Comicon Saturday – Webcomics 103

Ok, I know this is about half a week after the Comicon, but it's one of those "When I got back from the con I decided to sleep for three days in a row" sort of things. But enough about that. Let's talk about Webcomics 103: Making Money.

Let's make some money!The panel was once again run by the inimitable Bill Barnes (Unshelved) In attendance at this panel were (from left to right) Robert Khoo (Business Manager for Penny Arcade), Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary), Jennie Breeden (The Devil's Panties), Phillip Karlsson (formerly of Goats, now running Dumbrella Hosting), and as a special surprise guest who wasn't on-stage when this picture was taken, Scott Kurtz, of the Eisner Award-winning PvP.

This panel was held in the same room as Webcomics 101, so to be sure that we didn't miss it, my roommate and I attended the panel before this one, which turned out to actually be a kind of interesting workshop on making costume parts and models out of polyfoam (the foam you spray out of a can to fill gaps in your house). And as soon as we got into the room I discovered why it was that Webcomics 101 filled up so quickly: the room was full of tables. There was literally about a quarter as much seating as there could have been in that room because every other row was filled up with tables, and the chairs were spread out for table sitting rather than all linked together. I'm pretty sure that the room was intended for workshops in which the tables would actually be needed (like a drawing workshop or something), and webcomics were put in the room by some unthinking scheduling troll who was convinced that "this webcomics thing is just a fad." Fortunately, Webcomics 103 directly conflicted with the Spiderman 3 panel, so there weren't as many people desperate to get in.

Bill Barnes had much greater control over this panel than he did over Webcomics 102, and as a result the discussion was actually relevant to making money in webcomics, and I learned quite a bit. Especially useful were the bits by Howard Tayler, who was willing to share real numbers with people.

We began with the basics: How do you make money off your webcomic? And the answers were pretty much the big three that we've seen in the past: advertising, merchandise, and books. Robert Khoo wondered why everyone seems to have a fetish with books these days as Penny Arcade has had a robust business with employees beyond just the comic's creators for seven years without ever making a book. I wanted to follow this up with a question about how much additional business they'd seen from making a book, but never really got the chance. I felt that Howard Tayler had a good indirect rebuttal later in the panel when he talked about his own books, though (more on that below).

Everybody pretty much agreed that you couldn't make your living solely off of advertising, and unless you're really big you're pretty much stuck with Google ads or blog ads. At this point I wanted to ask about sponsorship advertising (like at Starslip Crisis), but again there wasn't really the opportunity. Howard Tayler did talk about the Blank Label shared advertising (that one banner that's at the top of the page for every Blank Label comic) and how that was serving up about ten million pageviews a month, and was able to pay for hosting for Blank Label and for their trip out the the Comicon, which I thought was pretty cool. Any fledgling collectives out there should take note and do the same thing. Why be a collective in name only if you're not leveraging the shared size of all your readers to make more money for everyone?

Merchandise seems to be the name of the game for making money off of webcomics, and it seems that the old "sell t-shirts" model is still the best, which is interesting because it's also the easiest to do and one that can be done by small-time comics, even without using a print-on-demand service. You can always go to a local print shop and get a run of 100 shirts that you'll sell eventually, and at higher profit margins than using Cafepress or something. I wanted to ask what new directions merchandise might go in (like card games such as the Sluggy Freelance card game, figurines such as the Goats Diablo action figure, or plushies, which have been done by PvP, Sluggy Freelance, and Megatokyo), but again never got the chance. I think I need to get my hand up faster in the future. The creators were all very clear that t-shirts with the characters on them did not sell, so don't bother. You're much better off coming up with crazy little phrases and wacky pictures, possibly inspired by the comic, possibly not.

There was also a brief discussion of e-Merchandise, such as bonus comics or desktop wallpapers given to people who donate a buck or two via Paypal. This was touted as a great way to get your readers to give back a little and also something that doesn't take a lot of time and effort on your part. Howard Tayler said he makes a nice amount of side money off this, and it's a good idea for pretty much anyone to do.

Then there was discussion of books. Here is where Howard Tayler really shined. He talked about the Schlock Mercenary book, which he had done quite well with (I don't really want to post the exact numbers here because I don't know if he wanted everyone on the internet to know his net worth. I felt like that was something special for panel attenders). He had some interesting figures. Say you've got a $10 book. Say you go the normal route for publishing, which is from the printer to the publisher to the distributor to the consumer. The distributor is only willing to pay about $6 max for the book. You have to pay the printer about $1 per book for the printing, assuming you do a pretty large run (greater than a couple thousand). The publisher takes a pretty deep cut of the remaining $5 to cover promotion and advertising of the book, leaving you with $1-2 for each book sold, depending on how good a deal you have. Now imagine you cut out the middlemen, and just sell the book directly yourself, through your website (which is what Tayler did). Suddenly the only cost is the $1 you paid the printer, and you get to keep $9 for yourself. That's huge. And that's yet another reason why it's easier to make a living off being a webcomicker than a traditional newspaper comicker.

Now, keep in mind this is for ordering books directly from a printer, which is only feasible if you can sell a couple thousand of them and ship them yourself. The numbers are much different if you use a print on demand service such as Lulu or Cafepress. It's important to know what you can expect to sell.

Which brings us to the main point of the evening: to successfully make money off your webcomic, you've got to know your audience, know what they'd be interested in buying, and how much they'd be willing to spend. Both Howard Tayler and Robert Khoo stressed the how important and useful it is to take surveys of your audience, and to ask them the hard-and-fast money questions, like "would you spend X amount of dollars to buy Y". That way you know what you're getting into before you get in too deep. There was a lot of useful information at this panel, and I think everyone walked away much wiser in the ways of making money from their comics.

Hopefully I've been able to pass on some of that knowledge to you.