Notes and online resources to supplement the lecture given by Mike Russell on April 27, 2008 at the Stumptown Comics Fest. If you have something to add to the discussion, feel free to leave a comment below.
Mike Russell is a writer and cartoonist for The Oregonian, where he reviews movies and books and also draws "CulturePulp" -- a "pop journalism comic strip" in which he renders Portland cultural events (and himself) in cartoon form. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, The Boston Globe, The Daily Standard, Willamette Week, The Portland Mercury, In Focus Magazine, The DVD Journal, Bookslut, and a handful of comic books. You can read his film writing and comics online at CulturePulp.com.
He has not created a profitable webcomic of his own -- but has been making a personal study of the subject for a while now.
Mike Russell e-mail: CulturePulp at gmail dot com.
The Upshot of this Lecture
There are, at this point, several thousand webcomics -- but only a few sustain themselves financially. Can we learn anything by studying what those comics tend to have in common?
Here's a bunch of common-sense stuff I've noticed -- and here are a bunch of Web links for your own further study. If you're just starting out and want to know if you can make a living doing webcomics, you might find this useful.
Before We Begin: The Book You Really Need to Read
"How to Make Webcomics" -- This book by Scott Kurtz, Brad Guigar, Dave Kellett and Kristopher Straub came out in March 2008, and it is without a doubt the most lucid, common-sensical and practical book on webcomics production that has ever been. I first gave the following lecture nearly a year ago (here are the notes for the old version), but I've gone through and worked in some ideas from a key chapter in their book called "Monetizing Your Webcomic."
The foursome also put together an outstanding podcast called "Webcomics Weekly" (iTunes link here) in which they informally expand on many of the ideas in the book.
Very basic stuff: surveying the webcomics "industry"
• There are now thousands of clickable comics on the Internet. Most are junk, frankly -- but a few make exciting use of the medium. Even fewer make a profit.
• There are now several sites providing coverage and criticism of webcomics: Comixpedia, Fleen, Websnark, Digital Strips, The Webcomics Examiner, and more and more frequently in larger comics-industry blogs like The Comics Reporter, Journalista, Newsarama, and The Beat. There are even individual writers who have made modest names for themselves evaluating (or trashing) webcomics in blogs like Websnark by Eric Burns and the acidic "Your Webcomic is Bad and You Should Feel Bad" by "John Solomon."
• Webcartoonists sometimes group themselves into collectives like Keenspot, HalfPixel, Dumbrella and Blank Label Comics. This allows for like-minded creators to consolidate knowledge and effort on things like merchandise production, warehouse storage and web hosting.
IMPORTANT: You'll want to VERY carefully read the fine legal print before trying to join any webcomics aggregator -- some of them want to take ownership of some or all of your intellectual property (and make most or all of the profits from it) in exchange for providing things like hosting and publicity.
• There's also a growing collection of Web-based tools to automate the process of getting your comics online:
- Webcomics Nation presents an automated, database-driven archiving system for webcomics. The online archive of my comic CulturePulp can be found there.
- OhNoRobot allows readers to annotate their favorite comic strips, making the archives text-searchable;
- Project Wonderful has created a remarkably easy-to-use, database-driven bidding system that allows users to create and then bid on ad space on member webcomics sites. I've used this to promote CulturePulp, and have been very pleased with the results and the transparency of the process.
- There's even a social-networking site for comics creators called ComicSpace.
One Way to Look at the Webcomics Business Model
So let's answer the basic question: Can you make money directly from your webcomic?
No. You can't. But you can make money from the stuff surrounding it.
Here's a quote from "How to Make Webcomics," written by a guy who actually makes a living as a webcartoonist, that describes the webcomics business model perfectly:
"The essential model is to offer free-to-the-consumer, ad-subsidized content, which then trades on consumer loyalty by selling books, t-shirts, merchandise and original art."
Here's another quote from that book describing profitable webcomics:
"Ad-subsidized sites selling self-produced merchandise, using the least middlemen possible."
The Way-More-than-Seven Habits of Financially Successful Webcomics
1. The comic itself is free -- but it is surrounded by for-profit products, advertising and bonus content. Subscription/micropayment-based comics have been wildly less successful
RELATED: A "Webcomics Manifesto" published by the hit comic Penny Arcade, which reads in part:
Typically when people discuss the “ramifications” of Webcomics (capital W, proper noun) … the dialogue tends to focus on how digital distribution of comics alters the power dynamic between creators and publishers.
I guess so.
The most startling change we’ve seen hasn’t been between creators and publishers, it’s between creators and readers.
Most of the people considered “big movers” in Webcomics are considered so not because they have substantially contributed work to the medium — indeed, they might not even produce a regularly updated comic. No, they are thought of with reverence because in each case they laud some new barrier between people who read comics and people who write them. The barriers they’re so proud of take a number of forms, but Byzantine pay mechanisms and subscription-locked archives are two of the more celebrated anchors.
If you are using systems like these, I need to ask you why you don’t trust your readers.What are you afraid they’re going to do with your comics? Read them?
When you’re ready to stop treating readers like thieves, come check out this Web they’ve got going. I hear it’s going to be big.
