The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 131 | Surviving the Decline of Print: Will Webcomics Make Publishers Obsolete?

Leaving Proof 131 | Surviving the Decline of Print: Will Webcomics Make Publishers Obsolete?
Published on Thursday, July 5, 2012 by

Like many folks who grew up reading comics in the newsprint and Mando paper era, I casually dismissed webcomics as a fad when I first encountered them back in the late 1990s. Too inconvenient, I thought. To me, real comics had to pass The Toilet Test (or The Bus Test, or The Train Test, or The Wherever-the-Ability-to-Read-and-Turn Pages-with-One-Free-Hand-is-Useful Test). I wasn’t going to run a telephone line to the shitter just so I could spend ten minutes downloading a poorly-optimized JPEG on my roommate’s laptop (remember, this was before residential Wi-Fi was commonplace). The World Wide Web had already radically changed how I worked, studied, communicated, and played in the summer of 1999, but it had yet to extend its transformative reach to my bathroom reading habits and I felt confident that the simple pleasure of reading funnybooks on The Porcelain Throne would remain untouched by the spreading Internet revolution.

That confidence was sorely misplaced, it turned out.

 

The Penny Arcade webcomic page receives up to two million daily views (source: Wikipedia)

With the advent of reasonably-priced high-speed Internet connections, residential Wi-Fi and mobile broadband, more efficient Li-ion and Li-poly batteries, cheaper digital storage media, and sunlight-readable low-reflectivity displays, webcomics have never been easier to access and peruse. On all manner of portable devices, one can now read every Penny Arcade and xkcd entry currently available online while sitting on the can. I’ve addressed the growing prevalence of webcomics in a previous Leaving Proof entry so I won’t regurgitate those arguments here, but suffice it to say that the numbers exist to support the notion that webcomics are now the most popular form of sequential art and comics in terms of raw readership numbers. And what is really interesting, and even a little surprising, is that the most successful webcomics creators have managed to grow their readership as much as they have with little to no support from traditional comics publishers—any relationship a webcomic like Axe Cop or Battlepug has with a publisher like Dark Horse Books generally revolves around the publication of material that first appeared online. 

In a publisher-driven industry like comics, how is it that publishers have been reduced to relatively minor players (if that) in the burgeoning webcomics field?

To answer that question, it’s important that we take a brief look at the history of publishing. Publishing, as a business enterprise, started not long after Johannes Gutenberg developed the first metal movable type system in Europe in the mid-15th century (metal movable type for book printing was actually first invented in Korea some 200 years prior but a combination of orthographic and cultural factors kept the technology from being widely adopted). The earliest publishers, in the form of Europe’s printers’ guilds, were quick to act on the realization that most, if not all, authors did not have the means for the mass printing and distribution of their works. Printing presses and materials, typesetting, the transportation of the bound copies, all required a sizable up-front investment available only to those who enjoyed the financial support of particularly wealthy patrons or moneyed institutions. These printers’ guilds offered authors an alternative way to get their work to press in exchange for the exclusive right to print the work. In 1709, British Parliament, behind lobbying by The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, passed the Statute of Anne, the first “copyright” law recognizing an author’s exclusive right of ownership of his work and the implicit right to benefit financially from its sale. The Statute also allowed for the exchange, sale, or transfer of those exclusive rights to another person or legal entity (such as a printers’ guild like the Company of Stationers) similar to any other contract. And thus were twin-birthed the modern underpinnings of copyright and the author-publisher relationship. As noted in the QuestionCopyright.org essay The Surprising History of Copyright and the Promise of a Post-Copyright World

The Statute of Anne is often held up by champions of copyright as the moment when authors were finally given the protection they had long deserved. Even today, it continues to be referenced both in legal arguments and in press releases from the publishing industry. But to interpret it as an authors’ victory flies in the face of both common sense and historical fact. Authors, having never had copyright, saw no reason now to suddenly demand the rather paradoxical power to prevent the spread of their own works, and did not do so.

and

To make their argument more palatable [The Company of Stationers] had proposed that copyright would originate with the author, as a form of property that could be sold to anyone—anticipating, correctly, that it would most often be sold to a printer.

Despite its seeming inequity, the copyright-defined author-publisher relationship—one where a publisher can purchase the rights to an author’s work and prevent it from being reproduced by anyone else, even by the original author—that grew out of the passage of the Statute of Anne became the industry status quo primarily because it worked as an efficient and reasonably fair arrangement given the fact that publishers, and not authors, controlled access to printing technology and distribution networks. In the three centuries since the passage of the Statute of Anne, many authors have greatly benefited both in terms of financial gain and reputation from their association with publishers. The copyright-defined author-publisher system was, up until perhaps the last few years, a practical response to the logistic, economic, and technological realities of printing and print distribution.

