Abandoning Micropayments

Rhapsody and Pressplay both tried to get people to rent music. So did the reborn Napster, Microsoft’s Playsforsure partners, Musicmatch, OD2, Yahoo and even the mighty Virgin. If you’ve never heard of some of those, I’m not surprised. They offered music as a service. The Apple iTunes Music Store offered it as a product. Guess who won.

Subscriptions for creative content never works. Even television shows generally make more money on DVD sales these days and my local library – which is free – has less people browsing around inside than each of the three bookstores in it’s vicinity.

In his comic book analysis of the market called Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud suggested that webcomic subscriptions should be sold for "micropayments" – small amounts of money from a couple of cents to a dollar. Seven years on, Scott McCloud himself has abandoned the idea and it’s clear that even this ridiculously cheap subscription market has also failed.

They always do. Music or comics, five dollars or two cents, customers simply don’t want to rent creative content. Look at your bookcase, your comics, your DVD collection, your computer games, your CDs and the media on your hard drive. Would you rent any of that? Would you like it all snatched away if you stopped paying the subscription fee one month?

Meanwhile, the iTunes Store has been busy selling music, not subscriptions, for ninety nine cents apiece even while those same songs are available for free from services such as Limewire, Napster and Kazaa. It’s sold over two and half billion tracks, took out all its online competition and shouldered it’s way into being the third largest music retailer in the US, right in the midst of the best of the brick and mortar CD stores like Target and Walmart.

It’s clear webcomics have been using the wrong market model. We don’t want to sell subscriptions, we want to sell the comic.

In Reinventing Micropayments, I dissected the iTunes market model and reworked it to apply it to webcomics. We offer users the chance to buy and download larger, high quality versions of the last chapter, the last few chapters or the last year of comics. Using this idea, we would be able to sell our webcomics without losing a single reader – because, like iTunes, we can sell the comic while still keeping it online for free. As iTunes has done, we can successfully compete with the free alternative by offering ownership, convenience, value for money and a better user experience across the board. Importantly, by selling the comic instead of wallpapers and T-shirts, we’ll be targeting a larger customer base. A product always outsells its own merchandise.

Two comics – Candi and The Green Avenger – generously offered to test this idea for me. Being able to set these ideas up in practice was a learning experience and taught me a lot about the issues, pitfalls and problems. This month, I’ll look at the specifics of how we did it – what, in practice, makes this market model work – and, in the process, we’re going to dump the dangerous trap that paralyzed the webcomics industry for the last seven years.

Micropayments themselves.


The Trap

The single biggest problem with Scott McCloud’s webcomic market model is that the word "micropayments" is used to describe it. Micropayments are not a market model – they are a price. This price was jammed on top of an existing market model which had been operating for free and clearly can’t support a price, even a "micro" one.

But by calling the market model "micropayments" people became fixated on the price as being the definition of the model, leaving them with nowhere to move. You couldn’t change anything else about the market model because no one could see there was more to it than the "micropayment" price – but you could hardly change the price, either. After all, the only way was up and raising the price when it isn’t working anyway clearly makes no sense at all.

Micropayments didn’t just fail to help, they actually shut the industry in a dead end for seven years. With the price right there in the name, no one bothered to look beyond it. It blinded people to the rest of the market model – to those parts that really were broken and needed fixing.

Enough. Forget micropayments.

We need the right price for the right product in the right market, no matter what that price is. If it’s five cents, it’s five cents. If it’s five dollars, it’s five dollars.

Let’s put together a model, then.


How much to sell?

Originally, I envisioned this idea as a way to sell the previous chapter while the current one was running but there are plenty of other things that can be done. For established webcomics with large archives, you should probably sell two to five chapters in a batch, both to increase the value for money and so you actually stand a chance of catching up with yourself. You could also sell the next chapter or perhaps the complete current chapter, thereby giving donators a step up on the average readers. You’d have to get a long way ahead of yourself to do this but with the right sort of gripping comic, it’s an idea that should work well.

Starline X Hodge agreed to sell the first year of her comic Candi. Candi is an ongoing newspaper-like strip and typically the syndicated newapaper strips are packaged in yearly chunks, so Hodge offered up the same.. Ryuko’s The Green Avenger, though, is a story comic similar to mainstream superhero comics, so it makes more sense to sell it either in issues or in story arcs. Ryuko offered up her longest story arc, called "The Alarm Bot" which was four issues.


At what price?

There are quite a few factors that shape the possible price range we can work with.

Firstly, with no printing or shipping costs, downloadable comics are in a unique position to offer a win-win situation for the readers and the writers. That is, the writers can earn the same amount of profit whilst the readers are spending considerably less money. Nearly all the cash would go straight to the comic’s artist rather than be used up on printing and distribution.

