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Eric: Dropping a bit of cash in the till -- how much is it worth to you?

We all have expenses, out here in the wide digital world. My own are modest right now -- just paying for bandwidth, and even if my costs have gone up in that regard, Google ads look like they'll take care of the increased costs. But, clickthrough advertising isn't the way for everyone to recoup their costs -- especially those who actually want to make a living off their art. Right now, that means tip jars, more extensive advertising, merchandising... and subscriptions.

Which is really what we want to talk about now. See, I'm not feeling very well, and I can't sleep, so I'm thinking. Largely about subscription webcomics.

I was asked, a couple of days back, what I thought about them -- asked by someone pretty high up the food chain in webcomics, who shall remain nameless because the question is more important than me namedropping. He mentioned things like Modern Tales and Graphic Smash and Girltastic, and left the question of things like Keenspot or My Comics Page as an exercise for the reader.

Me? I love subscription web sites. Like I said in my last post, Joey Manley gets a good abount of money from me each month -- as of this typing I sub to three of his main websites (Modern Tales, Serializer and Graphic Smash) and one individual website he hosts (American Elf, to no one's surprise). While I'm not made of discretionary money, the value is pretty damn high -- for my eleven bucks or so a month I have access to somewhere over two hundred strips, including stuff by T. Campbell (and the returned Gisele Lagacé), Amber "Glytch" Greenlee (who deserves about six snarks all on her own), Sunday comics of Achewood, and many, many more. Manley has a love of sequential art that can't be beat, and so all the sites I frequent have an Alternative Comics feel to them -- pushing the boundaries forward, seeing where and what the medium has to offer... good stuff.

This isn't an ad for Modern Tales and its affiliates, though. The point is -- this is a means by which I can contribute back to the artists and to the art form directly, and that in turn encourages others to give it a try. There's tons of free webcomics on the web, of course. More than any twelve people could read. But quality? Quality is hard to find.

And that raises an interesting point about the newspaper syndicates. One that is painful for people to admit. There is a positive aspect to having a barrier to entry -- you have to push beyond a certain limit before you can get in. Like I've said before, having an editor is not a bad thing. And having to prove you don't suck before you get to be read by the masses isn't bad, either.

There's plenty that is bad in the syndicates, of course. For one thing, they're not looking for quality, they're looking for a specific formula -- the right kind of look, the right kind of humor. Something they can sell. It's not nearly as innocuous as so many people say -- The Boondocks is hardly inoffensive, For Better and For Worse hardly ducks controversy, and no one can claim Mallard Fillmore is apolitical -- but it is entirely motivated by commercial concerns. With the rise of the web and comparatively inexpensive publication ability, the barriers to entry for subscription websites aren't commercial, but aesthetic. If you can show you're reliable and pushing the boundaries a hair, Manley will give you a shot. If you can build a readership and show you're reliable, Chris Crosby will give you a shot at Keenspot (which counts for this -- Keenspot Premium is certainly a subscription service). Anyone can publish on the web (Hell, that's proven by the fact that I'm out here), but not anyone can get a taste of the Modern Tales action.

That's what makes Modern Tales, Serializer, Girltastic, Keenspot and all the others so important. They give you and me, the webcomics reader, some recourse -- some place where we can go for very little money and get strips that meet a certain level of quality. We can be drawn in from some random factor (Modern Tales got me because Glych Greenlee guested a Melonpool strip a while back, and blew my tiny little mind with her expressive artwork. Serializer gets me because Achewood deserves a couple of bucks from me all by itself. Graphic Smash gets me because of Graveyard Greg and T. Campbell. And so on and so forth), only to find ourselves surrounded by a buffet -- not all of it to our taste, but guaranteed to have been cooked with talent.

As we break down the idea of what webcomics -- and sequential art in general -- are and can be, it's the paid sites that are going to make it possible for it it continue to grow. Strips like GPF gets an immeasurable boost purely from not having to pay crippling bandwidth fees, for example. By codifying the relationship (beyond the 'tip jar' concept), we both place a value on the art and give artists and publishers alike a certain commitment. And that is a very good thing.

