Much like newspapers and magazines, comics have made the jump to digital. The leap has been just as precarious.
The business side of the comics business is something that doesn’t get discussed nearly as much as it should and that can cause some stumbling blocks — particularly for creators striking out on their own. Discovery is a huge problem, even moreso than in the traditional world of prose books. The e-book side of things is a real wild West with multiple formats, some proprietary, competing for reader adoption and inconsistent discounts across the various vendors.
It’s also little more complicated since digital comics come in two flavors:
- Webcomics are the descendants of the newspaper strip and while they don’t always take the exact same format as what you’d find in your print newspaper, they’re generally freely viewed on websites and tend to make their money off advertising and merchandise.
- Comic books and graphic novels gravitate toward e-books and digital downloads, preferring paid transactions up front. Yes, this is the equivalent of the newspaper paywall.
On top of things getting a little complicated and matters often discussed mainly behind closed doors, the digital side of the business is still young. Webcomics date back to the 1993’s “Doctor Fun.” The comic book e-books and digital downloads as we currently know them started with companies like Comixology and iVerse around 2008, although .PDF sales can be traced back to 2001.
Here are the top 8 tips for treating your digital comic like a business.
1. Gather a contact list for your audience.
It can be email, social media or both, but you need to be able to alert your audience when a new comic or piece of merchandise comes out. This may be even more important for e-books and digital downloads than it is for a regularly updating webcomic. It’s also extremely useful for crowdfunding. (We’ll get to that further down the list.)
2. Webcomics are easier than e-books for audience building
It’s a whole lot easier to build an audience and that contact list with a webcomic than with e-books. Not only does the audience normally have to buy an e-book, if they buy it through a third part service like Amazon, you’re not getting the contact information. A free-to-view webcomic is something anyone can read, provided you’re able to get their attention.
3. Be patient
While there’s always an exception to prove the rule, most cartoonists take 1-3 years to start seeing meaningful income on a webcomic. With e-books, there haven’t been enough independent breakout hits to put a timetable on it, particularly with creators new to comics. Still, most business aren’t swimming in black ink the first year and digital comics are a business.
4. Print helps
E-books and digital downloads are hugely influenced by print publishers and the “direct market” of comic book retailers. Everyone from Amazon and their Comixology unit to Google tends to group comics by publisher in ways you don’t see with prose books. This has proved to be an obstacle for discovery of independent creators. The vast majority of digital editions of print comics sell in proportion to the print edition. Few titles are more popular in digital than print.
5. Digital comics in general and webcomics in particular tend to be extremely de-centralized.
Print comics have a news infrastructure online and digital editions from the print publishers will get some regular attention. There really isn’t a go-to news source for webcomics or independent digital downloads unless the creators have a background in print. The comics news sites will somewhat irregularly run webcomics news, but it’s just as likely to appear at a comics friendly site like io9 or BoingBoing. This makes marketing for digital challenging and underscores why a contact list can be a cartoonist’s best friend.
6. Crowdfunding can help
Crowdfunding is a relatively new development and there are two ways it can help. The more traditional “project-based” crowdfunding as typified by Kickstarter usually takes the form of a book. Most often the collected print edition of comic (although digital copies are also usually offered as a reward) or occasionally an original work. It’s not wrong to think of this type of crowdfunding as pre-sales with some exclusive items to upsell the more dedicated fans. This type of crowdfunding works much better with an existing fanbase to point at it, although a modest goal might be manufactured through promotion. There are those who would say a webcomic running a Kickstart for the first book is a rite of passage, but that might be overstating it. It’s definitely a goal that can be built toward. The second type of crowdfunding is ongoing patronage, as typified by Patreon. Patreon lets fan pledge a certain amount money, say a dollar, each month or each time a comic is posted. In some cases, higher pledges gain some exclusives and more access to the cartoonist. SMBC is the unofficial mascot of Patreon for webcomics and is over $8,700/mo as of this writing. It isn’t clear how well starting up a Patreon before an audience is in place will work out in the long term. It’s been a viable option for webcomics with existing audiences, though.
7. Webcomics vs. e-books
Webcomics and the e-book/digital downloads take different paths toward the same goals. After a certain amount of content is produced, both formats will often look for a print edition. Webcomics are increasingly offering e-book collections, though they seem a bit reluctant to give up the discounts asked by the online bookstores and prefer to sell it on their own.
8. Watch the format war
There’s a format war going on for those e-books and it’s worse than ePub vs. Kindle. The most popular digital format for comics is the .CBR/.CBZ format developed for pirating comics. It’s occasionally sold commercially, but hasn’t really caught on as a paid option. Likewise, PDF has been around forever and is perhaps best known as a DRM-free backup plan. Fixed Width ePub3 files are a possible solution, but e-reader support still isn’t uniform. Most comics apps have their own proprietary format, with Amazon scheduled to integrate Comixology’s format into Kindle. There is no standard format for comics like .mp3 is for music and that’s a problem that cartoonists and readers of comics need to keep an eye on as a developing situation.
Why it’s worth it
It’s not a quick path and digital publishing presents many more choices to be made than sending a print comic into the comic book shops or submitting a strip to a syndicate, but an increasing number of cartoonists are finding success in the digital world outside of traditional channels and editorial mandates. The webcomics format has produced far more creators earning a living, but it’s also been around 15 years longer than the eBook versions in their current forms and distribution modes.
Todd Allen is an interactive media consultant and the author of Economics of Digital Comics. He covers the comics industry for Publishers Weekly and is a contributing editor to The Beat, one of Time’s Top 25 Blogs of 2012. He spent five years teaching eBusiness in the Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department of Columbia College Chicago. Follow Todd @Real_Todd_Allen.