The History of Online Comics by T Campbell (Part 6)
The Business of Free
The early months of Keenspot were a revelation for all involved. Finally, webcomic hosting by webcomickers! The mood was giddy with optimism.
"It was great," remembers David Willis, as if the memory stuns him all over again. "When I would email the group, I would get a response. I wasn't used to getting a response. Following the response would be an appropriate action if needed to help solve or eradicate the problem reported. They done fixed [my domain name problems], and started sending checks."
For many who were still getting over the free hosting and dedicated customer service, the idea of getting paid was almost an afterthought. When the checks started coming in, most Keenspotters eagerly placed their faith in "the Spot's" profit-sharing advertising model. In the early months, Keenspot allied with Doubleclick, which provided them advertising from various respected businesses in exchange for a revenue percentage.
Keenspot became even more of a status magnet in June when Keenspot extended the following offer to all cartoonists:
"Are you an online cartoonist? Would you like: Free Webhosting? Automatic Site Updates? Free Promotion? Daily Updated Web Statistics? Automatic Archives? Then join Keenspace and leave the hosting to us."
There were two critical differences between the Spot and the Space. Keenspotters were collectively entitled to a 50% share of Keenspot profits. And Keenspot had a far more exclusive membership, allowing readers to skip straight to "the cream of the crop" and allowing that cream to get those readers. To be a Keenspacer meant to share that distinction with hundreds of other cartoonists, whose average quality of work was not very high.
Early Keenspacers could receive money for exceeding a certain number of pageviews (and therefore ad banner impressions), but this number was never defined, and soon compensation became a Keenspot-exclusive matter.
Early Keenspacers, though, were largely satisfied with this arrangement, still better than anything other hosting companies were offering as the Internet economy began to contract. It had the added advantage of bringing many webcartoonists (who tend to be devoted readers) into the "Keen" fold.
Keenspot's homepage only linked to Keenspot-hosted strips... but these strips had a better chance to win over customers. The earliest version of the homepage, much like the present version, displayed a short paragraph about one strip, selected at random. This system gave every Keenspotter a fair shot at becoming popular.
And greater popularity meant a greater share of Keenspot's advertising profits.
For as long as there were profits.
Unfortunately, just as Keenspot was emerging, a storm was brewing that would eventually threaten its future. As Darren Bleuel massaged his aching wrists on the American West Coast, in the East, Federal Chairman Alan Greenspan was sitting at the head of a twenty-five-foot long table, affixing his signature.
Long story short, Greenspan ended his long endorsement of Internet speculation, and now openly worried that the dot-com boom's reach had exceeded its grasp. It was Groundhog Day, February 2, 2000, and Greenspan foresaw a long winter ahead.
On March 9, the Dow-Jones industrial average peaked at 10010.73; one day later, the NASDAQ peaked at 5048.62. And then the slump began.
Keenspot eventually abandoned the Doubleclick network for independent sponsors like Skotos Online Games, Cheapass Games and Pair Networks. But those sponsors couldn't stem the rising tide of hosting costs, and Keenspot went into the red in late 2001.
For at least eighteen months, Keenspot creators simply went without paychecks.
Keenspot, like Yahoo and Salon, responded to the shift by diversifying past advertising. They bought a comic-book store, published a comic-book line for the direct sales market, and introduced a "premium" service offering bonus strips and ad-free pages to subscribers.
Of these, only Keenspot Premium has lasted to the present, and its original selling point â€“ special exclusive content â€“ has largely failed to attract attention, despite the efforts of four of its better cartoonists. (Melpomene, by Jamie Robertson and Clint Hollingsworth, is the last holdout still updating, and even its updates have been sporadic.)
And while its finances were in turmoil, Keenspot and especially Keenspace were fluctuating in service, too. Bleuel continued to exceed McNett's example and work like a madman to keep the service up, but his efforts weren't always enough to keep Keenspacers happy. Witness this pithy exchange from 2002:
"I've put up with enough failure and malfunction from this lousy server. There was supposed to be a new strip TWO DAYS AGO and it still hasn't updated. I'm tired of rotting away in this server full of cliche comics and crappy art and never have a single person read my stuff. I need to find a new server. I need to move. And I have no place to go. I already have a bunch of things in my life that won't work. I don't need something I do for fun to be one of them."
--Ryan J. Smith
"Infuriating, innit? I'd leave as well, but I don't because the alternative would probably involve paying money."
Keenspacers' loyalty doesn't seem to have returned since 2002. Last year saw a brief but furious debate (though little evidence of it remains online) about adult webcomic Sexy Losers and its artist's desire to advance from Keenspace to Keenspot. Then and other times, Keenspacers have accused Keenspot of elitism.
Keenspace recently resolved a long and terrible bout of hosting problems. Though it perseveres and Bleuel continues to work on it, it hasn't evolved much since its inception. The new Keenspot, by comparison, makes it look pretty disheveled in both looks and organization, like an embarrassing relative everyone hopes won't make it to Thanksgiving dinner.
At one point Keenspace used to serve as an unofficial "farming ground" for Keenspot, but many of Keenspot's recent acquisitions have come from outside "the Keen family". With webcomics hosting becoming more competitive and most others charging for their service, it remains to be seen whether Keenspace will remain, and whether it will remain free.
Yet Keenspace as it is still fulfills a need. Too many talented webcartoonists avoid spending any money online, no matter what the reason, at least until they're established. Without Keenspace, many of them would not be webcartoonists, and the art form owes it for that.
