Webcomics & Money: Merchandising a Webcomic

It is often (although not always) a dream of a webcomic creator to make anything from a little money to support the webcomic, to an entire living off their webcomic creation. Generally many strategies have to be employed, but usually the first thing one thinks of is creating products based on or related to a comic, also commonly referred to as ‘merchandising’.

Generally its recommended that a webcomic be at least a year old and have a reasonably substantial audience before they try to make a buck. If you are considering merchandising, get some real metrics on your audience size and traffic using Google Analytics or something like Comic Rank to get some real numbers to base your decisions on. If you consider that only 5% of an audience might actually shell out cash for something (if you’re lucky), you should make sure that 5% of your audience is still a worth while amount of people to be attempting to sell to.

There’s a lot of questions that webcomic authors have to ask themselves when considering this step for their comic, not the least of which is “What do my readers want to buy?” In terms of considering merchandise this is a pretty important question to answer, and the answer isn’t completely simple as every audience is different, and what you might take to a convention and what you might offer via your website are also different questions.

However, there are a few stable products you may want to consider as your first options.

The Graphic Novel or Comic Compilation

This one is almost universally agreed to be the very first piece of merchandise you should offer, and also tends to be the one that sells the best on both websites and at conventions. The reality is that your readers already like your product (ie: your webcomic), and if you provide them an option to buy a paper version, they will take it. I believe so strongly in this option I won’t even go to another convention until I have physical books to take with me. Comic readers want to buy comics. Its just a no brainer.

Fortunately, there’s been a lot of breakthrough in the comic print-on-demand market which gives comic creators an extremely cheap and actually profitable way to produce dead tree versions of their online comics. With little to no overhead, no stock to maintain, and not even any mailing to do, the profit you make is really that, profit. Depending on the size of your readership, that could be a little, or a lot.

Print on Demand suppliers that specialize in comics:

Ka-Blam – Kablam can do both regular saddle stapped comics and perfect bound graphic novels, and their prices are very reasonable. If you need to order a bunch of physical copies, they provide a slight price break at 25 and 100 copies. They also offer a free ISBN at 100 copies. If you want to see their quality, you can order a sample comic for 2$. They will carry your book through their Indyplanet website and make your comic avaliable to brick & mordar retailers through their ComicsMonkey distribution site. Ka-blam also offers a quazi affiliate program, offering 5$ credit per new customer referals.

ComicXpress – One of the first exclusive to comic print on demand sites (least that I can remember), ComicXpress has proven to be a very reliable printer with good quality product I’ve actually personally seen. They have comparable prices to Kablam. Like Ka-blam, they also have an online store where they will carry your product for order, and unlike Ka-blam it is integrated with their main website. They have also recently eliminated any setup fees, which is helpful for new and upcoming comic peeps to get their book into print. ComicXpress offers the same sort of referral program, offering a 5$ credit to clients who bring them new customers (and those customers say who referred them).

Lulu – I’ve heard a number of creators who’ve gone with Lulu have a positive experience with them. They provide a wide variety of page sizes and binding options and provide templates for people to work with in order to make sure they’ve got their book laid out correctly for their process. They also provide store front services, and ‘publishing packages’ which include various services including an ISBN number, which is useful if you want retailers to be able to carry your product.

T-shirts and other clothy stuff

One of the next most common items that comics will put effort into making is T-shirts, and often other clothing (hats, scarfs, whatever) T-shirts are a bit of a dangerous territory as they aren’t as straitforward as simply putting your comic’s logo on the shirt and believing it will sell like hotcakes. Far from it. Unless you are famous already, the T-shirt has to be approached from a totally different angle.

After scouring interviews and videos, such as this one, its become clear that making a hot t-shirt is often about stepping away from plastering comic artwork or characters or logos on the shirt, and coming up with witty, interesting, and stylish designs that riff off the themes of your comic. These are things that would appeal to your audience’s tastes, but would still be something that someone who’d never seen or read your comic might still be interested in. This is actually a lot harder than it sounds. Designing for a t-shirt you have to really think about the kind of things your audience might be into or interested in outside your comic, and play off those interests. Most artists approach it from a humorous or witty angle or a ‘holy-shit-that’s-cool-looking’ angle.  But ultimately it has to appeal beyond your basic audience to a larger audience. Things can be inspired by your comic, have similar themes to your comic, but ultimately it shouldn’t relate directly. This rule applies for most clothing designs.

