On Webcomics: Using the Webcomics Model for Digital?

By | Monday, January 27, 2014 4 comments
The typical business model for webcomics is that the creators provide their comic for free, and then try to make money through either advertising and/or ancillary sales of t-shirts, prints, books, etc. The webcomic itself is what's known as a loss leader; it catches people's attention and draws them in, but it doesn't make any money in and of itself. Income is generated through other means. Gas stations do this all the time, and is why no one just sells gasoline any more; the gasoline itself is generally sold for what the gas station itself paid for it, but they make $2.95 profit on every three dollar Big Gulp.

Digital comics, on the other hand, generally take a very different approach to selling. Here, viewers have to pay in order to read the comic in question, but they don't have to see any advertising while they do so. And while those t-shirts, prints, etc. are still available for purchase, they're not shown or linked to from the digital comics platform. It's like calling up a movie on Netflix instead of watching it on cable.

And for me, personally, I find that I don't really get into digital comics precisely because of that business model.

I will admit that I tend to prefer having a printed copy of a comic in my hands over a digital version, but it's not the artifact itself that I'm interested in. That is, I don't feel the need to have a literal copy in my hands. What I do want, though, is ownership. If I buy a comic, whatever format it's in, I want to know that it's continued existence is entirely in my metaphoric hands. If I keep a copy on my hard drive which then crashes, well that sucks, but that's my fault for not keeping a backup. But I can do what I like with that file, and put it on as many or as few devices as I like and I'm always guaranteed (provided I don't screw it up) of being able to read that comic.

The current prevailing model, however, does not give me ownership of the comic. You ever read the actual Terms of Use over at comiXology?
Subject to your complete and ongoing compliance with all the terms and conditions set forth in this Agreement... [comiXology] grants you a limited, non-exclusive, non-transferable, non-sublicensable, revocable license to access the Digital Content for your personal, non-commercial use. Such license does not confer on you any ownership interest in such Digital Content. Words such as “purchase” or “sale”... refer to the grant to you of a limited license as described herein.
(Emphasis mine.)

They're pretty upfront about the fact that you're renting the comics you "purchase" from them, and they're free to remove your access to any one of those comics at any time. I'm not hating on comiXology here, and I'm not passing along any big revelations; I just want to make it very clear to everyone that you don't own anything you get from them.

Now, granted, it would be bad business on their part if they just randomly revoked your access to comics you'd purchased, and I don't expect them to really do that. But at the same time, they can remove or modify any of "your" comics and there's no way you can keep the one you "purchased." But even in a less Orwellian environment, comiXology could still go out of business (not that they're currently in danger of that, so far as I know) and all of your digital comics would vanish with them.

A webcomic certainly can close up shop, too, at any point they choose and leave you without even their archives to browse through. But you haven't put any money towards that either. Any funds you might have sent the creators' way would be in lieu of tangible items that you're now in possession of -- a t-shirt, print, etc.

So what I'm wondering is: is it financially possible to serve up digital comics using a business model more akin to webcomics? Provide them in some sort of more universal platform (CBR/CBZ, perhaps?) for free, with an option to purchase t-shirts, prints, etc. I don't think I've seen anyone try an approach quite like this, but I'd be curious to see if/how it works. Anyone out there willing to give it a shot?
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4 comments:

This is exactly why I don't buy digital comics, other than the few available in cbr or cbz. (These are far superior to pdf as a format for downloadable comics, but that's a discussion for another time.) But rather than depending on ancillary merchandise as a revenue source, couldn't a digital comic be a free download with advertising pages incorporated into the book -- exactly as ad pages have been interspersed within print comics for as long as they've existed? If I look at a cover-to-cover scan of a vintage comic, I flip through the ad pages exactly as I do when reading the printed version. It seems less intrusive and annoying than the blinking, bouncing Flash-based ad boxes on webcomic sites! Ad-subsidized free comics would never have to worry about piracy; advertisers would be well pleased to have even more eyeballs flipping past their ads. I don't see the downside of such an approach.

I think the trick is getting advertisers to pay enough to subsidize the comics' production. After all, Wowio used this approach originally and they, I don't believe, ever got out of the red under that model. So it's not a question of technical or logistic feasibility but of financial feasibility.

This is why digital comics should be DRM-free. I sell my comics online, but it's DRM-free. once you buy it, you can do anything you want with it. Just like a phsical comic book, you can lend it, photocopy it or whatever.

Also, in cases like THE PRIVATE EYE, where you can pay any amount you deem is reasonable, I downloaded the first issue for free, was quite satisfied with it, then paid for subsequent issues voluntarily.

Do you have any info if the above business model works?

Max Vaehling said...

I've been wondering about this myself. Ad-free seems to be the way to go in digital comics, but I don't think they need to. I can tolerate a few ads, as a reader. As a creator, I don't have the download numbers that people would pay ads for yet, but I usually include some info about my other books and my website.

One problem: As long as cbr images aren't clickable, they'll lose a lot of potential readers. Noting a url from an image file (no copy-and-paste either), then looking it up online, takes a lot of persuasion. PDFs allow for actual links, but at least Adobe's reader does a lot to dissuade you from actually clicking them. I'm all for protecting users, but there's a downside right there.

One thing I tried is packaging ebooks with a few extra txt files containing links and a license. I don't know how many clicks that brought because I have no means of counting them, but I do get some hits from the torrent sites I uploaded them to.