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Eric: On supporting webcomics and the survival of the fittest fandoms.

Bang-bang. Two announcements, right in a row, unrelated except thematically. So close together their respective news posts are next to each other in Comixpedia's 24 Hour Pixel People.

Jamie Robertson announced that he would be ending Clan of the Cats in December, without resolving the plotline. Though if enough people subscribe to his new service he'll be able to continue it, he hopes. His reasons are financial -- with his current profession falling out from underneath him (in a way that reminds me, wistfully, of��Derryl Murphy's SF short story The History of Photography) he's looking at finding more work, and more work means taking the time to produce so elaborate a comic would be unfeasible.

Michael Jantze announced that he would be ending The Norm within the next six weeks. Though if enough people subscribe to his new service he'll be able to continue it, he hopes. His reasons are editorial -- after years of battling with the syndicates, he's getting out of the rat race, and as this was his job, he has to find other ways to support his family now, treating this as an ending.

Comixpedia connected the dots between these two strips, R. K. Millholland's successful challenge to his readers to financially support his leaving his job, and Fantagraphics's recent drive to raise money to survive. Robertson's situation is closer to the Fantagraphics situation -- he wants to continue, but doesn't see how he can afford to do so. Jantze's situation is closer to Millholland's -- he's effectively challenging his readers to put their money where their mouth is. Both clearly love cartooning and both have dedicated fandoms, with the question being can enough subscribers be drawn in to justify the decision.

To be honest, I don't know what to tell them. I'm in a weird situation. As you know, I support webcomics. I believe in them. I believe we're moving into a new era of patronage and micropayments and all the Scott McCloudisms you want to hear. I want to be supportive of these artists taking steps to change their circumstances.

And yet... I don't read either strip. So it's hard for me to be passionate, this time. And maybe that's good, because it lets me consider the model at play, here.

I don't read Clan of the Cats because despite its clear skill, it just didn't appeal to me. I tried archive trekking a few times (backwards and forwards, thank you), and the story didn't speak enough to me to make me want to continue. I think it's good, but clearly it's just not for me. I think it's an excellent citizen of the Webcomics community, however -- so I'd be really sad to see it go.

Note, by the way, that I think PvP is an excellent citizen of the Webcomics community too. So clearly, I'm insane -- to hear others say it, anyway.

I don't read the Norm, on the other hand, because I've never even heard of it. It just missed my radar. Go fig. And this doesn't seem like the time to start.

So the pitches being made aren't being made to me. They're being made, in effect, to the fandoms for those strips. I know Clan of the Cats has a vociferous one. I assume The Norm does as well. The question is, are the fandoms broad enough and generous enough to pony up the subscription fees. Unlike Something*Positive, they're not asking for one time donations with a clear goal in mind -- they're looking for a sustainable model. X number of subscriptions at Y amount of money = Z amount of food for the cartoonist and his family, and therefore we can do this thing. But even if they were just doing a straight donation drive (which is how Milholland, Fantagraphics, and even Sluggy Freelance did it), they're looking to their fandom to in effect become their bosses. Publishing, at the lowest order. They get paid to produce, and produce they will.

The question is, how many fandoms is the average webcomic reader a part of, and how many of them can they afford to support. Take me. I'm more nuts than the average person. I spend money on webcomics, and I subscribe to subscription services. But I don't tend to be part of individual fandoms. I don't do more than skim forums and communities (and being vain, it's more to see if Websnark was mentioned if anything). Other than tip jars (which I support when the mood strikes me) and merchandise (which is a whole other deal), when I subscribe to subscription sites it tends to be larger ones with lots of comics on them. The exception is American Elf, and even that's coming in less than Sebo's Kitty Klub and Join The Norm. There's only so much money I have to give. I'm not particularly affluent -- my needs are met and I buy nice toys, including money into cartoonists' pockets -- but I won't be able to subscribe to too many more sites if I want to have spending money for anything other than webcomics. (Not even counting paying my own bandwidth bills for what you're reading now, I would add.)

There has to be another way.

