Through The Looking Back Glass by Erik Melander

Flamewars are certainly fairly common in the small world of webcomics, and this month's column will be devoted to the one that took place at the beginning of June. The instigator was this strip by Penny Arcade, which in turn was a response to this Comixpedia news post. Things soon escalated as more and more people became involved.

Although a public brawl such as this is usually made up of hot air, there are often at least some interesting discussions within it.

Tom Spurgeon, of The Comics Reporter, nailed down one of those points:

Reading what sounds like at its core is an iteration on general disagreements between comics for art sake and comics that have found a successful business model reminds me of print comics' version of the same thing, actually.

Business versus art has not been, and anyone is free to provide proof of the opposite, a big topic in webcomics. There is Scott Mccloud of course, who has spent a lot of time experimenting with form and also advocates systems for charging for content. But besides that, it was not until The Webcomic Examiner that webcomics as an artform really became a phrase that started to go around. And it had a mixed reception. It would appear that some, many even, do not like to have what they are doing labeled "art." Entertainment yes, but art no.

This in itself is all interesting, but Spurgeon pointed out something else as well:

There's probably an argument to be made that the on-line comics community is developing at an accelerated pace when compared to print comics the same way rap music sped through the various stages the rock and roll music business went through, but it would take someone much more knowledgeable than myself to make it stick.

If this is really the case, there are some interesting implications. To begin with, we are not nearly as innovative and original as we think we are, something that is perhaps true no matter what. Second, are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of print comics, whatever those may be? And if we are speeding through the stages of print comics, what is the next one we'll get to? It is interesting to try to find similar events between print and web comics, the first one that comes to mind is formation of Blank Label Comics, webcomics' own Image.

But this was not the only thing to come out of the recent kerfuffle. There was also The Goats Bitpass Experiment. Bitpass is a micropayment system that allows sellers to charge as little as one cent for digital content. How it works is, first a buyer creates an account and then "charges" it with a minimum of $3 using a credit card or Paypal. The money can then be used to buy content from sellers using the Bitpass system. For a more in depth look at it, read T Campbell's Chapter 9 of The History of Online Comics.

It only took one week for the Goats guys to render their verdict on the experiment:

[…]the BitPass experiment was a conclusive and absolute failure. It failed on such a tremendous level that I was surprised when we discovered new and previously unimagined ways in which it could have failed. It failed so badly that we actually lost money.

The sale of two 17-page comics, 25 cents each, made a total of $53.25 or 213 purchases of the comics. But Rosenberg went even further, claiming that Bitpass had a negative effect on their other lines of merchandise:

The real hurdle is not the cost, but the difficulty in convincing you to initiate the transaction. This is one of the reasons why BitPass fails — it does not usually lower the hurdle enough to overcome people's resistance to spending money. But when it does 'succeed', when people want to participate so badly that they are willing to fund an account with $3 to purchase $0.25 worth of product, it provides the user with a commercial experience at an extremely low price point. Instead of spending $18 on a t-shirt, they are spending a quarter.

Rosenberg acknowledges that the experiment was not a properly conducted scientific one and that the idea of the detrimental effect cannot be proven from the data gathered. The fact remains that the data supplied by Goats is pretty much all we have to go on when assessing Bitpass, even though it has been in operation for some time now.

The Goats experiment caused some debate on the subject of micropayments. Joe Zabel started a thread on Comicon and there was some discussion in blogs and of course here on Comixpedia. But it is the beginning of Zabel's first post that is worth some particular attention:

Contrary to what some are saying, micropayments are a mammoth success and an undeniable bonanza of income on the web. The only problem is, the micropayment system that has succeeded is the one built into Apple's ipod. As for Bitpass, the picture isn't so clear. I'm no financial analyst, but if you look at the Bitpass site's own news page, you see only a couple of articles from this year, and none of them are very impressive.

But why is iTunes a glorious success and what would it take for micropayments to become a viable alternative? An argument can be made that iTunes and Bitpass have very different perspectives. When audio files became small enough to be easily moved around, while still maintaining quality, consumers wanted to be able to purchase and download them over the Internet. In other words, the music store micropayment scheme was consumer-driven. Consumers wanted to download single music tracks and were willing to pay for it. Comics using Bitpass, on the other hand, is an idea originating from the producers, i.e. "I have digital content that I want to charge for." The webcomic micropayment advocates are trying to create a market that does not exist and, it would appear, the consumers do not wish to use.

Of course, one could point to Modern Tales and say that there was no consumer interest in a subscription-based model either, but the fact that the subscription sites have been able to find an audience while the micropayment systems have not would be indicative that the original argument still holds true.

Both iTunes and Modern Tales are doing fair to good business, but micropayments using Bitpass is all about the individual artists. And do the individual artists of iTunes and Modern Tales do as good business as the corporations? While information on Modern Tales cartoonists is scarce, several statements seem to indicate that while several of the creators make a decent amount of money, none can live solely on what they make from the subscription model. iTunes on the other hand boast more than 480,000,000 sold songs. But with a catalog of more than 1.5 million tracks, the average number of downloads is 320 per track, or $316. Of course that is a figure with little basis in reality as popular songs probably represent much larger part of the total number of downloads. But it serves to highlight the fact that while sales through the music store might benefit artists, the real winners are the music companies and Apple, and perhaps even the consumers who don't have to buy a whole album to get that one song.

But we are not quite finished with the iTunes comparison. One thing that cannot be underestimated when discussing the success of the music store micropayment model is the profound effect of technology. From small files with good audio quality, to CD burners in computers, and finally mp3 players, technology is what has been the driving force behind the sale of music online. And now we are seeing a few new technological solutions for digital comics, which will be interesting to keep an eye on.

First was the news that it was possible to format and read digital comics on SONY's PSP. Then came the news of the Clickwheel application, which lets you read comics on Apple's iPod photo. The Clickwheel application, while still only available for Macintosh computers, is particularly interesting as it uses RSS for easy delivery of new content. While neither comics on the PSP nor Clickwheel currently has a business method set in place for selling the actual content (although the full version of the Clickwheel application costs money), there is a real promise in that this might be possible.

While not able to back it up with facts, it seems like people are more willing to pay for content to download to their handheld devices than are paying for content to read online. If this turns out to be true there might be a genuine chance for developing a new and potentially relatively lucrative business model aimed at these devices. So while the micropayments model has so far have failed to live up to its potential, there might be a future where sale of individual digital comics is a possibility.

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