2. They tend to have multiple income streams. Few if any of the most profitable webcomics make their money from one source. Putting all your eggs in one basket is always risky; let's say you put all your money on book sales and the boat carrying your cheaply printed book from Korea sinks, or the book itself ends up looking horrible?
I'm a huge fan of MacLeod, a former adman who draws cartoons on the back of business cards, many of them obsessed with marketing theory. He's spun that into consulting/blogging gigs with everyone from an Cumbrian tailor to a South African wine company to Microsoft. He's also written great thoughts about both creativity and marketing in the age of the Internet -- read his thoughts on "How to Be Creative," plus his thoughts on "Marketing as Conversation" and "Marketing as Social Gesture."
4. They end to be modeled on the comic strip, not the graphic novel or the editorial cartoon. Successful webcomics tend to come in what Heidi MacDonald calls the "satisfying chunk" -- leaving you with a substantial chunk of story to chew on or a punchline that gives you some sense of satisfaction. The satisfying chunk explains why humor comics tend to be among the most successful webcomics (One notable exception to this: Megatokyo.)
5. They tend to cater to specific audiences -- not necessarily NICHE audiences, because some of these audiences are enormous, but creators develop very specific "voices" that fly in the face of homogeneous syndicate comics designed to sell greeting cards.
This is a good place to talk about the concept of the "long tail." It is described here, at the Technium, and it is essential reading. Basically, it boils down to this: If you can generate 1,000 so-called "true fans" -- people who will spend $100 or more on you in a year -- you'll make a living wage. (Here's a link to the blog for the "Long Tail" book by Chris Anderson.)
I keep reading that about 5-10% of a webcomics site's visitors will buy a piece of merchandise. I should note that not all of these people can be classified as "True Fans." But that does mean that you MIGHT be able to start thinking about making a partial income from your comic after you hit between 10,000 and 20,000 consistent daily readers.
6. They tend to offer content in multiple forms -- creator blogs, animations, etc. An interesting sub-note here is that several of the profitable webcomics feature creators who will put themselves out there as characters for public consumption, almost like miniature Stan Lees. See for example the Kris Straub "Slipcast" or even the supplemental blogs of the less-front-and-center John Allison and Chris Onstad.
7. They tend to create and nurture user communities around their content -- not just on their site, but with public appearances at comics festivals like MoCCA, the San Diego Comic-Con, APE, the Stumptown Comics Fest and others.
An interesting distinction to bring up here: In terms of reader commentary, some cartoonists prefer their strips to have audiences (in the form of comments directly under strips) and some cartoonists allow their strips to have communities (in the form of message forums). Forum communities are harder, if not impossible, to control once they get past a certain size; here is some essential reading on that subject: "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy."
8. They are updated frequently and consistently.
9. They slowly build an audience over a period of years -- PvP, and this is just one example, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary; in multiple interviews, Kurtz has talked about how he revised and rebuilt his strip several times to better target it at his audience, and how it took him several years to build it into a stand-alone business venture.
10. The creators are do-it-yourselfers who crunch numbers -- They tend to be control freaks who LIKE doing all the above stuff themselves, including the business stuff. They must manage a creative property in addition to making it, and they seem to enjoy the process (or work with partners who do). And the profit margins are small enough that you don't make much money in webcomics unless you do it yourself.
11. They don't tend to use product-on-demand services -- Profitable webcomics creators tend to do what "How to Make Webcomics" calls "disintermediation" -- i.e., removing the middleman and creating, selling and distributing your own merchandise, or working with small merchandising collectives like Topatoco. This means that if they're trying to move serious volume, they don't use services like Zazzle, CafePress or Lulu -- the profit margins are too narrow because the per-unit costs are so high -- though those services may be great early on for testing the waters to see if your audience will buy something.
12. They often have supportive business partners who may or may not also be their life partners. I'm not saying you have to have a supportive significant other to make it as a webcartoonist; maybe I'm trying to say you need to run your webcomic as an entrepreneurial family business where all parties are on board.
Submitted: a YouTube videocast by Kris Straub and his girlfriend. In it, he is maybe the most tired person I have ever seen speak on video.
13. And finally: The creators have that talent X-factor that allows them to make addictive webcomics. I'm 99-percent sure can't be artificially manufactured: There is just something addictive about their particular creative expression. This is a function of hard work, but it is also an inherently unfair function of talent and luck and pushing a market niche's pleasure button.
I was considering deleting the last two points from the lecture, because it's sort of depressing, and then I got an e-mail from "Scary Go Round" creator John Allison that talked me out of it. It reads in part:
>> Points twelve and thirteen are the most salient points of the whole
>> talk. A lot of people just aren't any good or aren't producing
>> work that is
>> any way saleable, and can't work out why they haven't succeeded. And
>> in common with that, a lot of creative people who are extremely
>> gifted don't have a head for or the motivation for the business
>> side. So
>> to cut those points out is to say, "you can fly to the moon with a
>> bag full of dreams, and a vest with a lightning bolt on it, and a tin
>> foil helmet" but to omit that you also need a space rocket and years
>> of NASA training.
