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Catching up with Keenspot: The Community Interview with Crosby and Bleuel

You asked the questions, and Chris Crosby and Darren "Gav" Bleuel of Keenspot answered. Crosby is the writer/artist of Superosity and the writer of Sore Thumbs, and Bleuel is the writer/artist behind Nukees. Both webtoonists joined together with Nate Stone and Terri Crosby to form Keenspot Entertainment, one of the leading publishers of webcomics.

Crosby and Bleuel talk about Keenspot's plans for online and print comics for 2004, the resurgence of the online advertising market, and drop frustrating hints about future projects.

1. What sort of business lessons have you learned from your various enterprises? (free comic hosting, for-pay comic hosting, t-shirts/toys, paper comics, to the comic book store) - Kelly J.

CHRIS: Free Comic Hosting: It can be a great business if you stick with it, especially if you've got alternative revenue streams to back you up when times are tough. During the darkest days of the dotcom bubble-burst it was pretty impossible to survive on revenues generated from advertising alone, and that leads us to...

For-Pay Comic Hosting: Keenspot PREMIUM has been an awesome cushion to keep us alive when the CPM rates drop to horrifyingly low numbers. The number of subscribers we have (between 500-1,000 at any given time) is incredibly impressive to me, considering all we really offer is ad-free viewing and a few exclusive PREMIUM features. I'd like to see what we could do with a bigger, better line-up of exclusive PREMIUM comics, but that's constantly on the backburner. Our focus is and likely always will be free webcomics.

T-Shirts/toys: T-Shirts and toys good. People buy them. Usually.

The Comic Book Store: Unless you can devote all of your time to it or you are a multi-millionaire, it is not a good idea to start a comic book store. 'Nuff said, true believer.

Paper Comics: Unless you've got a comic that appeals specifically to comic-book fans or a strong specific niche, it's really tough to make the leap from webcomics to a periodical comic book series in the direct market (non-returnable issues distributed to comic book stores). We published a line of 6 comic book series (BLACK PLAGUE, COOL CAT STUDIO, ELF LIFE, L33T, ROOMIES!, SUPEROSITY) from 2001-02, and none were particularly successful, but the fact that our gaming anthology title L33T was our biggest-seller (the only one to ever make the Diamond Top 300) told me a lot. Anthologies are usually the kiss of death for sales, but it sold the most because it tied into a popular niche.

Which leads us to...

DARREN: It's hard to say if I've really learned anything from all our various endevours. Almost everything has panned out pretty much as I expected. I knew in 1999 that the Internet ad market would soon crash ($75 CPM cannot be maintained) and that we needed to expand into other revenue-generating areas until the bandwidth market could react accordingly, which is why we developed PREMIUM, and other services.

That helped us float along through the bad post-dot-com times in which ad revenues were way down, but service providers were still soaking venture capitalists dry with high bandwidth costs. It's all a "too many foxes, not enough bunnies" scenario, though. I knew that if we could ride out the peaks and valleys, that a real market would emerge from the Internet, and diversification was the key to riding out the bumps and valleys.

The comic box world was fun to get into, but I knew the profit margin was too slight to make it worth it. The comic book store was a project of Teri's, and while I think it's a good idea eventually, I didn't think we were ready for it. So no surprises there.

For over a year now, we've been making enough money to not have to worry about going out of business, but not enough to make a living for each cartoonist. But that's not much different from the syndicated comic strip world. As everyone knows (or should know), the key to making REAL money is rarely the product itself, but rather in selling the "attention" that the product brings. That's the future direction we've aimed for, and so far, I haven't been much surprised by anything that's happened along the way.

If anything surprised me at all, it was probably the sheer runaway popularity of Keenspace. However, if I recall, I was prepared for that, too. I remember saying at the time, when we were discussing providing a free webhosting service for comics, that I'd support the idea only if I had nothing to do with providing tech support for the hundreds of comics that would follow. I guess I just didn't realize that "hundreds" was off by an order of magnitude.

2. You've recently started making print anthologies of your comics. How have these been selling, both online and in stores? What other Keenspot comics will soon be coming out in book form? What's the status of the monthly comic books from both Keenspot and A-Bomb? Is Keen now printing collections of work for all or some of the Keenspot comics? - xerexes

CHRIS: After publishing our first paperback books in summer 2002, we decided we'd get out of the comic book (or "floppy") publishing business and into graphic novels/book collections. The kind of reader who frequents comic stores just [isn't] that interested in a lot of our comics, and the profit margin for periodical comic book series is much lower than paperback books.

