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Reinventing Micropayments

Webcomics have always had trouble making money, and I'm not even talking about a living wage. Not even minimum wage. Just a little something to offset a hobby and pay for some materials. Only the really popular comics can do it -- the pop culture sensations -- can actually create a living for their creators. Most people have given up trying.

The best solution to this problem was given by Scott McCloud in his book Reinventing Comics. He suggested a micropayment system where readers would pay a small amount - a couple of cents to a dollar, say - for creative content from the web, whether novels, comics, music or movies. Among even a few hundred readers, a couple of cents would offset costs for the webcomic artist beautifully.

In the comic continuation of Reinventing Comics titled I Can't Stop Thinking, Scott McCloud compares music downloads to webcomics in his arguments for the viability of micropayments. His points are all excellent ones, but they are concerned with why it should work -- why people should be willing to pay their loose change towards a comic they like. That's not really important. That's simply gospel, convincing people of an idea. We don't need convincing. We don't want to know why it should work, we want to know how it can.

Because in the seven years since Reinventing Comics, micropayments have gone nowhere at all.

Scott McCloud himself had the only comic I'm aware of that used the system and even he has recently abandoned the idea of micropayments for it. The artists don't want to risk losing their readers and the readers seem to have no interest at all in paying even a small amount of money for something they're used to getting for free. Hah! It'd be like people flocking to a service that sells music for, oh, I dunno, ninety-nine cents when they could just download it for free over on the file sharing networks.



iTunes versus Webcomics

"We wanted to sell a million songs in the first six months. We did it in a week." - Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, 2003

In the same period it took for micropayments for webcomics to go from a great idea to... still just a great idea, the Apple iTunes Music Store has been selling creative content for small amounts of money when the same content is available for free elsewhere. It has managed to sell over two and a half billion songs, captured 80% of the online music market and is now the fourth largest music retailer in the United States along side stores like Walmart and Target. It did this whilst constantly competing against free music download services such as Napster, Kazaa, Grokster, Limewire and eDonkey, against CD retailers, and against other online music stores who got in first, such as Rhapsody and Pressplay.

Eighty percent. In any other market, a 30% share is a resounding victory. 80% is just flabbergasting. There were no special circumstances. They weren't first, or cheapest, or a monopoly. Sure, the iTunes Music Store worked seamlessly with the iPod but it's not like people couldn't still use ripped CDs and illegally downloaded music on it as well. They had staggering amounts of determined competitors on every possible level, much of it backed by the record industry powerhouses themselves. It really is ridiculous. It's absurd, impossible and unheard of. Yet it worked.

So... why not for webcomics? The parallels are still there and the markets are still very much the same. In both cases, there is free content available on the web that the creators would like to encourage people to pay a small and quite reasonable amount for. The only difference now is that Apple is making hundreds of millions of dollars off micropayments and webcomics are not.

So, why exactly can Apple do it and we can't? Why is iTunes so successful and the greater bulk of the webcomic community still unable to make a buck? Why are people willing to pay their loose change towards music but not their comics?

Let's dissect an Apple.


But first...

Before we do so, there are some important differences between the music and webcomic markets that we have to be aware of and allow for as we proceed.

One, free music downloads are illegal whereas free webcomics are normal business. This is important because the customer has certain expectations. Whether they download songs illegally or not, the customers understand that music is something you should normally pay for. However, they don't have this expectation of webcomics. This leads on to the next point...

Two, webcomic creators are generally not prepared to risk losing readers. Slam a toll gate down on a webcomic and your readership will plummet. To make this work, then, we must eliminate this problem.

Three, webcomic creators generally treat it as a hobby. They don't expect to get rich, or even usually make a living, but they feel it's fair to get something back. Okay, this is a broad generalization, but due to points one and two, I think earning a living would be difficult for the time being. For now, then, we'll concentrate on just making more money rather than a making a lot of it.

Four, webcomic creators do not have the resources of Apple. Our solution needs to be as easy and straightforward to implement as possible.

Right, with those firmly in mind, let's look at our two markets side by side and work out what, exactly, is going on here.



"(With Pressplay and Rhapsody) You can't just go get a song and pay a little." - Steve Jobs, 2003

Micropayments don't make selling creative content online successful. They never did, as Apple clearly understood. All they do - the only thing they do - is make it viable.

Advocates of micropayments for webcomics seem to be expecting it to "just work" to borrow an Apple phrase. They focus on the low cost, assuming that a handful of cents for a worthwhile comic is great value for money, so people should be willing to pay, right? They forget, however, that no matter how little they ask for, anything over zero is a price hike. It doesn't matter if you think it's a fair and reasonable price, or even if you think it's dead cheap and way too low - consumers are not going to spend money because of their sense of fair play. The only people who will are other comic creators, which is hardly the point here.

And after expecting micropayments to "just work" and seeing that they didn't, webcomic creators became not only disenchanted with the idea of micropayments but also with the possibility of ever having a fair market at all. It is far more common now to hear that micropayments "just don't work" -- that the entire premise is flawed and that consumers will never pay for something that they're used to getting for free.

It never occurred to anyone to look somewhere else for the problem. It's like trying to find your glasses when they're on your nose. In fact, it has nothing to do with micropayments at all. The flaw in the market isn't the price, it's the market itself.


Services and Subscriptions

"The subscription model has failed so far. Customers don't seem to be interested in it" - Steve Jobs, 2007

Webcomics are currently treated like a service rather than a product. You don't get to keep the comic but rather you get access to it. The creator controls that access and can turn it off at any time. Any money they do make is generally through advertising. It's like how free-to-air television and radio work.

Micropayments as Scott McCloud pitches them don't change this but simply add a small charge for the access, turning it into a subscription model. Other non-micropayment subscription services such as Modern Tales, WirePop and others work more like cable television. They cost more but you get access to an entire catalogue of comics (whether you happen to want to read them or not).

Unfortunately, subscriptions for creative content don't really work. They actually never have. They only work when the companies that provide the subscription service also have a stranglehold on the product and its distribution so you simply can't get the product any other way. Television functions like this and the networks have only recently started feeling the ground shift beneath them thanks to DVD, iTunes and file sharing services. Cinema keeps their stranglehold on films for a short time by delaying the release of DVDs until after the theatrical run and other performance art - theatre, opera and so on - simply don't work as well on DVD anyway.

