Business of webcomics
Creators of webcomics are able to do so professionally through various revenue channels. Webcomic artist may sell merchandise based on their work, such as T-shirts and toys, or they may sell print versions or compilations of their webcomic. Many webcomic creators make use of online advertisement on their websites, and some have undergone product placement deals with larger companies. Crowdfunding through Kickstarter and Patreon has become a major source of income for webcartoonists since these services have launched.
Webcomics were once seen by cartoonists as a potential path towards syndication in newspapers; however, most webcomic artist found that publishing on the Web is much more lucrative and free than syndication. In 2000, Scott McCloud predicted that micropayments would become a major source of income for webcartoonists, but this declaration never came to fruition.
Many webcomic artists started creating their online works without an intention to directly profit from it, often instead publishing through the Internet in order to get (instant) feedback on their skills. A large number of artists start creating a webcomic with the intention to become a professional, but don't succeed in part because they "put the business before the art." Meanwhile, many successful webcomic artists are diversifying their income streams in order to not be solely dependent on the webcomic itself.
Early history of webcomics as a business
The strategy of building a business around posting free comics online began in the 1980s, when Eric Millikin created the first webcomic, Witches and Stitches for CompuServe in 1985. Self-publishing on the internet allowed Millikin to avoid censorship and the demographic constraints of mass-market print publishers. Though Millikin's online comics were instantly popular with the early internet audience around the world, the large online audience and influence did not necessarily translate into enough sales to reach economic success at the time. By the 1990s, Millikin had moved to publishing comics on the then-new World Wide Web, but was homeless, living in a car, and working in an anatomy lab as an embalmer and dissectionist of human cadavers. Since then, Millikin has achieved professional webcomic success, including through turning his webcomics into award-winning print-published work and commissioned public art, and by selling original artwork in gallery exhibitions. By 1999, Millikin was one of the few webcomic creators successful enough to make a living as an artist. He now often donates a portion of his profits to charities.
In the year after the debut of Witches and Stitches, Joe Ekaitis began online publishing of his weekly furry comic strip T.H.E. Fox in 1986. By the mid-1990s, Ekaitis had pursued monetizing the comic through publishing it in independent comic books and through appearances on independent cable television program Rapid T. Rabbit and Friends; however, economic success was elusive. Despite running online for several years, the comic never achieved its goal of newspaper syndication, and Ekaitis stopped updating in 1998.
Popular business models
Professional webcomic creators use various types of business models in order to profit from their webcomics.
Many webcomic artists make a good living on selling T-shirts, prints, and toys on their website. When webcomics started out, the primary way for people to make money through them was by selling merchandise, which prompted what John Allison called the "t-shirt economy". In 2004, artists like Richard Stevens (Diesel Sweeties) and Jon Rosenberg (Goats) supported themselves via sales of books and other merchandise on their own website. Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant) claimed that 2007 was a good year to get into webcomics, as she was able to make a living off of advertising and T-shirts in a year. In an interview, Beaton said that "everyone made a living off of it by printing off their own shirts and shipping them to their house. And it was a lot of work." However, the habit of primarily selling T-shirts resulted in issues in 2008, which Dorothy Campbell (Cat and Girl) described as the "great T-shirt crash of 2008." Two years later, merchandise distributor Topatoco started seriously looking to provide other types of merchandise. In an interview, webcomic creator and Topatoco-employee David Malki stated that "part of that was just realizing that people like lots of things, not just T-shirts." The company now sells all types of items, such as toys and posters.
Some webcomic creators may get highly lucrative publishing deals in which comic books are created of their project. Some may reach a high degree of success, such as the graphic novel version of Raina Telgemeier's webcomic Smile, which became a #1 New York Times bestseller and remained on that list for over three years, having sold over 1.4 million copies. Some webcomics creators have had their books published by mainstream comics publishers who are traditionally aimed at the direct market of American comic books, including Fred Gallagher's Megatokyo being published by Dark Horse and Kazu Kibuishi's Flight anthology series published by Image. Comics author Scott McCloud noted that "the quality [of the Flight book] is so high that once it hit paper, it just became impossible to ignore."