Our price range, then, should be about the same as whatever profit webcomic writers can currently make by selling their comics in book form. The prices for the books vary a bit but are usually in the ballpark of thirty dollars. There are production costs, of course, and the publisher has to take their cut so the actual profit seen by the webcomic artist is usually between two and five dollars per sale. If we target that price range, then the webcomic creators get the same amount of money per sale and – with luck – sell more comics at the lower price.

Some also make smaller comic issues akin to the mainstream comics in comic shops. Unfortunately, with less pages and a lower price, it’s harder to make a reasonable profit. Robin Pierce, writer and artist of Astorauth is also a International Business and Management major and calculated out the expected profit from making a thirty page paper comic and selling it for 4.50 euros ($6 US). She included labor and production costs – something usually ignored by webcomic creators who generally think in terms of it being a hobby – and used Comixpress as a printer. She arrived at a profit per issue of 0.78 euros ($1 US).

Another useful point of comparison is mainstream comics. A thirty page professional mainstream comic costs around three dollars. We have to do better than that because, whether they’re professional quality or not, webcomics aren’t actually seen as professional. Not only do people make them for a hobby but they’re also free on the website! We’re going to need to offer better value for money than mainstream comics – more pages, a lower price or, preferably, both. We’re therefore looking at a price of one to three dollars.

Finally, Paypal gets a cut. True micropayment systems come and go, but Paypal is far more commonly used than any of them and if you want your readers to pay, you have to make it easy for them. Whether or not you use a true micropayment system as well – perhaps at a cheaper price – you should support Paypal so the majority of your readers can easily buy what you’re offering.

Paypal takes around thirty cents, so charging a dollar won’t leave you with much. Of course, a cheaper price means you may sell more but I think a price range of $1.50 to $3 is the right range, depending on how many pages you’re selling. A one hundred page graphic novel would be more suited up around $5 somewhere, whereas the whole seven years of a long-running comic could easily sell for $10-$15.

Our prices are definitely out of the micropayment range. Micropayments were originally pitched as a couple of cents for a single page, or for a week’s access to the comic. We, however, are selling pages and pages of comics representing weeks and weeks of access. In any market, there is a danger in selling too low and given the quantities we’re offering here, micropayments would do more harm than good. A thirty page webcomic "issue" for ten cents implies the content is nearly worthless. Selling them for a dollar fifty not only recognizes the comic’s worth but also the market realities of competing with Marvel and DC. It’s not just a cheap price, it’s also a sensible one.

For Candi, we sold 157 comics, as well as all the wallpapers Starline had made as a bonus extra, for $2.99. This is a the same price as a mainstream comic, but had five times more pages. It’s also fifteen times cheaper than a printed book, yet provides the same approximate profit for the artist.

For The Green Avenger, there were only 81 pages but they were full-sized pages rather than strips. We chose a price of $2, which is a dollar less than a superhero comic from the comic shop, but with three to four times more pages.


What Format?

The format of the downloadable comics is very important. After all, the format determines how the user experiences your comic. A bad experience isn’t worth your money. Imagine going to the cinema and finding plastic seats to sit on.

The easiest way to deliver your comic to your customers is simply to zip up the images. Once they’ve been downloaded, they can be unzipped into a folder and be browsed by the reader’s favorite image viewer (such as Irfanview). However, this isn’t a very elegant solution and seems lazy. It’s also not enough to sell the reader the raw images – they must also get an interface to view and navigate them as well. The entire experience should be integrated together seamlessly so that the readers don’t have to worry about finding the right software – or be stuck with viewing the images in a program that isn’t really made for it, such as Internet Explorer. Such an integrated experience is a big reason why the iPod and iTunes are both so successful.

In which case, the next most obvious solution is Adobe’s PDF format. PDF is a pre-printing format designed for the publishing industry. Every magazine on the shelves of your local newsagent was sent to the printer as a PDF and it’s frequently used for downloadable documents on the web simply because most people have the software to read it. However, it’s actually the worst option to my mind. PDFs are not really made for viewing and navigating on the screen, and reading comics with the PDF Reader is slow, cluttered and unwieldy.

The next idea then is to use HTML. You set the comics up on a nice looking webpage just as you do on the web, only this time you zip the entire website up and let people download it to their hard drive. However, in doing this you must remember that it is not on the web any more. You don’t need voting buttons, advertising banners and other clutter. You should strip the webpage down to the bare minimum, and even the title graphic at the top should be small and unobtrusive. You don’t need to advertise the comic loudly to someone who’s bought it.

