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Eric: The Fall of the House of Keen
If someone had walked up to me on January 1, 2005 and said "hey, in five years Keenspot's going to stop accepting new submissions and start to effectively leave the webcomics collective business after firing one of their artists," I would have stared at him for a long moment. "Do I know you?" I'd ask, at that point. He would not answer, but would instead say "yeah, and they'll have fired John Troutman too, a few months before." "Seriously," I'd say. "You need to leave my apartment before I call the police."
And yet, here we are, just five years later, and things have officially gone crazy at the Crosby compound. Keenspot -- a site originally founded by a small cabal of like minded folks to replace Big Panda while simultaneously reforming the 'webcomics collective' concept of its sins -- has begun the inexorable process of getting out of general webcomics.
Most of the foofarah over these developments has already been hashed out. The action news team at Fleen both had some of the biggest story-breaks involved in the process. They also had a comments-wide flamewar largely between Bobby Crosby and Scott Kurtz, which honestly I could have predicted back in 2005, but I digress.
In short, however: a Keenspot cartoonist was let go. I will not make comment on her situation, as I honestly don't know enough about it to comment. I will link to her comic because that seems like the right thing to do -- not that I expect she'll get much of a rise in traffic from me, but it still seems like the appropriate thing to do. In the wake of this, Keenspot made an official announcement that they were closed to new submissions, and did not plan to add any new members going forward. Then, an internal e-mail was leaked and published by Fleen, detailing a new contract that current Keenspotters would have to sign that would radically restructure the rules under which they operated. This was confirmed by Chris Crosby. Further, it made it clear that Crosby didn't expect many if any Keenspotters to accept the terms -- and that they really shouldn't. In his own words:
The facts are, you do not need Keenspot. For members on the "New System" contract, everything you're doing on Keenspot can be done on your own. You should go independent.
For those still on the original contract, you should strongly consider leaving Keenspot if you are not extremely happy with it. If we aren't doing something for you that you can't do on your own, there is no reason for you to stay.
What Keenspot is doing, it seems, is reworking themselves into a traditional publisher. They're trying to prune a decade's worth of old growth, deadwood and errant branches which may be healthy but don't fit, take what's left, and then heavily focus on that remaining content not only in terms of webcomics but in merchandising, branding and revenue-generating. And most of the projects they're going to be focusing on are going to be 'Crosby' projects -- comics from Chris and/or Bobby Crosby, flash animation gigs like their Doritos contest submission (itself one of the better things they've done of late -- if they don't win a Superbowl spot, I still hope it turns into some television ad work for them), and pushing stuff towards Hollywood.
On the whole, I think this is a good move for Keenspot, handled absolutely terribly. For years now, I've maintained that what Keenspot needs more than anything else is a solid business manager -- someone to be the bad guy in their operation, who makes firm decisions based on the bottom line, and who brings a financial acumen to the proceedings that the Crosbys -- and I love Chris Crosby -- simply don't have. While this isn't that step (and they should still be doing it), it is a step towards reworking what they do with an eye to generating revenue and growing, and that's all to the good. Further, the conditions that created Keenspot and made it such a seminal part of the evolution of webcomics simply don't exist any longer. Bandwidth is no longer crushingly expensive. The technology to make a site with archives and content navigation is largely standardized. Someone who wants a turnkey for webcomics can have it easily enough. Someone who wants revenue generation tools like advertisements can grab them easily. And the unifying factors of successful collectives like Dumbrella, Dayfree, Blank Label or Half-Pixel (to name just a few) doesn't exist at Keenspot -- when Keenspot was founded, the unifying factor was "we have comics on the web," and that was enough, because it was still such a new and novel concept. Today, collectives unite around shared goals, or shared aesthetics, or shared sense of humor, or shared business models, or shared whatever. Keenspot hasn't had that for a long time.
However, the problem with implementing their plan remains the same problem they've had all along: they desperately need a business manager. Desperately. In this case, they need someone willing to generate that same internal e-mail Chris Crosby did, only instead of giving the Keenspotters the opportunity to sign onto a contract that's designed to weed 95% of them out, they should have sent the following:
Friends, Keenspotters and Creators -- for over ten years we have tried to make Keenspot the most artist friendly and exciting place for webcartoonists on the internet. Sometimes we've succeeded, and sometimes we've failed, but through it all it's been a grand and exciting adventure.
