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J. Jacques

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Comics comics comics [Feb. 1st, 2009|03:15 pm]
J. Jacques
So I don't know how many (if any) of you guys keep up with business developments in syndicated and print comics, but basically they are quite possibly FUCKED at this point. Newspapers are cutting comics from their publications. Comics distributors are tightening their belts, meaning less opportunity for indie comics to get distributed.

Essentially the ONLY PART OF COMICS that has not been significantly impacted by the economic downturn (*knock on wood*) is us webcomics folks. And so a lot of now-disenfranchised syndicate and print comics guys are looking for ways to monetize their work online. Which is great! Good for them! Except many of them are either dismissive of the webcomics business model as a whole, or too lazy/frightened to try and do it themselves, or have misguided expectations of how comics should make money on the internet.

Neil Swaab has a blog post that really encapsulates every problem with syndicated cartoonists' attitude towards the web. Let's break it down, shall we?

"I know there are plenty of web comic artists who are able to subsist on the income they make from their website, but they aren't making money from their comics; they're making money from merchandise. Not to belittle web-only comic artists, but when their income is derived from t-shirts, it makes them salesmen first, artists second."

Now this is a very contentious (you might even say contemptuous) statement, and it is one that Mr. Swaab has since apologized for making (it is actually a really nice, heartfelt explanation and increased my respect of the dude immensely, check it out here on Fleen) but the real problem is that many print cartoonists honestly think this way about webcomics. Not only does it reek of sour grapes, it is dismissive of a business model that arguably works better than any other yet found for comics on the internet. As Gary explains in more detail, comics have ALWAYS derived significant portions of their income from merchandising. Saying webcartoonists are t-shirt hucksters is like saying Charles Schultz was an insurance salesman because Snoopy is on the Met Life blimp.

"not every comic artist wants to be a t-shirt salesperson"

You don't HAVE to be in order to make money off of t-shirts. Most of us these days farm out our distribution to third parties, and I see no reason why you couldn't farm out your design or merchandising to one as well. Yes, it's another middle man to deal with, but it's still a vast difference from the massive entrenched corporate structure you have to deal with in print or syndication. Don't wanna sell t-shirts? Pay someone else to do it for you. If you've got the audience (and that, really, is the key) you'll still turn a profit.

Addendum: it has been pointed out, and correctly, by many folks in the comments that the business model does not solely revolve around t-shirts either. You can sell all SORTS of stuff- books, original art, peripheral content, mittens with penises for thumbs, WHATEVER YOUR AUDIENCE IS WILLING TO BUY! And if you don't feel like designing or shipping it, you can find someone else who does.

"the t-shirt sales method is unacceptable for the reasons that an artist is not intrinsically making money off his or her comic, but is instead making money off merchandise sales and using the comic as a form of advertising for their merchandise."

I don't know what country accepts BULLSHIT ARTISTIC CREDIBILITY DOLLARS as valid currency but I'm sure glad I don't live there! Money is money.

"Some might suggest allowing advertising on one's website. If it worked, that would be great, but the ad market has pretty much gone belly up, so while in theory it's wonderful, in practice it doesn't hold water."

Internet advertising is and always has been a function of the amount of traffic your website generates. Yeah, the ad market has taken a pretty steep dive in 2009, but I'm still able to cover my server bill and office expenses with it, so it remains a significant part of my income. It's too soon to just write it off.

"Personally, I see three viable options:"

okay let's hear 'em!

Option one: a subscription-based model. Comic artists will offer their new weekly comics for free, but charge for admission into their archives. This is a perfectly acceptable model, but will have to jump over the huge hurdle of getting an Internet user to pay for something that they were used to getting for free. And with so many other comics to choose from and attention spans being what they are nowadays, it seems difficult to imagine enough readers going along with it. This also could only work for comic artists who have built up enough of an audience or reputation that people would be willing to pay to visit their archives. Newer artists would have no hope in succeeding at this until they built up a large following. Still, if enough artists decided to lock up their archives at the same time so readers had no choice but to subscribe, and the technology existed to prevent illegal copying and distributing on the Web, this could be a very wonderful solution.

Ted Rall is a big fan of this idea too, but unfortunately it is completely unworkable and unrealistic. Here's why:

First of all, comics on the web are free. They always will be. The cat isn't out of the bag on this one, it's out of the bag, out the window, down the street, and up a tree mauling a bluejay. No matter how many pay-per-view comics are online, there will always be some totally free ones, and those will always outperform the non-free ones because people expect the internet to be free.