>> I've given similar talks to college students about how to succeed
>> independently and the first point I put up there is always "be any
>> good". What an unforgiving mentor I am.
I think he's right. Take that for what you will.
Why "How to Make Webcomics" is a must-read, part II
The "Monetizing Your Webcomic" chapter of "How to Make Webcomics" is invaluable because it outlines -- in far more detail than I can give here -- all the things you need to think about as a small business person, including:
- The dangers of micropayments and hiding everything behind subscription walls
- When to ask for donations
- The shelf life of merchandise
- Figuring out how much to charge for an item -- after figuring out things like cost-per-unit, mailing and storage costs
- Repackaging your comics to make money off them in different ways (i.e., from ads, books and sales of original art)
- Living cheaply
- Building your online store
- When you might consider outsourcing some of your shipping
A list of Webcomics that provide sole or primary income for creators -- and fit most or all of the above "Habits"
• Penny Arcade -- creator blog with video-game reviews, t-shirts, books published through Dark Horse, charity campaign, dedicated convention, forum, tie-in video game
• Achewood -- subscriber-only bonus archive, store featuring 100 products (including books, postcards, zines, t-shirts, a cookbook, aprons, art prints), multiple blogs written in character voices, MySpace page, a new commenting/rating system for each comic, print syndication in alt-weeklies, a separate book deal with Dark Horse
• PvP -- podcast, subscription and free animated episodes, print collection published by Image Comics, forum, creator blog
• Ctrl-Alt-Del -- creator blog, video-game reviews, "Premium" subscription site with "animated series," DVD of animated series, forum, t-shirts and plushies
• Scary Go Round -- creator blog, forum, books, t-shirts and prints
• Overcompensating -- message board, books, prints, t-shirts (including once-wildly-successful "Snakes on a Plane" tee)
• Dinosaur Comics -- print syndication in alt-weeklies, message board, shirts, books, gift certificates; creator Ryan North also runs ancillary revenue-generator Project Wonderful
• Questionable Content - "music picks," t-shirts and posters
• Sluggy Freelance -- "Defenders of the Nifty" subscription bonus-content section, forums and fan art, books, prints, dolls, pins and buttons, hats
• xkcd -- t-shirts and posters
• Goats -- t-shirts, action figures, stickers, books, mini-comics, bags, aprons, creator blog, forums
My Personal Thoughts on the Webcomics Economic Model
The print cartoonists were (understandably) concerned that webcartoonists give their content away. This frightens print cartoonists -- because under the print business model, you're directly paid for the content you produce. Syndicates and advertising staffers and editors and a large bureaucratic distribution apparatus take care of everything else.
I work under the print model for my non-fiction Oregonian comic "CulturePulp": I spend about 30 hours researching and writing and laying out and drawing and scanning each strip, I turn it in, and editors and graphic designers and pressmen put the thing on paper and distribute it to hundreds of thousands of people for me, while I start working on the next comic. And I am paid directly for my comic with money generated by subscriptions and advertising dollars -- which are generated by employees of the paper's bureaucracy.
A webcartoonist doesn't have any of that help. And a webcartoonist can't make money directly from the webcomic itself. You won't have much luck selling a web strip directly to a reader by asking them to pay for the privilege of looking at it through a subscription wall -- there's too much free stuff out there that's as good or better than your stuff, and even if your stuff is amazing, you lose readers with each extra click in the online subscription process.
If you want any kind of readership on the Internet -- where information wants to be free -- you have to give that comic away.
From the point of view of someone working inside the print model, that stinks.
But the webcartoonist who wants to make money can't think like a print person. They have to think like a broadcaster. They have to think like an indie musician. And they have to think like a small businessperson.
The Internet is television you can read. In television, content is free (or comes via a very cheap subscription rate). The money is made by addicting people to that free content -- and then placing advertising around the content (or inside the content, in the case of product placement). Money is also made from syndication and from sales of tie-in products that include books and movies and soundtrack albums and trinkets and toys.
An even better comparison: In radio broadcasting, songs are played for free, and money comes from fans of that song who buy albums, downloads, concert tickets and t-shirts.
If the webcartoonist compares himself or herself to a print cartoonist, it looks pretty depressing. But it makes a lot more sense (though it generates a lot more work) if the webcartoonist thinks of himself or herself as a one-person broadcasting network, or a band going on tour.
A way to make money in webcomics has emerged. It involves addicting people to your content, which you give away for free, and then surrounding that free content with stuff that generates money -- including ads and merchandise. You are, essentially, the cartoonist and the rest of the newspaper -- the ad rep and the printer and the distributor.
And, furthermore, webcomics creators help sell their comics to the public by participating in and generating discussions about the comic -- on the Internet, in interviews and on message boards and in comment threads.
Also, as in radio, the webcomics creator periodically goes on tour -- selling books and exciting fans at comics conventions.
WebcomicsWorkshop -- Excellent online notes for the lecture by Magda Diaz that preceded mine at Stumptown: "Web Comics for the Clueless; fast, cheap, and dirty tricks for posting your works online."
WebcomicsPromotion.com -- A Web site gathering strategies for getting the word out about your webcomic.