And that's it. There are no other subscription models around and the ones we have are all firmly regulated so that, at least for a time, you have no option but to pay for them as a service rather than a product.

In fact, treating a product as a service doesn't even work well when it's free. There are three bookstores in my local town and only one library and the people in each bookstore reliably outnumber those in the library. What's up with that? At the library the books cost nothing. Why is it that even free subscriptions simply don't work in an open market?

Well, how much music do you own, safely on your hard drive or on CDs? How many books and comics do you have?

Now... How many do you rent?


What's wrong with subscriptions is that, no matter how little you charge for them, they don't give people what they want, because what they want is to own it.



"The experiment's been run. People don't want to rent their music." - Steve Jobs, 2004

When iTunes hit the web, it had two main online competitors called Rhapsody and Pressplay, both of which were subscription services. You payed monthly and listened to any music you wanted. If you stopped paying, your music would stop working. Fzzt.

And they didn't just fail, they never even got up any speed. They weren't doing well even before iTunes came along. Not even remotely. No one was interested in paying for something and not having it to own. They would rather go out and buy a CD - or download it illegally - and get to keep the music.

The paid subscriptions in the webcomic world are a little friendlier since you can always access the most recent comic and can read the first chapter or so as a taster. Still, subscriptions remain a very poor option. The user has to pay for something he normally expects for free and receives nothing permanent in exchange. Oh, you can download the comics to your hard drive one image at a time if you can be bothered spending a few dull and repetitive hours doing so, but you'd have to be quite a fan to think that was anything like a good trade.

And yet... people do this. Those with a little programming know how write automated scripts to do the work for them but others will download hundreds of images by hand if they must.

If people want something then they want to own it. They want control over it so that the product can't be snatched away if they stop paying. This is especially important for webcomics because they do sometimes simply vanish from the web.

To make money, webcomics need to offer the readers something they get to keep.

Ah, but webcomic writers already do, don't they? Many have a voluntary donation scheme which, although doesn't go quite as low as a couple of cents, is basically a micropayment system. Make just a dollar donation and you'll often get a reward for your money. You get... a sketch. Or some wallpaper.



Target Audience

"Music's a part of everyone's life. Everyone." - Steve Jobs, 2001

Merchandise, such as wallpapers and sketches, is aimed at entirely the wrong target audience. It's like getting a free poster with a CD. Yeah, it's nice to have a quick look at but few people are actually going to hang it up. They're generally more interested in the actual music and are just as likely to throw the poster away. It doesn't make the experience better or easier. There's no improvement in what you care about, just a freebie that you don't much want. You'd have to be a real fan to actually want it

In an article about fans and feedback, I worked out that the true fans of a webcomic amount to just two percent of the total readership. Justin Pixler (creator of the webcomic Masters of the Art) has since worked it out separately at three percent. We'll err on the side of caution and use his figure.

These three percent are the people who will comment in tag boards, sign up for forums and send fan mail. They're the ones who care deeply about the comic and will buy merchandise either because they care enough to want it or because they think the comic creator deserves some payment. They're also the ones who will buy subscriptions should you have them.

And pretty much anything would have roughly the same percentages attached. I have the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD, for example, but I don't have any painted figurines, replica swords or even a poster. I have a friend with a block mounted poster but he got it for free. He wouldn't have it otherwise. The consumers are legion but the fans are few.

And by selling T-shirts, wallpapers, mugs, posters, badges and prints, webcomic creators are targeting their sales at the fans - at just three percent of the possible market. That's like opening a music shop that sells only Glam Rock. It doesn't matter how cheap you can sell the music - you need more customers than you're going to get. For a webcomic to make a reasonable amount of money, they need that other ninety-seven percent. We need to stop targeting our products at the fans and start targeting them at the readers.

What product can we sell for a handful of loose change that all the readers, not just the fans, will want to own?


The Product

"This is how we competed with piracy. We offered a better product." - Steve Jobs, 2004

In order for the greater bulk of a webcomic's audience to pay their money, you must offer them something that they want for that money. So, what do they want? There is only one thing that you know, absolutely and for a fact that every reader of your comic wants. They want to read the comic.

I've already said we won't be messing with the freely available comic on the website - that's a sure way of dropping your readership down to the three percent of fans only. This leaves two immediately obvious things that we can offer them, both of which don't work well in practice.

First, we can sell them a book, as lots of webcomics do. Books are inconvenient, however, slow to arrive and expensive to buy. They're certainly not in the magic micropayment range we want.

The second idea is to make a separate chapter of the comic and make it exclusively available in exchange for donations. This is a better idea which would probably work well if the price was suitably low. However, it's a lot of effort to make the extra comics and most webcomic creators don't have that sort of time.

No, instead we'll take the third option and do exactly what iTunes did. We're going to sell our creative content for money while it's still online for free.

How to perform this clearly impossible feat is the exact same problem faced by Apple and iTunes. The fanatical faithful - of which Apple has plenty - would spend their money as always, but that's not enough. However, everyone else can already get the content for free. How could Apple possibly make them buy it as well?



"(Downloading music) offers users near instant gratification, at least compared to going down to the record store." - Steve Jobs, 2003

Convenience is a huge advantage of both illegal and legal music downloads. You don't have to grab your keys and wallet, put some shoes on, drive to the shop, buy the music and drive home. You also don't have to then rip the music to listen to it on the computer or on your portable music player of choice. iTunes and the file sharing networks are much easier. Click. Wait five minutes. Done. It's yours.

For book versions of comics, the actual purchasing is fairly easy but there's a long delay, extra money for postage and a bunch of other hassles. It's even less convenient than going to the shop and it is a huge turn off to all but that three percent of pureblood fans.

So, the obvious solution is to do as iTunes does and deliver the comic as a download. We could allow people who make donations to download a chunk of the comic all at once - a chapter, or a few chapters to make a sort of trade paperback, or even just the previous year's worth of comic. They pay their loose change in order to quickly and easily download the comic to keep for themselves.

