Webcomics: Making Money

Well it’s November, and coming along with snow, ice, and people who can’t drive on winter roads, Christmas and the consumer money-spending frenzy that follows is just around the corner. People are out there hungry to spend money, and in the spirit of such, there are a lot of webcomic creators who’s wallets are very hungry to capture some of that action.

In the spirit of the season, this month, I’ll be talking about various ways and tips about making money, monetizing, and merchandising your webcomic, and finally what it takes to make a living at your webcomicing dreams. This first article is about what you need to begin making money on your webcomic.

For a lot of webcomic creators, there is a sort of ultimate dream of one day being able to make a living off doing the thing they love. Of course, in order to make your webcomic your day job it has to do the one thing that comics have never really been known to do easily; make money.  So how do you do it?

Are you ready?

There should be a caveat mentioned here, before we delve into the part that most people are eager to get into, and that is a little self check. While anyone with an audience of any size can begin on any of these income streams, you aren’t going to see any kind of significant income until you have achieved a certain audience ‘critical mass’. If you’ve only got a few dozen, or even few hundred readers, you won’t be making money hand over fist. You might make 10 bucks here or 3 bucks there. Some options won’t even be available to you until you have grown your audience to an appreciable size. I should also mention, these audience members need to be real bodies, not just hits on your webalizer logs.

You will also need to really KNOW your audience, in order to maximize your efforts towards the income streams that will yield the best rewards. It may take some experimentation, but be prepared to pay close attention to performance of certain items, particularly things like merchandise. It will give you real numbers of where to put your efforts.

There is also no instant success in this endevor. Just like it takes time to build an audience, it takes time once you start monetizing to realize income. It will trickle, then dribble, then trickle some more, then flow, and it may never torrent.

The key word is “Diversify”

If there was any one tip that I can glean from those who’ve actually managed to cultivate an income stream from their comics, this would be the number one piece of advice.

Unlike traditional income sources, most webcomic income sources yield only a small amount of money at a time. In order to get that minuscule cash flow up to a river of sustainability, one has to funnel several of these cash trickles into the proverbial funnel. Some of the routes hail from more traditional business models. Merchandising and print sales are among these, but these, like many traditional methods, cost money to make money (to a degree). Others involve more blood and sweat from you, but less cash up front.

Let’s take a look at several different ‘trickle’ sources. They include:

  • Website Advertising
  • Premium Content
  • Merchandise Sales
  • Donations
  • Affiliate programs
  • Subscription Services

Most of the comics who support themselves employ most of these methods, although the more sketchy ones such as micropayments and donations may become dropped off as ‘legitimate’ profits from advertising or merchandise begins to take off, although for any webcomic to make money, there is a sort of ‘critical threshold’ in terms of traffic that must be achieved. Each of the ‘methods’ have a different threshold based on what the user actually has to do to generate revenue for you.

Web advertising

Rating: Easy
Cashflow: Varies, normally low, particularly in the begining.

This is the easiest of the above options. It requires no special effort for you or the reader beyond the initial set up on the site. Sure, you sacrifice some space around your comic, but whenever a user visits, your traffic goes up, and usually so does the value of the box. With Project Wonderful, this process has been made very easy. There are other services however, and you can use them if you wish. (particularly if your comic is of an adult nature…)

This is a highly scalable income stream, as your traffic grows, so does the value of advertising on your website. The more eyes you have, the more you are worth. But obviously this works the other way too. While you might scrape in a measely .25 cents for the first few months, working on getting your traffic up can slowly start netting dollars, and then several dollars, and then tens of dollars and so forth. However this is also unstable as traffic drops or disruptions to the website will also drop the value of your ads. It is an easy come/easy go sort of income stream.

While Project Wonderful might be a good thing to start cutting your teeth with, when your audience gets to the right size (5-10K plus daily uniques), you may want to consider looking at joining an advertising network. The profit from such networks is typically higher overall than Project Wonderful, and more consistent, as the network has access to bigger clients, and since they work on selling the ads, you don’t have to. When considering a network, do your research and find ones that aren’t going to serve ads that are offensive or totally off your audience’s tastes and interests. Try to match the ad network with the flavor of your audience.

