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Flattr

The people who brought us Pirate Bay -- the very best in organized intellectual property theft -- have launched a new venture. And oddly enough, this one seems... legitimate, and potentially useful.

Well, that's not fair. Pirate Bay was useful. Man, was it useful. It's just, it was useful for stealing other people's shit. So, you know. Its usefulness was counterbalanced by its venality. But I digress.

Anyway, Flattr is a new and exciting way to show your appreciation to the creators and website types who you most like. Well, it will be, when it becomes available for you to try it. Or if you're on the beta list. Of course, until you're on the beta list, you can't either use Flattr to show your appreciation or set things up so Flattr users can show their appreciation to you, but again I digress. Let me start over in a new paragraph.

Flattr is a way to show your appreciation when you like something. You see, it lets you "flatter" the users. See? It's funny! But it also stands for 'Flat Rate,' which is the key to how it works. I know this because I watched a video explaining it. (If that link doesn't work for you -- Vimeo has trouble sometimes -- you can get it on Youtube as well.) This video compares it to birthday cake. So, I'm going to reiterate everything they said here, using their own metaphor, with my own bonus snark.

It's not my fault. It was a long day and I'm sober.

Each month, you "pay a small fee," which is to say you subscribe to Flattr. That gives you access to the magic, and gives you a base pool of cash -- in their metaphor, this fee makes up your birthday cake. Mmmmm... monthly subscription birthday cake.

Then, you go out into the wide world. But you don't bring your cake with you. You leave your cake back in the display case at Flattr headquarters. However, you are given a book of coupons, each representing that cake. Those coupons are infinite in number -- I told you it was magic -- so there's no reason not to hand them out to whoever you want to. You and your coupons go about your website business, going to webcomics, blogs, movie sites, porn sites -- you name it.

Now, let's say you visit a webcomic you like. We'll call it Anime Treacle. And you enjoy Anime Treacle greatly. And you notice that there's a Flattr logo sitting on their site with a number inside it. That is a magical box provided by the Flattr people to creators and website owners on the web. The box lets people slip coupons from their magical infinite coupon book into it, and it keeps track of how many it's gotten (that's the counter). If you like what you see on the website -- let's say Anime Treacle's delighted you with their happy romp through 2004 memes today -- you tear off a coupon and slip it into the box. And you skip along your merry way.

Now, at the end of each month, the Flattr Cake Van is loaded with all the birthday cakes that people bought with their subscription fees at the top of the month. And they drive out to all the creators who have one of the little boxes sitting on their website. They empty out the boxes, count up the coupons, figure out which ones go to what cakes, slice up the cakes -- dividing each cake into the same number of pieces as there are coupons given out against that cake -- and hand the resulting slices of cake to the creators in question.

Now, you have an infinite number of coupons, so you can divide your cake up just as much as you want. If you give out ten coupons -- I'm using their examples again -- then your cake is divided up into ten slices, and the ten sites you 'flattr' will each get one tenth of the cake. Not bad! If you give out just two coupons in a month, then your cake is cut in half and each of your favorites get half a freaking cake! That's awesome! And if you give out 100 coupons, your cake is divided into 100 razor thin slices of cake, each one nearly transparent, and your lucky recipients get... paper thin wafers of cake.

Remember, the cake is money. Your subscription fee, in other words, is divided up equally by the number of 'flattrs' you give out over the course of the month. If your subscription fee is a dollar (not counting whatever Flattr takes for themselves as part of the bargain, just to make things easy), and you give out one flattr in a month, that guy gets the whole dollar. Two flattrs means 50 cents each. Ten flattrs means each person gets a dime. One hundred flattrs means each person gets a penny.

The system works -- they say -- because of an old Swedish truism, which they tell us translates into "many small streams will form a large river." The tiny slivers of cake, when all mashed together into a single amalgam of cake, will add up into a decent slab of cake -- albeit one that's mushy and compressed because of all the different frostings mixing together. Really, it'll look more like candy lasagna. If someone makes something popular, there will be thousands of tiny bits of cake, and that person gets a windfall.

