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.