Donations

Rating: Easy
Cashflow: Pretty low generally

The equivalent of digital begging or perhaps more like putting out a tip jar, saying ‘if you like this, buy me a coffee’ can work. Its easy, requiring only that you sign up with paypal or another vendor to collect the money. However generally, if it is not pushed on the reader, the perchance for generosity is pretty low. Occasionally one might get a wonderful reader who donates more than a dollar, but its not often. Certainly not enough to sustain any kind of income, but it can buy you a coffee every now and again. There are mixed feelings about Donations as a method of comic income, and some creators are highly against it, and others swear by it. Ultimately you have to decide what’s right for your comic.

Affiliate Programs

Cashflow: Variable depending on willingness to flog or appeal to audience

Affiliate programs basically work on the idea that you partner with a retailer or seller of products, and for every person who goes from your affiliate link on your website and buys something, you get a cut. This cut can range from 50%-2% depending on the program. On of the most common programs is partnering with someone like Amazon or Barnes & Noble and selling books or items from their site. This tends to work best when people actually /Talk/ about or review products from a given site, enticing people to read/buy/invest in whatever it is that the affiliate is selling. For this you have to be both creative and active and works well for comic creators who are both bloggers and comicers adding value in both aspects of their website. Some partnerships can also just seem logical. For example, an tabletop RPG webcomic might partner with an RPG dice retailer, as presumably an RPG webcomic creator and their audience would enjoy RPGs. Affilitate programs tend to be more viable the closer related they are the subject matter of the webcomic, as they match the audience’s tastes. Mature/Adult comics for example, may have success through certain affiliate partnerships with other adult sites.

It is best though not to have more than two affiliate programs active on your site at a time. You need to pick a couple, try them out, see how they do, and if they aren’t performing, swap them out. Try different angles. A lot of this is trial and error, but you have to keep it as seamless for your readers as possible. Partnering with bigger retailers like Amazon have the advantage that readers will likely already have an account and trust with the retailer so they will be more willing to buy the products you’ve recommended from them than a small or unknown retailer. Sometimes smaller or specialty retailers might give a better % on their affiliate sales, but the more willingness to buy from a bigger retailer on a smaller commission might actually yield a better payback unless the niche is highly specialty and there really isn’t another way to go.

Merchandise Sales

Cashflow: Low to high

This is a bit tricky as it involves the actual creation and selling of physical products for people to buy. The decision to create merch can be a tricky one and I’ll cover the ins and outs of the specifics in a separate post this month. But here’s a basic overview to consider.

Merchandise or “merch” for short, comes in many flavors. There are a lot of options today that exist that never existed before, particularly in the are of print-on-demand (or POD). The advantage of POD is that the artist/creators don’t need to keep any real inventory on hand, and things are created only as people actually order them. They are ordered, manufactured, shipped, and delivered by the POD production company, leaving the webcomic creators to do what they do best without worrying about the technical needs of taking orders and delivering stuff to people. POD can be very good for people just starting out, but the downside is it has a very high base cost for the most part, and so profit margins are pretty slim unless you are doing a lot of business. Which, chances are, in the beginning, you won’t be.

The other option is to ‘buy local’ and do it the old fashioned way. Find a local supplier you can get a good deal on the product, have them print/manufacture a bunch of them at a discounted cost, and then sell them for a markup on your website. While there is generally a higher profit margin for doing things this way, the artist is suddenly responsible for a retail business. Taking orders, packaging them, mailing them, and dealing with customer service. Also, because most suppliers don’t manufacture small amounts of product ( sometimes called ‘small runs’), you might end up with 200 T-shirts that aren’t selling. And you have to pay for all your merchandise up front and make the money up. Some of this can be alleviated through a pre-ordering system, but again, that still means taking orders, collecting payments and keeping things strait so people get their stuff. Its a lot of work, but you’ll make more money than doing POD.

The art of merchandise design is also something to consider. Its generally agreed that just putting your comic logo on something or a character is NOT going to sell merch. You need to create stuff people would buy even if they didn’t read your comic. This is trickier than it sounds. The only exception to this is books. If you had only one piece of merchandise to offer your fans, it should be books of your work. POD books have come to such a point where it is actually economical and profitable to produce POD books. Graphic novels are still better in price point than traditional North American style comic books, but if you are looking for some thing physical to sell, this should be it.

Of course, the larger your audience, the more items you’ll sell, and the smaller the base, the less you will sell, so merch can be very hit and miss in terms of profitability.

