Friday, March 13, 2009

Mainstream Publishers + Webcomics = Oil + Water?

Joey Manley, in the Talking About Comics blog, writes about Web cartoonists and what happens when they get involved with big syndicates or sign publishing deals for print versions of their Webcomics.

This is old news, but here is, for instance, Rich Stevens, whose Webcomic Diesel Sweeties was a United Media launch, and why he decided, after a couple of years, to end his relationship with the syndicate (full interview here):

"'I did my taxes. I realized that I made less money than the last year that I wasn’t syndicated. It’s a hard business and it takes years and years to build up a client list and get paid. I just kinda thought to myself that I spent years and years learning how to make money off the Internet. Why should I continue to injure myself, when I could just do what I’m good at?'"

Strawberry Comics creator Gina Biggs on why she left Dark Horse to return to self-publishing:

"'This means they [her RED STRING series] will only be available through the website and at conventions, but it also means that I will see more of the profit from these books which could be very beneficial to someone striving to make a living through art and webcomics'"

Joey has a lot of interesting points, and, yeah, we all really don't know. But, in America, we are all entitled to our uninformed opinion.

Any time you (an independent cartoonist) get involved with a third party -- a syndicate, a publishing house -- that third party wants in on a piece of the action. Sure, this big company may have a crack publicity crew, sales staff, etc., but the deal is they want THEIR hand in YOUR pocket, in addition (let me pile on another metaphor) to being in the driver's seat. Your work will be referred to as "product." It's part of "their stable." It can be an upsetting experience.

It can be the road to great recognition and reward as well.


leifpeng said...

Very interesting, Mike - seems very similar to the shake up in the music industry, doesn't it?

Another interesting related discussion at Linked In Professional Cartoonist Network Group. Nancy Beiman posed the question, "The Newspapers are shutting down. Are cartoonists shifting to the Web?"

Some interesting first-hand replies... worth joining the group (if you're not already a member) to read this thread.

Brian Fies said...

Hmmmm. Seems to me there are a lot of variables in play here. I think the Diesel Sweeties case is a good illustration of an important difference between newspaper and webcomics: a syndicated newspaper strip has to appeal to (or at least not repel) a large cross-section of readers, while a webcomic only had to target a niche that has a lot of followers worldwide.

Not to pick on anyone, let's say you do a webcomic about collecting bottle caps. A big city newspaper might only have three people in its entire circulation area who also collect bottle caps and would love that strip. Not enough to justify an editor spending $20 per week. But put it on the Internet, and you may find millions of bottle cap collectors overjoyed to find a strip that reflects their passion and happy to pay for t-shirts and mouse pads.

Print and web are different media with different business models (not that I'm convinced the web has a business model yet, but some people make a living). Translating success in one to the other probably depends on the strengths of each individual property and its creator. Rich Stevens and Gina Biggs discovered they do better without a middleman. Sometimes, like Joey said in his blog, some people just don't play well with others. Sometimes, like Dave Roman replied in Joey's comments, it's just a case of the grass always looking greener on the other side.

My publisher does things for me I couldn't do for myself. That's not true for everyone--or, even if it is true, it's not worth the trade-off to them. And there's always a trade-off.

Robert Boyd said...

It seems to me that it may be necessary for publishers of the future to change their business model from being "producers" of a "product" to being "service providers" for a "client" (in this case, an artist, writer, whatever). The publisher in this case would offer an ala carte selection of services to the artist with some kind of payment plan (probably a royalty but for riskier artists, it could be payment up front). To be sure, this tends to blur the distinction between vanity publishing and "real" publishing, but that all gets settled in the results. Publishers that accept only commercially viable clients will get known as such.

In such an arrangement, the services offered should be things like printing, distribution, promotion, advertising, web distribution, web advertising, etc. The client writer/artist can choose any of these services based on her needs and competencies.