The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 195 | The Art of the Kickstart: Turning social capital into financial capital

Leaving Proof 195 | The Art of the Kickstart: Turning social capital into financial capital
Published on Sunday, July 28, 2013 by
[UPDATED] In this week’s column, we ask “What can we learn from the most successful Kickstarter comics campaigns?” ALSO: We talk about the Season One DVD of The Legend of Korra and the narrative value of leaving certain plot threads unresolved.

[Comics creators are] 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.

– Mark Waid, 2010 Harvey Awards keynote address

These past couple of years, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have emerged as viable sources of financial support for the creation, production, and distribution of creator-owned comics. For all the talk about how the modern technology of the Internet has revolutionized the way creative projects like “indie” comics and graphic novels are funded, what is really happening is that the web has allowed for a return to a direct method of creative arts funding that pre-dates comics, the invention of the digital computer, the advertising revenue model, mass media, and even the print and publishing industry as we know it.

From ancient times up until just before the spread of movable type technology in the late 15th century, the most common way in which authors could profit materially from their creative works was via commissions, direct payments in cash or in kind, from patrons and sponsors. The practice of publishers paying an author for the privilege to reproduce and distribute the author’s manuscript in the form of mass-printed books did not become commonplace until after the rise of printing guilds and commercial publishing houses across the European continent.

Authors and publishers developed a symbiotic relationship that made practical sense given the logistic, economic, and technological conditions of the time. The former had the content, while the latter had access to distribution and sales outlets and what was then a means of production that was out of the financial reach of all but the most affluent of authors. From this relationship also grew the idea of copyright, a development that helped give birth to the system of 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 changed how we distribute and consume media.

In the centuries since the establishment of the publishing industry, publishers have served as the de facto gatekeepers and tastemakers of popular literature. A work of popular literature, no matter how entertaining and well-written, had only a small chance at finding and growing a readership without the backing of a publisher. Before an author could impress his or her readers, he or she had to first convince a publishing company that there was profit to be made in selling the work, or at the very least, that sales of the work would pay back the cost of licensing, publication, and distribution. This push and pull between the author’s right to profit from the work and the publishing company’s desire to create as low-risk and beneficial a deal for itself in acquiring the print rights to the work has been the source of many, many disputes.

Crowdfunding threatens to change all that, primarily by democratizing authors’ access to the financial resources necessary for publication and distribution. As the statistics below show, the odds of a comics project being successfully funded via Kickstarter are basically a coin flip, which is probably better than a random comics creator’s chances of his or her creator-owned work getting picked up by an established publisher. [NOTE: Statistics accurate as of 27 July 2013]

  • Total number of launched comics projects: 2,863
    • Number of successfully funded comics projects: 1,321 (NOTE: number does not include current, actively funding projects that have already met or exceeded their funding goal)
      • Less than $1,000 raised: 180
      • $1,000 to $9,999 raised: 807
      • $10,000 to $19,999 raised: 174
      • $20,000 to $99,999 raised: 137
      • $100,000 to $999,999 raised: 22
      • $1 million and up raised: 1
    • Number of unsuccessfully funded projects: 1,382
      • 0% funded: 155
      • 1% to 20% funded: 884
      • 21& to 40% funded: 218
      • 41% to 60% funded: 84
      • 61% to 80% funded: 32
      • 81% to 99% funded: 9

Now, while it’s tempting to draw the inference that a modest crowdfunding goal is more likely to meet with success than a more ambitious one, we can’t really be sure of that statement without accounting for the differences between the original funding goals and the ultimate amounts raised by all comics projects, successful and unsuccessful. The numbers above say nothing about the likelihood of success in relation to funding goals, only that more successful projects raised between $1,000 and $9,999 than any other amount, and that could just be an extension of the fact that a large number of Kickstarter comics projects have funding goals that fall within that interval.

Still, we can glean some insight into crowdfunding success by looking at the most successful Kickstarter comics campaigns to date. Below is a linked list of the top 30 most funded completed projects in Kickstarter’s Comics category as of 27 July 2013. [NOTE: Kickstarter campaigns that are type-classified as comics projects that aren’t concerned with directly funding the production of print comics, digital comics, or webcomics—such as campaigns for non-sequential art books, reference books, and collectibles—have been excluded from the list]

The $1.25 million raised on Kickstarter for the Order of the Stick reprint drive shows the massive potential for monetization that crowdfunding can offer comics creators.

The $1.25 million raised on Kickstarter for the Order of the Stick reprint drive shows the massive potential for monetization that crowdfunding can offer comics creators.

It would be unwise to draw any firm conclusions and inferences about Kickstarter comics success by examining the nature of the projects in the above list, of course, as the list isn’t a random population and we are still in the relatively early days of crowdfunded comics. Regardless, reading through the project descriptions and a cursory dig through their backgrounds gives us a number of interesting (if non-scientific) observations:

