Posts Tagged ‘ crowd-funding ’

Webcomics Roundup: Trends for 2014

DemonFor me, the most exciting new webcomic in recent months is Jason Shiga’s Demon. As the author of Fleep and Meanwhile, any new project from him is worth a note. He describes this as his most ambitious project to date, though. It’s going to be the story of a man who tries to figure out a supernatural event (he keeps committing suicide but waking up unscathed), which leads to him using math and logic to commit ever-bigger atrocities.

It’s not structured like a typical webcomic. Shiga has already written the 720-page story, and the plot moves slowly, letting the story breathe as if the reader has the whole work in front of them instead of just a daily update. But also, he’s selling subscriptions to receive the comic (as paper or PDF) monthly, with the catch that the subscription will let you read through the story slightly faster than it shows up online. Whether or not that “look into the future” is important, I am intrigued by the idea of supporting a webcomic by buying issues as it comes out instead of maybe buying a book after the fact. You can sign up with monthly Patreon payments or in one lump payment on his site, and you have until the end of April to join in time for the first issue.


Other than Demon, my main focus on this article is looking at current trends in webcomics. Demon introduces one of them very nicely, though: Patreon is becoming a real success, with more and more webcomics signing up. These are almost universally established ones, so I don’t expect it to provide an income for anyone who is new to the scene. Still, it’s wonderful to think that the creators in this popular but low-paying medium might start to earn a reliable income.

Also, I am pretty proud to say that I recognized Patreon’s potential months before any big-name webcomics were signed up. As just another random hobbyist, I don’t usually get to identify trends until they’re already known. This time, though, I can claim credit for a great prediction.


Super-EnigmatixAs an example of a less insightful article of mine, I talked about the blurring lines between print and web comics back in 2011. That was still noteworthy back then, though certainly not a new idea. Three years later, we see this cross-over all the time. If anything, what surprises me now is that the barriers between the two still exist at all. At this point, it’s only the established patterns of their different fan-bases that keep the two apart at all. Creators are moving between these two sides more than ever.

LumberjanesIf you want a couple recent examples, cult artist Richard Sala is publishing his new work as a webcomic. Super-Enigmatix has his usual hallmarks, with horror elements and a visual style like an expressionistic children’s book. The introduction leans heavily on cliché, but it’s building some intriguing elements already. And if you want to see a webcomic creator moving into print, check out Lumberjanes #1, which is out from BOOM! Studios today. This is co-written by Noelle Stevenson, whose Nimona was last year’s best debut on the web.


What does the future hold? I don’t have anything definite to point to yet, but I’m starting to wonder whether we’ll see a move towards syndication or work commissioned by other sites. I first noted this last year regarding all the established talent who was making comics based on NAMCO video games for Shiftylook. But since then, The Nib has opened on the online magazine Medium, serving basically as their comics page. It features everyone from Tom Tomorrow to Zach Weinersmith and Rich Stevens. Stevens has also started making a regular comic for Macworld.

This all seems to be more than just a coincidence, but it’s too early for me to tell if this is really a trend. As far as I know, no one has talked publicly about what work like this pays, and how it compares to running a comic on your own site. I’m very curious about how it impacts the audience, as well. Presumably, these creators are directing their loyal audience to these other sites, and in turn people who frequent Medium and Macworld are learning about comics like Diesel Sweeties. Maybe the key to success will be to maintain this mix to cultivate your dedicated audience while also getting the general public’s attention. Whatever the reason, though, there’s a certain irony to the idea that as traditional newspaper comics die out, their replacements may be finding their way back to a syndication model.

I’ll keep checking in with all these trends as they come up. Meanwhile, if you have any leads on the pros and cons of these new options for syndication, I’d love to hear them.

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End-of-2013 Crowd-Funding Roundup

Back in the middle of the year, I posted a few essays about the current state of crowd-funding. It’s been a while, and I want to check in again with a few links and comments. Crowd-funding is still new and evolving quickly.