They're calling it "social micropayments," which has people mentioning Scott McCloud and Penny Arcade and old arguments long since passed by. I think this is unfortunate, because not only isn't this a micropayment system, it does the concept of micropayments a disservice.

You see, the core idea behind micropayments is you cut out all the middlemen. Instead of charging $3.95 for your comic book, you charge people a quarter because you don't have to pay a distributor, an editor, marketers et al. (This is an idealized example -- I know I'm oversimplifying.) People get the same content for a quarter that they once paid four bucks for, so they're getting a tremendous deal. At the same time, the creator's getting as much or more money per transaction, and because the transactions are so cheap, lots more people buy in and you get more money! Huzzah! Cake for everyone.

It was a really neat idea, and its only real failing was it didn't work. No true system emerged that would let people easily pay micropayments, and for the most part people weren't willing to pay micropayments in the first place. Even today, they enrage some people. Trust me. I play MMOs. If you have a microtransactions store that lets people, oh, unlock a Playable Klingon on the Federation Side, that infuriates some people, because they're already paying a subscription fee, damn it! If you want to charge for new things, make the game free to play! And then there are eighty forum posts arguing both sides of the issue and calling each other unoriginal names and finally someone locks the thread.

The key to the micropayment process is simple: the creator is setting a value for his content. The consumer then plunks their quarter down and gets the content. Values are clear and set.

Flattr doesn't do this. In fact, Flattr does the opposite. With Flattr, the creator has no say in what his content is worth -- and certainly can't lock it away unless someone clicks the Flattr button. An individual flattr is given when someone actively likes what they see.

This isn't a micropayment. This is busking, pure and simple. This is a street musician sitting out on a sidewalk playing his music for free, and people toss whatever change they feel like tossing into their instrument case.

But even that breaks down, because people aren't tossing in their spare change -- they're tossing in promissary notes for indeteriminate amounts. In fact, the people tossing flattrs into the instrument case don't even know how much they're giving. They have no idea how many of these they're going to give out before the month is up. They don't have to keep track. I'm sure they're not even encouraged to keep track. And whether they give 1 flattr out a month, or 100,000, the counters on the creator's website will go up the same amount.

To complicate things more, we don't know how much a subscription is right now. (The video says it will be "a small fee.") I rather suspect we will all be able to set our own rates -- we'll make as large or small a cake as we feel comfortable doing. Some people -- richer than I -- will stick a hundred bucks into Flattr each month. Others will put a buck or two in. I'm sure there will be more of the latter than the former.

So. Some people will be stingy with their flattrs, no matter how little or much they're paying in. They're going to wait for the truly exceptional things, and then give it out. That way, at the end of the month there will be more for the really good folks. Other people will give them out absolutely willy nilly. If they have a favorite webcomic, they'll give it a flattr every day without fail, even if it's kind of weak one day. It doesn't cost anything, and the ego boost of having that counter go up will be nice, right? Others will fall in-between.

And the creator will have no idea which is which. He'll know how many people in a month liked his website enough to click the button, but he won't know how much it's worth until the Cake Van drives by at the start of the next month. Will it buy them groceries? Maybe. Maybe not.

Flattr, in other words, will take the nasty business of thinking about how much you want to donate to a site you like, and just let you donate. It will give you that warm feeling of having contributed, but there won't be any accounting (even to yourself) of just what that donation is.

That's not a revolution. And it's not "micropayments done right." It's not micropayments at all. It's the equivalent of those little doodad presents you can 'buy' and 'give' on Facebook, without even the doodads. It is bulk good will.

Will I put a Flattr icon on the site? Probably. There's no good reason not to. Will that Flattr icon take in more money than Project Wonderful ads? Probably not. Will it bother me when it doesn't go up? Yes. Will it be meaningful when it does? Maybe, and maybe not.

I suspect this will be a fad for a little while, and then it will all but die out except for hardcore users. In the end, Flattry will get creators exactly nowhere.

Okay, that pun was beneath me. Look, you try ending one of these things.

Compare-20

(From Least I Could Do! Used by permission.)

