Captain Nihilist Storms the Paywalls, or the controversial rebirth of Webcomics.com

Pay for online content? Ridiculous!

That’s what I would say if I haven’t, in the past, been guilty of such a thing. I was once a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal Online, an essential resource to surviving business school.

There were other cases as well.

One time, a fantasy novelist came up with the brilliant and risky idea to put his in-work novel online piece by piece. If you wanted to see the story progress, you could do so by signing up to a low one-time fee. I and several other loyal readers ponied the cash to get exclusive story updates, special access to message board forums, and artwork — some painted by the novelist himself. This novelist was an early adopter, putting his book online before Stephen King made it cool.

The project folded. The author finished up his novel and the subsequent sequels the old fashioned way: sending his work to the publishers and having it released in book form. Still, I wonder if that system may have been like that online book I paid for may have seemed utterly silly back in the day, but with things like iTunes and digital readers in the market nowadays, a paid subscription seems less ridiculous now.

Now webcomics.com is putting their content behind a paywall, and folks are hopping mad. Some are understandably upset that Brad Guigar seemed to thrust this onto readers all of the sudden and without warning. Some aren’t happy that they wrote articles for what seemed like an all-access blog, and they’re now commodities for a pay system. Others are miffed Scott Kurtz, who should probably be on his best behavior to win people over to this new business model, is still acting like Scott Kurtz. I’ve read a few articles on the matter. The best assessment, I think, comes from longtime webcomic blogger Eric Burns-White at his Websnark blog.

A loyal Webcomic Overlook reader twittered me recently and asked what I thought about the webcomics.com situation. Now my opinions on the matter are fairly poor, since I was only a casual reader of webcomics.com when it was free. Plus, I’m not a webcomic artist. I like to think of myself as more of a writer. In other words, I’m way more likely to pony up cash if Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips went under a paywall.

But anyway, here’s my thoughts, however worthless they may be.

Charging for online may be counter-intuitive based on evidence in the last ten years. However, the fundamentals of economy changed, and things that worked in the past might not work now. Unemployment is up. People are being frugal. Ad revenue just ain’t what it used to be. And premiums for exclusive members don’t seem quite so ridiculous. The model of free information that was once so deliciously alluring now seems like a lost opportunity.

Welcome to the 2010’s.

Do I have doubts that the new webcomics.com model will succeed? Hell yes I do! I give this pay model the same odds of success as the New York Jets reaching the Super Bowl.

The PR around putting webcomics.com under a paywall could have been much, much better. But… I will give Guigar and pals the benefit of the doubt. Robert Khoo is helping out with this endeavor. You know, the guy primarily responsible for transforming Penny Arcade from a simple webcomic into a brand that competes with the E3 gaming expo for gamers’ attention. Pretty damn impressive. I don’t know how much input he had into the subscription model, but I’m sure he has a better finger on the pulse of business better than any webcomic cartoonist out there. (Also, I may be biased, since he and I are fellow grads of the UW School of Business. Go Huskies.)

So I got no fight with the business model. Yet.

The big question, though, is webcomics.com ultimately worth your thirty pieces of silver? Let’s see what these upstanding fellows promise to offer. Here’s their pitch from their very own subscription page:

Webcomics.com has established itself as a tremendous resource of practical information for webcartoonists. By joining today you will have access to:

* Frequent updates of news, advice, tutorials and strategies by webcomics veteran Brad Guigar.
* Monthly contributions by webcomics pioneer Scott Kurtz and Penny Arcade’s Business Guy, Robert Khoo.

This, I suppose, is the money line … and it’s just not much sex appeal here. I think Brad Guigar is a great guy, and Scott Kurtz can be funny when he reigns it in. But do they have much to offer that goes beyond common knowledge? When I was reading webcomics.com, it struck me that the most useful articles — the ones that got into the nitty-gritty of using Photoshop and Flash — didn’t have either Guigar or Kurtz as a byline. Additionally, when it comes to content, both Guigar and Kurtz are hampered by the narrowed focus on small gag comics that aren’t much different than the ones you find in the newspaper. Webcomic creators looking to play around with long-form comics might not find much content tailed to their needs.