Maze of Games cardFirst, some optimistic news. Sometimes I can be cynical about Kickstarter campaigns for unprofessional projects that disappoint everyone in the end, so it’s good to remember the things that they can do that normal commercial ventures can’t.

The Maze of Games was a Kickstarter campaign by Lone Shark Games to create a cool-sounding “puzzle novel”. It completed its funding back in March, but has missed the November delivery date. Earlier this week, the team posted an update to say that the book definitely would not be available on time to deliver as a Christmas present. As an apology, they’re creating a holiday card with an extra puzzle on it. It’s being distributed online to all backers, and if you intended to give the book as a present, you can ask for a physical copy of this card to be sent to you. Lone Shark asked that people only request the hard copy of the card if they needed something to give to someone who would eventually get the book as a present.

Ok, so this is another example of a Kickstarter project missing its timeline, and a card saying “you’ll get this book in a couple months” isn’t as good as actually receiving the book. But I find it pretty impressive that the team could ask backers, on the honor system, to tell them whether they needed the extra collectable card in the mail. I’ll bet you that most people do answer that honestly. The creative team is trying to do something extra for their supporters, and those supporters won’t take unfair advantage of it. I like seeing the community that these campaigns are building.


Broken TelephoneOn a sadder note, I’ve been following Ryan Estrada’s Broken Telephone campaign lately. With less than a week to go, it may still reach its funding goal, but it’s not a sure thing at all. This never should have been a question. Estrada is trusted name in webcomics who has been around for years, and he has a clever idea: Eighteen interlocked stories will be delivered one at a time, “book of the month” style, in which the hero of one story is the villain of another. Estrada is pushing a pay what you want model with a minimum price of only $1, so there’s no reason not to give this one a chance.

A creative, inexpensive product from someone reliable? Why is this having so much trouble meeting its goal? Well, this is the first Kickstarter campaign I’ve seen that really embraces a pay-what-you-want approach. You can get the entire project for $1. $18 gets you a small add-on, and $48 gets a bunch of Estrada’s old comics thrown in. There’s no option for a physical book, because a project delivered in installments only makes sense when digital. So basically, the only motivation to pay more is in supporting the art.

If you do the math, it’s obvious that a lot of people are paying more than the minimum. It still may not be enough, though. This is the first project I’ve seen that really tests whether backer generosity alone is enough to get a new project funded. Pay-what-you-want models have so far been the domain of the Humble Bundle and similar systems, in which people sell already-created works at a discounted rate. Kickstarter is for people to create new things, and so there are costs that can’t be ignored.

I hope the Broken Telephone campaign succeeds. Whether it does or not, though, I wouldn’t encourage people to follow this model in the future.

[Update: The project ended up funding, and getting several-thousand-dollar-boost once it reached the goal. Estrada also pointed out that while this earned less than the similar project he Kickstarted last year, the average amount per backer was higher. He has cultivated an audience that he can rely on to support him in projects like this. I think he’s only netting a few thousand dollars for a year’s worth of work, so I’m not wildly optimistic, but at least my initial pessimism was overblown.]


SFAM panelFinally, you may recall that I was excited about Patreon a few months ago. I hoped that it would provide a way to give webcomics the regular income they needed to keep going for years, since Kickstarter’s model of funding specific projects doesn’t really apply to that. Well, we now have a webcomics artist I really like, Jon Rosenberg, trying the system out! He’s looking for readers to sponsor his continued work on Scenes From a Multiverse, and I really hope it succeeds. All it takes is $1 or $2 a month from is most committed readers.

I’m not sure whether Rosenberg’s campaign is the best test case or not. His bonuses for backers don’t add much value – I’d think that bonus strips and art would be a natural fit for webcomics. Also, his stated goals ($2000-$4000 per month) are pretty high, and he only promises a few comics per week even if those levels are hit. I understand where he’s coming from. Rosenberg has been making webcomics for well over a decade, and now has a decent freelance career to support his family with. His standards for succeeding with webcomics are higher than a lot of young eager artists who would be thrilled to get an extra $50-$100 per comic. I do think a top-tier webcomic deserves to bring in that sort of money, but I just worry about the first high-profile test setting the expectations to that right away.