If "the technology existed to prevent illegal copying and distributing on the web" we would be living IN MAGICAL FAIRY PONY FANTASY LAND. Maybe that's also where those BULLSHIT ARTISTIC CREDIBILITY DOLLARS are legal tender!

The short history of comics on the web has shown us that locking primary content (ie, comic archives) beyond a pay barrier just doesn't work as well as keeping it open and free. Bonus content like Achewood's AssetBar program may indeed be a viable income stream, but that's not what he's talking about here. He's talking about some no-doubt lovely fantasy where everything is locked behind a barrier and for some reason people are willing to pay for it. Ain't. Gonna. Happen.

Option two: interactivity. I could see the next wave of comics having more of a personal interaction with the readership by having readers sponsor them. Readers could pay money to have themselves drawn into the comics or in some way contribute to the comic itself in a capacity that allows them to get something extra from it through their funding. This could work very well for some artists but for a lot of others--including myself--this would be the antithesis of what they would be hoping to get out of their comic. The thrill of doing a comic is being able to have one's own voice and polluting it by offering it up to the masses to do with it what they will seems just plain awful. Still, for a certain type of artist, I could see the appeal and sustainability.

Readers already sponsor us, by purchasing our merchandise, clicking on our links, and telling their friends about the comic. This seems like an idea that COULD generate income, but I'm not really seeing anyone making a living off of it. Better to sell signed prints, or custom artwork (two things people are already doing successfully). I love how he simultaneously proposes this idea and then holds his nose as if someone had shat in his soup. "OH I WOULD NEVER DEIGN TO DO SOMETHING SO...SO...PEDESTRIAN, BUT SOME OTHER HEARTLESS CHURL MIGHT"

Option three: donations. This is what I see as the most viable option for the time being. Comic strip artists become the new PBS of the Internet, having monthly donation drives to support their comic. An artist has a certain target they need to hit in a given month in order to keep making comics. Say, for instance, as an artist, you decided you needed to make $1,000 a month off of your comic to keep making it. At the beginning of every month, you could host a donation drive to reach that target number. If you got to it, you'd be able to do comics for another month. If not, you'd have to quit soon. Your strip would exist based on its ability to stay popular and continue its quality. Although having to beg is never fun, I like this concept for the reason that it's simple and could be a good long-term solution. All you would need to do is convince 1,000 people a month to donate $1 in order to see your comic continue on. If your work was quality enough and people wanted to continue to read it, it's possible that this solution might work. This way, your material could still stay free on the Internet and you wouldn't have to be selling anything other than the comic itself."

Donations work, to a point. Randy Millholland famously got enough to do comics full time for a year. But donations always run the risk of decreasing over time, which means you have to become increasingly desperate and shrill to get them. Me, I'd rather make products my readers want to buy instead of asking every single one of them "hey can I have a dollar" twelve times a year for the rest of my life. I actually feel MORE "credible" selling people stuff they like instead of begging for their change. But that is just a philosophical thing, not an honest truth. If you're happy running donation drives and can make it work in the long term, more power to you! I'm just unaware of anyone successfully doing so, as of yet.

"Whatever business models alternative comic artists can come up with, the one thing that I firmly believe is that the current paradigm is dead. The world of alternative comics is going to be shrinking faster and faster in the next year as papers cut more comics and then, themselves, fold. Artists must figure out a way to monetize their work online and readers must be willing to take this journey with them."

Webcomics readers are the best readers in the entire fucking world. We are all incredibly, incredibly fortunate to have you guys supporting us, either monetarily or simply by looking at our websites and enjoying them.

But artists already have figured out how to monetize their work online, and readers have already made that journey with them. It's not the model that these print guys were expecting, but it's already in place. It's not necessarily the best one, or the only one that will ever exist, either! But it works right now, and it seems kind of weird to me to write it off without even giving it a try.

I think the core of the problem is the print guys want to maintain their status quo of mailing out comic strips and recieving a check in return. Unfortunately that just isn't how it works on the internet. You have to either do everything yourself, or find people to delegate tasks to. The point is if you've got a good core product (your comic) with a solid audience, you CAN make a living without doing all the gruntwork yourself.