Mr. Kurtz’s displays blustery confidence of their collective knoweldge, especially Robert Khoo’s. Here’s a comment he posted on Robot 6: “Could you PLEASE link me to the free site that offers webcomic business advice as good as Robert Khoo’s? I would love to take advantage of that resource IMMEDIATELY!”

But, you know, as much as I admire Robert Khoo, when he came in Penny Arcade was already the most read webcomic on the internet. If you read the alumni profile, his main influence early on was to increase profit by restructuring the advertising model to develop a strong repartee with their gaming audience.

Inspirational, yes. But how useful is that for webcomic artists who are only now struggling to get recognized? Maybe I’m snarky, but I’m guessing that most people who are thinking to subscribe to webcomics.com don’t already have a built-in legion of loyal gamers to sell to.

* Personalized features like a new e-mail-based organizer to help you plan for upcoming conventions.
* Feedback and guidance for your comic and the small business you’ll create running it.
* A fully rounded, indexed repository of two year’s worth of information that you can use to help improve your work.

Not being a convention goer, I have no idea if the first point is useful or not. Is it more useful than managing things yourself using Microsoft Outlook and bugging your local comic shop owner about the nearest comic book conventions? Heck if I know. I imagine there’s probably value in having all convention matters congregated in one easy-to-use spot, but, again, it’s not something that Google can’t handle.

The “feedback and guidance” may be useful if it extends beyond “you’re going to get replies from us (Guigar, Kurtz, and Khoo) on the comment board.” Not holding my breath on this one.

The last is a bit tricky. Eric Burns-White reports from his blog: “… in what seems just the tiniest bit skeevy, a good amount of the content on the site (especially recently) came from third party writers. Long time friend of Websnark Abby L. was one of them. They apparently got no warning this was happening. There is no word on whether or not they will be compensated for their work. I do know that Abby was absolutely thrilled to have been published there, was shocked that suddenly her work would be locked behind a paywall (making it significantly harder to use either for her resume or to point people to it in general), and disheartened at what felt like a a slight. She posted comments in the announcement to that effect. Guigar, to his credit, was willing to take her content off the site, and since has marked all the third party essays as hidden until the individual writers can decide if they want them to remain, but that’s something that should have been dealt with well in advance of making this move.”

I hope Mr. Guigar addresses this one swiftly, because if those articles are missing, it severely diminishes the value of that “two year’s worth of information.”

(EDIT: In the comments below, Mr. Guigar mentions that a solid majority of the articles — four updates a week — were authored by him, so there is indeed a large backlog of information available.)

* A moderated, passionate, supportive community of webcomics creators.

If this means the guest contributors and commentors on webcomics.com … I admit, they are a very bright bunch. But, then again, so are a lot of folks at, say, the Truth and Beauty Bombs forum. Also, I noticed quite a few of these creators have their own blogs, which are not currently under paywalls.

* Inside information on conventions, vendors and other entities that webcartoonists access to advance their businesses.
* Deals on merchandise.

For a low subscription of $30 per year, you will have access to all of this plus the entire Webcomics.com archives, one of the most helpful and supportive forums for creative people on the Web, and several members-only offers.

As we arrive to the final portion of this pitch, I come to the sudden realization that Guigar and company are trying to transform webcomics.com from a casual blog to a professional trade organization like the Society of Automotive Engineers … except for online comics. You’ve got your seminars (online), inside information, and contacts with vendors for a yearly fee. All that’s missing is your own laminated ID card identifying you as a member.

Pretty sneaky, sis!

All of this is fine. However, this also means that the new webcomics.com is not for me. I should probably save the $30 for unlimited lattes or something. Heck, even the Society of Automotive Engineers wasn’t for me… and I was an automotive engineer at the time. The only thing it got me was the monthly magazine, which I barely read. I didn’t go to SAE conventions. I didn’t take advantage of the contact network. I canceled my membership to that within a year. When you realize that blogs are the new magazine, the comparison to Webcomics.com doesn’t sound so bizarre. Perhaps the concept would get more respect with a snazzier name: The Society of Serious Webcomic Businesspersons, for example.

Will subscribing to webcomics.com make you a better webcomic creator? Like any other creative/professional society, it depends on what you can get out of it.

