Monetizing A Webcomic

[A sketch from a page of something in the works… ]

I’m thinking of drawing a webcomic and my concern is how money can be made from it.

Lest you think me too mercenary, my goal is not to design a comic first to make money but because I want to draw and tell a story foremost; money is just important to facilitate me being able to dedicate time to this webcomic. Do I have a need to be defense about this point? Perhaps it reveals more of myself than I intend, so I’ll admit it: I do share Jonathan Blow’s views on the purity of art — in the linked example, as regards advertising in games. But to say it generally: I’m highly critical of the mixing of money and art. Yes obviously I need to pay rent and eat, and so does everyone.  I hear the “it’s just so” response far too often to justify abuses of commerce upon arts and I think it’s quite entirely unfortunate that discussion does not often get much farther than that. The status quo does not need your banal restatement, it already and overwhelming is!

Besides, if I wanted to make money I sure wouldn’t be trying to draw a webcomic to do it; there are better ways, I assure you. Like making a porn site or Evony Online or something.

So here’s my thought:
One can think of a webcomic as a serially-updated attention-attractor (albeit one with strong narrative themes and characters, which I’ll discuss in a moment). In this, a webcomic is not so different from a small free web-based game like any number of flash portal games, web-based games, or Facebook apps. Farmville, say? Admittedly, I don’t actually play any of these games. They’re usually too … shamelessly commercial.
Q: How do these make money?

A1: Advertising
I guess advertising is an obvious approach for any web site that’s trying to make money. Ads interfere with content, however, and I’d be strongly concerned about having ads anywhere near my artistic vision (says The Artist). Maybe they could appear somewhere on a separate news page, not juxtaposed with the comic content itself; never.

I’m thinking generic and easy to implement here; Google Ads is the obvious answer. Not everyone is Penny Arcade and is an entire ad market and brand in and of themself (and I repeat this to myself over and over, I am not Penny Arcade).

A2: Micropayments
Players of certain otherwise free web games pay money for extra content, for extra-ordinary customization, or to sidestep tedious gameplay time (which speaks to me of a game designer purposely wasting my time, but I digress). I’m not sure how any of these could translate very well to a webcomic because reading the comic itself is about the whole of its content — and what, should I draw five panels and charge money if people want to see the sixth? I’d never stand for that as a reader and I doubt anyone else would.

Although: There could be some kind of extra content or privilege made available for being a “sponsor” or “patron” of the comic (thinking of a marketable name for a donation-giver, ya’see). I’m unsure what this extra content would be aside from more story. “Behind the scenes” content? Preliminary sketches/writing? (Are they really that good or interesting? It worked for DVDs, though “extra features” are too often hastily assembled fluff. More digression.)

The patron/donor bragging-rights idea is perhaps good for the donation model. Get your name on a public list to show off on, if you like. Maybe get a little graphic drawn for you and a personal ‘thankyou’.

A few? games run off donations; at least for beer money. One game that actually gets away with it that I know of is Dwarf Fortress.

Setting out a PayPal link is pretty much default practice for a hopeful webcomic in any event, so it’s something to try. I wonder how well it works. Maybe I’d have to ask some web comic artists how they do at it.

A3: Merch
Think hard-copy books! T-shirts, prints, coffee cups, stickers, print-on-demand Cafepress BS (though ideally not so cheesy). Comics have strong narratives and characters and can get away with merchandizing in a way that most games cannot (so this answer might well be swinging away from the considering-webcomics-as-games conceit, but it should be discussed).

Merch requires an established community of decent size slash enthusiasm as well as a certain amount of up-front investment and energy. Maybe: When the community (when you /have/ a community) starts making t-shirts for itself, you know it’s time to start selling them.  … I saw the DF forums spontaneously begin t-shirt production once…

Ultimately, community building takes time, and time is money, friend.

So here’s my plan:

1: Ads
Consider using low-key-as-possible ads on the comic’s news page and make token efforts to update the news page with something interesting as regularly as the comic is updated. Assuming this comic is a writer/artist team, there should always be someone willing to write something. Be upfront about what the ads mean for the comic; If they don’t work out or prove unpopular, remove them. (Yes, more projection of my strong anti-ad feelings.)

2: Donations
Set out the PayPal tip-jar and beg for change. Make a bragging-rights page for certain levels of patronage with fun icons next to people’s names/aliases. Maybe even custom art for a certain level of donation from a viewer. Do an extra content update if donations exceed a certain amount. This approach could be described as soft-micropayments : donations-with-rewards.

3: Merch
Do merch when/if the community gets to the point where it’d be worthwhile. How exactly to do this can be worried about when the time comes; skills can be learned or someone willing can surely be found from the unwashed masses.

The most important reason why this could work is that I think I can draw better than most webcomics and I wouldn’t write like an idiot — or I know a couple writers who can do that bit for me. (And there I go, wording in my typical negative manner: “Everyone else sucks so much that I can’t fail!”

It’s just a matter of having the time, and time, as said, is money. There is a starting investment to be made that may or may not end up paying off.

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2 Responses to “Monetizing A Webcomic”

  1. Nato Welch Says:

    May I recommend Project Wonderful?

  2. Marc Glasberg Says:

    Scott McCloud and friends discuss micropayments and micro-subscriptions monetization here:


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