Dealing With the Post-Scarcity Digital World

Posted on January 4, 2011
Filed Under comics | 4 Comments

When I write a long post that gets any sort of traction in the blogosphere, invariably some drive-by commentor will refer to it as “rambling.” Generally they do this on posts where I try to tie together multiple different stories into a larger meta-story. This will be one of those. Don’t bother bitching about this post rambling, you have been warned.

About six weeks ago I along with the whole online comics world read the post that Colleen Doran made about online piracy. I’m old enough that when I was a teenager I bought a complete run of the black and white magazine sized A Distant Soil published by WaRP Graphics. I’ve purchased sporadic issues of her more recent issues of that series, both when it was self-published and via Image Comics. I’ve got about as much affection for her and her work as any comics fan. Even so, I found her piece full of assertions as fact that just didn’t seem to hold water to me. She lost me in the second sentence of the piece:

Like many artists, I’ve seen my sales figures chipped away as the print market shrinks due, in no small part, to rampant online piracy.

I agree with a lot of her sentiment and desire to control her own work. It is her work, she should be able to make the decisions. However, I think laying sales woes on online file trading is probably incorrect but definitely unproductive. Here is my take on Colleen Doran’s sales woes. I mentioned above that I’ve been buying her work on and off for 27 years. Between 1993 and 2008 I was not buying comic books regularly. I’d pop in to a shop every 6 months, buy what looked interesting and leave. However, since 2008 I’ve been pre-ordering them, going through Previews each month and going into my local shop almost every week. After two solid years of comic shop trips and perusing the catalog closely each month, I had no idea Collen Doran was still in the comics business. I hadn’t noticed any work of hers, I hadn’t read any news stories about her. I had no idea that she was publishing a webcomic version of A Distant Soil. I’m friendly to her work and willing to buy it, but didn’t even know any of it was being published. It wasn’t online piracy keeping me from paying her, it was having no idea she had purchasable work. I’d say when people like me are so far outside, that’s Colleen Doran’s true problem and it is a systematic, catastrophic, long-term one.

Update 1: After publishing this post, I went back and reread some more Colleen Doran writings. The more I read, the less I understand her position. She’s putting most of the series online herself. It’s out there both published by her and in bootleg versions put online by others. Other than a loss of control I don’t really see an effective difference either way. Anyone who wants can get it either way. This just doesn’t seem to be worth the mental energy she puts into it. She also makes much of “getting depressed” when she saw 145 different sites sharing it. Out of curiosity, I googled for “a distant soil bittorrent”, opened up the torrent for the top hit. It’s been sitting there for 15 minutes and there are no seeders for it. Is it possible that of her 145 sites none of them have any active seeders and so the entire thing is a phantom issue? Seems possible to me. End Update 1

Update 2: As an experiment after the above, I tried to find an active torrent or download of A Distant Soil. in 15 minutes I couldn’t find one that worked. I found bogus links and bullshit sites and torrents with no seeders but no successful downloads. So why does she care so much if there are 145 different sites with dead torrents or if some of her webcomic traffic comes from those looking for torrents. Take your traffic where you can find it. The more I dig into this, it just seems churlish to declare a feud against those people who care enough about your work to search for it or who know your name and care to look for it. That seems like a rare enough occurrence to be something to be enjoyed rather than hating them for having the wrong intentions. Most people don’t care about any cartoonist at all of any stripe. End Update 2

Not long after reading her piece, I saw this interview with Mark Waid about his current views on digital comics. He has basically the opposite take as Ms. Doran. He’s a lot more like J. A. Konrath is on the topic of Kindle sales. Rather than fighting the future, he’s trying to find a way to get in front of it and use the ease of digital publication along with the ubiquity of devices that can read comics as a way to make money and rekindle the waning reader base.

Waid also cited in that interview the case of Steve Lieber engaging with 4chan community when his series Underground was being bootlegged on the site. As a result of his constructive engagement, sales on the series went way up. This is the part that feels to me like a missed opportunity over and over in these types of exchanges. Teachable moments are allowed to pass over and over, so good on Lieber for actually turning this into something positive.

Last Balticon I was on a panel that dealt with a topic sort of like this. (You can download the audio here.) There was a question from the audience about how to deal with it when you put art online and someone else takes it without authorization and sells unauthorized merchandise. My answer was that they are making the merchandise and either making money or losing money. If they lose money, that’s what the bastard deserved. If they are making money, then they are taking value that is rightfully yours. However, if you were not previously filling that market with authorized merchandise, this was a problem and you probably should. As much as it sucks to have others fooling with your creative property, they also demonstrated to you the market exists and you need to be in it. If you do have legitimate merchandise out there and the bootleggers can outcompete you with your own fans, you need to understand what has gone wrong there and fix it, post haste.