Online, our books generally sell very well because of the built-in audience from the webcomics, but we wanted to reach outside of the web and into the mass market with our books. We needed a really good distributor to get us into bookstores, and we found one with Client Distribution Services, who we signed with exclusively in summer 2003. They distribute a handful of publishers including Marvel, TOKYOPOP, and Crossgen, and their sales staff is focused and excellent. We hoped bookstores could hook us up with the same general audience that reads our webcomics and we'd be much more successful than in comic book stores, and it looks like we were right.

The two books we've published since signing with CDS are carried by basically all the major bookstores (Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Waldenbooks, Borders, etc) and the sell-through so far is very promising. This week according to Bookscan (the Soundscan of the book industry), our latest book (RPG WORLD VOL. 1) outsold all but 16 Marvel titles (out of hundreds) and many, many other very well-known GNs and newspaper comic strip collections. We're very excited to see how EXPLOITATION NOW VOL. 1 and YOU DAMN KID VOL. 1 sell (they're winging their way to stores as I type).

This year we plan to publish webcomic collections of ERRANT STORY, ALIEN DICE, MEN IN HATS, GAMING GUARDIANS, WAPSI SQUARE, LIZARD, DOMINIC DEEGAN, EL GOONISH SHIVE, QUEEN OF WANDS, CHECKERBOARD NIGHTMARE, and more. As well, we'll be publishing ORIGINAL graphic novels (all new material created specifically for print) of KRAZY LARRY, BASIL FLINT, and SCARY GO ROUND. And no, I don't think the SCARY GO ROUND webcomic will be moving to Keenspot anytime soon (though I can dream). But we're really publishing an all-new, full color SGR book by John Allison! YIPPIE! It is titled HEAVY METAL HEARTS & FLOWERS.

As for A-Bomb (the full color sci-fi/superhero-ish comic book line I personally tried to launch in summer 2003), it was a fun experiment that fizzled. The pre-orders for the first issue of LANDIS (A-Bomb's first title) were nearly triple what the bestselling Keenspot comic book had sold, but it still wasn't quite enough to support a monthly full color periodical. The great thing that ultimately came out of the experience is that it hooked me up with Owen Gieni (the artist of LANDIS), who I ended up co-creating Keenspot's popular new webcomic SORE THUMBS with. Every issue of LANDIS will be collected into a graphic novel later this year.

DARREN: I will defer to Chris' answers, since they seem rather complete, when it comes to the books.

3. What's Keenspot's competition these days? Is it limited to other online sites like Modern Tales or PV Comics, or do you see yourself competing with the full spectrum of comics publishers online and off? How big does Keenspot want to be in terms of the larger comics industry?

CHRIS: We're competing with anybody and everybody. On the web our goal is to continue to be the top webcomic publisher, and in print our goal is to become a top graphic novel publisher.

DARREN: The world is moving more and more to what has been termed an "attention economy." What Keenspot wants is your attention. As such, I consider our main competitors to be all those other companies vying for your attention every day. And that's *everyone*. Sure, other comic companies are closer competitors, if only because your attention might be limited when it comes to the total time you have for comics in your life, but we also compete with television and other websites. When it comes to advertising, our fight is to convince advertisers that Keenspot is a better market for their ads than some other website--or even television. When it comes to books, our fight is to convince consumers that our books are worth their time more than other activities--like playing outdoors, or working to make something of your life. Oh yeah, and television. In that respect, the whole world is our competition.

4. How is the ad model working these days? What kind of profit is it seeing? Are you considering/concerned about the possibility of having to go subscription-based? What's the difference, in your view, between you and Moderntales, now that Moderntales shows ads if you're not a subscriber?

CHRIS: The ad model's working great. Since I'm incredibly lazy, I'll quote our recent press release... "Thanks to the long-term sponsorship of Keenspot by companies like pair Networks, Pioneer Entertainment, and Retromud, Keenspot's online advertising revenues in particular more than doubled, increasing 134% from $41,713 in 2002 to $97,626 in 2003. 'Anyone who says web advertising is dead doesn't know what they're talking about,' said Crosby. 'We're attracting way more advertisers than we did during the internet boom times of 2000. Subscriptions are great and we offer them ourselves, but they're far from the only path to a successful business model for webcomics.'"