Frankly, I think that Clan of the Cats should eschew Keenspot (though Keen's been a good home to them) and sign on with Graphic Smash. I bet T. Campbell would be glad to have them, and have their extensive archives as a hook to draw people in. I think Robertson should do his Sebo strip, but host that on Modern Tales, so that someone who wants the Daily Funny is drawn to one pay site and someone who wants the Story is drawn to another.

But he might not be able to get enough to live on, doing that. He says he needs 200 subscribers. If they take the more-money-up-front-but-less-expensive-yearly subscription option of $25, that means he needs five thousand dollars a year to produce Clan of the Cats, even at 0 bandwidth costs by sticking with Keenspot. It doesn't seem like that much money, but I bet it's more than a Graphicsmasher gets, right now. (I'd love it if I were wrong.) As for the Norm? They're doing multiple levels of membership (shades of Sluggy, Kevin and Kell, and User Friendly) but also doing the Modern Tales thing of taking the archives away except for subscribers. Their lowest level of membership is $25 but it goes up to $5,000, and will include a magazine. We don't know how many subscribers are needed to "save the Norm."

I hope both of them make it, one way or another. But there's only so many independents who can do this before their fandoms' means will be exceeded by prior commitments.

There has to be a better way.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at September 14, 2004 4:08 PM


Comment from: Justinpie posted at September 14, 2004 8:25 PM

Incidentally, Roberts already has an authoring gig on Graphic Smash called Mythos and Magick.

Rather, he had it last year, ran into the "Spinal Tap Drummer Syndrome" with his artist counterparts last spring, and now has teamed up with former GS artist Dani Atkinson to bring MaM back on October 1st.

It won't be daily like CotC, but it will at least be *something* for the Cattan fans who want more.

Comment from: EDG posted at September 15, 2004 7:16 AM

Two thoughts on this whole thing.

First, if Robertson and Jantze don't meet their donation/subscription goals, will they be refunding the donations/subscriptions they already received?

Second, does Jantze think he's actually going to get new readers by hiding the archives? Does he realize that he's probably managed to alienate a large percentage of the portion of his fandom who can't afford a $25 subscription?

I have no issue with hiding archives, as long as it's done from the beginning. But if you offer archives freely for a given period of time - even if that period of time isn't pre-defined - and then suddenly take them away, it feels like you're punishing the audience. This is, incidentally, why I will never read Fans! again: for reasons entirely unrelated to my desire to read the strip, I had to stop reading for about two weeks, and when I got back, T. Campbell had hidden all of his archives behind a subscription service, so that I - someone who'd had faans.com on his Bookmarks list for years, who had bought the physical comic books because he wanted to support the creators - suddenly couldn't even catch up on the strips I'd missed. I felt like I was being punished, that I wasn't good enough for Campbell and his various artists, and frankly, I feel inadequate enough already without having someone I supported for years slam the door in my face.

Comment from: EDG posted at September 15, 2004 9:51 AM

(This is why I shouldn't be allowed to post comments before 9 AM.)

Comment from: rabble posted at September 15, 2004 1:10 PM

It's a tough issue, no doubt about it. I've been thinking about it a bit myself, because my friends and I will be starting a webcomic ourselves soon. On the one hand, I agree with EDG.

It's really annoying when a webcomic that had been free for years suddenly becomes subscription only. While perhaps a little over the top, "having the door slammed in your face" is a good description of what it would feel like to the loyal customer.

On the other hand, if your archives are behind a 25 dollar wall, there's no way you're going to develop new fans. So it's not a viable way to start your webcomic.

So if it's a slap in the face of fans to place your once free archives behind a subscription wall, AND you can't develop a fanbase if you start out that way, is a subscription based way of paying really possible at all?

And yet making webcomics is extremely time consuming and work intensive. An artist deserves some recompense, I should think. It seems to be presumptious of me as a reader to expect to be able to see an artist's entire work without paying him or her a dime.