Advertisement and product placement
Online advertisement through banners along the top or side of a website has been the most prevalent form of livelihood for webcomics. In 2005, the creators of Megatokyo, Goats, and Sexy Losers found that they could charge between $1 and $2 USD per 1,000 pageviews. Advertising prices have risen and fallen with the Web's perceived value. With Ad blocking software becoming more prevalent, advertising revenue may drastically decline.
In 2011, Christopher Hastings teamed with Capcom for a product placement deal which took the form of a short crossover comic pairing the characters of Hastings' The Adventures of Dr. McNinja webcomic and the characters of the Capcom video game Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. Later that same year, Scott Kurtz started a multi-part storyline in his webcomic PvP featuring Magic the Gathering-creators Wizards of the Coast, as a form of product placement. Inspired by the paid integration of real brands in the television series Mad Men, Kurtz reasoned that his video game webcomic was already advertising various established brands anyway. Through this deal, Wizards of the Coast became an official sponsor of the webcomic for that period.
In 2004, R. K. Milholland was working in Medicaid billing for an ambulance company besides creating the webcomic Something Positive. When readers complained about the infrequency of his updates, Milholland challenged his fans to donate enough money for him to quit his day job and work on Something Positive full-time. Milholland described it as a "shut-your-mouth post", as he made $24,000 USD per year and didn't believe that his readers could match that. Instead, fans of the webcomic donated $4,000 USD within an hour after his challenge came up. The New York Observer stated that his story presaged that "micropatronage boom", where the readership of a webcomic donates directly to its creator. Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics) called Patreon the "most disruptive (in a good way)" service that allows this. KC Green (Gunshow) and Winston Rowntree (Subnormality) credit Patreon for allowing them to work on webcomics full-time. According to a spokesperson of Patreon, ten new creators start making money through the service every day.
Tracy Butler – creator of Lackadaisy – was contacted directly by Patreon when it launched in 2013. For about two years, she studied how other artists set up their donation structures, thinking "maybe I could supplement my income a bit." In the first half of 2015, she decided to quit her job and set up her account, and a few months later, she had accumulated 1,300 patrons, contributing over $6,500 USD per month. In an interview with Paste Magazine, she stated that "Every little thing you do now has a direct impact on the income you make. It's so liberating. It's a great feeling, but at the same time, it's terrifying." David Revoy, creator of Pepper&Carrot, after a year of using Patreon, he had 300 patrons, contributing a total of $1,100 USD per webcomic episode, allowing him to quit his dayjob and working on his webcomic full-time.
Kickstarter, which launched in 2009, allows creators to crowdfund more specific projects. Digi DG (Cucumber Quest) set out to raise $10,000 USD for a print release of her webcomic, and her fans raised over $63,000 USD in order to make the concept a reality. Similarly, Jake Parker went on Kickstarter in order to start his comics anthology The Antler Boy, and he went on to receive $85,532 USD in pledges. Andrew Hussie's Hiveswap became the most successful webcomic-related Kickstarter project of all time when it raised over $700,000 USD in 2012.
Webcomics have been seen by some artists as a potential new path towards syndication in newspapers, but attempts have rarely proven lucrative. According to Jeph Jacques (Questionable Content), "there's no real money" in syndication for webcomic artists. For instance Jeffrey Rowland uploaded his webcomics to the internet in order to gain constructive criticism after being rejected from various syndicates in 1999, but eventually found that he didn't need to get his work syndicated when he started selling merchandise of his webcomic Wigu. To The Boston Globe, Rowland said that "if a syndicate came to me and offered me a hundred newspapers, I would probably say no ... I'd probably make less money, with more work." When Diesel Sweeties found syndication by United Media in 2007, its creator Richard Stevens still made 80% of his income through his website. Other webcomic creators, such as R. K. Milholland (Something Positive) and Michael Terracciano (Dominic Deegan), wouldn't be able to syndicate their work in newspaper because they fill up a specific niche and wouldn't be accepted by a broader audience. Some webcartoonists have proven more successful with newspaper syndication since: in 2015, Dana Simpson syndicated her webcomic Phoebe and Her Unicorn through Universal Uclick to over 100 newspapers.
