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Discussing ‘The Economics of Digital Comics’ with Todd Allen

Todd Allen writes about digital comics and crowdsourcing in his book covering the economics of digital comics.
Todd Allen writes about digital comics and crowdsourcing in his book covering the economics of digital comics.
Todd Allen

Digital comics are gaining more and more buzz in recent years. With the convenience of getting your weekly comic fix with the touch of a button or a tap of the touchscreen it has never been easier to keep up or binge read your favorite comic books. But there are so many different formats to read your comics on from comiXology, to iBooks, to Madefire not to mention Kindle, pdfs and different publishers’ own proprietary software. And with Amazon in the process of acquiring comiXology the entire landscape of digital comics could be changing very fast.

Todd Allen could not have chosen a more interesting time to update his book The Economics of Web Comics into the new edition The Economics of Digital Comics. The last edition was published in 2007 and in the years since there have been many developments to the digital comic experience with expansion and development into all sorts of different devices and ways to read your comics. Not to mention the advent of crowdfunding which has added a new financial platform for creators looking to have their digital books transition to print or simply fund their ongoing creative digital endeavors.

Jumping onto Kickstarter himself, Allen is using crowdfunding to carve out the time to revisit the topic that was the basis of his thesis at NYU. The funding is already a success and the book will be completed by Allen, but there is still time to get in on the Kickstarter campaign with rewards that include digital and print copies of the book.

The Hollywood Comic Books Examiner caught up with Allen to discuss his thoughts on the digital environment and how it has changed in the last few years and a little bit about where it is going.

Hollywood Comic Books Examiner: What is the biggest difference between webcomics in 2007 and webcomics in 2014?

Todd Allen: The digital download/eBook format, things like comiXology or the fixed width ePub 3 format on iBooks, didn't exist in 2007 as we know it today. Part of that was micropayments still trying to get it together. We also didn't have crowdfunding.

Examiner: There are so many different ways to read digital comics and every publisher does it a bit different. Marvel and DC Comics are pretty much set with comXiology, but Image Comics has a variety of ways to get their material and Dark Horse Comics runs their own digital store separate from the others. What does this all mean for the digital landscape and are so many different ways to get books a good thing?

Allen: Whether it's a good thing depends on who you ask. I think not having a universal format is a bad thing. I call it the "Tower of Babel" problem: you can only read Dark Horse's comics in their proprietary format on their own site. Then if you want to read Marvel, you have to go over to comiXology. DC has expanded a little further and you can get their product on iBooks, Nook, Kindle and Google Play. When you start needing to read different publishers on different platforms, it becomes less convenient for the reader.

We also need to see what effect the Amazon acquisition of comiXology has after that closes and they integrate. Right now, you've got DC Comics with their company app powered by comiXology sitting around thinking "If Amazon controls my app and Warner has a disagreement about the price of DVD with Amazon, what's going to happen to my digital comics?" Marvel being a unit of Disney is likely having similar thoughts. While comiXology used to be the place you'd go to get _almost_ everything, it remains to be seen how much publishers will want to centralize their distribution at Amazon, given the style of hardball Amazon's been playing of late.

We could see comics publishers make a concerted effort to widen the distribution channels like DC and Image have been doing. Choice is always good for the consumer and spreads out the risk for the publishers. We could also see more companies follow the Dark Horse route and bring it inside, which isn't necessarily good, depending on whether it's a proprietary file format. Marvel's announced it's intention to sell current issues on their in-house Marvel Unlimited App, but nobody really knows what they're doing with the rest of the market when their comiXology contract expires.

Eventually, there's going to be enough extensions to ePub that comics will automatically be put in that format. There needs to be a little more work done and the readers all need updating, but that's coming along. Comics could really use a standard format like music has with .MP3.

Examiner: More and more we are seeing creators of webcomics turn to Kickstarter to turn their digital comics into print collections. Most notably “Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether” and more recently “Strong Female Protagonist” both were outrageous successes. How does this potential for crowd sourcing affect the creators of the webcomics?

Allen: Funny you should mention Lady Sabre. I read the archives straight through last week. There are actually two forms of crowdfunding now, both with their runaway successes and both with the caveat that it works a whole lot better if you already have a fanbase. The most interesting thing about crowdfunding is that when I was starting my research on this a decade ago, webcomics would experiment with tip jars and the results would vary widely and they also were inconsistent from month-to-month.

The traditional project-based crowdfunding, things like a Kickstarter campaign, is a hybrid of people wanting to show support for a creator, pre-sales and and then a bit of exclusive specialty items on the high end. The most common use is getting one or more book collections in print, and if you're dealing with a color book that means funding at least a 2,000 copy print run. Some webcomics did offer pre-orders before Kickstarter came around, but Kickstarters have become something of a cultural phenomenon and much easier to promote. The highest grossing Kickstarters will have high-end items like original art for $100-$500 each or possibly a speaking engagement with the creator for a few thousand dollars. Things that it might be a bit more awkward to sell on a webcomic's site and can put a lot towards the annual budget.

The newest variation on crowdfunding is a company called Patreon. They're a little more than a year old and just got $15M in funding. They announced that 6/23. Patreon takes the form of monthly pledges. Creators ask their fans to pledge a small amount, say $1-5/mo for their enjoyment of the work. Patreon runs the credit card each month. It's essentially a subscription. Unlike Kickstarter, which is more often than not about a physical object, Patreon is about the creation of digital content. There's also an option to pledge per piece of work that's more popular with music videos. The big winner here is the SMBC webcomics which is pledged just under $8500/mo. http://www.patreon.com/zachweinersmith

The thing with crowdfunding -- it isn't easy to do if you don't already have a following. SMBC has a monthly audience in the hundreds of thousands, for example. It's easier to come out of nowhere with the Kickstarter style project, but "easier" is a relative term.

Examiner: What is the primary misconception about the money when it comes to web and digital comics?

Allen: It takes time to build up to where you're making a reasonable amount of it. Webcomics take a year or two to get established and if you're doing something that doesn't extend into merchandising very well, you're going to have to see what kind of advertising you can get while you wait out having enough material to collect in a book. Digital downloads have some barriers they have to burst through, since that format is still dominated by the work of print publishers.

Examiner: Which of the topics in your new book do you find most exciting to write about?

Allen: I'm looking forward to seeing how far I can crack open the black box of digital comics sales.

Examiner: Now that you have blown past your original goals for the book, do you have any plans for stretch goals or additional content for the book?

Allen: I'm playing that by ear for right now. I cut all of my labor out of the goal, which was the original spirit of crowdfunding. Now I'm moving forward and, while I have the startup costs in hand, the pledges effectively start going towards my time writing. I'm hoping people are interested in the topic and pledge to get a copy of the book. At a certain point, the material needs to stand on its own. The goal was funding in 19 hours, which was a little faster than I expected, but that means the book is go and I'm a bit less stressed out while talking about the campaign.

Thank you to Todd Allen for his time in answering our questions. For more information about Allen and his work and to check out The Economics of Digital Comics Kickstarter campaign click here.