dargaud, 2005
    Scénario : Juan Díaz Canales – Dessin et couleurs : Juanjo Guarnido – (ISBN 9782205058109)

    HS 3 L’histoire des aquarelles – Tome 2, Dargaud, 2010
    Scénario : Juan Díaz Canales – Dessin et couleurs : Juanjo Guarnido – (ISBN 9782205066425)

    1. Thanks, JC, that’s definitely where the material came from. The interview pages have the same design, from the quick excerpt I found of it online. I wasn’t sure what the title for the book would be, so I didn’t know what to look up. (After “Integrale,” my French book format names fails me.). This makes sense.

      Coming up, either the fourth or fifth book that Dark Horse published has a whole section of Making Of material in the back that’s mostly dedicated to the watercoloring process. I bet that came from a book in this series, as well….