We have mentioned, long ago in a distant past that perhaps you may not remember, and perhaps you do, assuming I haven't made it up myself in my delerious Monday Morning Haze, that one of the downsides of Webcomics as they're generally implemented is the inability to revise.

Wow, does that sentence look ugly. Let me try it again.

As we've said before, Webcomics -- unlike most traditional publishing -- can't easily be revised as you go along. If you're writing a story or drawing a comic book, and you get three quarters into it and realize that you really should have had one less character and done things differently and maybe made the wisecracking sidekick a girl and perhaps set your tale in Hoboken instead of Mordor, you can always go back and do just that. In webcomics, however, you're essentially posting your rough draft as you go along, and that's it. It's released. Major revisions aren't in the cards, unless you do significant surgery.

This is especially true when you have a shift in style or tone. It's one of the things that leads to the Cerebus Syndrome attempt, and it's one of the leading causes of First and Ten: you get several months (or years) into your comic and you realize this isn't what you wanted to do at all -- less light gag-a-day, more deep storylines and character development.

Or... and this is actually really common... your style may simply change over time.

We've seen this a lot. If you look at the early days of almost any long running webcomic, the early days will have a much different, often rougher style. This makes sense. If a person draws a strip day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year they eventually find better ways to do things. Their renders get tighter. Their techniques get broader. They get more stuff in their toolbox.

Or, in the case of a strip like Least I Could Do, they just hire another artist.

So, you can have someone who is proud of his webcomic throughout -- he loves it, he thinks it's wonderful, he's excited every time he posts... and then one day he looks back to the beginning of his strip and he suddenly becomes horrified at what he sees. "Oh my God," he says. "I was such crap! If only I could go back and revise all that!"

And that's problematic, because people don't like change.

It's a truth in life. People like the past to stay the past. They want the strip to match up with their half-forgotten memories. If they need to go back and look at it, and it's not the same... well, they get uncomfortable. They want to see the old strips. They liked the old strips. And why would you ever change the old strips?

Some artists go ahead and do it anyway -- I know that David Willis has revised a bunch of his old stuff to bring a consistency of style, for example. Others just sort of shrug and laugh about it. After all, it's no big deal, right?

Until it is. And that brings us back to Least I Could Do.

There have been three different artists on Least I Could Do. The strip was started by Ryan Sohmer as the writer -- of course -- and a man name of Trevor Adams. Then Trevor Adams left and Chad Wm. (For William, I assume) Porter came in. Then Porter left and Lar de Souza came in, and here we are today.

Now, Sohmer has gone on the record that he wasn't proud of the writing in those early strips -- fair enough. It's not just art style that evolves over time, after all. But what's unspoken is... well....

Look, I'm a terrible artist. I'm the worst artist in the world. I'm Antidextrous -- I can't write (or especially draw) with either hand. I have no basis to cast aspersions on another person's art. And Trevor Adams is a significantly better artist than I am.

But being significantly better than me isn't anywhere near enough to be good. And Trevor Adams just wasn't very good.

I mean, it's not horrible art by any stretch. It's kind of a fun anarchic style. And there are those who like it quite a bit -- and, like many webcartoonists, Adams improved by leaps and bounds. By the time color came into the strip, he was solid and getting moreso. But when Trevor Adams left and Chad Porter came in, the strip improved by an order of magnitude, and it all came back to art.

But, this was part of the history of the strip. This was part of the past. Events in those early strips still have impact today. And people like the past.

The problem is, Sohmer and Blind Ferret wanted to do a print collection. And regardless of one's opinions of the art as art, as graphics files they were simply unprintable. We're talking low resolution gifs in black and white here. Sohmer's print collections are top notch in quality, on good paper and with great production values. Putting a 72 d.p.i. GIF in that... would not be a kindness to the strip, the consumers, or Ryan Sohmer.

It is, in one real sense, the same issue that the owners of the original Star Trek had to deal with when Blu-Ray came out.... and the same issue that George Lucas had to confront when DVD came out before that. In both cases, Star Wars and Star Trek: The Original Series, the writing was excellent but the state of special effects had advanced so much both projects looked cheesy, dated and fake.