The sad part, and the one thing I don't think anybody has any control over, is that I think there are some successful print comics that just can't succeed on the web, either due to their content or audience size or what have you. The flipside of that coin is true, as well- Questionable Content could NEVER POSSIBLY succeed in its present form as a syndicated strip, or even something running in local alt weeklies. You have to adapt to your medium and its potential audience, and if you can't do that then all the business acumen in the world won't help you make a living.
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[User Picture]From: wigu
2009-02-01 09:17 pm (UTC)
For this post you will be credited 5,000 BULLSHIT ARTISTIC CREDIBILITY DOLLARS on your sales report for this week redeemable for 250 free hugs at your next anime con.
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[User Picture]From: qcjeph
2009-02-01 09:21 pm (UTC)
jeffrey

they are called "glomps"
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[User Picture]From: popelizbet
2009-02-01 09:17 pm (UTC)
She's not a comics artist, but alexandraerin has made it work on donations, sponsorships (which she made recently available) and advertising for her stuff. She keeps merch around but it's not the revenue stream. Of course, she's a serial fictionist and not a webcomics artist, but it's still there...I think people are more inclined to want to get merch from a visual medium, and they feel okay with sending her a few bucks each month in exchange for the "free" story.
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[User Picture]From: qcjeph
2009-02-01 09:20 pm (UTC)
See this is something I did not know about!

Serial fiction on the internet as a business is FASCINATING to me. I really need to learn more about it.
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[User Picture]From: retrocareer
2009-02-01 09:21 pm (UTC)
If anything, Penny Arcade is a really good example of adapting to a medium and its audience of thousands of gamers.

Child's Play, anyone?
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[User Picture]From: qcjeph
2009-02-01 09:25 pm (UTC)
Penny Arcade is ALSO the perfect example of two guys who knew nothing about business hiring someone who did (Robert Khoo) and becoming fucking millionaires because of it. The epitome of savvy delegation.
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[User Picture]From: crazypsycokitty
2009-02-01 09:23 pm (UTC)
*applause*
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From: hjpnjpluan
2009-05-19 06:41 am (UTC)
You are damn right and I agree with you in every point you posted in this topic.





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[User Picture]From: lwoodbloo
2009-02-01 09:24 pm (UTC)
I dunno. I kinda dig the "sell T shirts, sell prints" school of comic commerce. I like the ability to have something like that on my wall. I mean...it's not commissioned work, but it's along the same lines, isn't it Jeph? SOmeone likes your work, wants a piece of it for their own, and buys it? Why is there a problem with this?
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[User Picture]From: popelizbet
2009-02-01 09:27 pm (UTC)
For the same reason that Wikipedia has a hate-on for webcomics authors and their articles but doesn't see anything wrong with having good articles for published strips. ~*~~*Notability*~*~*~
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[User Picture]From: suburban_panic
2009-02-01 09:26 pm (UTC)
I think the cat you mentioned has been having babies under my neighbor's porch. The pigeons are terrified, and the bag the cat came from is nowhere to be found. Won't somebody think of the pigeons?
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[User Picture]From: cosmetics_mac
2010-06-26 01:45 am (UTC)
I have never read something like this.
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[User Picture]From: tyrsalvia
2009-02-01 09:27 pm (UTC)
I'm a long time reader of QC, and I've read the whole thing. What got me addicted to your comic and the other webcomics I've read was the fact that the archives were free. Just one comic - of anyone's! - isn't enough to get someone hooked enough to come back. The comics I've gotten really hooked on were the ones that I could check out a couple of strips of to see if I was really that interested, and then start at the beginning and read the whole thing. The guy you're quoting is sadly mistaken if he thinks he can put the archives behind a pay gate and gain any new readers online.

Another comment in support of your points - I like your merchandise because it's connected to your comic. I do like it on its own (most of it, anyways), but really what makes me like it enough to want to buy it is the connection it has to your narrative and art. The person you are quoting who seems to think that tshirt sales are somehow not artistic in the magical fairy ethical pure "artiste" kinda way is totally wrong. Your merchandise is a way that I get to feel a part of your art; it's a sort of interactivity. Creating a cult of followers who want to be part of your creation is the dream of most artists, you and a few other webcomics artists have been lucky and awesome enough to inspire that.
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[User Picture]From: eowynr
2009-02-01 09:40 pm (UTC)
My two intended points exactly.