But, really, why would they? Is ownership and convenience enough?

Absolutely. You only have to look at the gigabytes of media most people have saved on their hard drives to know that ownership's a really big deal. However, it wasn't enough for iTunes, not with the file sharing services also offering ownership at no cost. Apple couldn't just match them, they had to beat them. They had to offer better value for money than the file sharing services - better value for money, in fact, than a free product.


Value for Money

"We're going to fight illegal downloading by competing with it." - Steve Jobs, 2003

Offering something for free is not the same thing as giving value for money. Apple offers a massive amount of value for money across all its products and services. Webcomics, on the other hand, might offer a great deal of free content but not much value for money.

Sounds a bit contradictory, doesn't it? It's very important to define terms here. I don't mean to give them something desirable. I'm sure you're trying your best to make your webcomic as good as possible already. Value for money is different. That's not about giving people something new or something impressive - but rather giving them something that enhances what they already want or already have. Something that completes the experience.

There are two main ways of doing this but they often overlap some.

The first way of offering value for money is to provide, free of charge, ways to reduce or eliminate the inherent disadvantages. One disadvantage of downloading music is the lack of cover art, so iTunes supplies it, giving them an edge over file sharing. Similarly, one disadvantage of using an Apple computer is that it starts out unfamiliar to anyone used to Windows, so they offer training and advice free in the Apple stores.

The second way is to enhance the experience - to take what you have already bought and make it better. Apple computers come with a built in webcamera, for example, as well as a suite of excellent software for managing your media - photos, music, videos and so on. iTunes is not only an online store but a powerful, easy to use music management program with an instantaneous search. Both these things add value to the product.

In both cases, it's important to focus on what the customer wants out of the product and make it better at doing that. Computer companies like Dell and Gateway include "free" software but generally throw on whatever software they're paid to include by other companies. The quality is low and most of it is probably irrelevant at best and annoying at worst. It doesn't enhance anything, let alone what the user actually wants out of the computer.

Webcomics have quite a few disadvantages which are waved away once you have the comic safely on your hard drive. Firstly, cycling through comics online is slow. Even on the fastest broadband, there's a momentary delay as the signal whizzes over to where the comic is and then whizzes back again - something it has to do for every single image on the website. If we allow the users to download to their hard drive, that's all gone.

The second problem is the clutter. Advertising banners, tag boards, voting buttons, newsboxes... It all gets in the way, crowds the comic and almost always means you have to scroll to see it. Even the comic's title is a problem. On a webpage you have to advertise who you are, but if the comic is downloaded to someone's hard drive, they already know. The title can then be much smaller and less intrusive - or even taken out completely and replaced with a cover page at the beginning.

The second part of value for money involves enhancing the experience. That's easy enough. You simply make the comics larger and higher quality, maybe even colour them if they're not already and if you have the time. This downloadable version of your comic then becomes faster, better quality, higher resolution and with far less visual clutter than the online one. This all combines to make the user interface - the webpage - more attractive, more responsive and more pleasant to use. It appeals to all your readers, not just the fans, and they get to own the comic to boot.

Worth paying a buck for?

iTunes music is available for free off the filesharing networks but iTunes offers good quality music which is convenient, reliable and cheap. They provide cover art, allow you to use the music in presentations and home movies, and provide an easy yet powerful user interface for managing, navigating through and listening to it. Unlike the subscription efforts of their quickly dispatched competition, the user gets to own the music to boot.

Worth paying a buck for?

Two billion times over.


But Will it Work?

"There's no legal alternative that's worth beans." - Steve Jobs, 2003

As ideas go, it sounds too simple, maybe even simplistic, but there are lots of little reasons why it should work and six huge ones why it will.

One: It already has. Apple has used this strategy to not only beat every single one of its dozens of online competitors but also all but three of the companies who sell CDs in stores as well. They shot up from being nothing to the dominant force in the industry, making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

Two: Get a calculator and do the math and you'll find that by offering a product to the readers instead of the 3% that are true fans, we increase our potential customer base by a staggering three thousand percent. Will the income go up by the same amount? Heavens, no, but it will go up. You cannot offer a product to thirty times more people and not see an increase in sales. Clearly the more people a product is made for, the more of that product you're going to sell.

Three: Being able to own something is a really big deal to consumers. iTunes has proven this, as have illegal music downloads. VHS movies were locked into rentals for a decade and DVDs of television shows were a long time coming due to the stubbornness and paranoia of the networks, but now bought copies of movies and TV shows are where most of the profit is. We have file sharing networks, software that lets you download streaming media and thirteen separate plugins for the Firefox web browser that allow you to download and keep YouTube videos. People want to keep this stuff.

Four: It's better. The quality is higher, the user interface easier and navigation faster and more responsive. If you want to re-read an issue or chapter on the web, that's thirty or more pages to load and thirty or more adverts to scroll past. None of this is a problem once the comic's on your hard drive.

Five: There's no competition. The illegal file sharing services have many of the same advantages as iTunes, being quick, convenient and letting the user own the music. With webcomics, though, users can only download the images painstakingly by hand or buy an expensive book which will take ages to arrive. Webcomics have no viable competition that offer either convenience or ownership.

Six: Like Apple's foray into online music, the risk here is intentionally very, very low. There's some effort involved but not a great deal. You simply need to create larger, better quality versions of the comics with a simpler, cleaner navigation interface. Photoshop will even create the better versions for you with a batch action, meaning you need only do it once and then have a cup of coffee while Photoshop cycles through the rest. The entire process would take most people a couple of days and a week at most - nothing like the preparation involved with making a book.

And, just think... What if it works?


One more thing...

Starline X Hodge, writer and artist of Candi, and Ryuko, writer and artist of The Green Avenger, have graciously consented to be my guinea pigs for a test run. Hodge has been offering a book's worth of high quality versions of her comic for readers to download since the beginning of April and Ryuko will be starting a similar download offering this month.

I'd like to thank both artists for their help as the experience of setting up such a system was invaluable. Next month, I'll look at how they did as well as the specifics of how to successfully execute this idea - the formats, prices, image quality, files sizes and marketing considerations.

