This weekend, I got a pulped wood copy of Tozo, the Public Servant #2 from David O'Connell. I've been reading his comic online for free since I stumbled across it a little over a year ago and, for as impressed as I was with it at the time, I've gotten that much more impressed as the story progresses and David keeps showing an innate sixth sense when it comes to marketing.
See, the question at hand is: why should I buy a pulped wood copy of a comic that I've already read online for free?
I mean, let's face it -- if you don't buy one comic, that's more money with which you can buy another. And if you DO buy a comic that you've already read, you're keeping yourself from buying one that you haven't. So, why buy a printed copy of an online comic?
(Keep in mind, by the way, that I'm talking about the stuff that's all online for free legally. We're not talking scanned versions of Amazing Spider-Man that show up online after they've already been released as pamphlets. I'm talking exclusively about comics that are given away by the creators for free, and only collected in paper form later.)
Let's set aside the somewhat philanthropic argument about trying to help the creators themselves out by purchasing their products. If you feel strongly about helping people out -- whether that's a comic creator or the CBLDF or whatever -- you're going to find a way to provide them with some of your resources regardless of what you might receive in return.
No, I'm talking about guys like Scott Kurtz or Chris Onstad, whose work is online for literally all the world to see well before it gets put into some pulped wood form. You can go out and buy their work, sure, but why spend the extra money?
Well, there's certainly something to be said for the change in format. Especially taller comics like Girl Genius that are more designed for a book format. I know I spent money on those books because I was uncomfortable scrolling up and down a web page to read each installment. The book format also provides a concise reading experience with something more akin to a beginning, middle and end; whereas the online format where longer format stories are inherently told in smaller chunks. The larger narrative, if there is one, is much easier to follow if you've got 20-some pages of story at a sitting, as opposed to 1/3 page every week.
For me, personally, though, I don't know that I can use that as my complete justification for paying for something I've already read. Something that you simply can't get in the online experience. DVDs often do this by providing cast commentary or behind-the-scenes documentaries and the like. Things that you couldn't get by watching the shows on TV. In some cases, they'll provide different extras on different versions of the DVDs to entice you to buy all of them.
Some online comics do include extra features when transitioning to a printed format. Tozo #2 has additional historical material, maps and diagrams, additional character information, plus two stories not integral to the main one. The Great Outdoor Fight included a great deal of historical and character information. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed in some of the Girl Genius because, while the story and artwork is excellent, the Foglio's have dropped the extras that used to be present in the earlier print-only pamphlet comics they started with.
I'm not about to suggest that every comic printed from an online one include these specific features. I understand that IS more work and not every feature makes sense for every story. But I do think that NOT having some extras is going hamper people's willingness to fork over additional cash for your comic, after they've read the same one online. Sure, you expect to pay for the paper and printing costs and the shipping charges but not that many artists' work looks that much better when seen in person than it does on the screen. (O'Connell and Foglio are exceptions to that, though; their work does actually look much better in print.)
I suspect that part of the reason why more creators don't do this is because they're following the newspaper strip model, in which the comics were simply collected with nothing extra. That was more understandable, I think, back in the day when it was incredibly difficult for an individual to keep an ongoing record of the comics. You'd have to get the newspaper and clip the strip out every single day. On the web, however, any strip is accessible at any time so there's no reason you should miss one, nor is there any reason you can't go back and review them at your leisure. Simply reprinting the strips is something a reader can do for him/herself at any time they wish, at no cost.
If you haven't been paying attention, the internet has changed how people react and interact with content. The reader has a different relationship with comic creators because the one-way message that used to be sent out through syndicates many years ago is now an ongoing dialogue conducted online. A creator's work goes out to the masses, and readers can respond almost immediately with feedback directly to them. That, in itself, is more engaging than what a reader would get out of buying a print collection, so why limit print readers to something inherently less attractive and more costly?
It boils down to this: creators, if you're looking to sell product, give the readers something more than what you've already given them.
I give O'Connell a lot of credit in this regard. He doesn't have any formal marketing training, but he understands how it works and puts extra in making sure that his readers are engaged regardless of how they come to read his work. I'm not going to review the issue since you can read it here anyway. But if you like the story, I will suggest buying a copy in pulped wood form from him because he does provide more than what's online; he's even throwing in an original sketch if you order it directly from him! (And if my scanner worked with Vista -- boo, Microsoft -- I'd share with you the great art he included with my copy!)