In the time since I began writing this post (24 hours and counting), I listened to Webcomics Weekly episode #71. In it, they mention Doran by name as having an approach that they find as counter-productive. Scott Kurtz described his ideal approach – not necessarily what he is doing but what he hopes to do in 2011 – as “giving away the infinite and charging for the scarce.” This show contained much discussion about that topic and how to find the scarce to charge for. The working principle is that when this is achieved, all the infinite that you give away serves as free advertising for the scarce. As an example from another participant on that show, Dave Kellett’s Sheldon webcomic has a link under every single comic that allows you to buy the original art. The strips that gain some virality tend to get snapped up, but without being precious Kellett has a built in income stream directly from the art and independent of any other merchandise or advertising. He charges $125 for daily strips and $155 for color Sunday strips. Obviously they don’t all sell, but this means that he has an income stream that could be as much as $45K a year just from original art if he actually sold all the pieces. In this way, Kellett has an incentive to get as many people excited about the strip as possible because then he has potential customers for his art, the books and all other merchandise. The daily strip, the infinite, is given away. The scarce he charges for.

One time comic book artist and now teacher and rabble rouser Stephen R. Bissette blogs at least once a day, sometimes many times. He also puts up for sale a sketch every week. Judging from the prices he probably nets around $5K a year just from these sketches. I’m not solely flapping my gums (or fingers) on this topic. I’m a long-time fine of Bissette’s since he did Swamp Thing in the 1980s. Last week his sale sketch was one of Captain Beefheart and I liked it, so I bought it. I do actually support artists and try to give them my money especially when I can get something cool for it.

Bissette has been going through a long slow exchange with Cerebus creator Dave Sim about the responsibilities of creators and particularly collaborative teams. I watched Sim’s odd but fascinating Cerebus TV episode about Bissette where he discussed these issues and how creators should strongly lean towards self-publishing and not trusting companies or other creators to manage their interests for them. As Sim stated in the episode “Creators should take care of their own business because it is their business to take care of.” His context was more about co-creators such as Alan Moore deferring from decision making but it is equally applicable in the context I’m discussing. I highly recommend anyone interested in this topic watch the episode. It appears that after one episode rolls off there is no way to see it again so time is of the essence, friends.

Bissette is also responding to Sim via his blog. Because Sim has no computer and has never used email, this correspondence is taking the form of Bissette replying by blog to missives that Sim types up and faxes him. It’s downright adorable. SRB’s end of the conversation includes Sim’s faxes so it is easy to follow along with the thread and I eagerly await each new entry.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Back to where we started, with Colleen Doran blaming widespread digital piracy for lowered sales figures. That’s an assertion that fails the test of Occam’s Razor. The comic book industry, from publishers through distributors and on to retailers, is a systematically screwed up and dysfunctional affair that has spent 20 years slowly driving the customer base into spending its money in other places. Via Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter (the only comics blog I follow regularly), I see directly or via Tom’s links much discussion of the long slow crisis of making money in comic books. One recent example was this extensive interview with commentator David Brothers. It included a what Brothers sees as a prescription for fixing the ailing market:

Publishers need to start thinking long-term. Marvel publishes too many comics. DC publishes too many comics. At one point this year there was what, 19 separate Batman-related titles? How many series are out right now that star Thor? I would slash and burn their lines.

In that two years since I came back to comic book buying as a regular customer, I’ve grown unbelievably weary of the market saturation, the ridiculous company wide “events”, that last for a few months or a year and are immediately followed by another event. Marvel Comics goes from Secret Invasion to Civil War to Dark Reign to Siege. I can see how this presents an impediment for new customers jumping onboard. I’m a 35+ year reader of Marvel Comics and it presents an impediment to me. DC is just as bad with Blackest Night/Brightest Day. I just don’t care. I hate these things and I think these publishers are killing their own companies and industry with them.

Comics retailing is also it’s own weird world with logic that nowhere else would you hear. For example, practically anytime I’ve gone to any comic store and asked for a series I didn’t see on the shelf – my regular store or any that I visit – I will hear “We don’t carry that because no one buys it.” It’s like clockwork. This item that I want to buy, for which I have money in my wallet and a desire to purchase isn’t stocked and it isn’t stocked because no one buys it. That’s why I can’t buy it right now with the money in my hand, because no one buys it. This makes sense in comic book world, mainly because there are so many titles published by the big guys that no shop can afford to sink in the capital to stock everything.

Personally I think every comic shop should always buy at least one issue of every comic that comes out so they never have to turn away customers because “no one buys that.” Most grown up retailers in normal businesses have tight enough inventory controls to know when they have sold out of an item that has become popular and the ability to get more in. How can you grow your customer base if you don’t carry what new customers want? How can you get your current customers buying new and different products if you don’t have them in? This, Ms. Doran, I think is a far worse threat to the sales figures of A Distant Soil than any amount of digital piracy could ever be. It’s that stores won’t stock your comic even if and when it comes out because “no one buys that.” I would be willing to buy it, except if I don’t pre-order it specially I’ll never see it.