How much is my opinion worth?

Tony Esteves's picture

I would like to offer my support for the ongoing discussion.

Joel, your article is well written and makes a number of great points. I see the analogy between the two forms of digital media and I recognize that you are determining the factors that make itunes successful and to bring that model-of-success to digital comics. Fantastic.

It's true that there are a number of other factors that make comics and music dissimilar and threaten to tear the analogy between digital comics and digital music apart.

There is a great benefit to sharing media for free. As mentioned previously, "fame" is garnered by spreading your comic (or music) to the most people that you can and charging a price may dissuade people from reading (or listening to) your craft. I would be very upset if I had to pay a quarter to turn on my radio to listen to music. I would also be upset if I had to pay a quarter to read through a number of comics.

Currently, the method of distribution for independent comics is through personal/individual websites (with archives) and not a comic station that circulates through a selected "playlist" of comics... where you would have to buy the comic that you want to read, at your convenience (on your portable iPad), as many times as you wish.

I know that there are independent musicians that are sharing their music for free on MySpace or having their videos on YouTube making waves in the industry as they get signed with a major labels after the free distribution. We have the same thing happening with our fellow webcartoonists as they get deals with Dark Horse, Image, and comic strip Syndicates. That appears to be where the money is at.

But, Joel, I don't read your article as a "get rich quick" guide to selling webcomics. I see it as a thoughtful interest in webcomics and allowing independent creators to be compensated for their passion and energy.

As far as speculating on what people would be willing to spend their money on: I can only speak for myself. I know that some people will buy merchandise where others won't. I know that some people will donate where others will not. Some people buy 24 page comic books where others buy collections. Some will buy in hardcover and others wait until it goes to paperback. The number of scenarios involved are many and varied and we have no control over it (which is bad for science).

In summary and with apologies, I'll be butchering Gordon's post in order to continue the music/comic analogy:

Music should be free, period. Do not try to make money from it. Make money from performances (however negligible that amount of money is), make money from T-shirts or posters or other merch, and make money from CDs, but do not be stupid enough to try to make money from the mp3s themselves. NONE OF THESE THINGS ARE YOUR MUSIC. Music should be free, because the experience of listening to 128kbps mp3s on your computer speakers is simply not worth any amount of money, no matter how good your music is.

Once again, Gordon, I'm sorry. Embarassed



Okay, good point.

Gordon McAlpin's picture

Okay... good point, although I wouldn't equate 128 kbps MP3s with a high res PDF file. PDF files are stuck on the computer. You can copy an MP3 file anywhere.

Multiplex is a twice weekly humor comic about the staff of the Multiplex 10 Cinemas and the movies that play there.

Who told you that? A PDF is

Who told you that? A PDF is a file that can be copied like any other.

But you have to READ them on

Gordon McAlpin's picture

But you have to READ them on a computer. Or do you have a color laser printer to read them properly, or a giant monitor in order to read a full page at a time without having to scroll up and down? I'm just saying that the PDF format is worthless to me, and to the vast majority of comics readers.

Multiplex is a twice weekly humor comic about the staff of the Multiplex 10 Cinemas and the movies that play there.

You are correct

Tony Esteves's picture

I can understand how the PDF format is worthless to you and to others (vast majority?) but I wonder if it's only because the current "delivery system" is not comparable to the iPod.

Technological advancements are about the "how to build a better mousetrap" model (in a way). Music has made the progress through recording from vinyl, to cassette players (and walkmen), to CD players (and discmen), to mp3 players (and the iPod). The advancements have made music portable and convenient.

With print, the advancements have been from Gutenberg's printing press to today's digital printing- where it's easier to make a book but haven't quite made a "better" book. You can read newspapers, comics, and books on your computer screen but it's not very portable or comfortable. I have a friend who reads CBR files on his Gateway convertible notebook (flipping it around so all you have is the screen) which makes it semi-portable (if you don't mind the weight) but not very convenient (in price).

I suppose the dream is the Gene Roddenberry universe where everyone is reading little handheld pads and old skool books are kept by collectors and eccentric lawyers. There may be people trying to bring this technology to the forefront- however we may need more "rockstar" authors to make reading popular in order to make this technology marketable.




Anefi's picture

I'm sorry I didn't find this discussion sooner, because tony's comment there about iPods was my very first thought. Micropayments for digital anthologies is a really exciting concept with a lot of potential, but unlike mp3s before iTunes, there is no prexisting niche for everyday use. Some people, possibly even many people, enjoy the use of illegal .cb* rips of printed comics, but the huge market potential just isn't there, and won't be until there are better and cheaper portable readers for the format.

Or until laser printers are

Gordon McAlpin's picture

Or until laser printers are cheap enough that people can buy them and print them out for less money than it costs to just buy a pre-printed magazine. (Black and white comics will likely be able to make in-roads in this department sooner than color, because of the cost factor.) Paper is more portable than any reader... at least until electronic paper technology improves...

I dunno. I may have spoken hastily before, but I think any real viability for electronic downloads of comics is a long ways off.

Multiplex is a twice weekly humor comic about the staff of the Multiplex 10 Cinemas and the movies that play there.

Micropayments are a flat-out

Gordon McAlpin's picture

Micropayments are a flat-out stupid way to try to make money from your comic. You cannot grow an audience by trying to sell material that people cannot read. (Yeah, yeah, "but I can put up sample chapters." Piss off. Most people who do that put their first -- and worst -- chapter up, or their latest -- completely incomprehensible -- chapter. Sure, that's gonna reel the readers in.)

Webcomics should be free, period. Do not try to make money from them. Make money from advertising (however negligible that amount of money is), make money from T-shirts or posters or other merch, and make money from print collections, but do not be stupid enough to try to make money from the comics themselves. NONE OF THESE THINGS ARE YOUR COMIC. Webcomics should be free, because the experience of reading 72 dpi comics on a computer monitor is simply not worth any amount of money, no matter how good your comic is.

Too many webcomickers have their priorities fucked up: Make a comic worth reading. Build your audience. And then worry about making money.

If you aren't making your comic simply because you enjoy doing it, stop. Just... stop.