And yet, as a reader I ask myself how much I've spent on webcomics over the past year. The answer is a mere 6 bucks. I haven't gotten a subscription to Graphic Smash or Modern Tales or any of its offshoots. I probably should, but the fact remains that I haven't. And if I, a guy who really loves comics, web or otherwise, haven't done it, how much less likely is it that a casual reader would do such a thing? Is it really a sustainable model?

Sluggy Freelance seems to have understood this. With Abrams huge arcing plotlines and character development, I would find it impossible to read if I stumbled across it today and had no access to the archives. Sluggy would be dead with a subscription service, or at least a shadow of its current self.

But is Sluggy really a good model to follow? How many webcomics can really ever become as popular as his and expect book sales and plush dolls and etc to support them? Not many, I should think. A mere handful.

Frankly, I'm not sure there is much of an answer, at least until the culture of the internet changes to more of an expectation that you have to pay to play, perhaps with Scott McCloud's "micropayments" firmly entrenched. And I don't see that happening for awhile yet.

Until then, I think most webcomics will have to remain a labor of love.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at September 15, 2004 1:39 PM

One note: Sluggy, unfortunately, was not able to use book and merchandise sales as a sustainable model. Defenders of the Nifty was started because he was having a significant shortfall. If anything, he's gone to the PBS model of "you get this for free, but please please please support us, and here's the lovely tchotchkes if you do."

Moderntales and Graphic Smash aren't "survival" models yet, clearly -- based on feedback I've received from those who know. And yet, you're absolutely right. It's harder to seduce new readers without archives, at least on the web. (I've been trying to push Narbonic on a friend who would absolutely love it, but he hasn't yet gotten around to doing the sub.)

I don't have any answers. I just know the question's getting more acute. Labor of love is an excellent motivation right up until it's a question of food on the table.

Comment from: Freak posted at September 15, 2004 1:53 PM

The "Save Sluggy" drive took place after Pete had not been paying as much attention to business as usual; IIRC, the Sluggy Store had been having technical difficulties, and it had been some time since Pete had released any new designs, and he hadn't released any new books for some time either.

Comment from: Shaenon posted at September 15, 2004 2:18 PM

Dude, if having to pay for a comic threatens your self-esteem, you need the kind of help that T Campbell cannot provide.

At this point in the game, very few webcomics started as subscription-only webcomics. My strip ran for free for two years before Modern Tales launched. Did I feel like I owed it to my readers to keep it free? No; they'd had two years of free strips, certainly a bargain, and they could judge for themselves whether the strip was worth paying for. If they felt it wasn't worth the price, they just wouldn't get the comic. That's how capitalism works.

Did I get complaints from readers who felt cheated, betrayed, and generally outraged? Hell yes. It would probably be crass of me to note that, with one or two exceptions, none of the readers who objected to my move to Modern Tales had ever bought merchandise from me, put money in my tip jar, or, in fact, supported the strip in any way.

And did these readers tell me that the noble Modern Tales experiment would destroy me, that I couldn't hook any new readers if I kept my archives behind a subscription wall, that I would suffer miserable failure (as opposed to the success I then enjoyed, losing several hundred dollars a month on website maintenence)? Of course they did. They were wrong.

Not that subscription sites are the right choice for every webcomic. For reasons that escape my understanding, the Modern Tales model has been very good for my strip. Many other, better, comics have not done outstandingly well on MT and its sister sites. It's up to cartoonists to experiment and figure out what makes money. Pete Abrams gets by on merchandising (sometimes). Scott Kurtz is a genius at finding new moneymaking schemes, from selling toys to pimping out his characters as advertising mascots. Derek Kirk Kim (who has more readers on the Web than either of those guys; he just doesn't brag about it) serializes his work online for free, then sells books.

I suspect that Jamie Robertson is using "Mythos and Magick" to test the waters of Graphic Smash. It might be a good fit for "Clan of the Cats," but it might not. The money on Graphic Smash, to be frank, is not very good yet. The readership is still growing, and T Campbell signed up a *lot* of artists right off the bat, so the revenue gets split among several dozen people. But Robertson's a big name, so he might do well there.