It is also worth keeping in mind that not all audiences are t-shirt buying type audiences. Just because it works for one comic, does not mean it will work for another. You have to really get to know your audience to be able to offer the kind of merchandise they want. For some groups T-shirts may not sell well, but bags do great.

In terms of price point and profitability, there is a few different ways of approaching it.

Printing Local – Like with book printing, this can give you the best price per unit to be able to offer your shirts for a reasonable price. You do have to deal with taking orders, printing, packaging, mailing, and customer service issues, you stand to make a much better markup than on print on demand services. There is normally a minimum order of shirts that must be purchased to get a decent discount, although there are more and more places where those orders can be 5-10 units. Although the printing on the shirt is digital, direct-to-garment- printing rather than traditional silkscreening, much like print-on-demand places. But at least you get to quality control your product.

Print-on-demand garments – Like book publishing there are many print-on-demand places that offer t-shirts and other merchanise, among the most popular (and notorious) is Cafepress. They do offer a large selection of POD merchandise, but have not always been the best for T-shirts.  There are alternatives however, like Printfection, Zazzle, Spreadshirt (good European alternative!), Redbubble, etc. There’s a pretty comprehensive list here. Although you might have to shop around to see who offers the best ‘base price’ so you can mark up your shirt decently (the markup is your profit amount, BTW) so you don’t price yourself out of your audience’s market. Most people these days, unless it is BEYOND cool, won’t make an impulse purchase of a t-shirt over 20$. Most are looking for a better deal than that because we all have so much less money to spend. And then there is postage and shipping to consider. Many of the shirts start out around 15-18$ leaving only a tiny 2$ markup of profit for you. Make sure you look at all your options. Quality and consistency is also a point to consider when deciding on a provider. You don’t want to be selling your customers crappy shirts.

Prints & Cards

Many artists offer prints, and if you have a lot of magnificent splash/cover art, it might be a considered offering, however, it really depends on the market and venue. Online, as an offering, cards and prints tend to do poorly in comparison with other offerings. However, at conventions, art cards and prints sell very well and it would be almost artist’s alley suicide to go without any.

Like with garments, you have a choice to print them up with a print company, or go with a POD vendor, or if you have a good inkjet printer, you can do them yourself.

If you choose to do them yourself, its very handy as you have a lot of control over quality, paper type and production. But be careful to track how much it costs you per unit (factor your printer ink, plus your paper, plus extra for the wear on your printer and electricity it uses) and make sure that your prints are created on good quality paper. Unfortunately inkject printed material does not hold up well when exposed to water, as opposed to commercially produced materials.

If you require a large amount of cards or prints to be on hand, say for a convention (or convention season. If you can order in bulk. It saves money), it is often more efficient and better quality to shop for a local printer who can do high quality digital printing on glossy stock for you. These prints not only look very professional but are more durable than their inkjet counterparts. They are also less likely to fade over time if exposed to light.

If you are looking to vend prints through your website, a POD supplier, such as Zazzle, Deviantart, Cafepress, Artybuzz or Redbubble. It will save you hassle in the longrun, however if you do a lot of conventions and are producing local anyway, you might find you get better returns if you simply vend your unsold convention stock manually through your site.

Sketch Cards

These are a kind of unique offering that has become popular in recent years both at cons and as sort of auction ish items. They are 100% original. They are not copies, and if you have time to do them, they can be a good addition to the table. If you want to read about them, there is a page here. But they boil down to basically being trading cards with original artwork on them. I’ve actually had people send me cards and ask me to draw on them. XD Its worth trying if you’ve got the time to knock a few off.

Charms & Buttons

A much more common offering at a convention than on a website, charms and buttons follow a similar philosophy as T-shirts in that they are best linked to, but not directly derivative of your comic (although sometimes characters work well with the charms, its very individual). Although done well, these items can be ridiculously good sellers. Because they are generally priced fairly low, and make great impulse buy items. There are also a lot of people who collect buttons, and as such they are always on the look out for this product to add to their collection. I have seen these fly off artist alley tables, when literally nothing else would sell.