Multiplex is a twice weekly humor comic about the staff of the Multiplex 10 Cinemas and the movies that play there.

As a participant in this, I

Starline's picture

As a participant in this, I think the main thing I'd like to add to the discussion is, that 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 merch like books and tshirts. So its nice to see a little cash come in through this when I don't have any time to do anything but work on the comic itself.

Good Luck

Bobby Crosby's picture

Just want to point out that I think it's perfectly fine to do it, since the risk involved is fairly low, but my main point was only that I don't think it can make a significant amount of money, as Joel says it would.

Also . . .

Bobby Crosby's picture

I don't understand why people have said that Joel is taking some sort of risk here. As far as I know, he doesn't even make a comic, or at least I didn't hear him mention implementing this for his comic (if he has one). He's simply asked others to test it for him, so they're the ones taking the risk, at his request.

By the way, one of the risk factors for this is that a lot of people just plain hate it when online comics try to make money in sneaky ways, and many people will also assume incorrectly that the regular comic is no longer free when they first hear the news on the site, which is very bad for business and can cause your readership to plummet.

What risk?

mooncity's picture

[quote=Bobby Crosby]

He's simply asked others to test it for him, so they're the ones taking the risk, at his request.

By the way, one of the risk factors for this is that a lot of people just plain hate it when online comics try to make money in sneaky ways, and many people will also assume incorrectly that the regular comic is no longer free when they first hear the news on the site, which is very bad for business and can cause your readership to plummet.


I don't agree. Because the download version is in addition to the daily comic as a seperate option, I don't think there's any more risk to it than say, a link to wallpapers. "Candi", for example, has such links off to the side in the margin, and they don't interfere with reading the comic. Why should a link/icon/button to the downloadable collection be any different, unless someone was dippy enough to put a huge splash graphic on their homepage touting downloads?


Autumn Lake

Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 1976!


Autumn Lake

Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 1976!

How will they even know it's there?

[quote=mooncity]"Candi", for example, has such links off to the side in the margin, and they don't interfere with reading the comic. Why should a link/icon/button to the downloadable collection be any different, unless someone was dippy enough to put a huge splash graphic on their homepage touting downloads?[/quote]

The problem with making it unobtrusive is you also make it invisible. If it's in a part of the page nobody looks at, who will know it's even an option?

Because . . .

Bobby Crosby's picture

People are incredibly stupid, that's why. Without any reason to conceivably think so whatsoever, someone recently told me that they don't read one of my comics because they didn't want to pay to read it. The comic in question, and all of my comics, are totally free online, yet someone said they don't read it because they thought they had to pay for it. Just imagine how many more people would think this if I promoted the sale of the online strips for a price. Tons of people would briefly read about this and think, "Oh well, it was nice while it lasted and the creator has sold out and I guess I can't read this strip anymore," without even reading the full post about it probably, and they leave, never to return. Now they'll only read 17 comics online instead of 18 and they won't care enough to check it again. This obviously wouldn't be a high percentage of readers who do that, but some of them, certainly, possibly a significant number.

Full agreement. I'm a heavy

Full agreement. I'm a heavy webcomic fan, and I'll read upwards of 150 a night (depending on when the various ones update) and there's over 200 in my bookmarks folder. (Plus I regularly trawl TWC and the Belfry for new ones.)

I've bought shirts, books and wallpapers, but I have never paid for a subscription, and probably never will. And considering how the Modern Tales subscription model hasn't exactly taken the webcomics world by storm, I strongly suspect I'm not alone in that.

Why should one assume that, if only 3% of fans will buy swag, that 100% of fans will pay a subscription? Strikes me more that only that same 3% or so can be counted on to pony up...


Totally Pointless

Bobby Crosby's picture

Joel spent most of the extremely long article talking about iTunes, something that basically can't be compared to comics on any level, and then said "micropayments good." It may have seemed like there probably was an idea there somewhere, since the article was so long, but there actually wasn't.

I'm not sure if anyone mentioned it yet, but a very large reason why people choose iTunes over illegal downloads is because the illegal downloads are ILLEGAL. I don't recall Joel saying that anywhere -- he just called them "free." There's a huge difference between simply typing in and actually illegally downloading something that might have a virus.

As others have said, I see no reason why more than 3% would buy this. I personally don't see why anyone would buy it. Many more people would buy books or t-shirts and the like. Slightly higher quality strips? YouTube has proven that the quality of the picture barely matters when it comes to seeing things online.

"You cannot offer a product to thirty times more people and not see an increase in sales."

I'm failing to understand how you're offering this to more people. You're offering it to the same people, but for some reason you simply think more people will buy this, even though basic common sense tells us that less people would buy it. You're not even offering them the comics, but just slightly higher quality versions of the comics. Kind of mind boggling.

I agree with most of what T said, except the part where he said this "might work." I think he was just being nice there, though.

Hey, +EV

Joel Fagin's picture

I know you want me to argue the toss, Bobby, but everything you're complaining about is not only in the article but has been mentioned by other people in the comments, so I know it's clearly stated. I'm not taking the bait.

However, the illegal point is a good one which is covered, but only briefly. The trouble is that no one knows how much the good karma of iTunes is a factor. Apple was careful to compete with the piracy by offering a better product on every level (except price, of course). The fact that it's legal is just one advantage. How important is any of those factors to the customer? We don't know because they haven't been offered one at a time.

Nevertheless, paying for a comic you enjoy is also good karma.

- Joel Fagin

Viruses too

Bobby Crosby's picture

I made two points on that -- the legality of it and the fear factor of downloading a virus.

"I know you want me to argue the toss, Bobby, but everything you're complaining about is not only in the article but has been mentioned by other people in the comments, so I know it's clearly stated. I'm not taking the bait."

None of that makes any sense to me.

Fear factor

Joel Fagin's picture

I made two points on that -- the legality of it and the fear factor of downloading a virus.

You can't get viruses on MP3s - as far as I know, anyway. They did try to add a scripting language to all media so movies and music could have viruses attached but I don't think it happened. Probably no one supported it.

