Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

April 7, 2009

Another Essay On Monetizing Webcomics

I intensely disliked this essay from Todd Allen on monetizing webcomics. It presumes or asserts a lot of things that I think aren't true. I could hash some of those out, but I'm not sure that should be up to me. I'd suggest the bigger danger in the piece is that it just sort of failes to meet what should be the minimum standard of expectations for such articles at this point in the on-line comic's development. Jeremiads about a coming storm may have worked in 2002, but today's essays demand specifics. If you're suggesting a whole new model for players to endorse based on a current model or series of same, shouldn't there be some figures available about who is making money, how many of these people there are, and how they're doing it? Without specifics, what we get is less of a cogent argument and more of a late-night rant at the hotel bar. I think we may be better off with a full night's sleep.

The reason numbers are important is that we're talking about a potential shift in terms of overall business strategy, or at least the inclusion of a entire new set of revenue streams. Choices made might limit and define the next round of choices. Anecdotal evidence of a few people doing well or assurances that a few more are doing better than they used to? That just doesn't cut it, not for the degree of change asserted as necessary, and not for the chasm of need for new models to try and new thinking to apply. Enough broadly-defined success stories to fill a Reader's Digest story will never be a convincing fulcrum for paradigm change.

That doesn't mean that each individual story isn't wonderful, and that the growing viability of certain options isn't terrific. I'm all for all of it. I make a living on-line, too. I'm delighted when other people use a similar opportunity as the cornerstone of an effective business model. But asserting anything as inevitable, let alone an epochal shift, just seems to me to miss the point. I was also making a living on-line in the last couple of years of the last decade when we were told that the models paying us at that time would be the dominant ones sooner rather than later, that there was no turning back, and that we were going to see an extinction event for other ways before the first Bush mid-terms. It didn't happen.

I guess I don't see the need for -- or wisdom of -- either/or arguments. Not anymore. Print's in trouble and there are opportunities online. That's been a story for 12 years now. I'm not convinced anyone needs to argue it ever again. Every single publisher of comics I know thinks about how to best utilize the on-line avenues available to them. Most of them have since the late 1990s. A few folks in that business were thinking about it before that. So do cartoonists who currently derive a significant amount of income from potentially endangered revenue models. Heck, my mom's friends ask after making money on-line.

I want better arguments. I've always found it odd to criticize people who make millions and millions and millions of dollars year-in and year-out for how they manage the overall bottom line based on a small, cherry-picked sample and a lot of portentous language about the future. Let's face it: If you get to name as your side all the strategies that have worked for webcomics people no matter how small the sample or how many people it's failed or how many crappy strategies there have been against an industry you get to define in terms of the most egregious future potential failure of which you can conceive, you're going to win that argument every time, in every business.

What the rise of on-line revenue models should teach us isn't a certainty in one way over the other but a lesson in the capriciousness of all revenue models. The sustained howl wrapping itself around some publishing enterprises as they crash and burn isn't necessarily a wail that other revenue streams where neglected. It could just as well be the shudder of a sobering realization concerning how those enterprises were taken for granted and abused to the point they became unsuccessful. It could be a lot of things. For me it's an eye-opening series of moments where we learn that certain revenue models were never as sturdy as anyone thought. I believe a clear vision of the landscape five years from now is still very much in flux. Current models in vogue may develop a downside or a limitation we haven't seen yet. New models are almost certain to emerge. Allen's essay allows that something as rudimentary and as still relatively untested as Warren Ellis' framework for presenting his Freakangels alters the conversation. That's not a world where all the animals have been named. Even in the much more stable general footing of years past, comics makers would rifle through a half-dozen primary revenue models and are still looking for more. I think we should support them all and consider the idea that things may never settle down, that the new way of doing things is new ways of doing things.

If webcomics advocates are going to insist to fight this supposed battle for hearts and minds where a little less shoe-smacking on the podum would likely reveal everyone agrees with them and is paying just as much attention as they are, they should at least have the good sense to go house to house, and nail down some specific figures and some specific numbers and some specific models. Maybe that group of doing comics will win and set a new standard for the next 40 years, maybe it's a series of new models to join the old ones, all of which have a chance to blink in and out of existence in six months' time. Either way, I think we'd have a better foundation than we do right now, a better dialogue.
posted 8:00 am PST | Permalink

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