I first found QC a few months ago and ended up reading the entire thing in a few days. There is no way I would have gotten hooked without free archives. You can't get involved with the characters solely based on the most recent strip--interested, yeah, but not INVOLVED. I would venture to say that a free archive is the most potent method of drawing in new readers, and a non-free archive could easily be a terrific way of turning them off.

Merch is fun because you saw it in the comic, not the other way around. Most of your shirts have been based on very specific strips; why would anyone want the Deathmole design if they didn't know the story behind it? I mean, yeah, the art is kind of weird and cool, but cool art isn't enough to get enough people to buy a shirt to make it worthwhile. The beauty of QC merch is that it's esoteric enough to please the readers, yet generally awesome enough for my little sister, who's never read QC, to love the LGBTerrific shirt I got her. Although, if an artist didn't have a strong fan base, they might end up using the comic to promote merchandise, I suppose.

Incidentally, you have seen http://www.someecards.com/, right?
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[User Picture]From: petermarcus
2009-02-01 09:29 pm (UTC)
What a cool analysis. There are similar industries struggling with the same thing, from newspapers online to fine art and music sites. Banner ads may or may not ever take off, and I doubt the New York Times is going to sell a lot of T-Shirts (though cnn.com is selling T-shirts of their headlines!)

Just out of curiosity, how do you feel about product placement in webcomics? If a comic character "happens" to have a Diet Coke can in front of them, or a Ford "happens" to drive by? Movies have been doing it for years, sometimes annoyingly obviously, but then there's also that whole artistic integrity thing again.
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[User Picture]From: popelizbet
2009-02-01 09:33 pm (UTC)
Alexandra Erin, who I mentioned previously, has done voluntary, unpaid product placement (only in a particular unit of her story where gift-giving was happening) as a thank-you to a few independent creators that had advertised their merchandise with her. It was really cool, and not invasive at all, although I can't say I would like it if it always happened.
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[User Picture]From: qcjeph
2009-02-01 09:32 pm (UTC)
oh wow you are absolutely right, I should add that to the post!
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[User Picture]From: knastymike
2009-02-01 09:31 pm (UTC)
"BULLSHIT ARTISTIC CREDIBILITY DOLLARS" is now my favorite form of currency, and I'm so linking to this entry from my LJ.
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[User Picture]From: simonb3
2009-02-01 10:35 pm (UTC)
is... is this what indie bands start earning less of after they SELL OUT?
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[User Picture]From: meewunk
2009-02-01 09:31 pm (UTC)
It sounds like hes just whining about it really, being dragged kicking and screaming into the world of webcomics so hes going to be a dick while he does it.

I love QC and I will support you and (many) other webcomics as best I can because you guys are freaking awesome :)
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[User Picture]From: qcjeph
2009-02-01 09:37 pm (UTC)
I don't think he's whining, I think he's genuinely (and justifiably) scared of his business model no longer being workable. I'd be terrified too if it suddenly looked like I wasn't gonna be able to make a living off my comic anymore. The trouble is, when you're scared you tend to make poor decisions.
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[User Picture]From: luinmir
2009-02-01 09:32 pm (UTC)
You're adorable when you're self-righteous.

Also: yes, yes and yes.
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From: tctdlrhjnal
2009-06-18 05:22 pm (UTC)
you are totally right




[track]
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[User Picture]From: alexandraerin
2009-02-01 09:32 pm (UTC)
Ha... as popelizbet alluded to above, so much of this post echoes my thoughts about what I do as a writer. I recently had somebody quote Ryan Sohmer at me, saying something like "Real artists don't beg." (Referring to donations.)

To me, that's like saying "Real merchants don't haggle." Sure, if you go into Wal-Mart the whole process of buying and selling has been reduced to barcodes and set numbers... the process of bargaining has become collective. But that doesn't mean the person who runs a stall at the flea market selling comics and collectibles doesn't have a real business. The scanners and cash registers are how Wal-Mart does business, that doesn't mean they're the only way.
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[User Picture]From: qcjeph
2009-02-01 09:39 pm (UTC)
It's like I said in the post, ultimately money is money. If you can make a living off of donations that is COMPLETELY AWESOME. It just hasn't proven to be workable in the long term in webcomics yet.

The only way to not be a "real" artist is not to produce art.
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[User Picture]From: indie_andy
2009-02-01 09:33 pm (UTC)
You're a pretty awesome guy. Fact.
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