Monday, May 18, 2009

Webcomics as Free Content: A Dissent

Know people who have seen a movie, like Star Wars, 25 or 50 times? I have to admit I'm one of them, because there's a shelf in my house containing comics I've read dozens of times, and still enjoy.

The big difference between those volumes and webcomics is that I own them. Webcomics are merely available at no charge.

That's a big difference. When one of my favorite webcomics, RedMask, dropped off the web without warning, there was nothing I could do about it.

This raises the question, are we really giving our content away for free, as some critics of webcomics assert? I'd say, no, we are giving away the right to view them. Actual ownership costs money. One either downloads them (and who does that?), or buys them as a book. They might vanish from the web tomorrow.

If the price of ownership is degraded by the comic appearing first online, I blame the comic. It simply lacks sufficient depth, execution and quality to produce a reader base that will buy a book. If the book is a cheap printing job with staples, anyone who does buy it will view it as disposable.

Unless over-printed, a good comic anthology should rise in value over time, especially if it's in hardback. Many Fantagraphics titles culminate in a lavish anthology edition, for example. If I buy and like the individual comics, I'll often buy the anthology.

If that doesn't put a kink in the "free content" idea, consider this. For a fully developed comic site with a store, the comic is the TVshow and the store is the commercials. People coming to see the comic will brush against the store, and some will buy. Any message that brings people into a store, or onto a website, is an advertisement, even if it happens to be great art.

If you think of the comic as a brand, then a well-designed t-shirt is brand extension that allows a different kind of participation at a pragmatic price.

I feel it is important that we escape the "free content" mind set.

One reason is that it is belittling. We work too hard to be regarded as something trivial. Many people cannot get their heads around the "free comic/sell merchandise" concept, but if the comic isn't truly as free as they think, it might change their perspective.

Another reason is that many webcomics creators don't plan for a possible book. That's often wise, because many of them wouldn't sell. But the ones that factor in the possibility of a book can have their color settings optimized for printing, consistent page sizes and aspect ratios that make sense for print. They can even optimize their page count, to reduce wasted paper, and other things that you don't know about unless you've had a retired printer corner you at a wedding reception. Planning for print allows you to branch out if conditions warrant.

Once you start making significant money, all that time and effort put into making those commercials -- excuse me, webcomics, sounds like a tax write-off to me. If you make reasonable deductions based on advice from an accountant, then whatever you save is additional payment for creating the comic.

Anyone want to argue that a legitimate business tool you get paid to create and which serves to leverage your other assets, and which becomes a salable commodity over time, does not have value if it is posted on the internet?