Lucas chose a broad revisionist course. The Special Editions, he announced, would be what he had always envisioned Star Wars to be, now that special effects had improved to the point that "his vision" could be created. The problem is, he didn't simply revise the look of things, he revised the substance. He made editorial decisions. He added whole sections. He changed sequences to match what he thought was appropriate in the 90's, even when they conflicted with what he decided in the 70's.

It was a monumental success, but it also made a lot of people angry. Han did shoot first, damn it. Just because Lucas decided that Han as a bastard who became a lovable rogue didn't match up with his current vision of Han as a lovable rogue who just became more lovable didn't take away peoples' memories, and the change meant they focused less on the movie as an improvement and more on how it "desecrated" the movie.

Never mess with a geek's childhood, man. He will cut you.

Star Trek, on the other hand, tried very hard when they did all-new special effects to seat those effects into the original story, rather than revising the original story. Sure, the grey backdrops became digital matte paintings and the Gorn blinked -- but the Gorn did the same stuff he did before and the backdrops did nothing more than add more eye candy. Kirk stayed the same. Sure, they put in new music, but the new music was based on the original compositions, so the musical cues remained the same. It was far less an attempt to update the original series of Star Trek, and more an attempt to make the original series look acceptable in Blu-Ray.

And it was the right choice to make. To be honest, if I look at the originals of Star Wars and the Special Editions of Star Wars today, they both look pretty cheesy. We've come so far since the Special Editions came out that now they look just as bad and dated as they did before, which means all that's left is comparing the two cuts of the movie -- and the 70's version of Star Wars is a better cut than the 90's version. (Return of the Jedi's 90's version is, admittedly, a better cut than the 80's version, but that may have to do with Ewoks singing). And Family Guy's shot-by-shot parodies are fantastic, but I digress.

So, enter Lar de Souza, and LICD: Black and White. This is a new print collection of strips, all of which are being redrawn by current artist de Souza, in the current style of the strip, but working hard to reflect the characters as they were then. And the question is, did they go with Star Wars and George Lucas, or did they go with Star Trek and the remasters.

Sort of neither, sort of both.

The strips -- as you can see by the comparison above (you can't click to a larger version because that's the size of the original -- M. Sohmer was kind enough to let me reproduce it full size for these purposes) -- are radically different. They are not higher resolution retraces of Adams's version of the characters. They are not the old strips with increased details. They are Lar de Souza drawing these strips, using his interpretation of the characters, albeit with echoes of the original hairstyles and other things.

At the same time, the writing is (apparently) not changing. The same things are happening. The same choices are being made. Even where the characters don't ring necessarily true to who they become (Rayne, for example, failed sometimes. And didn't know everything. Or is that catty of me?) they're not changing them.

And, more to the point, the original Trevor Adams versions are staying up on the web. Right now, they haven't decided whether or not to put de Souza's art up alongside it, but I suspect this will be a print-only thing for at least a good long while. Which makes good economic sense... and even better sense in terms of keeping people happy by not radically changing the past.

It's an exciting way to do things, and I hope it is successful for them. I'm curious enough that I plan to buy a copy, and I suspect I'm not the only one.

Now, if I could just talk Wednesday into redrawing Unfettered By Talent for me...

The Curse of Webcomics.com

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Webcomics.comYou would think the name alone would have made it a slam dunk.

Seriously. "Webcomics.com." If there is such a thing as webcomics, surely webcomics.com would be the immediate one-stop location of choice for them. It would by definition be one of the top sites on webcomics or one of the top sites of webcomics or both.

And yet... it's never really been successful. Not really. Not outside of a niche.

It has been, in its time, a webcomics host, a webcomics collective, a webcomics portal, a webcomics commentary site, and a 'how to make comics for the web' site. It experimented with push technology and with podcast technology when they were hot. Doctor Fun had a home there. T Campbell and Alexander Danner had a home there. Most recently, Brad Guigar and the Halfpixel fighting force four had a home there.

Through it all -- through every iteration -- even if the content was good, it just never really broke out into the mainstream. It never became self-sustaining. It never became a must-go site. And that just seems weird to me.