As for the difference between Keenspot and Modern Tales, there're lots of differences, but the most prominent one is that their archives (as a whole) are not free. Archives account for the majority of advertising-supported pageviews on Keenspot. Another difference is that their ads appear to be mostly ads for other MT comics and related merchandise, or text ads. Every page of our site is sponsored.

DARREN: I've assumed the role of being responsible for all advertising at Keenspot, and I can say that in that role, I've never even considered taking Keenspot into the pay-only realm. If that's the path Keenspot took, I'd quit and take pnes elsewhere.

The revenue from ads has been increasing slowly, but the real challenge was to survive until the bandwidth market had a chance to work itself out. Now that the bandwidth providers screwed themselves over by running 95% of dot coms out of business, they realized that "too many bunnies" eventually leads to "too many foxes." Anyway, now that there's a real economy on the Internet, we see that advertising is the same tried-and-true money maker that we all know it is in the real world.

In terms of comparing us to Modern Tales, I don't see the point. It seems I'm always being baited into "comparing Keenspot to Modern Tales," but I'm not sure why. Everyone knows what the differences are. They charge for their comics, we don't. What more is there to talk about?

Sure, Modern Tales now shows ads if you're not a subscriber, but they still charge for their main content, so it doesn't really change the "difference" of which everyone has been acutely aware for some time.

5. What are Keenspot's plans for free hosting service Keenspace? How does it fit into Keenspot's mission?

CHRIS: For me it's not a major focus, but it's something that I hope we can drastically improve over the next year. I'd like to see a lot of changes made to it for the better. Keenspace is a very important factor in our operations, as it's always been a breeding ground for future Keenspot superstars. About half of Keenspot's top 10 most popular cartoonists started on Keenspace.

DARREN: Keenspace is a great resource not only for cartoonists but for us. As Chris said, it's a great breeding ground for future Keenspot stars. There are many great artists out there. There are many great writers out there. There are many very hard-working, dedicated people out there. There's almost no one that is all three. Anyone can email us a few strips and show that they are a good artist or writer. But we also want to see that you can keep it up. Keenspace provides an avenue for artists to prove to us that they have the chutzpah to not only draw one good strip, but a hundred good strips, and keep it going regularly and consistantly. Furthermore, Keenspace has helped get the Keen name well known in the comics community. And as I've said before, our business is about getting attention.

In terms of Keenspace's future, I personally don't see much in the way of expansion. It's a free service, after all, and already gives so much. Instead, I'm primarily interested in improving its reliability. We may soon reinstitute some kind of profit-sharing for the highest-traffic comics as well.

6. How is Keenprime going? How many customers? Is it profitable for Keenspot? Also how do you feel it matches up to other competitors such as the forthcoming Webcomic Nation (from Modern Tales) or any other competitive entities?

CHRIS: I will pass that question to Darren, who knows better than I about this.

DARREN: KeenPRIME has mostly been an experiment up until now. We still consider it in the Beta stages. It has a few customers, but we haven't been interested in promoting it until we have all the bugs worked out. What we've learned is that the software we chose to run it was less than perfect, and we're instead going to redo it from the ground up ourselves. However, I don't see it as being a very large portion of our overall business. Mostly we want to offer a service for those Keenspacers that just want more features.

7. Recently, a lot of comics have been added to the Keenspot lineup. This comes after a long period of relative stability in the core lineup, with very few artists and strips coming on board. Is this a major shift in your business strategy, or is it a coincidence that all these worthy strips became available for the "main site" at the same time? If the former, what effect was desired by this shift, and what has the actual effect been? - Joey Manley

CHRIS: The influx of new invites was mostly the result of a change in our voting procedure from unanimous to majority rules, as well as a renewed focus on bringing in new blood after many months of an unchanging line-up. The actual effect has been awesome. Many of our newest recruits have seen their readerships double or triple immediately after joining, and the readers they brought with them have benefitted Keenspot's entire roster.