  1. avasdemonthumbKickstarter success takes time and investment: Casual observers might think that Kickstarter funding is quick and easy money but that’s really not the case. Most of the top 30 most funded projects have been in existence in one form or another for a while, with many not turning in a single dollar in profit for their creators in all that time—the Penny Arcade webcomic for example, started back in 1998, the same year as the founding of Google and over a decade before the establishment of Kickstarter and probably wasn’t profitable until well into the first decade of the 21st century. Even relatively new properties such as Ava’s Demon, Code Monkey Save World, Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, and Fairy Quest have been put together by comics creators who have devoted significant effort, time, and resources to honing their craft and cultivating a dedicated following among readers.
  2. girlgeniusvol12Kickstarter backers support a diverse array of comics genres: It’s interesting to note that of the top 30 most funded campaigns, only four—Young Protectors, Leaving Megalopolis, Cyberforce Returns, Spinerette—are explicitly about superheroes. The list features a rich mix of humor, fantasy, science-fiction, historical action-adventure, superhero, slice-of-life, erotica, and horror comics. While this pattern seems at first like it contradicts what we see at retail, where superhero comics are far and away the most popular kind sold, we can also interpret this to mean that backers look to Kickstarter for the kinds of comics genres that aren’t priorities at large comics publishers like Marvel and DC. Additionally, if we compare the genres represented in the above list to those in a recent list of bestselling graphic novels and trade paperbacks in book stores, we find better correspondence. Also worth noting is the fact that “big name comics creators” haven’t dominated the top 30 list to the extent that some would expect. Even at the level of the top ten most funded comics, only three titles—Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio, Code Monkey Save World by Greg Pak and Takeshi Miyazawa, and Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett’s Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether—can really be said to have been created by notable print comics personalities with extensive résumés in mainstream comics. Part of that can probably be explained away as established professional comics industry veterans having more comics creation resources and publishing contacts at their disposal and therefore not needing Kickstarter as much as their webcomics-based counterparts, but there are likely to be additional dynamics at work that can further account for this phenomenon.
  3. tomorrowgirldresdencodakPeople will pay for a comic if they think it’s worth it, even when that comic is legitimately available online for free reading and downloading: 18 of the top 30 most funded comics projects, including eight of the top ten, are based on popular free-to-read webcomics. This isn’t just a case of backers preferring to pay for the physical item over the digital artifact. The Penny Arcade Sells Out campaign, for instance, doesn’t offer a physical product—the funding is intended to remove the need for intrusive advertising on the Penny Arcade homepage—and most of the projects offer digital comics rewards for backers alongside print comics rewards. The list demonstrates in very concrete and unambiguous terms what Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow meant when he wrote that “[familiarity] is an important asset in the world of information. It may often be the case that the best thing you can do to raise the demand for your product is to give it away.”

It is that third and final point that has me most excited for the future of comics on the Internet. During Mark Waid’s somewhat controversial 2010 Harvey Awards keynote address, many industry professionals in attendance openly and aggressively challenged his suggestion that “there are ways to make filesharing work for [comics creators] rather than cower in fear that it’s going to destroy us.” It’s still probably too early to say with any certainty that we are looking at a mature, stable, and consistently reproducible model of monetization, but in turning the social capital built up with free webcomics and free digital comics downloads into actual earnings that can be put to use in the creation of even more comics, comics creators such as Rich Burlew, Aaron Diaz, Michelle Czajkowski, Jason Brubaker, and even established “mainstream comics” veterans like Greg Rucka have found one way to use a type of creator-consented filesharing to their ultimate commercial and creative benefit.

Revisiting Season One of The Legend of Korra

The_Legend_of_Korra_-_Book_One,_Air_DVD_cover

Book One: Air of The Legend of Korra was released on DVD and Blu-ray on 9 July 2013

I’ve been rewatching the complete first season of The Legend of Korra on DVD the past two weeks in preparation for writing my review of Dark Horse Books’ The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series Book One—Air. It’s the first time I’ve watched the series since the original airing, and listening to creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino’s audio commentary on the last episode confirmed my initial suspicion that the much-criticized ending to the first season was partially the result of the creators’ uncertainty with regards to whether they would get a second season and their decision to create as much closure as possible given the abbreviated timeline. Now that a second season has been greenlit and is scheduled for broadcast in September, I’m quite interested in seeing how Konietzko and DiMartino will reintroduce narrative tension in a storyline that had every potential source of conflict on the show so neatly and completely resolved in the final episode of season one—the first season of The Legend of Korra and how it was (to some extent) undermined by the decision to neatly wrap up every plot thread in the season’s last five minutes, leaving no questions for the viewer to reflect on, is quite the instructive case in demonstrating the value of the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi as it applies to serial narratives.

Still, I enjoyed watching the show all over again, clumsily executed and disappointing season finale aside. I still think it to be an exceptional animated series for the most part, and really, there was probably only the slimmest chance that it would live up to most viewers’ expectations after the runaway critical and commercial success of Avatar: The Last Airbender. (I don’t know where exactly I would rank it, but Avatar: The Last Airbender is right up there as one of my top five favorite episodic TV shows of all time, and yes, that includes live-action television.)

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6 Responses
    • I loved Korra and can’t wait for the second season, and yeah, the finale was bad. I think it was a case of wanting to provide a closure to the series in case it didn’t get picked up for another season.

      I participated in the Lady Sabre kickstarter. I read it weekly (twice weekly) and that didn’t stop me from putting down money on a collected edition of something that I could read freely anytime I wanted. Part of it is that I’m still very much a floppy guy, another part is that I feel the creators do deserve to get “paid” for the free comics (yes, I know there is ads and such but the point remains..) and not quite sure what the rest is.

      • One thing I did like about the Korra season one finale was the scene with Amon/Noatak and Tarrlok on the speedboat. It had the kind of emotional resonance the best episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender could generate. I’m surprised Nickelodeon didn’t make the director cut the scene, actually… that type of situation (avoiding spoilers in case anybody reading this has yet to see it) isn’t something that I think would be normally allowed in a show with a TV Y7 rating.

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