The latest iteration of the site has now had the latest iteration of the curse hit it. Brad Guigar, the Editor in Chief of Webcomics.com (currently a site supporting the Halfpixel model of webcomics creation as popularized in their book How to Make Webcomics) has announced that effective immediately the site is going behind a paywall.

A paywall.

In a startling move from 2004, Guigar has locked his content behind a login you have to shell out thirty bucks a year to unlock, in an effort to make the site profitable -- or at least profitable enough to justify the time and energy Guigar's putting into it.

Now, all by itself this would not be a major deal. Websites do this sort of thing all the time. Admittedly, after they do this sort of thing their readerships drop precipitously, but still. It's a common enough reaction. However, this is Halfpixel -- the home not only of Guigar but the familiar names Straub and Kurtz. (And Dave Kellett, but he's not specifically a part of this comment.) And two of the loudest voices decrying the very existence of paywalls and subscription models and pay-to-view on the web have been Straub and Kurtz.

Do I think they're hypocrites? No. They see a distinction and they're pretty firm about it. But a lot of people are reacting as though they were -- and fair or not, the whole thing puts the very model that they espouse in their book and on webcomics.com itself -- the idea that free content can pay rich dividends -- into doubt. "If these guys know what they're talking about," goes the thinking, "why do I have to pay to get on their website?"

Now, Guigar has been quick to point out an essential difference between putting a webcomic like Evil Inc. behind a paywall versus a site like webcomics.com: the former is entertainment. The latter is reference. It's the difference between a momentary distraction on the way to the grave and information. People who are serious about becoming webcartoonists will shell the money out because of all the valuable information the site has to give (or so they hope). And someone who won't spend thirty dollars -- just thirty dollars -- to get solid advice and have a place to turn as they try to build their business clearly isn't serious about being a professional.

It is a compelling argument.

It's also wrong.

To be blunt -- if a website isn't a store or providing a service, it's entertainment. People went back to webcomics.com day after day because they wanted the information that was there, yes, but mostly because they were entertained by the articles. People listen to NPR to be informed, but also because they find it entertaining. People read CNN to be informed but also because they find it entertaining. All of these things fall into the "momentary distraction" category. The exceptions, like I said, are sites like Amazon.com where you buy shit, or sites like eBay or eTrade or your bank, where you perform services. Even a site like WebMD -- which built its reputation on pure information -- has "health news and features" to bring people back and add new vectors for Google to come in. Certainly, a site like Webcomics.com -- which is, after all, a daily blog at its heart -- is running as much on its style as on its substance. Brad Guigar doesn't just provide how-tos, he does it in a well written and concise style, and people come back day after day for the community that forms as a result.

And at its core, that means Webcomics.com is not a service. Not in its current iteration, anyway. You don't go there to upload your comic and have it publish. You go there to get information from knowledgeable people whose writing is fun and engaging. Is it a much, much smaller niche audience than, say, Evil Inc. or PvP? Absolutely. But it is an audience all the same, and so the distinction between it and a webcomic isn't nearly as clear cut as they're claiming.

Further, in what seems just the tiniest bit skeevy, a good amount of the content on the site (especially recently) came from third party writers. Long time friend of Websnark Abby L. was one of them. They apparently got no warning this was happening. There is no word on whether or not they will be compensated for their work. I do know that Abby was absolutely thrilled to have been published there, was shocked that suddenly her work would be locked behind a paywall (making it significantly harder to use either for her resume or to point people to it in general), and disheartened at what felt like a a slight. She posted comments in the announcement to that effect. Guigar, to his credit, was willing to take her content off the site, and since has marked all the third party essays as hidden until the individual writers can decide if they want them to remain, but that's something that should have been dealt with well in advance of making this move.

But then, part of what's upset folks is the utter lack of notice given for this move. Now, Guigar and Kurtz have explained their thinking on this -- they made their decision, they knew people were going to react this way regardless, and in Guigar's own words:

[It's] the difference between pulling a Band-Aid off slowly or quickly. This decision was made with the respect for my readers at the front of my mind.