Buttons have the advantage of being a possible ‘do it yourself’ crafty project. By purchasing a button press, and the button shell supplies, you can craft yourself as many or as few buttons as you need. The presses can cost between $50-$400, but many artists have paid for their presses several times over. You can also pimp your button making services to fellow creators and make some buttons for them too on the fly. I encountered more than one person carrying a button maker with them at a con for making new buttons when they needed, but also offering their services to other artists if the other artists were willing to draw button sized artwork. Obviously its easier to shrink art to fit the button size than draw in a tiny button.

There are places to order them however, like Smallworld Buttons. Zazzle, Cafepress, or other print on demand services that offer buttons. Many of them do. But watch the price per unit and make sure you are getting the best deal.

Acrylic charms for cellphones, books and bags is slowly catching on and adorable charms can definately hold appeal. Its also not a common offering, but its certainly more oriented towards the girly with its highly cute quotient and the fact girls are more likely to dangle things from their cellphones than guys. However, done right, one can create charms or jewelry that would appeal to both, but like so much, it has to be carefully designed to appeal to your audience. The only place I’ve found to order these is Printsess which offers both acrylic and metal charms. If you know any other good suppliers, let me know.

While I have seen webcomics sell these successfully, I think it very much depends on what they look like and the webcomic in question, as well as the sort of audience they have.

Unique Merchandise

Often some of the most successful merchandise is unique and creative things related to the comic, but that can be applied to the real world. One that comes to mind is the Medallions sold by Kory Bing of “Skin Deep”. Not only are the designs aesthetically awesome, but they could be worn by anyone that’s a fan of mythology, but gives a real fan an almost touch into the world of the comic, given that its part of the ‘mechanics’ of the world/story of the comic. They are also unique. No one else is selling anything quite like them, so there’s only one place to go.  Kory also polled the hell out of her audience before creating them, so she did her market research! A good way to see if your audience is ready to buy something you take the time to make. Polls are great.

Because ‘unique’ is the word of the day here, unfortunately I can’t really provide any resources because I have no idea what you might come up with. But the point is to try to be innovative. Obviously whatever you come up with still has to be made (or make-able) but being creative is what us webcomic peeps do best and by doing that we can bring merchandise to the table that is both great for our readers and customers, unique and memorable, as well as a good seller so we can continue eating while we make comics.

While there is a lot of other options out there, including toys, stuffed animals, magnets, stickers, etc. Many are too expensive to develop for a fledgling webcomic ( unless you happen to win something like Patch Together’s toy contest) and magnets and stickers don’t tend to be the best sellers or money makers but are better served as bonuses to include when someone purchases a book.

One thing to always keep in mind is cost vs return when it comes to merchandise, particularly if you are printing locally and footing the bill. Make sure your sales are worth it and don’t be afraid to do limited experimentation. A single run of 10 shirts of a new design, wait till you’ve sold them, then go print more if they sold well. If not, then you only have to deal with the handful of shirts that are left. There is also a benefit to taking pre orders.

Getting Merch on your site

A lot of the POD sites offer a store front or some kind of imbedded scripting to get the store front onto your site, but if you are doing your own printing and need something to supply an e-shopping cart, there are a lot of options if you happen to be running a wordpress/comicpress site. Simply by installing a plugin, you can have the functionality of a cart. If you aren’t running wordpress/comicpress, you may have to find a PHP solution, and if you are on a free hosting site, you would probably be best to stick with free hosting solutions. Some places like DrunkDuck even have integrated merchandise hosting. Unfortunately free hosts make things limited, but if you are using a POD service, they can often set things up for you to work around the problem.

Ending thoughts

95% of webcomics don’t make any significant money off merchandise. This can be due to a lack of aesthetic design in that merchandise, choosing the wrong merchandise, or simply a lack of audience numbers. If you don’t have at least 1000 uniques a day, steadily, its not even worth worrying about merchandise. Over 5000, you might begin with the book, and as you climb in your audience numbers, look at other options. Merchandise must also be turned over frequently to produce steady income, be prepared to do new things regularly, and try to innovate as much as possible. Be yourself, and be unique!

3 thoughts on “Webcomics & Money: Merchandising a Webcomic”

  1. Hey, nice article. I have been thinking about merchandising my stuff in the future, but I’m still at the beginning stages. I’m just commenting to say that you should look into getting Flattr (another way for creators (not just webcomic creators) to get money), because I’d definitely Flattr this article! 🙂

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