The Wormworld Saga: A Profitable Webcomic?

I just read the first chapter of the webcomic The Wormworld Saga. It’s too early to tell how good it is yet, but there is definite promise. The setup hits all the clichés of the “imaginative but damaged boy discovers a fantasy world”, but it has a great feel for the childish wonder that should drive such stories, as evidenced in the hidden room at his grandmother’s house. The painted colors are a little chunky and occasionally lifeless for my taste, but the art is undeniably skilled. And the real selling point is its infinite canvas, with each chapter being a single long, long page that the reader keeps scrolling down through. The first chapter doesn’t always take advantage of this, but it does create an absolutely stunning opening, as the downward scrolling leads from the sky to a kingdom below the ground, which morphs back into a real-world scene. And while that glimpse of the other kingdom is the only time this chapter leaves reality, I absolutely love this fanart which uses that same canvas to slowly reveal more and more of an impossible world.

But the content of the webcomic itself, whether it ends up being good or bad, isn’t what motivated me to write this. Instead, I’m fascinated by the way Daniel Lieske, the creator, is hoping to make money from his story.

Webcomics are a tough industry to earn money in. There are maybe one or two exceptions, but that’s only at the Penny Arcade level. Chances are, your favorite webcomic artist is unable to make a living wage at it. Not a good wage, a living wage. And there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to fix that. Donations bring in a little money, but they only seem to have a significant impact when the creator has a story about desperately needing medical care, or having to replace their computer so they can keep making the comic. Basically, it only helps when a popular artist falls even lower than usual below the poverty line.

Most success stories seem to come from people who can point their fanbase towards the other work they’re doing, whether it’s a book (like Ryan North‘s Machine of Death), a t-shirt empire (Jeffrey Rowland‘s Topatoco), or Penny Arcade’s everything (a conference, computer games, and even a card game). I’d put t-shirts into this category, too. The sad truth is that not all good comics make good t-shirts, so this is really a tangential way to monetize your site. It’s a shame, because a great comic creator deserves to be able to support him or herself on the strength of that. I don’t hear anyone arguing that bands should write music and tour for free out of faith that they’ll make a profit on t-shirt sales.

But what else can webcomics creators do? Their product has to be freely available of necessity. If it’s hidden behind a paywall (as Modern Tales used to be), the potential fans are never going to find it. A couple comics have managed to find fans who will pay for “extras”, as Achewood and Goats used to do, but for the most part, webcomics just aren’t going to bring in much direct income unless ad prices skyrocket.

That brings me back to The Wormworld Saga. That first chapter went up last Christmas, and the creator has said that it will take him a full year before the next chapter is available. That’s an impossible schedule to work with. Fans are used to updates at least a couple times per week, and long-form stories are already at a disadvantage on the web. (Meredith Gran recently gave up on a similar experiment. Despite the popularity of her Octopus Pie, she started bleeding readers when she tried to switch to the episodic update format that would made her comic better.) Just a few years ago, a comic made up of “pages” that take hundreds of hours of work each could have never been more than a hobby. But Lieske is hoping to change that with Kickstarter and Apple’s App Store.

His plan, which had already been funded on Kickstarter before I found it, is to create a dedicated iOS app that will let people “buy” each episode for a few dollars. They will still be free online, but Lieske makes an argument that the coloring style and long-scrolling pages make it a natural for an iPad screen. He promises a few extra features, such as higher-quality art, but the main feature is just a way for fans to pay him. If enough people do this, he can turn the comic into his full-time job and churn out new chapters much faster.

I think this is a great sign. iTunes and iPhones have shown us that people are happy to pay a dollar or two for something they like. The key was not in making equivalent content impossible to find for free, but by making the purchase completely effortless. In contrast to Apple’s “BUY” button, even standard PayPal donations are a pain. Wormwood Saga has another advantage in that each new chapter provides a logical point to ask for a couple more dollars. People will feel good about sending such a tiny payment at the same time a ton of new content becomes available. This works out much better than a daily webcomic, where the fans can keep telling themselves they’ll donate in a week or two. Almost a decade since Scott McCloud kicked off a debate about micropayments for comics, we finally have a system that people will use for them.

I can’t help but notice how close this is to the traditional system for selling comics. A new chapter comes out every few months, and fans pay a couple bucks to read it? Hey, I do that at a local store every week! This is a feature, though, not a bug. The print comic system has survived for so long because it  works, and it’s good to see that we (might) finally have an infrastructure in place to do the same thing with a comic that can only survive on a monitor’s infinite canvas.

This won’t be the answer for every comic, but profitable webcomic systems are so rare that any new one is a cause for celebration. If this works out for the long-form stories that are usually disadvantaged online, it’s an even bigger deal.

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  1. October 29th, 2011

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