Just for historical fun, I dug out my copy of Ultra Klutz #6 from 1987. Jeff Nicholson printed the circulation figure in each issue of the run. I picked one far enough in that any first issue effects were gone so it would be a more typical result. Issue #6 had a circulation of just under 10,000. This was a weirdo, oddball self-published comic and 23 years ago it sold just barely under 5 figures. A print run that size today would outsell almost all indie comics and some of the offerings from Marvel and DC. The market has shed enough size in one generation that the previous era’s outlier would be today’s solid performer.

Let me close this off with the story of the one and only time I have illegally downloaded online comics. In October, the Walking Dead television show was getting ready to debut on the air. I’ve had people recommending the Walking Dead comic book as one of the best (or the very best) ongoing series. I never doubted any of the recommendation, but the comic was a long-running series already in the 70s. From all accounts, it was a series with meaningful deaths and ongoing spoilers such that I wouldn’t want to read it any other way than starting at the beginning and reading all the way through. There are collections of the series available but the first volume wasn’t in stock anywhere convenient to me. I wanted to read some of the series before watching the show, so I ended up looking for (and finding) a bittorrent of the scans of the first 76 issues. Within 20 minutes of finding the torrent I was reading the first issue. By the time I had read the first 10 issues, I was hooked and the next time I went into my regular comic shop I added it to my pull list. I watched the TV series and enjoyed it quite a bit. I’m now involved in the franchise in all media.

I had several options for getting involved in the series but all of them presented barriers to entry of price or convenience or both. Once I tried the frictionless no-risk proposition, I got immediately hooked and flipped to a customer. More than practically any other product, comic book fans are completists and spazmos. Although I have digital versions of the first 76 issues, in the long run that won’t satisfy me. I’m buying the series from here forward and either via collections or single issues I’ll end up owning the whole run one day. Yes, I violated Robert Kirkman’s copyright with the download and I suppose he could be angry about it, possibly sue me or even bring legal action. The other option would be to shrug, say “F it” and be happy that in a world absolutely awash in ways to spend my discretionary income and leisure time he managed to capture any of it by any method.

That’s where I’m going to end this long and discursive entry. I did wrong with my download and those who share Ms. Doran’s work are doing wrong. However, this tale of sin has the possibility of redemption and if she desires it and is willing to deal with the present reality I think she can still make money and still be happy in this new world that is a mix of digital and corporeal. It requires dialing down the umbrage, dialing up the pragmatism, putting out product that is available for the fans you nurture and engage. Give them a better experience buying the legitimate from you and they will. Give away the infinite and sell the scarce. May Colleen Doran and Steve Bissette and Dave Sim and Dave Kellett and Steve Lieber and Scott Kurtz and Alec Longstreth and Jon Chad and every other cartoonist who spends their precious days at a drawing board or computer make the living they desire and get the happiness they deserve. Amen.

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4 Responses to “Dealing With the Post-Scarcity Digital World”

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  1. Shannon on January 5th, 2011 1:37 am

    The exact same discussion goes for music: find the individual songs online, then buy the back catalog, buy the live tickets, buy the t-shirts.

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  3. Derek Coward on January 5th, 2011 1:56 pm

    When I read the story of Steve Lieber and Underground, I made sure to spend the little money I had to get the digital copies that he was making available on his site.

    Beyond that, this is a great blog post and I hope more people (creators and consumers) read and GET it.

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  5. Dan Conover on January 5th, 2011 4:37 pm

    Actually, I think the comics industry is one of the better examples of opportunity for individual creators, since (as you’ve pointed out) there are so many functional revenue streams available to people who draw pictures that tell stories (or jokes).

    Music is probably right up there, too, not that you could tell from all the high-amplitude whining.

    It’s much harder to recoup for people who work in movies, which require collaboration between large groups and huge upfront costs. And while long-form writers don’t have any difficulty releasing an e-book, it’s much more difficult to get some stranger to read a 100,000-word book than it is to get them to glance at your clever picture. And while I can sell the original art of my cartoons or print them on coffee mugs, what am I supposed to do to crossmarket my book?

    So yeah, cartoonists: Buck up.

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  7. dave on January 5th, 2011 8:25 pm

    Shannon, and you know what? I don’t believe I’ve heard much about music downloading in the last few years. Looks like ubiquitous $0.99 availability solves that problem.

    Derek, I think Lieber is a great example of how little constructivity it takes to buy some goodwill with the nerdosphere.

    Dan, #1 thing the self-published novel writers can do is to price their ebook such that it falls below the “F it” price level, the one where it is easier to just buy the book now than try to remember to do it later. #2 is to have non-janky cover art that looks appealing at all scales that it will be used.

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