Patreon and Creator Owned Webcomics
By Gannon Beck

Space Corps is on Patreon now, and I wanted to take a moment to explain why we think Patreon is such a good idea for both comics fans and independent creators. In addition to seeking support ourselves, there are lots of independent creators out there who make webcomics Bryan and I enjoy that we would love to support through Patreon.

As much as I wish it didn’t, the economics matter in art creation. Projects that don’t find the support they need disappear. Someone can create amazing art, find people who absolutely love it, and still fall short in the intersection where art meets commerce. (Browncoats, you know what I’m talking about.) How much you love something is irrelevant if that thing you love hasn’t reached a critical mass of support in the system it operates in.

The economics of the direct market for independent creators are brutal. The direct market is the system of distributing print comics through specialty comic book shops. Marvel and DC Comics routinely dominate the top 150 spots on sales charts though this system. The direct market works just fine at scale. The spots below the top 150 best selling books, however, performing at levels Marvel and DC would deem worthy of cancelation, is where the vast majority of creator owned comics in the direct market live. Books like Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising, or Jim Zub’s Skull Kickers, cultivate a loyal but small fan base who aim their dollars at these creators only to see cents reach them.

For most creators doing creator owned comics, the direct market is broken.

There are two ways to solve the problem when fan support falls short in the direct market:

The first option is to find more support. This is a difficult proposition for comics creators on a shoestring budget. Even Robert Kirkman, the shining success of creator owned comics, famously ran up his credit cards before turning The Walking Dead into a mega hit. With only a handful of creator owned comics cracking the top 150, statistically speaking, you have a better chance of getting hired by Marvel or DC than competing successfully against them in the direct market arena.

The second option is to operate in a different system—one where the economics allow creators to thrive on a smaller fan base. With a smaller fan base, the bulk of each dollar that leaves the hand of the fan needs to land in the hand of the creator. Because dollars would go further in such a system, not only would existing creators do well, but more creators could be supported. That means more art in the world. Fans in such a system would become agents of creation.

The new system needed must combine technology and participation to create a thriving ecosystem where fans support creators directly. The technology for the system already exists. Comics can be distributed through the internet as free webcomics. Many comics creators are already doing this. Being free and a click away helps solve challenges with distribution and building a fan base. Traditionally with webcomics, turning a fan’s love into financial support has been the Gordian knot. Now there is a solution—Patreon.

A Possible New World In Comics
For independent comics creators, Patreon is the missing piece we’ve been looking for. It’s the piece that puts creators first in the chain to get paid, instead of last. Patreon makes fan support both easy and ongoing, allows content to remain free so it can spread, and ensures that creators retain their rights. The technology is in place. What is missing is us, the fans and the creators, that can make Patreon a thriving ecosystem.

The immediate question is, will we create a vibrant ecosystem on Patreon or won’t we? Both creators and fans need to converge on the site in order for that to happen. This is a choice we have to make as a community. Individually and collectively, action is required. Fans need to urge creators to launch or fund projects on Patreon; creators need to do it, and we as fans need to support them. None of this is inevitable and this isn’t the time to be complacent. I do not believe in destiny—that the end is preordained. I believe in possibility, and that with enough effort and the right actions, we can choose which possibilities we turn into reality.

We can choose a reality where creators launch properties with a small collection of fans, numbering in the low thousands. We can choose a reality where creators keep their intellectual property and can make a decent living, while making wonderful art. In this reality, we the fans, will not only be the beneficiaries of this art—we will have an active role in bringing it into the world.

How Patreon Works
Patreon is a crowdfunding site. Similar to Kickstarter, Patreon’s goal is to create an ecosystem where fans can support creators directly. Like Kickstarter, Patreon only takes 5% of money pledged, plus whatever the credit card company takes. The credit card percentage is a moving target right now for Patreon, and varies depending on the aggregate amount a patron gives in a month. According to Patreon’s VP of Operations, Tyler Palmer, the best estimate of what percentage they will ultimately reach on credit card transactions across the site is 4%. After Patreon’s fees and credit card fees, the creator keeps the rest, which will be as much as 91% of the money pledged.

Patreon is different than Kickstarter in that it is built for ongoing projects. Patrons give a specified amount, and that money automatically comes out every month. As a Patron, I can set a monthly limit on the amount I want to give each creator I support. I can increase, decrease or cancel my pledge easily at any time.

As an example, I back Jason Brubaker’s webcomic Sithrah. Jason is asking for his fans to give money per comics update which he defines as about four pages. I initially pledged to give him $1 per comics update. I set my monthly maximum for Jason at $3.