Apple pitched it as "good karma". That was their marketing angle. I don't live in the US but I've never had any impression anyone really fears being caught doing piracy. My students certainly don't.

And, again, there's no way of knowing how much of a factor it is anyway.

- Joel Fagin

And yet another "double post" to add . . .

Bobby Crosby's picture

"You can't get viruses on MP3s - as far as I know, anyway."

All that matters is if people think they can get them or not, since not everyone knows everything about the internet, and tons of people think you can get them, like me.

"I don't live in the US but I've never had any impression anyone really fears being caught doing piracy."

Obviously some people do. Not a very high percentage. I've feared it before, although not recently.

A lot of people don't even know about the availability of illegal downloads, which is another important point you didn't mention. My friend Mac had bit roles in tons of popular TV shows, for example, and I downloaded some of them to show him and he was shocked that these things were available online, had no clue about "torrents" or anything like that.

In step seven, a miracle occurs...

Legality or illegality aside- and It's definitely a factor as far as music/iTunes is concerned- it's irrelevant for this comparison.

Again, it's quite simple- people listen to music repeatedly, but typically only read a thing once or twice.

Chances are, all of us here have hundreds of songs that we listen to daily... and hundreds of books that we haven't opened in years.

And since this suggested slightly-higher-res version will be both an infrequently-read book and still not a physical copy, there will be very little demand outside of the same 3% of fans.



Joel Fagin's picture

Even books out sell their merchandise. It gets hard to track once they jump to a new medium (like movies) but they sell more Harry Potter and Discworld books than merchandise easily.

People queue up for Harry Potter. They don't for the Harry Potter calendar or even the game. 3% might be enough to make a queue but they don't care enough to bother. They'll wait until they're passing, thanks.

The product is always a better sell than the merchandise.

- Joel Fagin


That's because those books

That's because those books ARE the merchandise. You can't read Harry Potter online, or in a serialized installment, or get an RSS feed. You buy the book, or you don't read it, period.

That's clearly not the case for a webcomic.

Again, it's an apples and orange-soda comparison. They're both things you can consume, but very different products with very different delivery.


What about libraries?

Joel Fagin's picture

[quote=Doc Nickel]

That's because those books ARE the merchandise. You can't read Harry Potter online, or in a serialized installment, or get an RSS feed. You buy the book, or you don't read it, period.[/quote]

You can go to the library, though, and "rent" the book as a service for free. That's an approximate equivalent to what webcomics do. It costs nothing but you don't get to own it, just read it.

But instead people buy the books at bookshops. There are only two possible reasons why. Firstly, the book is better quality, not having been through so many hands. I honestly don't think many people care about that.

And secondly, you get to keep it.

- Joel Fagin


Bobby Crosby's picture

"There are only two possible reasons why."

I love when you say stuff like this. There's about a million reasons why. Only two possible??? How about the convenience of not having to wait for the book to become available if it's checked out (third reason)? How about the convenience of having the book shipped to you instead of going down to the library (tons buy books online -- reason #4)? What about how annoying it is to go back to the library to return it (#5, look at how popular Netflix is), and the fear of forgetting about it and then having late fees (#6)? How about the fact that when you buy it, you then have the option of selling it, sometimes at a profit even for certain books (#7)? It goes on and on. A lot of people just plain hate libraries, like me. Again you're making a very bad comparison.

Seriously, just think about this for a minute. Someone is looking at the web site for the comic on their computer, right? They've read all the strips and just read the latest one and enjoyed it. Then they're told that they can buy all of those same comics on a file that's e-mailed to them (or whatever) and that the comics will be slightly higher quality apparently. About 99% of people's reactions would be, "Huh? Why?" To me, I wouldn't even take it for free. Sounds annoying. I gotta download this huge file just so I can re-read the same strips and have them look slightly better? I don't think my computer could even handle a file of that size.

"You get to keep it" is

"You get to keep it" is precisely the point.

A book is a physical object. People collect books, people buy (and sell) books.

But a folderful of PDFs or a CD full of hi-res copies are not books, not considered books, not desired as books.

And that's the problem with this whole essay- the moment where the science teacher points out to Oliver that porcupines are allergic to raisin bran.

Simply put, people don't want digital copies of a comic, high res or low, PDF or plain ol' GIF, even for free, let alone for a price. And there's definitely no reason to assume that the E-book, already unwanted even by that 3% of rabid fans, is going to somehow appeal to the 97% of indifferent readers.



Digital media

Joel Fagin's picture

That's just one of those things that'll get shaken out as it's tested. Is owning it as data enough? There's no way of knowing because no one's tried it on comics yet.

Novels wouldn't work because the text is too dense and hard to read off a screen. However, comics are more visual and cinematic, making them both faster and easier to absorb. As long as there aren't too many double page spreads, reading a comic off the screen isn't much of a problem.

People do tend to have an awful lot of digital media on their five hundred gigabyte drives, including these days, pirated CBRs of mainstream comics. There's definitely a suggestion of potential.

- Joel Fagin

While I'll be interested to

While I'll be interested to hear the results of the test, I still fail to find anywhere in the article, a reason why that fabled 97% would be interested in a product that is widely snubbed even by the rabid 3%.

As for reading off a screen, I agree. But that still ignores the fact that people simply don't re-read as often as they re-listen. Books are a different animal than music.

A person is typically perfectly content to listen to the same dozen or so songs on the radio on his or her drive to work, but if their favorite webcomic started showing the same five strips in a row each week, they'd quickly drop it for a new comic.

And yes, people do tend to have large amounts of junk and fluff on their drives... Now think of your own drives, and consider how recently you, yourself, went back and read through your folders of old MPEG movies or saved YouTubes, or digital photos?

When's the last time you went back and re-read any of your own how-to tutorials?


Re-Read for FREE

Bobby Crosby's picture

About re-reading things: They don't need to buy anything for that, though, under Joel's plan! They can still read and re-read the comics as much as they want online for free. Joel is only offering slightly higher quality strips. Also, almost everyone who has enough disposable income lying around to pay for this also has a high speed internet connection and it would not save them any time to open up those big high resolution files -- it would probably even be SLOWER.

Heh, heh.