However, economic realities and the changing face of internet publishing means that the company we have always been needs to change, and that means taking some radical steps. As of July 1, 2010, Keenspot will no longer be a webcomics collective. Instead of being a large conglomerate of webcomics new and old, updating and archived, we are going to be a content developer and publisher. Where in the past we have largely remained passive in regards to the creation and updating process, in the future we are going to work actively with the writers, artists and animators of Keenspot, aggressively developing and promoting properties for both the web and beyond. Many of these properties are going to be things we own outright, like Last Blood. When working with others, we will be increasing the stake -- and control -- we have over those properties, and will be negotiating with those creators directly.
What this means for you, the incredibly talented creators who make up the current version of Keenspot, is simple: between now and July 1, you will need to make other arrangements for your webcomic.
Starting immediately, Keenspot will be moving into a transitional mode, helping current Keenspot members migrate their current and archived projects elsewhere on the web. We will be setting up special Keenspot-members-only forums where we will be giving technical support and giving you the opportunity to make plans. Over the past several years, many of you have naturally formed cliques, friendships and even informal partnerships -- part of our transition will be to help you formalize those partnerships so those of you who want to can make your own collectives, so that you can begin to support each other in ways Keenspot has supported you in the past. We will also be purchasing and sending every Keenspot member a copy of How to Make Webcomics by Guigar, Kellett, Kurtz and Straub. While we haven't always had the best relationship with some of those folks (and have had excellent relationships with some others), their book is one of the best primers on running your webcomic as a business, and while much of the information in the book is something you already know -- and you may not need anything at all from it -- it will be a resource you can use as you move your comic into the next stage of its life.
Any webcomic still hosted by Keenspot on July 1 will automatically be moved onto Comic Genesis, where you can continue to enjoy many of the same tools and hassle free operations you have come to expect. At that time, you will not be considered part of Keenspot, and all formal contracts between Keenspot and you will expire.
This may seem sudden and shocking, but I invite you to see this as an opportunity. For many of you, Keenspot has been a comfortable place to make comics -- and sometimes it's easy to stay where you are comfortable instead of taking the steps that are best for you and your comic. To be blunt, you don't need Keenspot. There is no reason you cannot be as or more successful on your own or in small collectives than you were with us. You have the talent to make great, engaging comics -- you wouldn't have been on Keenspot in the first place if you didn't -- and that means you have the potential to succeed brilliantly without us.
This is a hard day for us. We have loved being "the Spot for Comics," but we have to take the steps we thing will be best for ourselves and -- ultimately -- for all of you.
Thank you for everything you have done for the past decade. It has been an honor and a pleasure.
Then, have anyone who will continue to work with Keenspot after July first sign an agreement stating that Keenspot's official designated representatives (designated as this manager, Chris Crosby and Teri Crosby, period) will be the only ones to discuss this or other Keenspot related issues publicly. This would obviously not bind the Keenspotters who themselves are being moved out of the company, but that's okay. However, any and all discussion of Keenspot's business decisions would be filtered through professionals who would have professional dealings, with Fleen, Scott Kurtz, ex- and soon-to-be-ex Keenspotters and all the rest.
Why is this better than the e-mail Chris Crosby actually sent? Because it is active, instead of passive-aggressive. In trying to be a good guy -- and trying to be as fair as possible to the Keenspotters -- Crosby's equivocated far too much. He isn't telling them that it's time they leave, he's making it as uncomfortable as possible so they will choose to leave and spare him the pain of effectively firing everyone. The move is somewhere between a landlord who's turning off the heat and water to try and drive out rent-controlled renters so he can bulldoze the place and a boyfriend who figures if he makes his girlfriend uncomfortable enough, she'll dump him so he won't have to be the bad guy who's dumping her.
And, under this system, Bobby Crosby wouldn't be allowed to comment on the situation. In fact, said manager would have to make that a component of his contract -- all creators who will be working with the new Keenspot will have to agree not to comment publicly about Keenspot while they are under contract, period, and Bobby Crosby would have to be under that contract.
