Is It Really THAT Hard To Wrap One's Brain Around Webcomics?

By | Monday, October 08, 2012 4 comments
I just read this piece about Pearls Before Swine author Stephan Pastis. In it, he's quoted as saying...
Now, to make it, you have to go that web route. Many of those guys, from Penny Arcade to Cyanide and Happiness to The Perry Bible Fellowship — which are all excellent — claim to make a living, but how do you know? I can tell you that even if someone does a strip and it’s fairly popular online, the money is not online. I question a lot of claims about the money being made, and the question remains that if things continue to go that route for newspapers, and you have to make money online, how do you do it?
Pastis has never struck me as a stupid man. Granted, I've never met him in person, but from the interviews I've read, he seems reasonably well-spoken and thoughtful, and he seemed to make a pretty good living as a lawyer before taking up cartooning. So why is it so hard for a newspaper cartoonist like himself to wrap his head around the idea that webcomickers can earn a living?

I mean, he's got to know it's a different business model, right? Even if he doesn't know what that model is or how to exploit it, he has to know that, because they don't have a syndicate paying them, they have to get their money from somewhere else. Why is it so hard to believe that doing something BESIDES syndication might work?

Look at television. (Conceptually. I wouldn't recommend actually watching it.) There are, and have been for several decades now, three basic business models at work. 1) Give the programming away for free and have advertisers pay to include their commercials amid the free programming. This is what the main networks do. 2) Give the programming away for free and periodically ask viewers for donations. This is what PBS does. (Despite what some politicians might tell you, government funding only accounts for 12% of PBS' annual budget.) 3) Charge for programming. This is the model cable and satellite services use.

Three very different approaches to making money, even though the basic audience experience -- sitting on the couch and turning the TV on -- remains the same.

Newspaper strip cartoonists get paid by their syndicate. Everyone is very secretive about precisely how much, but it's basically on a per paper basis. For every newspaper that picks up your comic strip, you get an additional amount of money. It's often a little more for larger newspapers and a little less for smaller newspapers. But it boils down to the syndicate paying the cartoonist based on how many people have access to your strip. (Not how many people read it! There's no way to judge how many people who pick up the paper actually read any given strip, nor is there any way to tell how many people pick up and read the strips without buying a paper.)

Webcomickers generally don't get money based on access or readership. In fact, how much they earn (Note: earn. As in, they do all their own work, not get paid for doing something for somebody else!) is largely dependent on what they do ABOVE AND BEYOND their comic strip! The strips themselves are a loss leader to get people to buy books and t-shirts and mousepads and refrigerator magnets and whatever else. They also get money through advertising. Sometimes freelance commissions. Sometimes donations.

None of this is news. This has been known and touted by many webcartoonists FOR THE PAST DECADE! This is not some arcane secret! This is not something so utterly bleeding edge that no one knows what they're doing! This is how things work! Not only is not hard to grasp the concept; there are plenty of cartoonists out there who expressly and openly talked about HOW they make money! What's more -- many of them EVEN PUT THEIR FINANCIAL INFORMATION ONLINE!

Side anecdote: Ryan Estrada just had his fiance uncomfortably ask him about his finances. He told her to Google it, and the first thing that came up was my column on MTV's website where I posted everything. (With his permission.) THAT is precisely how easy it is to find this information!

Seriously, why is it THAT difficult to understand? Why are newspaper strip cartoonists being that willfully ignorant/obstinate about this? Shouldn't they be investigating it MORE, knowing that newspapers are dying off and, hey, maybe their income stream might dry up in the next decade? Maybe not entirely, but enough that they'll need to look at other sources of income. All we're talking about is a simple Google search! Can't you guys even do that?
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Matt K said...

I saw that quote at CBR and thought it came across really, willfully ignorant, too, especially the "claim to make a living, but how do you know" bit. I mean, one, Occam's razor; two, why do you care even if somehow they're all just faking it? (It isn't like we'll be held accountable as taxpayers for a webcomic bailout if they all suddenly declare bankruptcy.)

Still... wow, S. One of us badly needs a vacation, and up until 5 minutes ago I would have picked me. But now I'm wondering. Be at peace. :-)

Ethan said...

Also, lots of popular webcomics use Project Wonderful, which PUBLICLY displays what the ad spaces are selling for at any given minute. Some go for an average of $60 a day, which is pretty decent cash when you multiple that by 365 days. I really wish people would do just a modicum of research before insinuating the falsehoods of others' 'alleged' success.

And this really leaves aside the BIG difference:

Even if I'm only making a few hundred a month from the comic (theoretically), that's a few hundred more than I'd make if I was limited to just working for the syndicates. Even better, I make it for significantly less work since I'm not having to draw and color a daily strip, or redo a page because the editor doesn't like the fact today's punchline is a dick joke.

The best counterexample I have to Pastis's arguments is to look at Diesel Sweeties' leap from digital to print and back -- quite literally, he WAS in newspapers, and decided it wasn't worth the trouble after a while. I imagine his experiences make it quite clear why syndication is no longer useful to the average cartoonist.

Mike Rhode said...

If Pastis is in 700 papers, he's making a GOOD living, which may be the difference between him and 90% of other cartoonists, web or print.