In his 2000 book Reinventing Comics and his subsequent webcomic series I Can't Stop Thinking, cartoonist Scott McCloud advocated the potential of micropayments for webcomics. In his book, McCloud argues that people would be willing to pay for access to high-quality webcomics once bandwidth speed increases and sufficiently reliable and simple payment systems were designed and put in place. In particular, McCloud hypothesized an economy fueled on purchases of only a few cent made through a single mouseclick. As this process would cut out intermediary parties necessary for print publication and retail
Joe Zabel explained in 2006 that he believed micropayments were necessary for webcomics that couldn't be appreciated on advertisement-saturated websites, which he describes as "introverted" webcomics. However, the popular webcomic hosting services of its time – Comic Genesis and Webcomics Nation – had not built in any support for micropayment systems, and the concept had not yet gained any momentum. McCloud became an advisor for micropayment service BitPass in 2002, but this service was shut down in 2007 because of a lack of commercially successful clients and because, according to McCloud himself, "it still wasn't simple enough for a lot of people." Since then, other micropayment systems have launched, including PayPal Micropayments, Flattr and SatoshiPay, but by 2015 the idea of micropayments still hadn't panned out as McCloud had initially described it.
Starting in 2002, some webcomic creators formed collectives and sold subscriptions to their webcomics, such as Modern Tales and Serializer, followed by Girlamatic in 2003. Here, viewers were able to read only a few pages for free, and paid a monthly subscription fee in order to be able to access the rest. This "Modern Tales" family of websites created one of the first profitable subscription models for webcomics and lasted a little over a decade, with the sites closing in April 2013, shortly before their publisher's death.
Feasibility and economic intent
Spike Trotman (Templar, Arizona) stated that many people start a webcomic with the expectation of being able to make a living through it within a year, and notes that this is almost never the case. Competition on the World Wide Web is enormous, and most professional webcomic creators were growing their fanbase for years before they became able to become self-sustaining. Jeff Moss, director of Blind Ferret Entertainment, stated that many young artist fall in the trap of "expecting too much too soon." Some webcomic creators try to sell merchandise of their webcomic after only a few months, sometimes "[putting] the business before the art" and neglecting the webcomic itself. Jeff Schuetze (Jeffbot) said that he knows many people who were trying to sell a large amount of merchandise before having even started their webcomic. According to a 2015 survey by David Harper, over 80 percent of webcomic creators he questioned are unable to make a living off their work, as the majority of his respondents made less than $12,000 USD a year off their work.
Very few professional webcomic creators set out to earn a living from their work initially. Jeph Jacques, for instance, decided to sell Questionable Content T-shirts for a few weeks in order to "make ends meet" after he was fired from his job, but suddenly found that he made enough money to live from and "never looked back."
Many notable webcomic creators are actively diversifying their income streams in order to not be dependent on one source of income, many even deemphasizing webcomics. Brady Dale of The New York Observer noticed while calling out to professional webcomic artists that though almost all of his respondents believed that their webcomic created a "base of notoriety" for them, they also all believed that the "less [they] relied on [the] original source for financial support, the better off they would all be over time." For instance, the creators of Cyanide and Happiness went on to create animation in the form of The Cyanide & Happiness Show, and their webcomic is no longer their primary source of income. Dorothy Gambrell (Cat and Girl) explained that "the business of webcomics rolled along smoothly until the great T-shirt crash of 2008," and that the 2010s offers creators more opportunities than the 2000s did. Creators such as Gambrell, Drew Fairweather (Toothpaste for Dinner), and Zack Weinersmith (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) all do work unrelated to their webcomics.
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