05 June 2008

The Economics Of Webcomics

A couple of leading webcomic authors have recently discussed the economics of their art. First, Lara Innes, the force behind the webcomic, The Dreamer, an American Revolution/contemporary American romance comic:

We incurred some hefty fees from an attorney in regards to the future of The Dreamer. It’s good stuff, but it still costs money. You guys also like The Dreamer way too much: this past week you officially maxed out our bandwidth. Which is another good thing, but we had to upgrade our service. . . .

So here’s how The Dreamer works right now: I make absolutely no money. But it’s my full time job. That’s only possible because Mike [my husband] is all sorts of awesomeness and works his butt off so you guys get this web comic each and every Friday for free. Don’t panic: we have absolutely no plans to change that. But Mike’s job only covers our living expenses. And over this past year that I’ve been doing The Dreamer, we’ve incurred all sorts of expenses on the webcomic that have drained our savings. I’m sure you like getting paid for your job…? It would be nice to get paid for mine. :) Out of pocket we’ve had to pay for comic printing costs, convention costs (table space, travel expenses, lodging, food, etc), travel costs (to do my fancy pants research), web hosting space, advertising, art supplies, a new computer/monitor (mine died) which required buying a software upgrade on the entire Adobe Suite, a new scanner (mine died), and my printer died but I haven’t been able to replace it yet. Not to mention attorney fees, copyright fees, printing fees, post office fees, accounting fees, small business registration fees, etc, etc. . . . Here’s the truth: Right now I don’t make enough off The Dreamer to cover the cost of my pencils and paper.

Ms. Innes gets donations, but they are in the three figures, and must choose between freelance work that pays, and her own dream, made possible with spousal financing, despite the fact that her work is gorgeous and popular. Why does she do it, beyond the love of art? In part, she does it because she wants to end up like Gina Biggs.

Gina Biggs, who draws the contemporary romance comic Red String also recently discussed the economics of the format in an interview with her publisher, Dark Horse comics:

DH: Why did you decide to release Red String as a webcomic instead of through a traditional publisher at first?

GB: Ah, that's a fairly easy answer: lack of money. I wish it was more complex than that, but I had learned the hard way with my first self-published comic series that there's a lot more to making comics than just drawing them. If you're printing the traditional way, you need money not only for supplies, but also for printing, marketing, and distributing your story. It's expensive and for someone just starting up, it's a financial drain. When I discovered that webcomics weren't all gag-a-day computer gamer stories I became interested in the idea. I could save some money by posting online and building up my audience there. Then if there was enough interest, I would look into traditional methods as a bonus. Luckily, it's worked out [laughs].

Small comic book publishers (i.e. anyone other than the "Big Two" of Marvel and DC), aren't terribly profitable either and are a labor of love. But like a webcomic author hoping to break into print, comic book publishers are all about bringing it to the next level as well. Even Marvel and DC make only a small share of their money from actually selling comic books to a small but far more sophisticated than you would expect audience. Basically, print publication of comic books is their R&D budget, and is a plus as far as they are concerned if they break even. The money in comic books is in licensing the stories and characters as movies and merchandise.

Adapting comic books to the big screen is much more straight forward than adapting a book, and is a very inexpensive and low risk way to test market new ideas.

Printing a small, short introductory run of a promising new story or set of characters costs a comic book publisher something on the order of $10,000, in addition to some measure of royalties typically tied to sales for the author, some or all of which can be recovered with comic book sales, and is guaranteed to give feedback more honest than a marketing survey. The number of people involved in producing the proof before it goes to the printing stage is usually less than half a dozen, and often two or three. It doesn't take many more people to make a print comic than it does to produce a printed novel.

Successful movies based upon comic books are among the most profitable in Hollywood, but even $20-$40 million dollars is low budget for a comic book based film, with a blockbuster treatment costing ten times a much.

Of course, there is middle ground between webcomics, eBooks, print comics and ordinary books on the one hand, and film on the other. Radio shows and live theater can both cost much more and require far more people than than the former, but are far less expensive and require far fewer people than the latter. Indeed, several chapters of Red String have been produced by fans as radio show style podcasts, which are just as professional in quality as the webcomic itself.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

See also Krugman via Steam Powered Opinions, whose description fits the small revenue streams from webcomics that don't make it big perfectly.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

There is a book on the topic.