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.
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 1280x1024 – 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 1024x768 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 1280x1024. 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.