Joel Fagin's picture

Heh. Man, are you asking the wrong person. I do all of that, even read my own writing, and fairly regularly too.

But it wouldn't do any harm to throw up a poll on a couple of forums I hang out on. It'd be interesting to know.

- Joel Fagin

Not selling the product

Bobby Crosby's picture

"The product is always a better sell than the merchandise."

Again, your idea doesn't include selling the product, but just a slightly higher quality version of it that almost no one would want for free, let alone to pay for.


Bobby Crosby's picture

Another good point.


Bobby Crosby's picture

There's no way of knowing almost everything you talked about in your article, just guessing at tons of things and various stastistics. I personally don't mind making some educated guesses, like some people we know are strangely very much against, but your conclusions seem to be very illogical.

And --

Bobby Crosby's picture

It's not just "good karma" -- it's the fear of going to jail, which many people actually fear about illegal downloads, probably because many people actually have gone to jail from doing that.

I'd just like to point out

Joel Fagin's picture

I'd just like to point out that I would have liked more trial time for the two comics testing the idea but after hearing about Scott McCloud abandoning micropayments, I felt that it would be more useful to put this out while it was at it's most topical.

- Joel Fagin

Grand Unified Theory of Free

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

I've been reading a series of posts at TechDirt (a great blog on tech with a lot of economics) about the end of scarcity and while I can't say the blogger is "teh right" he is trying to take a clear look at the implications of (almost) infinite supply and fixed demand (only so many hours in the day) which kind of describes the world (business?) of content these days. Here's the link. It's certainly in the same subject area as Joel's article even though it's a much different kind of writing. I thought this bit in the comments between the blogger and a musician commenter was particularly interesting:

there's a demand for my music.. otherwise it wouldn't be copied... there might be a demand for my t-shirts.. but my question back to you.. why can't i produce my music, and sell it as i want, and create tshirts as well..

Because the business model won't be supportable. Your competition will learn to give away stuff for free, and people won't pay attention to you. Demand, by itself, is meaningless. There's a lot of demand for air to breathe, but we don't pay for it because the supply is infinite.

The lesson of TechDirt's article for webcomics is (if there is any lesson) you can't (shoudn't) charge for things that aren't scarce anymore. You should give those away to increase the size of the market for those things you do that are scarce. So what is (or could be) scarce about webcomics?


Xaviar Xerexes

On second thought, let's not go to Comixpedia. It is a silly place.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

A portal?

mooncity's picture


The lesson of TechDirt's article for webcomics is (if there is any lesson) you can't (shoudn't) charge for things that aren't scarce anymore. You should give those away to increase the size of the market for those things you do that are scarce. So what is (or could be) scarce about webcomics?[/quote]

It may sound a bit snarky, but the scarcest thing about webcomics today is a way to find the really good ones. There are plenty of them about, of course, but there is also a lot of dross out there to slog through.

There are portals where one can narrow down a comic search based on their interests, but those portals have no gatekeepers. The result is, anyone can post anything regardless of quality, and the potential reader has to slog through the dross to find the really good comics. But a portal where comics would have to be vetted first before being added to the list, now that could be valuable. The quality would have to be pretty good, and it would have to be advertised in the right places. I don't know that people would pay to subscribe to it, but maybe they would. Maybe.


Autumn Lake

Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 1976!


Autumn Lake

Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 1976!

This was exactly the kind of

Joey Manley's picture

This was exactly the kind of thinking that led to the formation of Modern Tales five plus years ago. We didn't end up being exactly this thing you describe, but that was the original kernel of the idea. We have since moved on to other business models.

What was different?

Joel Fagin's picture

[quote=joeymanley]This was exactly the kind of thinking that led to the formation of Modern Tales five plus years ago. We didn't end up being exactly this thing you describe, but that was the original kernel of the idea. [/quote]

What was different?

- Joel Fagin

The 30-series rule we

Joey Manley's picture

The 30-series rule we implemented early on, for accounting reasons, made it less of a portal and more of a small anthology.

You forgot porcupines are allergic to raisin bran...

Conceptually, this is all well and good, but Mr. McCloud forgets one rather major point: Simply put, people will listen to the same song many, many times, but few people re-read books and comics more than just a bare few times.

Therefore, it's not the perception that "comics have always been free" that's the problem, it's the perception that music holds inherently more value to a listener; almost anyone will listen to a given song dozens or even hundreds of times. I know I have more than a few songs in my system that I've very probably listened to thousands of times.

But I read Howard's Under New Management twice, and then put it on the shelf. If it's anything like my old Bloom County and Calvin & Hobbes books, I'll re-read it on average once every three or four years.

As a more direct example, an older webcomic called Albion Fuzz ended his run back in 2002 or 2003. After ending the strip, he posted the entire thing- strips and page HTML to make navigating as easy as clicking the "next" button- as a zipped download.

After I downloaded it, I read through the entire thing once- after I'd already been a regular reader of the online version- and I haven't touched it since.

But I am, at this moment, listening to Tool's Schism, despite the fact I bought the CD nearly a decade ago and have heard this song umpteen jillion times before.


This, I must say, is a

This, I must say, is a really dang good point.

It is and it isn't

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

It certainly is a good observation of how people listen to music. But people also buy DVDs and while some watch some movies repeatedly there are some movies I've bought that I've watched only a few times. People buy books and only read them once. Does that mean that there will never be an iTunes for movies? (My opinion -- there absolutely will be an iTunes for movies once the broadband/technical and business (rights for example) issues are resolved)

It's not a bad point, but I'm not sure how to plug it into the debate that's spun off of Joel's article.

And just while I'm here on this thread - let's try to keep it civil (it largely has stayed that way) and just from my own "watching the comments unfold perspective" - people responding directly to the article or making observations/points tied closely to their own experiences are much more persuasive and interesting then... well the comments that don't do that.


Xaviar Xerexes

On second thought, let's not go to Comixpedia. It is a silly place.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

It's only a model

nobody's picture


On second thought, let's not go to Comixpedia. It is a silly place.