However, shocking people who've grown accustomed to visiting your site isn't a good way to foster goodwill for a new project that opens with a thirty dollar payout -- especially on a site like this, whose bread and butter is information. At least one person (who called himself "Guy") had this reaction:

Um. I literally just stumbled on this website yesterday. There was a tutorial on setting up Wordpress.

Came back today to check it again only there was this login... only I couldn't log in. And there was a threat saying that if I continued to try and log in, I'd be locked out forever.

I checked the front page only to find that it was a subscription site now. Ok. Well thank god Google saves the entire internet and I could get the tutorial anyway.

Remember the Google thing. It'll come up again momentarily.

Further again, the potential influence this site can have on the industry has just dropped precipitously. When major posts went up, they could be linked to easily on everything from blogs to Facebook to Twitter. Now, those links will lead to a request for $30 -- and no one who follows the link is going to think "hey, $30 for a year of webcomics.com seems fair! That's just two-fifty a month! I spend more than that on lattes!" They're going to think "oh the Hell I'm going to pay thirty bucks to read some essay on distribution" and close the site.

Or, someone who is deeply inspired by something he reads on Webcomics.com will take it and copy/paste it onto his own blog (or some anonymous blogger site he makes for the purpose) so he can point people to it there. And other folks will copy/paste articles sheerly because they find paywalls offensive and figure Guigar won't have the money to sue over it. Or they will do it because they've always thought Scott Kurtz was a blowhard and now that he's not "practicing what he preaches" he's fair game. Or they will do it because they're dicks.

Am I exaggerating? Hey, we've already had one example (quoted above) of someone who hit the Google cache to get the information he wanted rather than pay the entrance fee. This is how this stuff works sometimes. Please note, however: I am not advocating piracy here. If Guigar and the gang want to put their content behind a paywall, that is their right and I support their decision even if I do not agree with it. I just think that stuff's going to get out, either innocently or maliciously.

Since I'm making predictions, here's another one. Inside of two weeks, someone will have put up a site that breaks down all the steps one needs to take to put their webcomic online, under cheerful banners like "the best FREE resource for the aspiring webcartoonist" and "common sense doesn't have a subscription fee."

So, the question becomes -- what will webcomics.com need to be successful at this? Especially since very few content based websites that use subscription models have been successful, and this is more of a niche market than most.

In a word? Testimonials.

Webcomics.com needs to start gathering the names of people who went from 0 to supporting themselves off their webcomic largely if not entirely using the advice from webcomics.com and How to Make Webcomics. Especially if they're going to go down the dubious route of equating paying for webcomics.com as the difference between the serious professional and the amateur hobbyist -- a claim that is ridiculous when one considers that most if not all of the webcartoonists who make their living off their work right now (and there are many) have done so without their book or website. Certainly, no one's going to claim Jeph Jacques, Randy Milholland, Ryan Sohmer, Gabe and Tycho (admittedly two of the money-men behind Webcomics.com in the first place) or all the rest needed the site to be professionals. If Guigar et al are going to convince people that they're a resource indispensable enough to justify dropping thirty bucks, all in one go, they're going to have to prove that what they're selling works, and the only proof can come from webcartoonists who aren't affiliated with Halfpixel saying "seriously, dude, these guys know their stuff. Drop the change in the till right now."

And... well, let's be honest. Positioning yourselves as the acid test for how 'serious' someone is about producing their webcomic and being successful has a chilling effect. Do I think Guigar meant to offend when he said:

Why $30 per year? It's an inexpensive buy-in that almost any webcartoonist can afford. It has an added benefit of keeping out people who may not be as serious about webcomics. It naturally weeds out comments from people who may be passing through, and results in distilling comments to those from people who are committed to improving their comics.

Absolutely not. Guigar doesn't have a mean bone in his body. But Scott Story of Johnny Saturn took it differently (from the comments):

Well, it's interesting to find out I "may not be as serious about webcomics." After endless hours of producing my comic, after all the advertisement, after making it available on Wowio, Drivethru, ComicXP, iTunes, and in print from Amazon.com and Indyplanet/Comics Monkey, I'm stunned! I spent all those hours of my life working toward a goal that apparently I am not really committed to. Later this year, when my comic will also be available on numerous handheld devices besides the iPhone, I realize again that I've put all this work into something that I didn't care about.