Still, I have my doubts. I’m reminded by that online book I subscribed to a long time ago. It was a concept that was way ahead of it’s time and could probably work today, but being an early adopter sometimes means that you might not have all the pieces to make it a success.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on January 12, 2010, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Nice to see you back!

  2. I want to clarify one thing in your piece. As you stated, all third-party articles have been hidden until author permission can be obtained.

    The old forum, likewise, has been turned into a readable, searchable archive available without a subscription.

    Your comment that “it severely diminishes the value of that ‘two year’s worth of information,'” however, is way off the mark.

    There have been about thirty guest-writers at Webcomics.com since 2008 — the majority of whom wrote only one piece for the site. None were regular contributors. The most prolific guest might have topped out at four or five total.

    The rest of the posts (four updates a week for two years with few exceptions) were written by me.

    Oh, and we made a pretty significant announcement on the site today.

    • Huh. I coud’ve sworn there were more guest writers. I suppose on the few time I’d logged in, guest writers were being prominently displayed on the main page. Thanks for your comment, Brad. I’ve included an editorial note in my blog post.

  3. You might be confusing the site posts with the forum posts — the later of which are all available publicly as a searchable, readable archive. In any event, thanks for the clarification. :)

  4. Given the post today on webcomics.com offering a discount to exhibitors at the Chicago’s Comics and Entertainment Expo, I see a bright future for the site if it continues to team up with various services and affiliates.

    For example, since many beginning webcartoonists are looking for services to help them get their feet off the crowd, it might be fruitful for webcomics.com to partner with some of these companies. They would get paid to endorse certain services, and the subscribers would get discounts to help make their subscription worthwhile. Some useful services might be print-on-demand (like comixpress or Ka-Blam), flyer printing (like vista print), button printers, fulfillment, convention services, and more. This is something I predicted at my site last week, and the Chicago’s Comics and Entertainment Expo deal may be an indication that something like this is going to happen.

    It’s still unfortunate that the community was cannibalized for this business opportunity, but it’s their site, and it may turn out to be a good business decision for them.

    • It also sorta validates my prediction that this is going to be a trade association instead of a blog. Like I said, I’m not confident of it’s success, but if Khoo’s involved I’m sure they’re in good hands with respect to business resources at least.

  5. …trying to transform webcomics.com from a casual blog to a professional trade organization…

    AH! Now that’s a good thing to do.

    I mean, all of those small webcomic creators who are following Halfpixel’s every word in the hopes that they too can see their comic career dreams come true will get more than just some marketing talk. Their money will also get them regular promotion from much bigger websites that will enable them to snag the audience they need to make all of the marketing advice usable!

    It’d make sense for an organization designed to help the little guy. All of these guys benefited from the patronage of far more popular websites, so they’d definitely turn around and do the same for their subscribers.

    Good, practical help for the small webcomic creators who are placing $30/ year onto the men they trust to help them. Now THAT is some admirable shit right there. I applaud this move.

  6. Brad, thanks for always discussing this matter in a calm, reserved manner. It’s refreshing!

  7. It seems more and more likely the Jets could go to the Superbowl, so has that impacted your opinion about webcomics.com? Hehehe.

    • That’s why I said Jets and not, oh, the Bengals. I’m not saying it’s 0%. I mean, it’s close to 0%, but it’s not 0%. That’s whatcha call hedging your bets, son. :)

  8. The site wasn’t worth my interest before the paywall. Does that make me “not serious” about my webcomic?

    Hell, I’ve only spent 4 years on it. And I had the audacity to take maternity leave. So, I guess not. 9_9

    I haven’t read the book, but I’m presuming that there won’t be much more info on the site that you can’t get in the book anyway. Not that…I mean, really? There’s advice and info and ideas every which way. Unless you’ve got no common sense, why do you need a how-to book to be serious about your webcomic? And these damn models are all for gag-a-days anyway. I do a comic that has no catchy phrases to put on t-shirts. Puts me outside of most business models.

    I spend a couple hundred dollars or so out of pocket every year working to promote my comic. My co-artist puts out just as much. $30 to this site isn’t going to save me costs on printing or going to conventions, is it? Oh, I see…$60 off Chicago expo tables. So, $30 off once you get the membership. La. ’cause I can afford C2E2. Haha.

    Yeah, if I had $30, I’d be renewing my dA subscription, thanks.

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