Just what is the "collective model" anyway?
Let’s face it. Webcomics "collectives" are all the rave these days. The heaviest hitters are probably Blank Label Comics, Dumbrella, and Dayfree Press; but you’ve also got guys like Boxcar Comics, Gamer’s Pair of Dice, SpinZone Comics, Cornstalker, and of course, The Ryans. And chances are we’ll see some new ones come around this year.
But what is a "collective", anyway? And what is "the collective model"? I think a lot of people have a general idea: a collective is a small group of webcomics creators that band together to help each other out. To promote each other’s work, and try to help each other garner larger audiences. But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. What does it mean to "help each other out"? What makes collectives work?
Let’s start out by defining what isn’t a collective: Keenspot, Webcomics Nation, and DrunkDuck. These are all service providers for webcomics. They provide the hosting, the comic uploading and blogging functionality, and maybe even development services such as promotion or merchandising. In return, they either charge you or take a cut of what you earn. Most likely a large cut. These are businesses that use webcomics as their product. Collectives are independent creators banding together, but retaining their independence. Working with each other, not working for someone else. This doesn’t make collectives any better or worse than Keenspot, Webcomics Nation, and DrunkDuck, it’s just a different business model.
That being said, many (probably most) webcomic collectives really aren’t much of a business model at all. Just a bunch of webcomic creators who happen to like each other, so they decide they’re going to promote each other. They set up some sort of "main page" for the collective with information about all the comics, latest news, and maybe some collective forums. And they link to each other on their websites. Maybe they have a cute little link box on their website with links to all the other members of their collective (Cornstalker is a good example of this). But be it ubiquitous or discreet, it’s fairly standard operating procedure for all members of a collective to have links to all the other members of their collective somewhere on their website.
But these minimal efforts are not going to do a whole lot of good. Anybody can set up a neat-o link box and a news site, it’s really not going to do a whole lot for your traffic except maybe leech some readers from the other members of the collective. And it’s certainly not going to give you a leg up on monetizing your work. The idea behind a collective is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that together you will be able to accomplish things that you couldn’t accomplish separately, and you’re not going to do that with just cross-linking and a news page. You need to actually undertake some joint ventures. Here’s some good examples from the "successful" collectives:
- Joint Money: This is the key, and really what all the other joint ventures are based on. If you truly want to be a collective, you’ve got to collect something together. Your collective has to have some sort of joint money account to accomplish anything. By collecting together your money, you will be able to afford things that you would not have been able to afford separately, or at least would not have been economically feasible. This may be the ability to open your own merchandise store so you don’t have to go through Cafepress, or the ability to do an independent print run of one of the comics, so you don’t have to go through Lulu.
- Joint Advertising: Joint advertising means coordinating all your pages so that the same advertisement shows up on every collective member’s web page. Why is this an advantage? Because if you’re only getting 5,000 unique IPs a day, it’s not very impressive. But if all ten of your collective members get similar traffic, 50,000 unique IPs is impressive. Advertisers will be willing to pay a lot more for an ad that gets 50,000 uniques a day than for ten ads that get 5,000 uniques each. Blank Label Comics is an example of a collective that takes the joint advertising venture to heart. Every single comic on Blank Label (and most of the supplementary pages as well) have a large banner ad at the top. And it’s the same set of rotating banners for every one of those pages. That means if you buy that advertising space, you will be getting a lot of impressions. And Blank Label can charge big for that. In fact, they managed to finance their trip to the San Diego Comicon last year solely off of that shared advertising. Now that’s good use of the collective.
- Joint Hosting: Anyone who runs a moderately successful webcomic on their own can attest to the fact that bandwidth bills start to become prohibitively expensive. Things have gotten a lot cheaper these days with all the competition, once you get in the "several tens of thousands of readers" range, it gets pretty bad. And this is where joint hosting can save you some bucks. Along the same principle as the joint advertising, paying for one hosting account to serve 50,000 readers a day is a lot cheaper than paying for ten hosting account to serve 5,000 readers a day each. Especially when you’re at the point when you just want to buy your own server, by pooling together collective money you can go out and buy a really nice, top of the line rig rather than some cheap desktop server that drags itself along. I’m pretty sure both Dumbrella and Blank Label Comics have some sort of shared hosting thing going on (even across Dumbrella and Blank Label, because I think Sheldon uses Dumbrella Hosting), and I’d be interested to see how much money it’s saving those members of the collective that are using the joint hosting.
- Joint Convention Attendance: This one is pretty straightforward: attend conventions as a unit, not individually. This lets you save money on the convention floor booth and on hotel rooms (if you can stand each other). And if the collective members live near each other you can save money on travel, too. Plus, it allows you to present a united front at the convention. You can have a flyer inciting people to come see just the collective, as opposed to each individual member thereof. You can give a collective panel discussion. You could even have some sort of collective joint giveaway at the convention itself. Plus it really helps fill out a booth when you’ve got like five people there and lots of different merchandise, rather than just one or two people with a couple of shirts and books. And don’t forget to spend some of that collective money on nice booth decorations and a quality banner.
- Joint *gasp* Comics Projects: One of my favorite things from the San Diego Comicon last year was Supercollider, which was one continuous story with several different webcomics artists each one drawing a scene. It was funny, it was clever, and it was unique. And it wasn’t even done by a collective, just a random bunch of artists trying to afford floorspace at the con. This could be a perfect project for collectives to fund their convention trips, they could even make each one con exclusive and number them like issues to encourage more fans to come out. And it’s not too much stress on the creators as each one only needs to provide a couple of pages of material. Or even if they don’t want to go that far, collectives can always do jam comics together, or even just a jam wallpaper, like the Blank Label Comics San Diego Comicon Jam. These are great ways not only to make a couple extra bucks for the collective, but also to help stimulate each other artistically, and that’s never a bad thing.
So there are some ideas for what a collective should be doing, so that each member is truly helping out all the other members, rather than just pretending to do so via link exchange. These are definitely some things to keep in mind when forming a collective, because when you really form a proper collective it’s more like a business partnership than a group of friends, and it should be approached this way. I hope some of the smaller collectives try out some of these ideas and we’ll start to see them grow, and I hope anyone who starts a new collective starts it with these joint ventures in mind. Then we might see more Dumbrellas and Blank Label Comics, and more Dayfree Presses, too. And that can only be a good thing.