I'm sure the above statement about the seriousness of webcartoonists based on their willingness to part with 30.00 was not intended to offend or alienate. But, this definitely bruises my feelings and makes me feel different about the whole thing.

Is this a common reaction? Well, it's worth noting that when Wednesday -- a person who really likes Straub and Kurtz and respects Guigar and Kellett, though she hasn't had as much contact with them -- read the announcement and the comments and looked at the site, her immediate response was "oh great. A site on the internet where a bunch of bearded men give themselves the authority to declare an artist professional or amateur, with no possible alternatives. Because we've never seen that."

(Full disclosure. Scott Kurtz does not have a beard. Second full disclosure, I do. In fact, it's currently past "Grizzly Adams" and is threatening a move straight into "Ted Kaczynski." But I digress.)

Also, why are they charging $30 a year instead of $2.50 a month. $2.50 a month seems like nothing. $30 a year doesn't feel like a cheap yearly payment, it feels like thirty freaking dollars to be allowed onto your damn website. In fact, I'd think they'd want to do a "$3 a month recurring subscription, or you can get a year for $30 -- a savings of 17%!" kind of deal.

Look, does Brad Guigar deserve compensation for all his hard work? Abso-freaking-lutely. Is, in fact, webcomics.com worth $30 a year? Probably. Will they get enough subscribers to give Guigar the compensation he needs to continue? Maybe. Will Webcomics.com continue to grow and develop the cross-fertilization and dedicated audience a site like this needs to remain fresh and useful?

It seems doubtful.

Right now, if I were asked by aspiring webcartoonists as to the best way to get started in making and promoting their webcomic, I would suggest they buy How to Make Webcomics. It really is a good book, full of good information. But would I suggest they subscribe to webcomics.com? Probably not. I'd think after they read the book, if they still had questions or wanted advice, that would be one potential route. But it's hardly the only potential route -- ComicSpace is loaded with helpful folks with advice, for example. And successful webcartoonists like Howard Tayler are generally not stingy with advice for aspiring new blood.

Regardless, I wish them well, and we will just have to see how well this works.

Still, given their respective histories and many, many hours of arguments behind them, I have to wonder just how long it will be before Joey Manley stops laughing about all this.

The Fall of the House of Keen

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Keenspot!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.

Sincerely,

Bob KeenManager

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.

One of the most cogent folks I know, particularly in discussions of publishing and the internet, is Adam Tinworth. I've known Adam through a number of settings, but the one most germane to the discussion is as a business journalist. He's a very, very good one. He's also a fine hand with a fencing iron, I'm given to understand, and as someone who once upon a time stumbled through his share of sabre matches I can respect that, but it's not really a factor in the discussion at hand.

Well, Adam recently blogged about content and paywalls -- touching on the current issues with his usual skill and wisdom. Certainly, the topics he addresses in terms of journalism will resonate with anyone following the somewhat tragic conflict between newspaper cartoonists and web cartoonists. It's a good read.

However, it's not Adam's post, but a comment someone made to him about it that really gets to the heart of the matter. He posted a followup that included that comment, and I've never seen the core disconnect highlighted so well. With Adam's permission, I reproduce it here:

The model you have of your consumer's behaviour is wrong, they aren't using the internet as a way of reading a newspaper, they are using the internet, some of which consists of newspaper content, its a different thing. It was bad enough having to explain this in 1999, I find it a bit surprising it still needs saying in 2009.

That's it. That's the whole shooting match in a nutshell. That's why newspapers that are coming up with new paywall schemes will lose. That's why the internet will win. In the end, the process is inexorable, because the battle is not over content. It is over convenience.

Look at the Encyclopedia Britannica versus Wikipedia. I have had harsh words for Wikipedia in the past, and I stand by them, but I'll also be honest: I use Wikipedia every day. The Britannica, on the other hand, was the encyclopedia of record for much much longer than not only I've been alive but my father's been alive. When the Britannica went CD-ROM, I bought it, and bought a copy for my sister's children. It thrilled me that for a tiny amount of money I had access to this seminal resource.

I wouldn't dream of shelling that money out today, even though I (mostly) trust the Britannica's content above Wikipedia's. The Britannica isn't convenient. I can't just link to it when I'm making references to it. I can't just search it casually from any machine without having to fumble with passwords. It takes effort.

Wikipedia is just there. It is always at hand. It is always easy to reach. And it's far more comprehensive on the kinds of minutia and trivia I really need an encyclopedia for than the Britannica could ever be. Is it a trusted source? No, not really. But it's a great launching point for an investigation if I need a trusted source, and for quick "at-hand" information it's simply unparalleled.

And as a result, several orders of magnitude more people check Wikipedia every hour than check the Britannica website every day. It's not that it's better. It's that it's convenient, when all you want to do is look something up quickly and then get back to the websurfing you were already doing.

I don't know very many people who read a newspaper cover to cover, whether online or on paper. But a lot of people read articles that are germane to them right at that moment. Articles get linked on twitter or Livejournal. Google gathers these things together and points people at them when they're interested. And news sources that accept that they're a brief stopover on one's daily web journey get far more traffic than news sources that make a person jump through hoops to get the news. Bring money into the equation, and suddenly that readership drops by another order of magnitude or two. Robert Murdoch and those like him may assert the value of their goods, and equally assert that content must be paid for, but the only thing they can possibly do is make their content irrelevant to the broader world that's coming.

Let me repeat that.

The only thing paywalls or other direct monetization can do for newspapers or any other topical content is make it irrelevant to the world of the internet age.

Let us say that Murdoch succeeds at making his newspapers secure against Google aggregation and other such things. What happens in that scenario? What does basic capitalism tell us happens in a situation like that? Simply put, someone else develops a product that fills the niche no longer being filled. Some other journalistic organization will step up, develop a model around online advertising or some other thing we haven't even heard of yet, and happily reap the benefits. And let us be crystal clear: that organization might have demonstrably inferior news coverage, and it will not matter. Just like Wikipedia and the Britannica, the convenient Internet stop will trump the more prestigious but less convenient news source.

Let me repeat that.

An inferior news source that is easy to reach and consume on the internet will trump superior news sources that are even slightly harder to reach. Every time.

This is true whether we're talking about the Wall Street Journal or Hi and Lois comic strips -- people are going to gravitate to those things that fit the activities they're already doing. If two newspaper articles -- or comic strips -- are equally available to the online reading public, then the relative merits of one versus the other will determine ultimate popularity. If one article -- or comic -- is freely accessible and the other one requires cumbersome registration or, worse yet, a paid subscription, then the freely accessible one will have monumentally more readers than the other, regardless of their relative quality.

People don't go to the Internet to read The New York Times (with rare exceptions). People go to the Internet, see a reference to a breaking news story, and hit The New York Times for the straight story about it. If the Times isn't available to be read, they won't pay a subscription to read it -- they'll go to the Washington Post, or the Chicago Tribune, or the Miami Herald, or wherever is most convenient. And they will go to news.google.com to get the pointer in question. All that putting a given paper behind a paywall will accomplish is a rerouting of that traffic to the free content available.

Until the day Publishers understand this basic principle, said so well above and expanded upon so clumsily by me, we will continue to have ridiculous wars between print and Internet journalists, cartoonists and all the rest. Those institutions that can innovate, monetize and produce will do okay in the emerging era. Those who can't will become smaller, niche organizations that ultimately will disappear or be consumed by their more successful brethren. If you don't believe me, ask the folks at the Britannica, which has been sold, split apart, rebranded, and retooled any number of times in an increasingly desperate attempt to remain in profit.

Or, if that's not enough, ask the folks at Microsoft Encarta. If, that is, you can get anyone to answer the phone -- which is unlikely, since they closed down entirely in October of this year -- all except the Japanese version, which closes on the last day of December this year.

I know this, for the record, because I read it on Wikipedia.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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