Rhapsody and Pressplay both tried to get people to rent music. So did the reborn Napster, Microsoft's Playsforsure partners, Musicmatch, OD2, Yahoo and even the mighty Virgin. If you've never heard of some of those, I'm not surprised. They offered music as a service. The Apple iTunes Music Store offered it as a product. Guess who won.
Subscriptions for creative content never works. Even television shows generally make more money on DVD sales these days and my local library - which is free - has less people browsing around inside than each of the three bookstores in it's vicinity.
In his comic book analysis of the market called Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud suggested that webcomic subscriptions should be sold for "micropayments" – small amounts of money from a couple of cents to a dollar. Seven years on, Scott McCloud himself has abandoned the idea and it's clear that even this ridiculously cheap subscription market has also failed.
They always do. Music or comics, five dollars or two cents, customers simply don't want to rent creative content. Look at your bookcase, your comics, your DVD collection, your computer games, your CDs and the media on your hard drive. Would you rent any of that? Would you like it all snatched away if you stopped paying the subscription fee one month?
Meanwhile, the iTunes Store has been busy selling music, not subscriptions, for ninety nine cents apiece even while those same songs are available for free from services such as Limewire, Napster and Kazaa. It's sold over two and half billion tracks, took out all its online competition and shouldered it's way into being the third largest music retailer in the US, right in the midst of the best of the brick and mortar CD stores like Target and Walmart.
It's clear webcomics have been using the wrong market model. We don't want to sell subscriptions, we want to sell the comic.
In Reinventing Micropayments, I dissected the iTunes market model and reworked it to apply it to webcomics. We offer users the chance to buy and download larger, high quality versions of the last chapter, the last few chapters or the last year of comics. Using this idea, we would be able to sell our webcomics without losing a single reader – because, like iTunes, we can sell the comic while still keeping it online for free. As iTunes has done, we can successfully compete with the free alternative by offering ownership, convenience, value for money and a better user experience across the board. Importantly, by selling the comic instead of wallpapers and T-shirts, we'll be targeting a larger customer base. A product always outsells its own merchandise.
Two comics – Candi and The Green Avenger – generously offered to test this idea for me. Being able to set these ideas up in practice was a learning experience and taught me a lot about the issues, pitfalls and problems. This month, I'll look at the specifics of how we did it – what, in practice, makes this market model work – and, in the process, we're going to dump the dangerous trap that paralyzed the webcomics industry for the last seven years.
The single biggest problem with Scott McCloud's webcomic market model is that the word "micropayments" is used to describe it. Micropayments are not a market model – they are a price. This price was jammed on top of an existing market model which had been operating for free and clearly can't support a price, even a "micro" one.
But by calling the market model "micropayments" people became fixated on the price as being the definition of the model, leaving them with nowhere to move. You couldn't change anything else about the market model because no one could see there was more to it than the "micropayment" price – but you could hardly change the price, either. After all, the only way was up and raising the price when it isn't working anyway clearly makes no sense at all.
Micropayments didn't just fail to help, they actually shut the industry in a dead end for seven years. With the price right there in the name, no one bothered to look beyond it. It blinded people to the rest of the market model - to those parts that really were broken and needed fixing.
Enough. Forget micropayments.
We need the right price for the right product in the right market, no matter what that price is. If it's five cents, it's five cents. If it's five dollars, it's five dollars.
Let's put together a model, then.
How much to sell?
Originally, I envisioned this idea as a way to sell the previous chapter while the current one was running but there are plenty of other things that can be done. For established webcomics with large archives, you should probably sell two to five chapters in a batch, both to increase the value for money and so you actually stand a chance of catching up with yourself. You could also sell the next chapter or perhaps the complete current chapter, thereby giving donators a step up on the average readers. You'd have to get a long way ahead of yourself to do this but with the right sort of gripping comic, it's an idea that should work well.
Starline X Hodge agreed to sell the first year of her comic Candi. Candi is an ongoing newspaper-like strip and typically the syndicated newapaper strips are packaged in yearly chunks, so Hodge offered up the same.. Ryuko's The Green Avenger, though, is a story comic similar to mainstream superhero comics, so it makes more sense to sell it either in issues or in story arcs. Ryuko offered up her longest story arc, called "The Alarm Bot" which was four issues.