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WHY DO ONLINE COMICS

Issue #6 - The Art Of Avoiding the Middleman

From a recent conversation continuing the comparison between self-publishing music and self-publishing online comics:

Iain: "So, the question to you really, is just how viable it is to sell your own wares directly rather than use a third party to distribute. I get the feeling the best case scenario is a meshing of the two concepts for maximum exposure and maximum profit, but I'd like to get your thoughts and experiences on it."

Kelly Neill (of the band Natasha's Ghost): "You're right. Corporate distribution offers the advantage of an effective promotion and delivery system (a la Coca-Cola, Britney Spears and Fantastic Sam's), while smaller companies rely predominately on word of mouth, perceived value, a non-corporate hipness factor, and whatever publicity they can muster on a significantly smaller budget (Jones Soda, Natasha's Ghost, and that oh-so-cool salon down the street). It's tricky to merge the two, but such an approach offers the best chance of success - next to what I call "covert corporate marketing," which is the increasingly popular ploy of disguising a corporate product as non-corporate by spending big corporate bucks on the kind of "grass roots" marketing generally utilized by smaller companies, but on a huge scale."

I just thought that was worth sharing in the context of the last column, and it serves as a nice springboard into this column. This time I am interested in exploring perhaps a closer parallel between self-published music and self-published online comics; the art of avoiding the middleman.

Imagine you could successfully sell your music to the masses over the Internet directly from your website. If you make a CD for $1.50 and sell it for, say, $8 directly to a consumer, you will, from what I understand about the music industry right now, make significantly more per unit than if your CDs are being sold by a major label. Furthermore, suppose you were able to charge people a quarter per song for the rights to download the music instead. There is a similar idea floating around the world web comics, where micro payments come into play. I know Scott McCloud has covered this with more frequency than CNN has covered OJ, but I think it is important to explore again, if for no other reason than to get a different perspective on it. If I try to sell people a 24-page comic on the web for $3.00 (standard cover price for a comic these days), they will laugh. But if it only cost them a penny a page to read the whole thing, they'd surely be more willing to part with it IF it was a mindless act for them to do (click a button and it's spent, for example). With site traffic of, say, 30,000 page views a month (1,000 per day, very reasonable for a decent comics site), that's $300 a month. Not a living yet, but a good start. The question is if there is a way to make that reality instead of a pretty theory. Right now the answer is no because the best option, Paypal, charges a minimum $.30 per transaction. Suddenly that penny experience costs them $.31 and that's probably too much to ask someone to spend on a page of a comic even in print form, much less a comic that only exists in a digital format.

A nice part of the dream, however, is in a world where micro payments work, you sell your work directly to the consumer instead of passing it through AOL/Time Warner's clutches on the way. Maybe since I'm an artist myself I am more eager than the average Joe to deal directly with the artist and get them the most profit possible for their work, but I think most people, given the choice between spending $15 for a CD and having a buck go to the artist or paying $10 and having $8 go directly to the artist, would choose the latter without hesitation. Take that to the next level and charge people $.25 to download a song they like or a whole album for $2.00 with ALL of the profits going to the artist, and suddenly the music industry is fighting the same battle online comics are. In an ideal world, this makes perfect sense. In a world as large as ours where you want to quickly, easily, and inexpensively distribute work to as many people as you can, the internet seems to me the only tool for the job. We've just got to learn how to use the tool better, and since it is still a pretty new tool relatively, it is reasonable we haven't perfected it yet.

On a personal level, while I love the dream of making a living through micro payments, I don't see a day anytime in the near future where it will happen. In fact, I am more interested in using it as a supplement to my overall income. Merchandise, licensing images for advertising, selling original artwork, all of these "bricks" are wonderful in my mind if you can get them going (and a diligent, talented creator can), and since they all spring forth from the part I love, the comic I have created, then I'm happy, my readers are happy, and the stomachs of my family growl more from eating the wrong thing at Macayo's Mexican Grill than they do from starvation.

Middlemen need jobs too, don't get me wrong. The people at Ralph Lauren who make $70 tee shirts need jobs too. I'm just not going to be the one supporting those jobs when I can get a tee shirt I am just as happy with for $5-10. I mean, for $70 I want to be able to connect my shirt to the Internet and display my website wherever I go.