Before my first dollar was charged, a strange thing happened. Jason started communicating with his patrons via his patron-only stream. As a patron, I started to get to see all the behind the scenes processes Jason uses to do his webcomic. I came to Jason expecting only to give patronage. As it turns out, however, from Jason’s patron-only stream I’m getting educational value. I am a webcomics creator myself, after all. So when Jason added the reward of a live group discussion at the $5 value, I jumped on it.

What’s happening, at least on Jason’s Patreon page, is a convergence of patronage and mentoring. It’s still too early to know if other creators will use Patreon to converge these two things like Jason is, but how wonderful would it be to live in a world where you get to learn from your favorite creators while supporting their favorite projects?

The patronage comes first, though. If Jason doesn’t produce his webcomic–the thing he wants funded–then he gets $0. He has to produce in order to get paid, but when he does get paid, I have the satisfaction of knowing that the bulk of what I’m pledging is going to this person I want to support. That feels pretty good.

I don’t always get that satisfaction when I buy indy comics through the direct market.

The Economics of Self-Publishing in the Direct Market
A while back, Jim Zub, the creator and writer of Skull Kickers, wrote an article about the realities of self-publishing a comic in the direct market. He made the point that just because you’re being published, it doesn’t mean you’re getting rich.

Jim Zub admits that costs fluctuate from month to month, and I would assume, from creator to creator. Unless other creators share their financials, this is the information we have access to. Let us assume, however, that Jim Zub’s article is at least an accurate snapshot in the career of his book, and that his experience isn’t unique. All creators in the direct market have to deal with the constraints imposed by creation, printing, distribution, and retail. Here is how those things break down for Jim Zub:

CreatorOwnedPieChart-Print

Photo Credit: Jim Zub. Used with permission.

The snapshot is astonishing. Given these percentages, a book with a cover price of $2.99, there is only about 33 cents left over for the categories of publisher, advertising and creative team.

Here is how that breaks down at different sales levels:

3,000 comics: $990
For 20 pages plus cover, that’s $47 per page for writing, art and production.

6,000 comics: $1980
For 20 pages plus cover, that’s $94 per page for writing, art and production.

9,000 comics: $2970
For 20 pages plus cover, that’s $141 per page for writing, art and production.

At the larger comics companies, the jobs of writer, penciller, inker, colorist, and letterer are all broken up in an assembly line process. That’s because producing a single comic book page is labor intensive. It takes me easily 10 hours just to do the art for a page of my webcomic, so we’ll use that as a baseline for the art. That doesn’t include the writing and lettering, and I do mine in black and white, so a color page would take even longer. That means, even if I could convince 9,000 people to buy single issues, the most I would get is about $14 per hour. At 40 hours a week, that’s less than 30K a year.

The direct market only works at scale. Sure, if your creator owned book has 50,000 or 100,000 people willing to give you $2.99 a month to read your comic, you’re set. Congratulations, you’ve made it. There is also a good chance that you’re also creator of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman.

But what if you’re not Robert Kirkman? What if you’re Terry Moore?

Terry Moore has been doing independent comics since the 90’s. He first started with Strangers in Paradise, which ran for 90 issues, followed it up with Echo for 30 issues and is currently producing the excellent Rachel Rising.

In 2013, nine issues of Rachel Rising were published. According to sales figures, each issue sold between 7,500 to 8,500 copies. In December of 2013, Terry alluded to the possibility that he may have to discontinue the series due to low sales.

Here is the thing: Rachel Rising is not an impulse buy. You have to seek it out. It’s something you buy because you’re a fan of Terry Moore. Terry Moore has 7,500 to 8,500 people willing to give him money every month. That’s amazing! But in the direct market, it might not be enough.

You know where that’s enough? Patreon. Currently Zach Weinersmith is making over $7,500 a month on Patreon, and he is doing it with less than 3,000 fans/patrons. He does a webcomic called Saturday Morning Breakfeast Cereal. His comic is free, but when he asked his fans to support him, they responded.

Here is what that chart looks like on Patreon. Ironically, it’s more direct than the direct market, which is anything but:

Patreon_chart

A World Without Pay Walls: Growing a Comics Audience
I fell in love with comics when I was a kid. My first comics were free because my parents bought them for me. Comics were the bribe they used to keep me from crying on the way to the emergency room. As a kid that had the unlucky combination of fearlessness and clumsiness, I built up a pretty good collection. I didn’t pay for them, though; to me they were free. To my parents, they were an impulse buy for their kids at the checkout counter at 7-11. An, “Oh, yeah, I promised my kid a comic for not crying the last time he got stitches.” A 40 cent purchase while paying for gas at 7-11 is an impulse buy. A $3 or $4 book at a comic book shop is not.

Comics aren’t bought the way they were when I was a kid. Parents still wander into 7-11, but they don’t wander into comics shops. They are on the internet, though, and so are teens. Making great comics only a click away with no pay wall is our best hope of getting the audience as a whole to grow. On the internet, people can try a comic for free. And they can share it. Sharing equals spreading. If you have nothing for free online to share, you have nothing that can easily spread.

