On Business: Parallel Paths

By | Monday, August 17, 2015 Leave a Comment
I was hanging out with some friends over the weekend, and one of them expressed a lot of frustration at at how Americans are fed the same ol' stuff over and over again in mass media and you don't really hear from anyone outside the mainstream. He's more of an anime guy than a comics fan, so he was curious to hear my thoughts on that from a comics perspective. He was certainly aware of some independent publishers and webcomics, but he still largely only heard about Marvel and DC books. (Again, noting he's not a big comics fan and just catches wind of that stuff more tangentally.)

What I pointed out was that Marvel and DC still have the lion's share of the industry market (as it's commonly seen) but that an increasing number of creators are turning to other avenues. Webcomics are an obvious one, and there are more than a few creators out there now making a full-time living doing webcomics. It's easy to point to guys like Jeph Jacques, who's making $10,000 a month just through Patreon! (I just looked up that number; the last I checked a few months ago, it was more like $7,000 and that's what I mentioned to my friend.) Now, granted, Jacques is something of an extreme case -- I doubt there are many other webcomikers pulling in over $100,000 a year -- but the point is that he's not a unique example. There are dozens of "professional webcomic artists" cited in Wikipedia, and those are only the ones where we've definitively aware of their finances.

My friend's point, though, was that that really isn't being reflected very well in the mainstream pieces. And I posited that what we're seeing, broadly speaking, is that we've got essentially a second parallel channel operating next to the one he's more familiar with. The gatekeepers that have traditionally hampered different voices -- publishers, distributors, etc. -- are absent, so people are more free to let their voices be heard. And make money doing it!
And what's cool is that applies to other media forms as well. He mentioned that TV and movies don't have that option, to which I countered that they absolutely do. Whether that goes up on YouTube or sold through direct-to-DVD purchases or as a crowd-funded project that has its own circuit, the avenues are out there. Noteably, though, movies are more expensive to produce than comics, so we don't see quite the proliferation, but the process is similar. Same with video games.

Now the issue that remains, then, is one of marketing. We, as consumers, are hammered over the head with promotions for the big summer blockbuster du jour, but hearing about smaller projects requires more active participation. With webcomics, for example, I rarely have them just fall into my lap; I have to be on an ongoing active hunt to find new strips to read. And I'm someone who's deeply interested in this -- imagine someone like him, who's only vaguely aware of webcomics' existence at all! How's he going to hear about stuff he might like?

The problem is that webcomic creators, as with most creators historically, are more interested in and more committed to the actual creation process. Sales, promotion, PR, etc. require an entirely different set of skills, and necessitate a level of effort siginificantly above and beyond the actual creative process.

That's something I don't have a great answer for. Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik lucked out when Robert Khoo offerred his services (initially) for free; that essentially never happens! Not everyone can hire a business manager. Not everyone has the knack, or even the opportunity, for learning that type of thing themselves. Not everyone has the social skills or the social media skills to garner a devoted fan base that can do word-of-mouth promotions.

I suppose my point is that if you're just looking to create as a form of self-expression, that's cool. Knock yourself out. But if you're actually looking to build an audience and/or make some money doing whatever it is, you'll need to get your hands on some business savvy, whether that's your own or making use of somebody else's. That's the key to subverting the power structure that just wants to pump out an endless supply of white guys in tights and capes fighting bad guys.
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