DARREN: As Chris said, the influx has been primarily due to an alteration in our procedure. We get hundreds of applications, and we're all very busy people, and it's quite difficult for all four of us to read and evaluate all the applicants. Our increasing profitibility has also led directly to the influx of new Keenspotters as well. In 2001 and 2002, I personally spent every second of my free time working towards increasing our profitibility and simply didn't have time to review all the applications. It also seemed silly and self-defeating to accept new Keenspotters into the fold when we couldn't pay them. It might only discourage people. However, in 2003 and beyond, now that we're paying the Keenspotters again, it makes more sense to add new ones. And because there was such a long pause since our last recruitment, there were a lot more quality comics out there waiting in the wings.

Related Question: Do you have a strategy or policy in regards to how you recruit comics to Keenspot? - GiantPanda

CHRIS: Not really. We just ask. It works most of the time.

DARREN: Yeah, despite all the rumours that go flying around, we have few policies when it comes to recruitment, other than what we mention in our FAQ. We do our best to find the best comics and then ask them if they'd like to join.

In terms of what we look for in a comic, again it's all in our FAQ. Of course, we look for stuff that doesn't suck, but we're also very interested in consistancy. I won't even consider a comic that only has a few weeks of archives online. Stick to a schedule 100% for at least six months, and then you'll show the world that you're serious.

8. The webcomics landscape has changed a good deal since Keenspot launched. Does Keenspace still have the same role as ever? If so, what is that role? If not, how has it changed?

CHRIS: I think we have the same role as ever. But many people perceive things differently. It's up to us to mold that perception in a positive way.

DARREN: Yeah, if it doesn't have the same role as ever, what's the new role you think it has? The role has always been to provide a free place for everyone to display their work.

9. Do you see Keenspot focusing more on daily strip-style comics, comic book style comics, or do you not think in those terms? Why do you think so many Internet comics still follow the daily newspaper strip model so closely, when those rules are largely irrelevant on the web?

CHRIS: We don't plan to focus on any one format, though now that we're publishing books, we do tend to appreciate comics that can be easily converted to the most popular book format. I think many webcomics follow the newspaper strip format because that's what they're used to, what they grew up with. It's comfortable.

DARREN: Something interesting I've noticed is that people who do "freeform" comics don't tend to do very many of them--and the entire premise of what is done is, "Look what I can do with freeform!" Of course, there are many consistant comics out there with changing daily formats, like "College Roomies From Hell!!!", but it seems that people who talk about what "can be done" on an infinite canvas rarely do it.

An artist actually needs some structure to confine his ideas and give him a "box" to create within. Give a true artist the smallest canvas, and he will give you a masterpiece on a postage stamp. Give that artist the world to paint, and he will go indoors and find a postage stamp.

In some ways, it's just no fun to work without limits. Some of the least interesting projects are those with an infinite budget. No one wants to see how far Evel Knievel can jump in an empty parking lot. They want to see if he can jump exactly 18 school buses. Who's really interested in an action movie where the hero has access to an infinite supply of the most advanced weapons on earth? I want to see what can be done with a toothpick and a rubber band.

It's just more challenging and the result is more impressive when there are limits. In my case, the challenge is to be funny in four panels, and tell a story within that structure. It's very difficult, but the result is all the better. There are some great freeform creations out there on the web, but they are mostly isolated projects. Without structure to work within, your ideas can't root.

But that's an aside. It also makes more sense to draw in strip or book format if you intend to publish. pnes still runs in the UC Berkeley student newspaper, which is why I continue to follow the newspaper format. I know Maritza has faced incredible challenges in producing a CRFH!!! anthology because of her random style.

10. What new projects will we see from Keenspot this year or will you focus on your existing businesses in 2004?

CHRIS: There should be a big new project or two this year, but nothing I can talk about right now. Sorry!

DARREN: There will be a lot of improvement of existing services, like PREMIUM, but also a few surprises. Expect more bandwidth-sucking projects. 'Nuff said.

Re: Catching up with Keenspot: The Community Interview with Cros

Who's really interested in an action movie where the hero has access to an infinite supply of the most advanced weapons on earth? I want to see what can be done with a toothpick and a rubber band.

MacGuyver: The Movie!

Re: Catching up with Keenspot: The Community Interview with Cros

DARREN: Something interesting I've noticed is that people who do "freeform" comics don't tend to do very many of them--and the entire premise of what is done is, "Look what I can do with freeform!" Of course, there are many consistant comics out there with changing daily formats, like "College Roomies From Hell!!!", but it seems that people who talk about what "can be done" on an infinite canvas rarely do it.

Oh snap!