Either way, though, it’s a reminder that crowd-funding is still changing fast. I hope that Rosenberg’s campaign succeeds, but whether it does or not, I would like to see other people following his lead.

[Update: Rosenberg met his first goal in a little over a week. And in that time, Zach Weinersmith also launched a Patreon site which exploded into the several-thousand-dollars-per-month range almost immediately. I’m thrilled about the potential this new system offers.]

Webcomics Roundup: Q2 Miscellany

I have (as always) been inconsistent lately about my monthly webcomics articles. Not a lot of new ones have grabbed my attention lately, though. Comic Chameleon, which I reviewed on Sunday, is about the only new notable event in the webcomics world that I know of. But I do have several items that seem worth mentioning, even if they aren’t strictly new. Here is a quick list of webcomics miscellany.

(And yes, I did time these articles so that this one could refer to the just-reviewed Comic Chameleon, but they would each count as a different month’s webcomic article. Not that anyone cares but me, I’m sure. You don’t write for an amateur blog in 2013 without being a little bit obsessive, though.)

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Kickstarter as a Brand

I didn’t plan to talk about Kickstarter so frequently on this blog, but I want to briefly bring up what I think is a little-talked-about huge issue for their future.

One of the big controversies of the past week was, of course, Above the Game, a Kickstarter-funded book that promised to help men pick up women. It turned out to a handbook for sexual assault, there was a huge outcry, Kickstarter let the campaign run to completion anyway, and then reversed course to apologize for their actions. (Update: The author has also apologized and offered to change the book. I don’t know the full details, but for the purposes of this article I’m refraining from commenting directly about him.)

I don’t have anything to add to the basic moral issues here. The book sounds disgusting, and Kickstarter’s apology was excellent, as it didn’t try to shift blame and involved concrete steps to demonstrate their sincerity. However, I was surprised at how much people were blaming Kickstarter for the situation, and their statements that this would taint every future Kickstarter project.

The question facing Kickstarter now is whether they are a hands-off service, or a curated brand. For example, I blog through WordPress, and (as far as I know) no company employee ever reviewed my writing for appropriateness. If something like Above the Game were written as a blog, people would be disgusted by it, but I don’t think many people would be calling on WordPress to shut it down. It just wouldn’t occur to them that WordPress, as a company, was responsible for the blog in any way. On the other hand, if that book were being published by a major company like Harper Collins, people would be very upset. Big publishing companies individually choose their titles to fit a brand, and their name is intended to be an indicator of quality.

So what is Kickstarter? Is it a general service like WordPress, or a controlled, curated brand like Harper Collins? Ok, I know it’s somewhere in the middle, but where in the middle does it fall? People who say they won’t trust Kickstarter any more obviously think of it as a brand that can be tarnished, and they’re mad that the company didn’t closely review the book before approving the project. On the other hand, Kickstarter seems to think of themselves as closer to the WordPress model: Their job is to put up the website and manage the money, but every time you back a project, you’re warned that Kickstarter has nothing to do with the creator’s success or failure. People have been sued for crowd-funding campaigns that made promises they couldn’t live up to, but Kickstarter has avoided responsibility even in those cases.

The tension now is that the company and its users have different visions of what Kickstarter is. And though Kickstarter takes legal shelter in their hands-off definition, they definitely profit from the belief that they are a curated brand. You only have to look at the way people react when they hear a project is up on Kickstarter: They’ll send money through that to people that they otherwise would never trust without more proof. Also, Kickstarter does impose restrictions on the types of projects allowed, and they’ll refuse to publish anything that isn’t “art” in some way.