HTML has a few advantages and a few disadvantages. You can view it immediately on any computer, it can look attractive and the interface – the arrows for skipping back and forward through the comic – is familiar and easy. However, the comic images have to be a set size. With the other format options here, large images can be shrunk neatly down to fit on whatever sized screen you have, but HTML is terrible at that sort of thing. This means you have to pick a resolution for the webpage to work in. Anyone with a screen in a higher resolution won’t get a full screen comic and anyone with a lower resolution will have the comic going off the sides.

Still, no matter how small the comics look, they should still be bigger and better quality than those on the web. As an extra advantage, the comic pages are just images in a folder and can be viewed with the reader’s favorite image viewer, should they choose.

The fourth option, which is connected to HTML closely, is Flash. Flash works within webpages and can adjust images to fill the screen no matter what resolution you’re in. Although Flash is harder to use and learn, the results can be quite spectacular. The comic Alpha Shade has an extremely polished Flash interface on its website which shows just what can be done with it. For simplicity’s sake, though, I don’t recommend Flash for the average webcomic creator.

The last and best option is the CBR file (also often CBA or CBZ but there’s no real difference). A CBR is a special compressed comic book format and not only does it have all the right advantages but is also the simplest to set up. It’s also nicely "no-frills", doing exactly what you want of it with a maximum of ease and a minimum of fuss. To make one, all you need do is compress all the comic images into a ZIP or RAR file and then rename that file so it has a ".cbr" extension (for example, renaming "issue01.zip" to "issue01.cbr"). Then all you need is some software to view it.

A full list of CBR viewers for Windows, MacOS and Linux is available on Wikipedia. Most of them are freeware or open source, meaning you can distribute them yourself. You can package your recommended CBR reader with your comic download and add a little "readme" file that invites your readers to install it or perhaps check out the Wikipedia page above if they would prefer to make their own choice.

I looked at the two CBR readers which seemed to have the most promise – CDisplay (and it’s open source clone CDisplayEx) and Comical. CDisplay and CDisplayEx both let you step through the comics by pressing space – a very laid back and relaxed way of reading which most people prefer. With no on-screen controls, the comic can be displayed over the entire screen – a definite advantage for full page comics. However, these two programs are only available for Windows.

Comical, which is available for MacOS as well as Windows, allows skipping through with the space bar but also provides some webcomic-like arrows at the bottom of the screen. This takes up a bit of screen space but means there’s a familiar interface for your readers that they’ll understand at a glance. Comical is best for newspaper strip-like comics that don’t need the full screen to be displayed.

As with the other formats except HTML, CBR readers will expertly shrink down images which are too big and stretch those which are too small. Instead of worrying about what resolution your readers are using, you can pick one reasonably large resolution and be confident that they comics will be displayed at full size and in high quality all the time. As an extra advantage, CBRs are also an emerging standard for packaging and reading comic books on the computer. Quite a few comic fans probably already know about CBRs and already have the software installed.

Both Starline and Ryuko chose the CBR format. Ryuko, with a full page comic, chose to use CDisplayEx and Starline, with a newspaper strip comic and, used Comical.


Image Quality and Download Size

To be worth the money, the comic you allow people to download needs to be not only bigger but higher quality as well. This unfortunately makes for a large download.

Still, people are usually fairly blasé about large downloads in this day and age, and a batch of comics saved in pristine quality is only around half the size of a five minute movie trailer, let alone an episode of a television show. Your comic issue might be twenty five images but video is twenty five images a second.

Also, although the images should be very high quality, they don’t need to be perfect quality. The quality can be dropped by about ten percent without any visible change – even when you’re looking at the image magnified to twice the size. If you’re saving a JPEG, an image quality of 90% is indistinguishable from a quality of 100% unless you zoom in very closely.

Image size is the last consideration here. Video card resolutions have, by and large, stopped at around 1280×1024 – plus or minus a bit depending on monitor size. I think that’s a good resolution to target. Anyone with a lower resolution will have the images seamlessly scaled down (unless you’re using HTML to package your comic). Anyone with a higher resolution will have the images scaled up, but it won’t be by much and the quality would be high enough that they shouldn’t see any problems even then.

It’s a bit of a balancing act. Certainly if download size is an issue, a target resolution of 1024×768 is perfectly fine. The majority of people currently use that resolution and even if it’s not as high as it could be, it should still be far bigger and far better quality than what’s on your website.