We do love them, don't we? And, nevertheless, until you get to push the pram around here, I will consider it a relatively serious place ;)


Xaviar Xerexes's picture

heh - I was expecting a comment on my sig line months ago! :)


Xaviar Xerexes

On second thought, let's not go to Comixpedia. It is a silly place.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

I like the ideas in Joel's

mooncity's picture

I like the ideas in Joel's article, and the iTunes comparison is very interesting. But I'm not sure this will work across the entire spectrum of webcomickry. A comic with a large readership would undoubtedly have more success with the download option than a webcomic with a smaller readership. "Candi" is an excellent example of a comic that has a good base of readers growing popularity. So while the data Joel gleans from Ms. Hodge's foray will be interesting, I'm not sure a more average webcomicker will find a lot of traction from trying a similar experiment.

Still, any new avenue for bringing in some dough is welcome. The clever part of what Joel suggests is that unlinke micropayments or subscriptions, the download option is in addition to the regular content. So the reader can opt in or not, but still have no barriers to their daily reading.


Autumn Lake

Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 1976!


Autumn Lake

Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 1976!

Tim OReilly Essay on Piracy Is Progressive Taxation

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

One of the links from Clay Shirky's short note on Scott McCloud rereleasing The Right Number for free is Tim O Reilly (publisher)'s essay "Piracy Is Progressive Taxation". His basic point - the biggest hurdle for creators is getting known - not piracy.

It's a point painfully obvious to webcomic creators - there are probably thousands of threads on how to promote your webcomic - to cut through the curtain of obscurity. The basic operating model of free comics served to your browser? - that's a response to the overwhelming task each comic creator has of overcoming obscurity.

But note how OReilly sees that benefitting musicians for example:

I have watched my 19 year-old daughter and her friends sample countless bands on Napster and Kazaa and, enthusiastic for their music, go out to purchase CDs. My daughter now owns more CDs than I have collected in a lifetime of less exploratory listening. What's more, she has introduced me to her favorite music, and I too have bought CDs as a result. And no, she isn't downloading Britney Spears, but forgotten bands from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, as well as their musical forebears in other genres. This is music that is difficult to find -- except online -- but, once found, leads to a focused search for CDs, records, and other artifacts. eBay is doing a nice business with much of this material, even if the RIAA fails to see the opportunity.

The question here is what is comics' CD? Is it books? Joel piece throws out a download idea. Maybe there is no such CD-equivalent (a pessimist would note that even music's CD isn't going to be around much longer.)

The question before us is not whether technologies such as peer-to-peer file sharing will undermine the role of the creative artist or the publisher, but how creative artists can leverage new technologies to increase the visibility of their work. For publishers, the question is whether they will understand how to perform their role in the new medium before someone else does. Publishing is an ecological niche; new publishers will rush in to fill it if the old ones fail to do so.

This is an interesting point though - iTunes is iTunes, not a single band's website.


Xaviar Xerexes

On second thought, let's not go to Comixpedia. It is a silly place.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

The Experience


The question here is what is comics' CD? Is it books?


I think a big hurdle may be the fact that the CD of comics is typically the comic book slash graphic novel.

When a music fan purchases something off of iTunes, they are getting the full music-listening experience for the low price of 99 cents. It is no different from purchasing a CD or vinyl insofar as how the product is consumed: the music plays out of speakers or headphones, and you listen. The only difference is where the Play button is located.

With comics, though, the comic-reading experience isn't as flexible in its delivery. Clicking the right arrow in Comical just doesn't feel the same as breaking in the spine on a book. For the low price of 99 cents (or $2.99), you are not getting the same product in electronic form. You are getting the electronic form of the product. The limited success of e-books is a worthy analogue to point out.

I do find myself wondering, however: does this hurdle affect webcomics? That's a toughie for me. They're already electronic, after all. Right arrows are right arrows. And yet, personally, when I'm reading through the archives of my own webcomic, I prefer to go to my site and read it there, even though I have 600dpi versions of the whole thing on my hard drive. The experience, for me, of flipping through the files in Preview isn't the same as flipping through the pages on my site, even though the physical actions are as good as identical.

Do you guys feel similarly about webcomic reading? I think given a choice between a dead tree version of my favorite webcomic, and a CBR version, I'd be more likely to go through the inconvenience of buying the book. Of course, would I choose that for the 30-odd other webcomics that aren't my favorite? Maybe. I'm inclined to think that if I want to re-read a comic that I'm fond of, I'll be more likely to pull up the website than to plunk 299 measly cents for a download, even if the experience is better.

However, it's probably worth noting that I rarely re-read webcomics, although I may be in small company on that, as it's mostly just because I don't typically have time to re-read.

I think when it comes down to it, the Experience being delivered for the Money is going to be the deciding factor. This is exactly the sort of thing that I love to be wrong about, though. I would really like to see this work.

The only reason not to give

Joey Manley's picture

The only reason not to give this a try is that people will demonize you if it doesn't work. You'll be the guy who led poor, innocent creators down the primrose path. Popular cartoonists will write manifesto's denouncing you, and less-popular cartoonists will draw pictures of themselves hitting you in the face with a brick. Business experimentation in the webcomics world carries with it a political payload that you'd best be prepared for, if you're going to proceed. As much as I like and respect everybody on this thread, I think you may already be seeing some of that political blowback.

All of which is to say: I don't see any reason not to give this a try, Joel, provided you've girded your loins and thought everything through. We can use as much experimentation as we can get, still, even though some folks who have done well using the current, limited, cottage industry mentality will get their backs up. Let them.

Good luck with your efforts, if you decide to implement your ideas.

Maybe it would be better....

Erg's picture

Maybe it would be better if Joel tried it and then reported back to us about it. He says he can go around the world in eighty days. Lets not try to send a bunch of greenhorns on the first expedition. He should try it first. If it works, great, he can tell us why, how and we can try it too. I think alot of the problems with shooting the messenger is that by trying to get people to try something untested you look less like a messenger and more like an preacher. I would love to see Joel try, succeed, and return a champion. But I don't think an army of people should head down the path until explorers like Joel have made it. Or not go at all if Joel falls off a cliff into the Amazon and is devoured alive by piranhas and those gross little fish that lodge themselves in people's man parts.