Maybe Michael Jantze could make a go on Modern Tales. It's not syndication money, but, as he's evidentally learned, syndication money is usually pathetic anyway. (Michael's a very nice guy, by the way, very active with the Cartoon Art Museum.)

At any rate, I don't like it when webcartoonists go begging for donations. I don't care how successful it was for the "Something Positive" guy. I'm glad I have other options.

Comment from: EDG posted at September 15, 2004 6:08 PM

Shaenon, that's a fair cop. (In fact, that's part of why I've been in therapy for fifteen months, and was on Lexapro for six months last year.)

Don't get me wrong - I sympathize with people who use subscription models, and understand the reasons behind these changes. It just feels like a betrayal (however small), along the lines of an ISP changing their AUP to, say, disallow newsgroup access. (Not that I've had that happen or anything. >_>)

I'd like to say here, too, that T Campbell sent me an email today, responding to my comment above, that showed a lot more class than I did in that comment. Now that I've cooled down, and thanks to that email, I'm reconsidering my position both on Fans and on Graphic Smash.

Incidentally, Shaenon, why don't you like it when webcartoonists go begging for donations? (You may have mentioned this in your comment; if so, I'm afraid I missed it.)

Comment from: Shaenon posted at September 16, 2004 4:04 AM

Why I don't like begging for donations:

1. You're giving the readers nothing in return. Asking for money in exchange for comics is reasonable. Asking for money in exchange for merchandise is reasonable. Asking for money just because you want money is, frankly, skeevy. At least send the people a damn print or something.

2. Most webcartoonists seem to be able to drum up sizeable donations only when they can convince their readers that they're in dire economic straits. "Sluggy Freelance" is a prime example. What this means is that a cartoonist can only make money from donations by living on the skin of her teeth. There's no way to get ahead: you pass the hat, go broke, and pass the hat again. Or lie to your readers and make yourself out to be needier than you are. Either way, it's a crummy way to make a living.

3. "Something Positive" has, evidently, inspired a new approach: holding the comic for ransom. Now the cartoonist refuses to update until her demands are met. This seems a meanspirited way to do business, especially on a regular basis. I'm glad it worked out for the "Something Positive" guy, but in the long run it's bound to engender bad feelings between cartoonist and reader.

4. As Eric mentioned in an earlier snark, the people who donate money think they own you. And it's hard to argue with them. After all, you took their money. And you didn't give them anything in return.

5. In my admittedly limited experience, the donation thing ends up with a handful of very loyal, very nice readers providing the bulk of the money, and everyone else sitting back and talking about how well begging works. It works great for them, because they don't have to spend anything. I put out a desperate call for donations once, before Modern Tales came on the scene, and the whole experience depressed me.

5a. Also, I didn't make much money.

6. There are countless nonprofit organizations that deserve your money far more than any webcomic. I'm dead serious here. If you're feeling charitable and you want to support comics, give to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Cartoon Art Museum, Friends of Lulu, MoCCA, or ACTOR.

7. It's begging. I mean, come on. That's not a viable business model.

I'm not arguing that cartoonists should turn down donations when they're offered. I'm all for making money by any means necessary. Hell, I have a PayPal tip jar on my website. Every month, come rain or come shine, a friend of mine puts $25 in the jar. I've told him he doesn't need to do that, but I take the money anyway. Because I like money.

What I object to is begging as a primary revenue stream. It's just not right. There are too many people in the world who really need charity. Have some self-respect, dammit.

Comment from: Aeire posted at September 16, 2004 4:59 AM

3. "Something Positive" has, evidently, inspired a new approach: holding the comic for ransom. Now the cartoonist refuses to update until her demands are met. This seems a meanspirited way to do business, especially on a regular basis. I'm glad it worked out for the "Something Positive" guy, but in the long run it's bound to engender bad feelings between cartoonist and reader.