For both Candi and The Green Avenger, we targeted 1280×1024. With Candi being a newspaper style strip, the width was the important thing and the comics were all 1280 pixels wide. That made them between 400 and 500 pixels tall and between 200 and 300 kilobytes each. The total download size for all 157 comics was about 40 megabytes but we added some bonus wallpapers as well as both the Windows and MacOS versions of the Comical CBR reader. In total, the download was 56 MB – half the size of a high quality movie trailer.

The Green Avenger averaged about 700 KB a page making for a 55 MB total download. The download included CDisplayEx but it’s a negligible size of 157 KB.



There are hundreds of webcomics begging for donations or selling merchandise and most readers are so used to it that they mentally skip over the Paypal button as irrelevant. This means we can’t just offer a new product for sale and hope people will notice it, because they won’t. Similarly, announcing it on the forums, although useful, will still only reach a small part of your audience and even news posts are often ignored by a lot of readers. They come for the comic, thanks.

You have to announce the downloadable comic in an obvious and noticeable way. You could do an entire comic to advertise it – especially if you need some filler anyway – but failing that you need a graphical advertisement in a place where it will be noticed. It should not be a standard advertising banner size or in a place you’d normally expect an advertising banner – that’s just encouraging people to glance past it.

But more important than the advertisement itself is the wording – whether on the banner, forum or news posts. Marketing is not about letting people know what you’re offering or telling people what they should do. Marketing is convincing people why they should do it, and to do this, you have to sound like you believe in what you’re saying. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, is the undisputed master – so much so that people have coined a special term just for his style of fervent, unquestioning and above all infectious belief. It’s called his "reality distortion field". Listening to a couple of his keynotes is a good primer for this.

The key is to repeat and empathize the main reasons, from the customer’s perspective, why they would want to buy a downloadable version of your comic. In the process, you need to sound positive, confident and enthusiastic about it. Being dramatic is useful too.

"Buy my comic for $2" gives no reason at all to actually do what it says. "I’m trying this new idea and we’ll see how it goes" is not confident or enthusiastic. This, however, is the wording we used on Starline’s graphical banner:

Faster. Better quality. Ad free. Yours to keep.
Download the first year of Candi for just $2.99.

It’s dramatic, punchy, lists some of the key advantages and implies others ("the first year" implies a lot of comics, for example). We also put together some text for the download page itself – very similar to what you could use for a news post. It uses the same ideas:

Now you can have the first year of Candi on your computer to keep and read at any time. The strips are high-quality, full screen images without any ads and you don’t have to be online to read it. As a bonus, you also get all the donation wallpapers that have been made since March 2007. Just in case you missed one!

There are other tacks you can take – there are a good few advantages and if you want something snappy for an advertisement, you can’t include them all. This is the one I suggested to Ryuko for The Green Avenger:

Fullscreen, ad free and yours to own.
Download the Alarmbot Saga for just $2.00

The key, as I said, it try to infect people with the belief that this is worth paying for. I’m sure you’ve all seen the webcomics that have, under their first comic, a news post that says something like "I know this isn’t very good…" or "My art’s terrible, I know, but I’m working on it…". I’m sure you’ve felt the same disquiet as I have over such statements. It’s the same thing and it’s a tendency that must be consciously fought. For all that you may be unsure about the idea and tentative about how it’s going to work, you can’t let that bleed through into the marketing or you’ll be sabotaging yourself before you start.


Market Share

As with any webcomic money making scheme, how much money you make depends largely on how many readers you have. As always, it scales. Schlock Mercenary would certainly make more money doing this than, say, Metrophor.

Although it’s possible Penny Arcade might not make as much as Schlock Mercenary.

Because the type of comic is also important. Daily gag strips are not as desirable in a collected edition as stories. Generally, the more continuity you have – the more it is a story – the more people will want to buy a collected edition so they can read it all together. Clearly, also, the better the story the better the sales.

The artwork is also going to affect it some. If we’re going to deliver larger and higher quality comics, the artwork has to benefit from being larger and higher quality. Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew is one of my favorite comics with both gags and a strong story, but it uses stick figure artwork. It really wouldn’t gain anything from being displayed bigger. Conversely, Gunnerkrigg Court has some very attractive and nicely colored artwork that’s currently tempting me to seriously consider even buying a book.

Because market share is an issue, I don’t believe – as I said in "Reinventing Micropayments" – that most people will be able to make a living from selling downloadable comics. Not yet.

However, as an interesting side effect, it’s likely that this idea will increase webcomic market share in total. Once you expand the places where you can view something, you also expand the audience. MP3 music players expanded the market for MP3 music, after all. DVDs expanded the market for television and movies so much that most of the profit is actually made in DVD sales a lot of the time. By allowing people to read webcomics off the web, the market for webcomics will grow, especially if webcomics are well placed to take advantage of portable readers with electronic paper when they do eventually come out.


