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Through the Looking Back Glass by Erik Melander

In February, there were some interesting developments in the business of webcomics. 360ep (Bill Jemas' new "content licensing" company) signed the creators of two webcomics (Danielle Corsetto, Takeshi Miyazawa and Arthur Dela Cruz) to contracts, although no one, including Corsetto, seems to know just what exactly 360ep is supposed to do. Another webcomic creator, Rich Burlew of The Order Of The Stick, quit his day job to make comics his career. Also Scott Kurtz's PvP returned to the pages of PC Gamer.

In March, Comixpedia is looking at action-oriented webcomics. Graphic Smash, a subscription site featuring action-oriented webcomics, recently announced the addition of three more webcomics to its lineup. Are creators better off publishing their work at a subscription site? What's the action like working for Graphic Smash?

The thing about the Modern Tales family of subscription sites is that it is in many ways a conundrum. Actual numbers about the Modern Tales business are not generally publicly available. Joey Manley, the owner of Modern Tales, has written in his blog, however, that Modern Tales had revenues in the six-figures and a $20 000 revenue growth over the last year. Manley has also hinted at efforts to acquire funding to expand his business. It is probably not too much of a stretch to guess that from Manley's perspective the Modern Tales business is fairly successful to date. The conundrum then is really with regards to the creators that are published by a Modern Tales subscription site.

Why exactly does a webcomic creators wish to work for a subscription site? The most obvious answer seems to be money. After all, the subscription model, by design, provides to creators the ability to make revenue directly from the actual content created. Not merchandising, banner ads, or donations, but the webcomic itself. But how big a part does economics really play in attracting creators to the subscription model, and do they make any money?

In a comment written at the blog, Websnark, Shaenon K. Garrity, whose webcomics appear on Modern Tales, Girlamatic and Graphic Smash, writes that "For reasons that escape my understanding, the Modern Tales model has been very good for my strip. Many other, better, comics have not done outstandingly well on MT and its sister sites."

On the other hand, Robert Stevenson, the artist for one of Garrity's webcomics, More Fun describes it as "[...]an extremely low-wage webcomic gig[...]".

Even though some creators make money from the subscription model, it's not clear if that is true for the vast majority. John Troutman, creator of several webcomics, was part of the original line-up at Graphic Smash with his webcomic Felicity, a spin-off from his webcomic, Basil Flint, P.I. Troutman more recently, however, moved Felicity to Keenspot which does not require subscriptions. Troutman has indicated that the reason for the move was financial. "[...]I make a WHOLE lot more money on free sites than on subscription sites, so the decision to move my comics was a strictly financial one."

Other creators on Graphic Smash claim revenue is a very small reason for them joining the site. Steven Hogan, creator of Acid Keg, is one of the new additions to Graphic Smash. Describing the potential revenue, Hogan said: "A little extra gravy if you're not making money on your strip already, but not big cash."

That is not to say that financial issues do not play a part at all. Tim Demeter, creator of Reckless Life, said, "I've always been all for the subscription idea, because I do run my series as a business as much as I'm able, and that dictates that money is good."

But if revenue is not the primary reason for many creators joining subscription sites, what is? Surprisingly, a common reply was "exposure". Demeter said, "I've been very pleased with my readership since going to subscription. While I may have lost a few readers unwilling to pay or keep up with Graphic Smash those loses are far outweighed by the exposure and audience Smash affords me, and in that regard money be damned either way."

Hogan also cites exposure as a reason for joining. "I have a chance to retool and harmonize the original strips into a more complete work, while at the same time I can expose it to a new potential new audience."

Ping Teo, whose webcomic The Jaded is on Graphic Smash, put it like this in a KeenSpace forum thread, "It's not the money that I want. It's the exposure. And the prestige."

Justin Pierce, creator of Killroy and Tina, also expressed the opinion on the Talk About Comics forum that Graphic Smash had led to an increase in his readership. "My webstats on Keenspace and Killroyandtina.com are about 85-90% the same as before I started on GS, so people haven't left in droves (Either that, or new folks have come to level it out). The upshot is that I retained my previous readership and picked up Graphic Smash readers (both subscribers and non-subscribers, either one is cool with me) so overall there are more readers than before GS."

That Graphic Smash, a site that locks a large part of the content behind a "subscription gate", could increase the audience of comics joining it is an interesting idea. It clashes in many ways with the common assumption about subscription sites that they will be detrimental to building an audience. But for a small to medium-sized webcomic, joining a subscription site is a way to get access to an existing audience of subscribers and casual readers. In the crowded world of webcomics, that access can make building an audience a lot easier than doing it on your own.

Ping Teo gave another reason for joining Graphic Smash, "prestige". When asked, Hogan also confirmed that prestige is a factor. "I think the prestige factor is that your strip managed to pass muster with an editor and that a company thinks you're worth risking part of a limited bankroll on. Again, it's pretty small scale, but every little bit helps. It seems to add a little more legitimacy in the eyes of print oriented comics people."

The reasons vary as to why creators decide to join a subscription site such as Graphic Smash, but it seems likely that actual revenue may play a fairly small role for many. Exposing new audiences to your comic and the prestige associated with being "worth paying for" are two reasons that although not initially obvious, clearly are important to many creators who join subscription sites.

Does this mean that there is a discrepancy between the business model of Modern Tales and the actual reasons webcomic creators have for joining it? Not necessarily, but it might help to explain the desire of many webcomic creators to publish their work on subscription sites despite the uncertainty of any financial advantage from the business model.

Erik Melander has read comics his whole life. Vir Bonus is his own attempt at creating one.