The free part is important. It’s difficult to get people to fall in love with what you’re doing if you make them pay first to see it. By putting it out for free, however, you’re only a click away from anyone.

Put a story online that’s free and people can try it with a click of the mouse. After a few pages, they might like it. After a few issues, they may love it. Once fans love a comic, then there is a good chance they will support it if the creator makes that easy as well. Both things have to be true, though. The comic has to be easy to read (free and online) and easy to support.

Here is the main problem I have with supporting a webcomic natively on a creator’s site. I have to pay for it with my credit card and having had my credit card stolen a couple of times, I don’t want to whip out my credit card number for every webcomic I support. It’s too much friction.

I’ve heard Jack Conte, the founder of Patreon, talk about the concept of friction in podcasts. Friction, as Jack describes it, is any resistance created in the chain of obstacles someone has to walk through in order to support a creator. For instance, making someone enter credit card information is friction. Once the information is entered, however, the friction is gone or at least greatly reduced. Put credit card friction up for someone before they’ve read your comic, and you would need a strong recommendation or lots of marketing to overcome the friction. Free webcomics are nearly frictionless. Here is what a frictionless process of fan conversion looks like with getting a fan via a webcomic:

Recommendation + easy access + quality content + time = Fan

Here is how that might look in action:

Link on Twitter + free webcomic + great story + lots of updates = I love Axecop

You can’t get money without fans, and charging people before seeing your comic creates friction. With too much friction, the critical mass of fans you need to support you won’t form. A paradox exists in that creators need to figure out a way to make money on free content.

The best answer so far has been crowdfunding.

Let’s say, you’ve been doing your webcomic for a while, and have made people fall in love with what you’re doing. You have fans clamoring for a collected volume of that thing they’ve read online for free. If you have fans that are already a part of the Kickstarter ecosystem, you have a good shot at getting it off the ground. For your fans that aren’t already a part of the Kickstarter ecosystem, their love for what you’re doing must be enough for them to overcome the friction involved with entering their credit card information.

A frictionless ecosystem is important. It is Kickstarter’s key achievement. Once Kickstarter overcame the initial credit card friction on behalf of creators, an ecosystem was built where credit card entering friction doesn’t exist. Currently, Kickstarter’s ecosystem has over five million backers. That’s over five million people that are only a click away from supporting creative projects. Many backers support multiple projects after the initial friction to join Kickstarter is overcome.

To see what I mean, take a look at the list of backers currently backing Joe Mulvey’s Scam Kickstarter:

Mulvey backers

Note how many backers have backed LOTS of other projects. Kickstarter has reduced the friction for supporting creators. Currently I’m up to 32 projects that I’ve supported. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have pulled out my credit card 32 different times, on 32 different sites and entered it to support the same creators. It’s too much friction and I don’t want my credit card out all over the place.

Patreon can potentially solve the friction problem for ongoing projects. The ecosystem has to be built up first. Creators and fans need to show up and make it happen. When I first got to Patreon, none of the webcomics and creators I follow online were there. While I thought Patreon had great potential, I didn’t enter my credit card information. There wasn’t enough there to overcome the friction. Then Jason Brubaker showed up. I’ve been a fan of Jason’s for a while, because he puts out free, quality content online. Within minutes of seeing his Patreon page, I had my credit card out and I backed him, not because I have love for Patreon, but because I love what Jason does.

A couple days later, Skottie Young posted on Twitter that Tom Bancroft was trying to fund his webcomic Outnumbered through Patreon. I had never heard of Tom before, but I followed the link, read his strip– liked it–and backed him. What made him easy to back was that my credit card friction had already been overcome on his behalf by Jason Brubaker. I already know about what my budget is for Patreon. My credit card information is already on the site, so in a click or two, Tom was backed with a minimum of friction. If Skottie Young had said that Tom’s comic was cool and that people ought to give him a donation on his website, I wouldn’t have done it. It would have been just a tad too much friction.

Building the ecosystem on Patreon is an important step. In the same way many people who back one project on Kickstarter end up backing many projects, the same thing can happen on Patreon. When you make a page and bring your fans to Patreon to support you, a nice side effect is that you’ve made it easy for those fans to support other creators. You have reduced friction on someone else’s behalf.

If we do that enough times as a community, an ecosystem will be built that can change the way comics creators make a living.

Experiments to Build the Ecosystem
The obvious thing to do is for those with large fan followings to create a Patreon page. I would love it if the webcomics of Thrillbent, Axe Cop, The Wormworld Saga, Power Nap, Tuki, Gravedigger, The Dreamer, