What Newspaper Cartoonists Can Learn from Web Comics

    by Simon Owens
    September 30, 2009
    Web comic author Randall Munroe sells books, buttons and clothing at his own web store.

    Earlier this month, Randall Munroe, creator of the hugely popular web comic xkcd, announced on his blog that he would be publishing a book collection of the strip. Given the number of six-figure book deals that major book publishers have thrust upon popular bloggers, there’s little doubt that Munroe’s millions of monthly readers could have easily garnered him a similar signing. But he chose to publish his book through BreadPig, a company set up by Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian. The book is available in xkcd’s store, where the artist has been selling T-shirts and other merchandise for years. Munroe wrote that the work might “possibly” appear in bookstores.

    i-cfea1715a8beb5167018d4e66193062b-randall munroe.JPG

    The fact that Munroe considers traditional brick-and-mortar book stores to be an afterthought sheds light on the entrepreneurial nature of online web comics creators. (Munroe did not respond to an interview request for this article). According to a list compiled on Wikipedia, there are at least 40 self-sufficient web comics that are “known to produce the primary income of their artists and/or writers.”

    Newspapers and comics syndicates are definitely the old technology...They're going to be replaced by something." - Howard Tayler

    Back in June, political cartoonist Daryl Cagle published a blog post about the annual Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convention.


    “In recent years, the convention has had the flavor of a wake, as cartoonists mourn the loss of full-time newspaper positions,” he wrote. “Many newspapers used to cover the cost of their employee/cartoonists attending the long, four-day AAEC convention and now cartoonists have to find a way to cover the cost on their own.”

    Cagle noted that many newspapers are shedding their full-time cartoonists, forcing many of these artists to become freelancers. With the industry in decline, what can newspaper cartoonists learn from these entrepreneurial web cartoonists? How are these self-sustaining artists making a living and why are they choosing to forgo traditional publishing outlets to deliver content to fans?

    Comics for free, merchandise for sale

    Richard Stevens created the web comic Diesel Sweeties in 2000. Depicting a world where humans and robots co-exist — often romantically — the individual strips are largely self-contained and have a number of recurring characters. The comic was picked up for newspaper syndication in early 2007, but in 2008 Stevens went back to the web-only version. He told me that today his site receives about 30,000 readers a day. Of those, he said, he really only needs to find about one or two percent of his fan base to support him financially.


    “I know in mass media terms our numbers aren’t that big, but because we’re so close to the ground we have a closer relationship to [our audience],” he said. “So I think if you’re in my bracket up to Randall [Munroe’s] bracket [in terms of readership], I would say one or two percent are really going to support you.”

    i-5a751e7cefd34d6fb3b32abbe598d9ac-diesel sweeties.jpg

    Like others I interviewed for this piece, Stevens makes most his money through selling merchandise, most notably T-shirts. He operates his business out of his home, purchasing the shirts in bulk and selling them on his website. In that sense, the web comic is a kind of loss leader (though one person I spoke to disliked that term) for the print product. It gathers fans that can be turned into paying customers.

    Surprisingly, however, many web comic artists don’t simply transfer their comics to the T-shirt. Though classic strips like The Far Side have done well in T-shirt form, several web artists create special, separate content for their merchandise.

    “I might do a comic of eight panels of people digressing,” Stevens said. “It wouldn’t work on a shirt very well…Sometimes, if I get a lot of reader responses, I’ll try to transfer a line from the comic into a shirt, but mostly I make the T-shirts for myself. And gleaning evidence from the message boards, from Facebook, from having conversations 24/7 with my fans, I can get a sense of what will sell.”

    From middle management to we cartoonist

    Howard Tayler was making a six-figure salary as a middle marketing manager when he decided to quit his job to work on his web comic, Schlock Mercenary, full time. The move came when the comic was losing money, leaving him in a sink-or-swim situation.

    i-e2b22c034047a328ae4dea90dbfcee43-schlock mercenary.jpg

    “So I quit the day job and then frantically and desperately over the period of the next 15 months applied everything I knew about business and marketing and the Internet, all that stuff, to finding a way to monetize what I had,” he told me. “And what I had was a captive audience.”

    Tayler differs from many web cartoonists because he makes most of his money selling book collections of his comics. Since 2006 he’s released five books — with a sixth on the way — and he said that his family takes in about $30,000 per book. He orders print runs of about 5,000 titles; he says that at this print run he can get them for almost the same price as a major New York publisher, ensuring a high profit margin even if he sells them wholesale. His wife helps with the business side, taking care of invoices and shipping.

    Though most of his money comes from books, he also has gone the more traditional merchandising route by selling T-shirts, buttons, and even digital-only PDFs of his work. (Sometimes he uses these products to help raise money for charitable causes). He also sells special edition books that include original sketches, an idea that turned out to be a particularly profitable moment of inspiration. But would he forgo all this for a traditional publisher if one came along?

    “If I had the opportunity to sell my books to a large publisher, I’d probably jump on it,” he said. “The way we’re doing it, the business is kind of taking over the whole house. My wife is the production manager, she’s our chief of operations; when we ship out books for a pre-order, she spends a month collating receipts, invoices, sorting postage. We printed $40,000 worth of postage this year, and all that’s a lot of work. I’d much rather just be a cartoonist, and if that opportunity presented itself, if a publisher came to me and said, ‘Hey we’ll sell your books, and we’ll sell 250,000 of them,’ then I’m still making a living so I won’t complain.”

    I asked Tayler about newspaper woes and whether his breed of content monetization would be a viable model for comic strip artists. He said that before he quit his day job he studied “disruptive technologies,” where profitable businesses meet new models that slowly chip away at their profit margins until suddenly they upend the entire model.

    “You’ll see it’s happened with everything from sailing ships versus steam ships, automobile versus horse and buggy,” he said. “It happened five times with the disk drive alone, where new technologies have undercut the old technologies. I look at that pattern and I look at what’s happening now, and I know two things. One, newspapers and comics syndicates are definitely the old technology, the old business model. They were at their most profitable 15 years ago, and they’re dying. They’re going to be replaced by something.

    “The other thing I know,” he continued, “is the thing that replaces them, whatever it is now, is not meeting the needs of the current newspaper customers. They’re going to look at what comes next and say this isn’t what I wanted, I long for the good old days. But 20 years from now, we’ll all be better off, and whatever comes along to replace newspapers will finally have been able to do whatever the newspapers do and then some. Whether that’s me, guys doing what I do, or someone who replaces me in the interim, I don’t know… Newspapers are dying, and the syndication model is dying, and something better is going to come along to replace it.”

    Simon Owens is a social media consultant and associate editor for MediaShift. For more about him read his blog or contact him at [email protected]

    Tagged: cartoonists comics newspapers randall munroe syndication web comics xkcd
    • I had an “ah-ha” moment during this interview with Simon. He referred to me as an “entrepreneurial journalist,” which I assume means blogger.

      I blog, but I think the entrepreneurial journalist term doesn’t apply to my cartooning. It assumes the continued marriage of comic strips to news, and that’s a connection that the web has broken.

      If syndicated cartoonists are to learn anything from web cartoonists, it’s that on the web you have to own your own audience. The newspaper isn’t going to let you walk away with theirs, and the syndicate doesn’t have an audience.

      If syndicates learn anything from webcartoonists it’s that the newspaper editors own their audience right now. If the syndicates want to have value on the web, they need to change that.

    • Did not talk to THE leading online cartoonist and champion of webcomics, Scott Kurtz.

      Article FAIL.

    • twinkertot

      chas_m: They also didn’t interview Pete Abrams, who’s been writing Sluggy Freelance and making a living at webcomics for longer than just about anybody. Or Rich Burlew, who managed to turn Order of the Stick into not just a paying day job but also sufficient reputation to do writing work for Wizards of the Coast. Or Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, who have built Penny Arcade into not just a set of day jobs but also one of the largest gaming conventions in the United States, regular art work for Blizzard, and the Child’s Play charity which raises six figures a year for children’s hospitals.

      It’s a journalism piece, not a comprehensive academic literature review. (Or, for that matter, a publicity vehicle for Your Favorite Web Cartoonist.) If the reporter can communicate his point and make the audience think, he shouldn’t feel obliged to chase down other sources just to pad the wordcount. In this case, I think Simon did a good job.

    • Corporal Oleo

      Kurtz being ‘the’ leading webcartoonist is at best a subjective judgment (by what measures/metrics do you arrive at that conclusion?) and petulant fanboyishness at worst. The previous ‘fail’ comment is a clear example of the latter, and an undeserved slam on Tayler, who generously gives his time and effort to his peers as well as his fans. I suggest he has as much claim to the title of ‘the’ leading webcartoonist, if not more so, than Kurtz. Thing is, Tayler (quite smartly) isn’t interested in juvenile ‘mine-is-bigger-than-yours’ comparisons like that. He invests that energy increasing the size of the pie for everyone wanting to participate in the comics arena.

    • chas_m, there are lots of web artists I didn’t interview for this piece. I don’t understand your argument

    • Scott Kurtz, much like the other web artists that he used to be (still are?) in a collective with, were big proponents of Kevin Kelly’s “1000 True Fans” theory, so if Simon Owens wanted to go that route, he would’ve been better served interviewing Kevin, not Scott.

      But he wasn’t going that route. This article isn’t about what strategies webcomics use, it was about whether newpaper comic artist should learn from said strategies. And I think Howard Taylor’s comments to this affect were quite relevant.

    • I’m not a fan of ‘loss leader’ either – to say that xkcd is a loss leader so that Randall Munroe can sell t-shirts is like saying that NPR exists as a loss leader for This American Life DVDs. It might look that way on purely financial grounds, but it’s rather missing the point.

    • Don’t feed the troll, guys.

      Also, yes, the article was rad, I’ve been following the quarrel between newspaper cartoonists and web cartoonists for a while now, and I personally believe the web model, either the one that exists now or a new web-centric model, will eventually replace the print business model.

      Although it is a little distressing for those of us trying to break into the webcomics scene that there are only “at least 40” self-sustained webcomics, considering there are at least infinity webcomics out there in the depths of the net. Maybe it’s just an indication that a modified web-based model needs to be experimented with.

    • So, is there anything good on these web-toon sites?

    • Kathleen Berns

      I find web-toon sites are much more entertaining than that of the traditional print media cartoonists. I find when I read a good cartoon I generally want to see more from that artist and through the web it it so much easer to follow certain cartoonists work and of course discover new artists.

    • Good article. Fails to emphasize more on how an artist can separately market giftware and what is needed in order to get that part of one’s marketing plan launched (aside from web comic itself). Some of the biggest syndicated catoonists have very low quality web sites and with all due respect, I won’t mentioned those artists but if you hunt them out….you will understand. As the so called “evolution” of the web progresses, it will be interesting to see what comes of graphics oriented offerings (photography, clip art etc.) Thanks for the article though.

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »

    Follow us on Social Media