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Monday, December 1, 2014

Stripped Down: How Do Webcomics Make Money?

Photo credit: xkcd.com |

Despite the hurdles and complications involved, artists can still make money from their webcomics. Dave McNamee shares some of their secrets, including content decisions and the "1,000 true fans" idea. ♦

In the last ten years, money earned from comics-related sales has not been owed exclusively to the success of box office-dominating film adaptations from powerhouses like Marvel and DC. There is a growing community of webcomic artists who, thanks to talent, skilled marketing, loyal fans, and a lot of luck, are able to make a living by publishing original comics online. For these (mostly independent) artists, authors, cartoonists, and publishers, making money from their work is often a daunting task. Yet despite the many roadblocks that can appear along the way, webcomic creators are able to turn their art into cash.
       I have been a longtime reader of webcomics, but I have only recently begun to wonder how the artists are able to sustain themselves doing what they do. It turns out the artists have been wondering the same thing. Converting art into money has always been an issue for artists no matter what medium. Webcartoonists try numerous tactics to make money, from changing the type of content they produce to changing how they present it. Advertisements, merchandise sales, book deals, and Kickstarter campaigns are all ways that webcomics can make money, but fully utilizing these money-making tactics is complicated by the different types of comics offered on the web and the ability to freely access them in many different locations on the internet.
        I once thought that a comic published on the web was just a comic published on the web—that they were all alike, that they had similar functionality. I also used to think that there were little men living inside traffic lights that changed them from red to green. It turns out, as is the case with a lot of things I used to believe, I was wrong. There are two primary types of webcomics. The first type is the easily sharable, viral webcomic. When reading a viral webcomic, you do not have to know anything about the characters or the story to understand what is going on. The second type is the more story-driven webcomic, the type people will visit every day. These two types can be profitable in different ways.
       Viral webcomics are easily sharable, appeal to a wide audience, and often are made using non sequitur jokes and gags. The mark of a successful viral webcomic is that it gets shared as many times as possible in an intense, brief period. These have been made increasingly popular through the social media boom of the last ten years. The webcomic xkcd has been around since 1998, but there was a major increase in site views, advertising revenue, and merchandise purchases after the rise of Facebook. By creating relatable, sharable, and good-looking content, xkcd was able to parlay the massive site traffic into advertising deals. The simple design of the characters in xkcd is a great asset for creating merchandise; even people who are unfamiliar with the comic are still able to relate to the merchandise being sold because of its mass appeal and the topical and relatable content which is put onto this merchandise—shirts, mugs, water bottles, mouse pads, etc.
       The story-driven type of webcomic requires different marketing strategies. These types of webcomics, such as Octopus Piefollow consistent storylines which must be compelling and original to keep readers coming back day after day. This type of webcomic will still make money from advertisements and merchandise, but due to the loyal fan base creators can expect to make more money off of print sales (e.g. books, collections, and prints) than a viral webcomic would. Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired Magazine and a former editor of Whole Earth Review, proposed the concept of “1,000 true fans” which explains how these types of webcomics are able to make money. The idea of “1,000 true fans” is a paradigm-shifting philosophy on how you can build a lasting, sustainable business on the backs of just one thousand raving fans. When you create something like a webcomic, you can assume that you have at least one thousand people out there that will purchase what you are selling. They want to see it, they want to support you, and they want you to make more. Theoretically, these core one thousand fans of yours will spend, on average, a day’s worth of wages on the product that you are creating. This principle is the driving factor behind moneymaking in content-driven webcomics and requires the artists to be much more involved and connected with their fan base.
Cartoon by Nedroid Comics
       Despite the growing success of the medium, webcartoonists are facing issues that have been preventing them from capitalizing on the maximum revenue that they could be receiving. Because of the vastness of the internet and open source sharing websites such as Reddit, many comics can be shared without credit or links to the original source. The "I made this" comic, made by Nedroid Comics, perfectly illustrates this issue. When work is distributed without credit it creates a big problem. Artists are no longer capitalizing on their advertisement revenue, and the loss of new visitors to their site means that authors are potentially missing out on new loyal fans that would become part of their “1,000 true fans.” Losing out on fans, site visits, and potential merchandise sales is losing out on money, and in a business where establishing a sustainable income can be tough, this can make or break a comic.
     It is up to the dedicated fans of comics (and the creative strategy of the artists making those comics) for the webcomics industry to stay profitable and continue existing. By innovating the way they market their products to keep readers coming back, artists will be able to keep turning their webcomics into a reliable source of income. And by giving credit to the work of an artist and not cheapening their product, fans can help artists continue to generate a livelihood off of their passion. Webcomics are more than a hobby for artists, and many would want their work to produce a sustainable revenue. POW! BANG! CA-CHING!
  • About the Author
    Dave McNamee is a senior Creative Writing major at Miami University. He was born and raised in Washington D.C. He enjoys the music of Hall & Oates, a strong cup of coffee, and comfortable couches. After college he plans to move to Los Angeles, pursue a career in television writing, and, one day, figure out what the McRib® is actually made of.

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