Look, I actually have a lot of respect for Bobby Crosby. I think he's an excellent writer. I read more than one of the comics he writes, and they're good. He has a lot of gifts and he has a lot of potential. But he is absolutely incapable of comporting himself well in public when it comes to these things, and -- for better or worse -- his last name is the same as the owners of the company. Even if he is purely an employee, when he sets fire to the surroundings, claims people all around him are "liars," and calls for the death of one of his company's critics publicly, he is doing damage to the Keenspot brand. It doesn't matter if he's in the right or not. Companies that Keenspot will want to work with in the future will be doing research on Keenspot, and they will see Bobby Crosby's vitriol and it will prejudice them against the company. Creators that Keenspot wants to recruit will think twice. Keenspot's options will be reduced the more one of its public faces rails against his enemies in public. And that's very bad for Keenspot, as they work to remake the kind of company they are.
But, things have unfolded the way they have unfolded, and so it's no longer a question of what they should have done but what they will do.
The Keenspotters who are leaving (most if not all of them) will be fine. Crosby was right about one thing -- there's nothing Keenspot has been doing for them recently that they can't do for themselves. I'm a little surprised someone like Joey Manley, Josh Roberts or Nate Piekos hasn't offered a ComicSpace/alternate home for Keenspotters who want to have as simple a transition as possible -- it would be great goodwill PR and help redefine the ComicSpace LLC Network as the natural successor (and winner) of the ancient Wars. Certainly, I have to imagine they or other folks will be making some kind of announcement giving ex-Spotters a place to go. Further, I fully expect to hear about some new collectives springing up made up of ex-Spotters in the wake of all this. All will be fine. This is just one last mighty gasp of KeenDrama.
However, at the end of the day I'll admit I'm wistful. Keenspot has been such a part of the Webcomics landscape for so long that seeing them relinquish that role so thoroughly (and so flame-warishly) is a sad day for me. I called this essay "The Fall of the House of Keen" and really that's what this is -- the Keenspot that rose up out of the Big Panda debacle, the Keenspot that helped redefine what it meant to be a comic on the web, the Keenspot that was for many years a great and accepting (if often dysfunctional) family is falling. The Spot for Comics is closing up shop. Something new will follow, with the Keenspot name and possibly the Keenspot logo, but it won't be Keenspot the way we have always known it. The once-home of many of the most successful comics on the web -- Schlock Mercenary, It's Walky, Bobbins, Sinfest, Nukees, Real Life Comics, Greystone Inn, Basil Flint, Avalon, Exploitation Now, Queen of Wands, Life in Greytown, Count Your Sheep, College Roomies from Hell, Bruno the Bandit, Candi, The Devil's Panties, Fans, Penny and Aggie, No Need for Bushido, Two Lumps, Road Waffles, Men in Hats, Ozy and Millie, Elf Life, Elf Only In, Alice! and many more I don't mention out of a need to wrap this up but which remain a huge part of the foundation of webcomics past, current and future -- is being imploded to make room for a new building. And that should be remarked upon.
Good luck, to everyone involved on all sides of the equation.
Posted by Eric Burns-White at January 4, 2010 11:54 AM
Comment from: John Robey posted at January 4, 2010 1:08 PM
Alas, that it should come to this! But times change, and we must change with them.
Comment from: MHPayne posted at January 4, 2010 1:11 PM
In light of:
This essay and your previous one, I'll be interested in reading your comments on the new "subscription wall" over at webcomics.com. Looks like it's just a new year all around for everyone!
Comment from: Monty Ashley posted at January 4, 2010 1:22 PM
I'm not sure Bobby *can* be muzzled. Surely they'd have done that by now if they could.
I wonder if any soon-to-be-ex-spotters are planning to start a new collective named "Small Panda".
Comment from: Chris Crosby posted at January 4, 2010 6:06 PM
If anyone out there has access to a time machine, PLEASE send a copy of this article to me in early December of last year.
(It MIGHT cause a universe-destroying paradox, but more likely it will simply create an alternate universe. So no worries.)
Chris, I have a solution for you:
Kidnap Robert Khoo and force him to work for you.
Comment from: Chris Crosby posted at January 4, 2010 8:49 PM
That solution seems unrealistic, but I did subscribe to webcomics.com so that I may receive monthly Khoo wisdom. A steal for only thirty bucks a year!
Comment from: Plaid Phantom posted at January 4, 2010 10:28 PM
WOW have I been out of the webcomic world. I never thought I would be nostalgic for news of Kurtz's latest arguments or the latest webcomic drama or the newest collective or anything like that.
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