Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

Perception Is Reality Is The Difference Between Angry And Paying Readers

When I went to Scott McCloud’s panel on experimental comics at San Diego Comic Con International 1999, he planted the idea of webcomics in my mind, and set me on a wonderful journey of discovery and experimentation. I listened to all of the ideas and reasons he had for the Internet as a great new place for comics to flourish. In my mind, one of the most obvious advantages was the ability to maintain an open comic archive so that new readers – rather than jumping into the middle and having to somehow hunt down the rest of the story in other comics, collections of strips, etc. – would instead be able to just click the Back button to read the previous strip, or go back to the very start and read it the whole way through.

This seemed like such a great idea at the time, and over the years it has by and large become standard practice in webcomics – a “no-brainer”, really. It is a great convenience to be sure, though perhaps a little too convenient for our own good.

Think about it: when a daily strip like Mutts or Garfield appears in the newspaper, you have to go buy the collection in a bookstore if you wish to read the previous strips (though some syndicated artists now showcase their most recent “previous” strips online – often that portion that has not been collected in print). To see the whole story in an ongoing monthly title, you have to hunt the Back Issues bins or wait for the old issues to be collected and published as a graphic novel. Both options here are far less convenient than a webcomic’s archiving system.

Unlike webcomic archives, however, most people interested in the comics are actually willing to spend money on them. More often than not, they do.

If I went to Marvel and suggested that they ought to give me all the previous issues of Uncanny X-Men for free so that I can catch up on the story, they’d laugh at me. And rightfully so – the idea of me having some sort of right to just be given all the previous issues simply because I am a fan is absurd in most minds. Conversely, when webcomic artists suggest the idea of pulling their archives from being free to something one ought to pay for access to, their fan base tends to get upset and act as though something they deserve is being taken away from them.

Why does it work this way? Well, it’s a case of perception becoming reality – unfortunately for us (or fortunately, if you happen to be one of the creators), people have gotten used to doing it and seeing it this way. Trying to force them to see it any other way is like trying to tell pre-Columbus Europeans that the world is round, or pre-Renaissance theologians that the Earth is not the center of the universe. They just can’t conceive of it any other way, because that’s just the way it’s always been.

Another example: a painter charging $1000 for his work is not necessarily any more talented than one who gives his paintings away, but if the one selling his paintings for $1000 successfully sells a few at that price, then his work begins to be perceived as always worth at least that much. Conversely, if something is given away for free, the perceived value of it by the public tends to be lessened. By charging so much for a painting, the first painter is creating a situation in which he can keep charging that much for his work and people will find it reasonable. Meanwhile, when the painter who’s been giving his work away for free suddenly increases his price by $1000, he probably won’t have any takers.

It’s a lot easier to create a reality than it is to change one.

This applies to webcomics, too. If a webcomic offers itself for free for years, and then suddenly begins charging, a good chunk of the audience will be bitter about it – they’re used to it being free – and many will move on somewhere else. However, if you charge a fee from the moment your webcomic work exists in cyberspace, while sales may be slow at first and an audience somewhat harder to build, the fans you do find will be much less likely to balk at being charged to read your next piece, or to look at things you have done before.

This isn’t a column arguing against (or for) offering comics for free on the Internet, by the way.

Free comics/archives are still a great idea to me, and a wonderful convenience. But it has been my experience – both in my own ventures and in watching others try things out – that if you create an online comic strip and you offer it for free, then decide to charge for it later on, you will likely find your established audience doesn’t take well to it. It’s an important concept to grasp and consider before you start up your new webcomic, and it can save you a lot of frustration and time down the road if you make a decision now that will make people perceive the worth of your comic more along the lines that you want them to later.

Since webcomics are still fairly new as an industry, people aren’t as locked into ideas about them as a whole as much as they are other modes of entertainment. If you let them set one specific perception from the start, they are much more likely to accept it as a reality than if you try to force them to switch halfway through when their perception is starting to gel.

So if your work is good enough to ask people to pay for it, if there actually is an audience out there waiting to pay for what you are creating, AND if you are interested in having them pay for your comic, then set it up that way from the start. Giving it away for free first just seems like a slow, painful, and highly counterproductive approach.

Iain Hamp is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.

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  1. That’s a good point.

    I’d suggest that any creators who have an established audience and are thinking of moving to a ModernTales-style archive subscription model leave as much of their pre-move archives freely available as possible. The readers are less likely to feel that something is being “taken away” from them (although they may still be a bit sore), and could still refer people to their favorite installments from the pre-move archives (possibly attracting new readers).

  2. Jon Rosenberg of http://www.GOATS.com made that exact same point to me. When GOATS went to their new business model, they left the main comic and all its archives free and only made new stuff for pay (along with books & t-shirts & such).

    Kelly J.

  3. It’s an important concept to grasp and consider before you start up your new webcomic, and it can save you a lot of frustration and time down the road if you make a decision now that will make people perceive the worth of your comic more along the lines that you want them to later.

    I thought of this while I was plotting my premiere. I decided that the practical, diplomatic procedure would be to put my first webcomic out for free as seems to be the industry default; and, if I decide later to charge for webcomics because I think I have a fanbase who’ll pay, to start a second one.

    Paul Gadzikowski, paul@arthurkingoftimeandspace.com

    Arthur, King of Time and Space New cartoons daily.

  4. A lot of people already pay $30-$40 a month for their internet connection…

  5. The problem is I can’t go to your internet service provider and ask them for compensation for contributing to the value of their service (because if there wasn’t any content to be had on the internet, there wouldn’t be much demand for it). There are a lot of things that are reasonable to offer for free on the internet. Comapnies have websites that tell you about their products and services, because with access to information like that you may well make your mind up to purchase them. Local stores that don’t sell anything on their site still have value in websites because you can look at their menus, find directions to get to them, contact them with inquiries, etc. Many websites can rely on advertising and the offering of “premium” services to profit from the existence and maintenance of their websites.

    The trouble begins with enthusiasts on the web, though. Someone may get very passionate about something and start a website about that something that becomes popular, but not popular enough to make much money from advertising. If the people who use that site are then asked to chip in to help maintain it, they revolt with the old “information wants to be free” line or “the internet should be free for everyone” bit. If the enthusiast has to take a break to do something that makes some money for a while, and make the website a lower priority, his fanbase ditches it for greener pastures.

    The internet, perhaps, should be free to everyone, or at least cheaply available in some form. Television, afterall, is broadcast so that most with a TV and antenna can catch a few channels. If you want to enhance your service with more channels, you pay more money. If you want even more specialized content, or “premium” entertainment, you pay more still. It is a scaleable thing, and I think it is very realistic and reasonable for the internet to become more and more like that as it evolves.

  6. You forgot to take one thing into account: We’re talking about internet as distributing system here. Webcomics can’t apply to rules of printed comics, they have to apply to rules of internet distribution.

    Not everything on internet is free, of course, but ‘free’ is one of major concepts of internet, as someone said “point of internet is that you can get for free what you’d have to pay otherwise”, exagerated of course, but with a point.

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