 

Gary Friedrich signed away any ownership claims he might have had to the Ghost Rider character in 1971 and 1978, according to the court findings in his dispute with Marvel Comics

Forty years ago, comics writers and artists routinely signed away their rights to their superhero creations to major comics publishers as part of their employment contracts. It’s not that they didn’t care for their works. But Marvel Comics and cross-town rivals DC Comics were the only paying games in town, and if the price of entry into the big leagues of superhero comics meant signing away in perpetuity their claims to the capes-and-tights characters and stories they would produce while under contract, then the overwhelming majority of creators were willing to pay the price. The World Wide Web has changed that balance, however. Comics publishers (and direct market comics distributors), long the gatekeepers between creators and the audience, no longer have the monopoly on publishing and distribution. For the Internet-savvy comics professional, self-publishing, distributing, and promoting a full-colour comic book—a foolhardy and expensive proposition during the era of print—can now be as user-friendly and cheap as setting up a free blog and image hosting service account and taking advantage of social networking and Web 2.0 connections. The techno-social apparatus is in place for a comics creator to reach a readership that matches or exceeds the size of the audience a major comics publisher can offer and with it comes potential revenue: Not necessarily from direct sales, but from advertising, merchandising, licensing, and crowdfunding.

All this isn’t to say that any well-made webcomics enterprise is assured success. Only a minority of webcomics earn any sort of revenue and only a fraction of those are profitable. The multimedia and merchandising franchise spawned by the success of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins’ Penny Arcade—a franchise that spans video games, print comics, and the convention circuit—is the exception, not the rule. And Krahulik and Holkins were hardly overnight sensations: They started the Penny Arcade webcomic way back in 1998. The vast majority of revenue-earning (not necessarily profitable) webcomics derive their income from advertisements, sponsorships, crowdfunding, and donations (Jason Brubaker, writer-artist on the Xeric Grant-winning reMind webcomic, breaks down his revenue streams in detail in this candid blog post). But this state of affairs isn’t really all that different from that seen in print comics. At the top of the print comics echelon are a handful of consistently successful and profitable titles, followed in the next tier by a slightly larger smattering of self-sustaining books, and the bottom of the triangular hierarchy is occupied by a gaggle of unprofitable series that are just a poor monthly showing or two from cancellation. What webcomics self-publishing offers the comics creator that the corporate publisher in its current state just can’t is a significantly lower cost of entry and a distribution channel that is virtually unlimited in scope if employed to its fullest extent.

 

Publishers like Dark Horse Books have done a good job of publishing collected editions of popular webcomics. Can they do more to get involved in the webcomics industry?

What can publishers do to adapt to these changing times? Major comics publishers like Marvel and DC can afford to be buoyed up by the merchandising, licensing, and film production arms of the large media conglomerates that they are a part of even as they cling to an outmoded business model in their exclusive partnerships with digital comics distributors and become increasingly marginalized in the webcomics discourse. But other print comics publishers, even consistently successful ones who favor creator-owned and licensed material like Image Comics and Dark Horse Comics, have to insinuate themselves into the fabric of the webcomic community if they are to remain relevant as online self-publishing becomes a more viable and sustainable commercial alternative for professional comics creators. They already have in some way by publishing print collections of webcomics, but their participation can be extended to a more meaningful degree by taking an active hand in setting up and optimizing comics professionals’ webcomic sites, providing editorial and technical guidance to their partner webcomics creators, employing their considerable social networking and Web 2.0 resources for promotion, and using their brand to pull in crowdfunding and advertiser support. DC Comics might have failed with their ambitious Zuda Comics webcomic initiative, but that doesn’t mean a more well-considered attempt using mature technologies, a better grasp of techno-social dynamics, an understanding of the economy of ideas, and an emphasis on “creditright” instead of copyright, won’t succeed now or in the near future.

During the 2010 Harvey Awards ceremony, Mark Waid gave a rousing, inspirational speech voicing his apprehensions and hopes regarding the new milieu engendered by the rise of the Internet, the practice of file sharing, and the seemingly inevitable demise of traditional publishing. While primarily addressed to his peers in the comics creator community, his talk contained ideas that publishers would do well to consider as they draft strategies to survive the decline of print, and I think it appropriate that I end today’s column with an excerpt from Waid’s speech

… file sharing is not going away.