On the other hand, if you think I ride people who have made their strips their job's asses hard over update issues, you have no idea how much of a tool I can be when I'm paying by the month....

Posted by Eric Burns-White at August 29, 2004 3:53 AM

Comments

Comment from: EDG posted at August 29, 2004 9:01 AM

...some place where we can go for very little money and get strips that meet a certain level of quality. This is part of what bothers me, actually - the implication that being part of a pay site, or a member of a web syndicate (like Keenspot), implicitly carries quality - and the inference that many people draw that not being part of a pay site or syndicate somehow means that your strip isn't as high-quality as the ones who are members. When it comes down to it, "quality" is a subjective term. Chris Crosby's definition of a good strip and mine differ, and there are definitely strips on Keenspot (which I'm going to use as my bellwether since I don't know anything about Modern Tales) which, in my opinion, have about as little quality as you can get away with. In some, it's the art that stinks; in others, it's the story; occasionally, it's both. There's a strip advertised on the front page of Keenspot which has not only barely updated in the last several years but which has ended, and while I read that strip religiously while it was still updating regularly, it's a little unfair for Keenspot to imply that it's still an ongoing strip. On a slightly different note: for most strips that I read, I'm already paying, although it's in time and attention (banner ads) rather than money. Unless, as in the case of Modern Tales, the strip simply isn't available to me unless I pay the site owner to tell me what "quality" is, what incentive do I have to swap one form of payment for another?

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at August 29, 2004 3:19 PM

Keenspot wasn't the first 'online syndicate' (it followed Big Panda, among others), but in ways it was the first to really nail the concept. As a result, it suffers from 'first adopter's syndrome.' The subscription sites that followed it learned from Crosby and Bleuel's example.

And I do think there's a standard of quality involved. If you look at the last block of Keenspot strips to be added -- things like Queen of Wands and Count Your Sheep and Elf Only Inn -- you see strips that have established readerships and schedules. The largest problem Keenspot has is their unwillingness to hold their creators' feet to the fire for updates and the like.

It's an evolving process. Ten years from now, we're likely to see some real mechanisms for finding the wheat in the midst of the chaff. The subscription sites are going to be part of that. Elvis willing, sites like Websnark will be too. But as the process continues, I still think subscription sites are a good thing.

Comment from: joenotcharles posted at August 30, 2004 4:13 AM

My problem with subscription strips is scale - you get 200 strips for $11 a month, but I don't want 200 strips. I only have the time and inclination to read 4 or 5, which definitely isn't worth a recurring $11. They could make a limited subscription for someone like me, but I imagine the margin would be pretty low. Especially if (as seems likely) the 5 strips I want to read end up on different syndicates, so they'd each only get pennies from me and have to duplicate all the database work of figuring out who's subscribed to what.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at August 30, 2004 10:22 AM

Joenotcharles -- I agree on the tradeoff. We're in the infancy of the system, which makes the payment scheme less granular than we would like. Though MT's practice of making the most current strip free takes some of the curse off that... if you know to start reading from the first day.

Eventually, we'll have a subscription service that lets you pick and choose the strips you want to support, checkbox style, and facilitate paying the artists (and/or publishers) behind the scenes. Paypal's started in that regard. But we're years away from maturity on a system like that. However, Modern Tales and its ilk are a stepping stone towards it, the same way Keenspot and Keenspot Premium were a stepping stone.

Comment from: djcoffman posted at August 30, 2004 11:51 AM

We've been trying different things at PVComics.com -- we have about 13 creators for 15 bucks a year. But we've also added some great new strips like Atland, Two Headed Tales, and my Yirmumah strip for free that update on the homepage ,etc...

I know it's hard for me to find the quality level I prefer in most paying subscription service type things. Who knows, maybe that model isnt even really all that great--- but I know the people at PV are adapting and changing, trying different things and going with want the readers want.

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