So Kickstarter does make value judgments, imposes restrictions on their projects, and profits from the strength of their brand name. On the other hand, they say that they are just a middleman for the artistic creators, and have nothing to do with the qualities of the actual project. This contradiction cannot last, and it seems that things may be reaching a breaking point. I’m not sure how Kickstarter is going to handle this.

Kickstarter and Fake Excitement

Yesterday, Zach Weiner (aka Weinersmith; he seems to use both names interchangeably) posted his Kickstarter campaign for Trial of the Clone 2: Wrath of the Pacifist. Of course I want it. Trial of the Clone was a hilarious book, and if anything I underrated it with my B grade. But still, there was something that I found really annoying about this campaign.

Trial Of The Clone Stretch GoalsWeiner explained that they were starting with six illustrations in the book, but “we’re letting you decide how many illustrations go into it”. As the funding passed milestones of $1000, $5000, $10,000, and so on, he added more illustrations to the budget. They were “stretch goals”, using the common Kickstarter term. The only problem is that the funding goal was set at $20,000. It had to hit five stretch goals just to get funded, so the real baseline was eleven illustrations. This way, though, Weiner got to send out updates every few hours yesterday announcing that another goal had been hit and he was “amazed by what a freakin’ awesome audience I have”. Even though his previous book raised over $130,000, Weiner claimed surprise that he could get a fraction of that this time. Perhaps he just thought his last book had driven his fans away, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he was faking enthusiasm to encourage more supporters.

This is something that’s starting to irritate me. When Kickstarter first launched, the big success stories were projects that unexpectedly went viral, or people who had quietly built up fanbases for years but hadn’t yet asked for money from them. In those cases, the surprise and excitement is perfectly appropriate. But now that Kickstarter is mature, a new kind of project is dominating: Products by established creators, who can predict fairly well what results they’ll get. That is fine; Kickstarter is for everyone. But we shouldn’t expect them to follow the same model as the unexpected successes.

Right now, everyone seems to believe that you have to go through the excited motions of “the indie project that could” when crowdfunding. In fact, projects like Weiner’s are raising it to the level of (unintentional, as far as I know) parody: Acting amazed that a sequel is on track to do as well as the original, and pretending that we’ve donated enough to unlock stretch goals even before the planned minimum funding is hit.

Stop it. Tell us why your project will be awesome, send regular updates with jokes, production images, or whatever’s appropriate, and otherwise just get to work. Don’t act like your fans are easy to mislead.

On Kickstarter

Kickstarter, in case you don’t know, is a crowdfunding site that lets someone ask for money for their “art” project. They can offer various tangible and intangible rewards for different donation levels, and no one’s credit card is charged unless enough pledges are received to meet a set goal by a set deadline. I probably don’t need to explain that, though; Kickstarter has been a huge source of news and controversy lately.

I started this blog in 2011, and I linked to Kickstarter a few times in that first year. Then last year, I almost wrote an essay about how much my opinion of Kickstarter had changed, but I held back. Now I wish I had posted that, because by now my opinion has changed yet again. So I’m going to put this up as a time capsule, which I can look back on a year or two later with a mix of derision and amazement. I’m sure that in the near future, half the things I thought were worth pointing out here will seem self-evident, and the other half will be horribly wrong.

2011

A couple of years ago, it was just starting to become obvious what Kickstarter could do for people with a small, dedicated fanbase. Beyond that, though, I really bought into the idea that Kickstarter drives were significant on their own. Even though most of the “art” projects are commercial ventures to publish music, games, movies, or something similar, these were grassroots internet movements that would never get commercial traction! Each campaign was still pretty unique, and there was an implication that we should want them all succeed.

My early links reflected this. I pointed to a couple board game Kickstarters, with an explanation that was basically “I wouldn’t buy these, but I want to make sure everyone still hears about them before it’s too late”, and a webcomic’s crowdfunding campaign with the attitude “I just discovered this and there’s not much there to judge it on, but I should recommend it now because the campaign is almost over!”