And I’ll tell you why. It’s not because people “like stealing.” It’s because the greatest societal change in the last five years is that we are entering an era of sharing. Twitter and YouTube and Facebook—they’re all about sharing. Sharing links, sharing photographs, sending some video of some cat doing something stupid—that’s the era we’re entering. And whether or not you’re sharing things that technically aren’t yours to share, whether or not you’re angry because you see this as a “generation of entitlement,” that’s not the issue—the issue is, it’s happening, and the Internet’s ability to reward sharing has reignited this concept that the public domain has cultural value. And I understand if you are morally outraged about it and you believe to your core that an entire generation is criminal and they’re taking food off your table, I respect that.

But moral outrage is often how we deal with fear. It’s a false sense of empowerment in the face of fear. And I’m here to tell you, that if at core you’re reacting not out of moral outrage but out of fear of the Internet and the whole way publishing seems to be headed—that’s good news. Because that’s something we can fix.

We are the smartest, most creative medium in America. We put out ideas on a periodical basis bam, bam, bam. We don’t put out a screenplay every three years. We don’t invent a TV show every ten years. There are more ideas in one Wednesday in one comic shop than in three years of Hollywood. We’re notoriously bad businessmen, but we are unmatched for creativity and inventiveness, and there are ways to make filesharing work for us rather than cower in fear that it’s going to destroy us.

I’m going to be rolling out some ideas in the next few weeks on how I personally want to make torrents work for me, not take away from me, and how I plan to shift the paradigm. Lots of you already have similar ideas or will, as well. I’m not saying that to plug anything I’m doing; I just want to go on record that I’m willing to walk the walk. My ideas may work. They may not work. But I’m going to share them. And if they don’t work, I’m going to keep trying. And I’m going to set up forums by which we can share our ideas on this, and I invite us all to throw them around. I really want us to keep that dialogue open. But we can define the terms of 21st century publishing and not have them defined for us.

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If this piece has piqued your curiosity regarding webcomics, I recommend checking out the following works:

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Discuss this article below or contact the author via e-mail
5 Responses
    • I don’t want print comics to become obsolete but it will most likely happen eventually.

      The comic industry needs a
      prohibition. Cheap Canadian paper as a way to ship in contraband booze
      and distribute the paper as comics and newspapers across the country was
      good for business even in a bad economy before. It’d work again if we’d
      just repeal alcohol sales. Barring that comic sales will follow
      newspaper sales.In a digital future will we need big clearing houses to manufacture comics or will more people figure out how to profit from it individually? Very creator are full time digital comic creators and making a complete living at the moment but that will have to come. Archie’s price point on digital comics seems better than the other big companies. For four bucks a month you get New Crusaders pages every week (which add up to be comparable to a print issue in count every month) AND you get 40 years of archived comics to explore. That is the best digital price going. Paying nearly as much for a digital book as a print issue from the big publishers will ensure that they become obsolete. To survive a new paradigm must be discovered.

      • I think at this point, the advertising/crowdfunding/merchandising-supported free-to-read webcomic is the most viable model going forward. Yes, only a minority of creators will be able to make a real living from it, but that’s really how it’s always been in comics when you think about it, and at least we know the model can work, because we’ve already seen profitable and self-supporting comics projects using that approach. 

        At some point in the future, though, we’ll probably see like-minded webcomics creators form loose, revenue-sharing collectives that will allow the more profitable titles subsidize the cost of producing the less profitable ones. Existing publishers already have the basic infrastructure in place to do that, so that’s one way I can see them getting into the webcomics game.

        And you’re right about the cost of most digital comics being comparable to that of print comics being a bad thing for the format. It’s ridiculous, really, treating the pricing of a digital item the same way as a physical item. The former isn’t subject to the same limitations dictated by material supply and logistics, and its pricing should reflect that. A digital comic book is virtually a print-on-demand item that can be perfectly reproduced in unlimited numbers and sent instantaneously anywhere in the world. Yes, digital distribution costs money, but bandwidth is nowhere near the cost of physical transport and it isn’t as if publishers and distributors have to lay down dedicated cables just to get digital comics to consumers. Across most of North America, a gigabyte of bandwidth costs anywhere from 2¢ to 15¢, depending on how remote a location is. “Transporting” 10,000 digital comics across the continent would probably cost 1¢ in bandwidth costs in most cases.

    • For the power that webcomics can have, just need to look at Penny Arcade.  There’s a convention centered around it, PAX, and that occurs twice a year on the east coast and west coast.

    • […] Leaving Proof 131 | Surviving the Decline of Print: Will Webcomics Make Publishers Obsolete? […]

    • […] royalty payments for authors of mass-produced printed works but one that, as we’ve discussed in this space before, might be in need of a total overhaul given how much electronic communications technology has […]

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