The Idea in Practice

As well as having two guinea pigs in Starline and Ryuko, I also found a couple of comics while I was researching these articles that already edge somewhat close to the ideas I’ve suggested and in doing so, they imply that the basic ideas here are correct.

Firstly, Andy Weir’s new comic Cheshire Crossing offers CBR versions of each issue for download. When I asked Mr. Weir, he told me issue one had been downloaded 2,737 times and issue two had been downloaded 1,586 times. The downloads are free, but it does indicate that CBRs are something of an emerging standard and there are people out there who are quite happy with their comics in the format. If Chessire Crossing had managed the same amount of downloads for even a micropayment price of ten cents each, Andy Weir would have earned over four hundred dollars.

Code Name Hunter by Darc and Matt offers full color versions of their otherwise black and white comic for a subscription fee of $2.50 a month. The comic had 10,000 readers in April, but has just 77 subscribers, only 11 of which are permanent, but what’s interesting here is that Darc understands that people subscribe for one month so they can download the comic to keep. As Darc herself said on the Webcomic List forums

I’m aware that what most people will do is wait until the end of an arc, plop down the $2.50 and then save copies of the color version on their computer and that’s fine. If you have a big enough computer and really love a comic by all means keep a backup for yourself.

In effect, then, Darc and Matt are selling the comic in all but name (although it’s not as convenient since the reader has to save the images themselves). They recognize that there is a market for downloadable webcomics and it would be interesting to see how it would go if Darc and Matt starting actively pitching it as a sale rather than a subscription.

The data from those is useful but only suggestive. Starline and Ryuko represent the real test, but unfortunately Ryuko wasn’t able to go through with it due to real life events that got in the way. She still intends to do it, though, but simply wasn’t able to do it in time for this article.

But Starline has been selling her first year of Candi for a couple of months now. In total, she made fifty nine sales, totaling $157.82 over the two months. It’s a solid, but not impressive amount. Whether or not this will be more successful over time is still a matter of belief and speculation but the important point is that it does make money – and for very little effort.

In fact, this was the most important advantage from Starline’s own perspective as the artist in the middle of the trial. With a popular comic that can already sell merchandise, it wasn’t the cash that made it a good idea for her so much as the return on investment.

As an artist, the whole process didn’t take up a lot of my time. And for me, this was the best part. Aside from the Keenspot check, the only way I usually made money from my comic was through donation wallpapers. I haven’t had time on my hands to make a new wallpaper for the last 3 months, let alone try and come up with other merchandise like books and t-shirts.

For once, then, you can get paid for the work you’ve already done, not for more work you have to do on top of it.


One Last Thing…

Webcomics are shortly to have the chance of a lifetime, one that CBRs, PDFs and even – in a pinch – downloaded webpages can put us in position to take advantage of.

With the release of Apple’s iPhone, it seems that most of the technologies are in place for the elusive portable document reader to finally get some serious attention from consumer electronic companies (Indeed, the iPhone arguably already is a portable document reader). When these devices eventually hit, the webcomic market has a chance to break out of its limited demographic and grow like never before. Downloadable chapters of webcomics are not just something else to sell among the wallpapers and the sketches, but is also setting up webcomics for the future. When these devices hit, the market will be there to support it.

But surely that’s the wrong way around? Surely the devices come first and then the content, right?

Actually, no. Music as MP3s were popular long before MP3 players existed. In the meantime, people happily downloaded millions of tracks through Napster that they could only listen to on their computer. TV shows and movies were popular on the file sharing networks long before there was a convenient way to get them to your widescreen TV and even Apple started selling video through iTunes over a year before it offered a way to watch them on anything bigger than a computer monitor. They sold over 1.3 million movies that you could not watch on your television in comfort. You had to watch them on a two and a half inch iPod screen or sitting in an office chair in front of your computer. And yet they sold.

The format comes first, not the device, because the format represents the demand. It is the content that drives the devices, not the other way around. In the meantime, people have proven time and time again that they’re more than happy experiencing their digital content on the computer while they wait.

And if we can position webcomics to take advantage of the document readers ahead of time as Apple positioned movie downloads ahead of the release of Apple TV, then once the devices arrive webcomics will slide effortlessly on to the new platform and increase the collective market for webcomics. The comics will be out and about where they can be seen, shared and talked about as casually as that great new track you heard on the radio or, indeed, have on your iPod. Like MP3 players, they could cease to be locked in the narrow demographic of the IT-savvy websurfing crowd and move into the mainstream.

And then we might just manage to make a real business out of them.

Joel Fagin

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