2012

I became a lot more cynical after those early days, partly because of board game Kickstarters. Board games are tricky to design, and a huge percentage of traditionally published are disappointing. And since this is already a niche hobby, it’s not like the games getting turned down from Rio Grande and Z-Man were just too artsy and non-commercial. They were getting turned down because they were bad, and Kickstarter gave people the chance to sell a game with a cool high concept and no other vetting. Additionally, physical production is more difficult than most people think, and there were some high-profile failures in which people couldn’t deliver on their promises.

All of that can be generalized beyond board games, though: In most cases, people are backing the campaign because they want the eventual product. Sure, there are some projects where people say “the world would just be a better place if it had a statue dedicated to Harvey Pekar or Robocop”, but if you’re treating someone’s new commercial album as a charity, then that seems to be missing the point. Once you decide that a significant part of the funding is done as a preorder, then you need to think of it in commercial terms. Why was no publishing company willing to put their name and money behind this? They would have actually seen it ahead of time and known what they were getting into, so their support is in some ways a very informed endorsement. Why are you willing to buy the product without an endorsement like that?

Even at my most cynical, I definitely found reasons to support certain Kickstarter campaigns. If I was already familiar with someone’s work, and knew that I liked it regardless of its commercial appeal, it was a great opportunity. But for all those interesting-sounding campaigns that I knew nothing else about, I saw no reason to pay attention. They were just high-risk preorders with an especially long waiting time.

Then things got worse, and board games led the way there as well. Kickstarter became popular with a lot of established companies as well as independent dreamers. In short, cashflow is a huge deal to accountants, but most consumers don’t appreciate the value of the $50 that they just pledged on an impulse. Kickstarter let the companies get funding up front, without any traditional stakeholders around to ask pesky questions about whether their investment would pay off. It’s not that I hate this idea on principle; There’s no ideological purity test to art, and if people are willing to give you money, it’s fair game. The problem is that I personally wouldn’t want to buy the game until it was released and I could hear whether it was actually good. Since many games only ever manage a single print run, it became likely that a good game would never become available to anyone but the KickStarter backers.

That’s the point I was at by the middle of 2012: Kickstarter threatened to change the playing field so that the only way to get good products was taking a chance with pre-orders. And that was a step in the wrong direction.

2013

I’ve mellowed out since last year. I still ask the same basic questions: If you want me to back your project, I should have confidence that you can deliver something I’ll like. If there’s not a good reason to be sidestepping traditional funding sources, that will make me more cautious. However, I no longer think of this entirely in terms of venture capital.

The “normal” way to fund a publishing venture is to find people who are confident enough in your work that they’ll risk money, with the goal of making more money. This doesn’t always correspond to “people will like it”, and definitely doesn’t mean that I will like it, but there is some correlation there. Professionals with real money on the line tend to make smart decisions. Last year, I would have said that individual backers were a bad replacement for this. Their investment was money in return for eventual satisfaction, a trade that they can normally make without having to give up their money six months early. I didn’t see the upside for the consumer.

Successful Kickstarters are starting to answer my concerns, by bringing the backers in to the project. The frequent updates they send out, much more personal than the ones that would have been sent to commercial investors, are an extra reward that trickles in throughout those months. Bonus pictures and inside information can add value, and act as interest on the investment. Many projects even offer forums for their backers, creating a real community for people to enjoy. I have to admit that this is a great argument for crowdfunding as a new way forward, rather than a simple replacement of old systems.

Ironically, that doesn’t have a lot of interest for me. Some of the information provided is fun (especially Ryan North’s hilarious updates for To Be Or Not To Be), but I don’t have time for discussion boards and Double Fine’s half-hour videos. The books and music I already want to read take up my time, without each new product needing to entertain me for fifty hours before it comes out. However, even if this isn’t a huge draw for me, it’s really reassuring to see this evolution. We are figuring out how to make crowdfunding projects reward their target audience in ways that couldn’t have happened before. I don’t know what I’ll think in 2014, but this makes me optimistic.