Actually, the Keen network itself offered an alternative that involved paying money in 2002, at the San Diego Comic-Con, Nate Stone convened veteran Keenspacers to propose a paid-hosting service that would offer most of the features of Keenspot, if not the status of being a Keenspotter. The service was called "KeenPRIME", though a better name would have been "Keenspot Lite."
"A handful of 'Spacers eagerly signed on," remembers Frank J. Cormier, "but from the very outset, the system was littered with problems. Frequent downtime, malfunctioning auto-updaters, wonky coding issues aplenty, and the list went on." Ironically, Keenspace proved more reliable than the system designed to replace it, and its handful of customers soon just as eagerly signed off. (Today, KeenPRIME still hosts a small clutch of strips like Dansk Folly, but its service remains sporadic and it's no longer linked from Keenspot's homepage or network.)
That as many Keenspotters stayed as they did through the rough times, with no financial compensation besides free hosting, is a testament to the healthy esprit de corps that Keenspot had formed. Much of that spirit began with the charisma of Chris Crosby himself. He had an ability to mix good-natured humor with his hype, as when he announced Keenspot's "five-year plan" in 2003:
"A major original animation site, major television series, major video games, major motion pictures, and a major trip to the moon."
But Crosby alone can't account for the spirit of Keenspot. That was a team creation. The forums bristled with activity, intracompany crossovers were commonplace, and an undeclared contest sought to determine who could create the best Keenspot Newsbox. Keenspot wasn't just a vital part of the webcomics community, it was a community unto itself.
A feisty one.
The word "keen," a slightly nerdy word for "cool," captures the spirit of the company in its middle period, as do these homepages from 2002 and 2003. The cluster of heads, the announcement of convention appearances and "actual, physical, real-life" locations as news... the casual atmosphere didn't scream professionalism, but it may have helped foster the "team webcomics" spirit that helped Keenspot get through those lean months.
Get through them it did. To the surprise of many observers inside and outside webcomics, the online advertising market rebounded in 2003. Greenspan's winter ebbed into a spring thaw. By year's end, Keenspot was profitable and debt-free.
But climate alone wouldn't explain Keenspot's turnaround. Says Bleuel now: "The last eighteen months have seen us through a time when we focused all our efforts on achieving profitability for every [Keenspot artist]. We succeeded to the point where... every currently-updating cartoonist at Keenspot is now receiving a regular paycheck."
Keenspot's content has also enjoyed a renaissance in 2004. After a nearly static lineup in most of 2002-2003, many new features have joined the roster, and old ones that no longer update have finally been retired to an "archives" section. Site designers Ian Jones-Quartey, Josh Lesnick and Brad J. Guigar have introduced a new, much slicker-looking homepage, which divides Keenspot's content by genre.
The ad market, of course, will likely continue to have its ups and downs, so how to keep all these cartoonists fed? Bleuel cites a new set of manga-sized print collections aimed at bookstores, not the superhero-centric direct market. He plans to beef up Keenspot's merchandising arm and increase its brand-name presence at conventions. Chris Crosby continues to lobby for Hollywood's attention; thanks to his influence, several Keenspotters pitched to a representative of USA Networks last year. Crosby has said he considers Keenspot a film and TV production company.
If Crosby is serious in that ambition, there are hurdles to overcome. In order to attract film partnerships, the Spot needs to invest in its own appearance... but without using too much money that's needed elsewhere. Even attending a large convention is an expense. And there's no right answer to the question "how much should you spend?", because no one's really been in Keenspot's position before.
A more serious issue for the cartoonists involved is: Cui bono? ("Who profits?") Other collectives like Modern Tales, PV Comics and Drunk Duck have assumed almost no legal rights to their cartoonists' work. Keenspot is currently pursuing an "opt-in" policy; its strips can grant film and TV rights to Keenspot for a finite period, which will put Keenspot to work at a development deal for them, or choose to retain those rights but pass on the chance to work with Keenspot. This policy will probably leave feathers unruffled, but may hamper Keenspot's ability to make Hollywood deals, especially since Hollywood executives take a dim view of creators' rights.
To some degree, cui bono concerns Keenspot's other ventures, too. Some Keenspotters have elected to publish comic books based on their webcomics, without any involvement from Keenspot. It recalls the problem Big Panda faced. If they're not successful, they'll just cost you, but if they're too successful, they'll leave your fold.
Despite the hurdles, the last year has been a victory for free, advertiser-supported comics... and especially for Keenspot, whose perceived success is almost too great for Bleuel's liking.
"Even though we're 'the little guys,' people see us as the '800-lb. gorilla' of the webcomics world. I suppose that's a good thing. Sometimes it's hard when people assume you're evil just because you happen to be a gorilla, but it means we've done our job in getting the brand known well enough to be stereotyped. All I can do is work even harder to get the Keenspotters all the opportunities they deserve and hope that, to the ones that matter, the work speaks for itself."
T Campbell is a regular contributor to Comixpedia. He is the editor of the Graphic Smash anthology webcomic subscription site and the writer of the long-running webcomic Fans! and other work.
DISCLAIMER: T Campbell was a member of Keenspace from late 2000-early 2002, and a member of Keenspot from early 2002-mid-2003. Now the editor of Graphic Smash, a subscription webcomic site published by Modern Tales, he remains on good terms with many Keenspotters and interviewed Bleuel for this chapter.