Premium Content

Cashflow: Low to high, fluctuates based on audience and frequency of additions

Premium content is not new, but new technology available to webcomic creators are making it more and more doable. Premium content is content that people pay to download or get access to. Unlike a subscription, its a one time payment that people make to download or access the content once. Something like special wallpapers, or additional short digital comics,  icon packs, ring tones, anything is fair game for downloadable premium content as long as it has some kind of fair value. A couple of bucks for a premium wallpaper pack might be an acceptable price point, where 5 bucks for a digital comic PDF might be fair. Pricing is a bit of an art, but generally keeping the prices small and fair will encourage people to buy. Like the comic itself though, you need to continue to update it, so there is a large selection and continually new things for people to buy. If you don’t keep the new content flowing, the cashflow will slow to a trickle, because they are one time purchases. But it is a good way to offer cheap, additional content and give readers a way to support the comics they enjoy.

Subscriptions

Cashflow: Starts slow but can grow to make you a living

Subscriptions are a bit tricky to set up for, but once you’ve got the bugs, price, and value for the subscription worked out, this can eventually become something that builds to make you a living. A subscription is a re-occurring charge that is billed to a readers account to give them access to additional or special content that isn’t available to normal readers. The trick with subscriptions is that you have to provide value for the reader to keep being charged whatever you are charging them. There are a lot of factors in this, and I’ll do a seperate post detailing this stuff, but this is kind of a general overview.

Like the rest of the comic, whatever the subscribers get, it has to be in addition, and updated frequently (monthly at the very least). Smart webcomic creators have combined values and offerings that mingle with their regular webcomic work so that they don’t have to do a lot of extra work but still can provide the subscribers with services or product that they find value in. Some offerings have included:

  • Bigger, uncensored comics
  • Early updates (this is good for keeping you on track for the main comic)
  • Exclusive wallpapers/art
  • Sketchbook/insider information
  • Exclusive monthly draws or contests for merch or sketches
  • Access to an exclusive or side comic not publicly available
  • Exclusive access to livestream sessions or Q&As with creators

The sky is really the limit, as long as whatever you promise, you can deliver on. Nothing turns customers off faster than being promised something and not getting it.

Subscriptions are particularly good for sites where merch or other income streams might be problematic or unpopular, such as Adult or Mature comics. Price point appears to be fairly low. 2-4$ seems to be the sweet spot for many subscription services, people seeming to get a bit edgy and more likely to cancel if they are paying 5$ or more.

Other methods of bringing in money

In addition to the above methods, there are others that many comic artists employ to raise funds, although they tend to be dependent more on the artist and their temperament as well as how much bandwidth they have for running things such as events.

Selling art & Originals

Several artists often sell original artwork of either pages from the comic or from the artist in general (of characters, of other stuff, yada) either through Ebay or private sales. This often appeals to the ‘collectors’ to own a peice of their favorite comics and can provide a decent income. Some artists don’t like to part with their originals, and may not be a viable option if you don’t happen to be an artist with originals (digitals only). Sometimes this can be resolved through the selling of prints, but that becomes a point of merchandise.

Commissions

Some comic artists will put their fame to work doing commissions. These can be quite lucrative at times, especially if the artist is well known or the commission was auctioned and there was a bid war, but the downside is that commissions a) take away from comic making time and b) make you deal with clients. Clients can be wonderful or terrible. Its a total crap shoot, but it can really tax the artist to be doing a comic AND a stack of commissions.

Vote Events

Sometimes Comic sites arrange events such as wallpaper battles, where people can vote via dollars to have  a particular outcome occur in the contest. These are great one time fund raisers or a sort of monthly incentive to donate, but can be time consuming to administrate. Great if you have someone taking care of this sort of event, kind of a pain if you are running it yourself.

Cameo Auctions

These are auctions for a person to make an appearance in a comic. It can be as little as a person in a crowd, or it could be for a speaking part. This usually dictates the price. Normally these go over very well, as people LOVE to be a part of their favorite comic and can be a good source of income. However, in order not to be drawing a HUGE number of real people its best to limit these to a few a month or something.

Webcomic creators are creative people, and this is certainly not an exhaustive list of all the ways people make money on their comics, but it should give you some ideas of where you could look to get started in thinking about ways you could draw some cashflow from your comic.

This is the first article in a series of several to come  that will explore all the ways of making money with your comic that will be posted over the course of the month.

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