Uhhhh....no. Not at all. Something Postive wasn't holding a damn thing for ransom when Randy started his fundraiser - the whole thing was a tongue-in-cheek jab at yet another reader who decided to criticize the update schedule and spelling errors in one of Randy's comics. He had gotten too many of those to count, and that one was the straw that broke the camel's back - so he quite simply told his readers that if they could pay him a year's salary, he'd quit the job that was taking up 40 hours of his week and spend those making sure the comic updated seven days a week and that it would have less errors. That's all. He was attempting to update seven days a week while holding down a full-time job - and that's seven days a week in COLOUR, no less. He's one of the few people I've seen that will try their damndest to make up for missed days, and as one of the people he runs his strips by for proofing, I can say that I very rarely see any spelling or grammatical errors out of him anymore. Yeah, he's missed a few updates, but one was out of his control (apartment flood), and the other was caught up for (when he was in the Phillippines.)

I don't know where you got YOUR information from as far as the S*P drive goes, but it was entirely incorrect.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at September 16, 2004 8:41 AM

I'll second Aeire's comment. Randy Millholland's 'donation drive' was started in a fit of rage, not a demand. He received a letter from a reader taking him to task, saw red, and said "fine! You people want to order me around, pay my damn salary!" He never threatened to take the strip offline, he never threatened to stop. He did offer to sweeten the pot by increasing the number of strips a week, but there was never a real sense he thought this would work.

I'm moderately sure that day 2 or 3, when he saw the volume of cash coming in, Millholland stared at his Paypal account and said "well, shit." Because as wonderful as something like that is, it's also frightening, especially when you didn't expect it. And, as I've said many times, when this thing becomes your job, you open yourself up to whole new levels of suck from the fringe of your readers.

He's also stated he's working on a business model for when the year expires that doesn't involve the donation drive. Which I think is smart -- not only can't you capture lightning in a bottle, but going back to where lightning struck the last time with a bottle only works at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle in a thunderstorm, and you're going to end up dead if you try it.

Comment from: russ posted at September 18, 2004 2:19 PM

"It's begging. I mean, come on. That's not a viable business model."

Why not? It seems to work for a lot of public radio stations.

Calling it "begging" seems like an emotional innuendo rather than a rational argument. One could just as well argue against selling your work because that's "prostituting".

To be clear: I certainly don't pretend to know what will and won't work as economic models for webcomics. But it's not a very compelling argument to argue that donations won't work because, come on, it's begging. And of course donating to a webcomic does not preclude one also donating to CBLDF or Red Cross or any other more worthy causes, so that's kind of a false dichotomy and leads down the rabbit hole of "how dare you spend any money on dinner and a movie; you should spend it all on Worthy Causes".

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 1, 2004 10:19 AM

(It's been a long while, so I don't expect anyone to actually see this new comment of mine responding to Russ. But for the record, I'm responding to Russ. So there.)

Public radio engages in organized fundraising, which really isn' t the same thing as begging in the sense that Garrity means it. The example I fall back on is Defenders of the Nifty, over on Sluggy. Abrams had a shortfall, and went to his fanbase about it. He created a voluntary subscription model, with different levels of freebies given depending on how much money you donated. He didn't threaten to remove the strip (though I'll admit he did make it clear he was in real trouble), and he didn't take the strip to subscription -- it was very much the public broadcasting "this is free if you can't support it, but if you can, please help" model.

And I got a piece of original strip art featuring Zoe for my subscription, so I for one am all for the model.

Comment from: Jamie posted at December 2, 2004 1:35 AM

Hey, I got Snarked and Nobody even told me. ;) As of December 1st COTC has 192 subscribers to Sebo's Kitty Klub. That close to the goal I think COTC will be here for at least another year. But thats not why Im going to try and stick around. Not long after I announced the possible end of COTC I received an e-mail from a girl wishing I would reconsider. She had been a reader for a couple of years and she liked it. Her problem was that she was facing the possibility of being bedridden. If that happened, she told me, she was going to insist on reading the comic somehow. How can anybody give up after reading that? So, I will do everything in my power to keep COTC going. Thanks for the mention, Eric.

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