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Webcomics in a Post-Direct Market World

Last week, we looked at a possible doomsday scenario with a perfect storm of a recession, price hikes, consumer antipathy towards the Big 2, and digital distribution cause a drastic shrinkage in the direct market and the number of books distributed as printed monthly magazines (*cough* Seattle Post-Intelligencer *cough*).

The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that the online readership of many print comics is larger than the paid physical readership.  .CBRs are popular, as are torrents.  No two ways about it.  You have to accept you have a problem before you can deal with it.

The second thing we need to do is understand what revenue models work for webcomics and why.  If the print publishers need to get into digital distribution, reinventing the wheel is folly, and potentially dangerous.

There are essentially three base revenue models that get mixed and matched:

  • (Buy our) Merchandise
  • Advertising
  • Subscribe/Paid Download

The most popular method with the webcomics crowd has always been merchandise, the two most popular flavors of merchandise being t-shirts and books.  Print comics publishers will understand the book part.  It’s just trade paperbacks (TPB’s).  These are reprint collections, maybe with a little bit of new material.  Same game as DC/Marvel/Image.  The only difference is that many of the traditional webcomics haven’t penetrated the direct market, instead opting to sell directly to the consumer.  Print comic book publishers have shied away from direct to consumer arrangements, even de-emphasizing (snail mail) subscriptions in many cases, just to avoid channel conflict with the extremely vocal direct market retail community.

The t-shirts work a little differently with most webcomics than they do with the print comic books.  Sure, you can get t-shirts of your more iconic characters, but t-shirts aren’t a huge category for every single comic book.  With the webcomics, the t-shirts tend to be funny sayings and gags that are related to or lifted from the actual webcomics.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this works a whole lot better for humor webcomics.  Take a look at the print publishers.  You’re not going to see a huge number of humor titles where this would be a natural extension.  If Kyle Baker was still on Plastic Man, you might have some cross-over, but he’s moved on to Hawkman/Wednesday Comics.  You might sell Green Lantern rings if Green Lantern were serialized online, but as you can tell, merchandise tends to be very idiosyncratic to the property and the action/adventure/SF/fantasy properties may have more limited options across the board.

Advertising is something that ebbs and flows.  Webcomics originally couldn’t get advertising, but many of them now use it to compliment their merchandise.  For an action strip with limited t-shirt potential, this becomes a little more important.  There are currently some questions as to the health and direction of the online advertising economy, but we’re in a recession, so you’ll have that.  Ad revenue will always have an element of ebb and flow to it.

The subscribe/paid download option has several different forms.  Sometimes you buy a subscription to a suite of comics, as with the original incarnation of the webcomics anthology site, Modern Tales (mind you, Modern Tales de-emphasized the subscription model some time ago).  Crossgen’s “Comics on the Web” was an example of a print publisher giving access to their entire library for a monthly subscription fee.  Marvel’s “Digital Comics Unlimited” is a currently example of a webcomics library for a monthly subscription fee.  More common is the practice of a subscription to a webcomic whose main feature is free, but has additional material available to paid subscribers.  TopCow, Devil’s Due and Slave Labor/SLG have all experimented with paid digital downloads, but that remains a small segment of the marketing, pending a larger effort.

Another difference between the print comic books and most webcomics is format.  While you see a number of different formats for webcomics, most commonly they’re an outgrowth of the newspaper comic strip.  They may come in sizes that look similar to either a comic book page or a daily newspaper strip, but an installment usually comes in one page.  The frequency of these webcomics tends to be between 3 and 5 days (strips/pages) per week for popular ones.  A rare and notable exception is Freak Angels, authored by famed print comic writer Warren Ellis, which owes a fair amount of its format to British weekly comics.  It has a weekly installment of 6 comic book-sized pages.

This raises the big format question, if the print comics go digital, how should they be presented?  In turn, this raises the questions of how you think your audience wants to read the material and how you want to monetize the material.  Of course, the endgame is almost always the collected edition in print.

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  1. Great article, I really like the background you gave on the income publisher’s might receive for each download they sell. But another question is the format of the digital comics themselves. This is a creative question, not necessarily an economic one, but for a lot of people, this is the obstacle that digital comics needs to overcome to be accepted by the majority of readers.

    I think a lot of people torrent their comics because it’s free, even if they realize the computer screen isn’t made for reading comics that were originally designed for print. And most methods used to bridge this gap from print-to-screen, like Marvel’s DCU, don’t work really well; they’re awkward and don’t give you a steady and flowing reading experience. In essence, reading comics on computers, PSPs, Iphones, etc., that were originally intended for print is frustrating and can’t replicate the feeling of reading a real comic.

    But this is okay if you’re just using the comics as an advertisement for the ultimate collected PRINT edition, which you note. But as an individual download, that you pay for like you do music or movies (which, by the way, are easily transferrable to any player; digital comics are not), that’s a hard sell.

  2. Wonderful article, thank you.

    Comics have traditionally been a peripheral aspect to the daily newspaper. If daily newspapers shift their revenue models completely and try to find ways to monetize their content through online formats, my question would be how webcomics might be able to follow along.

    Perhaps another revenue model for webcomics would be where online media pay for webcomics to ‘co-exist’ with the news site (much like how comics fit into the funny section for print media)? As the news media figures out how to shift to a digital format I think it will be important for webcomics to find a way to continue to continue the traditional, mutually beneficial relationship between the two.


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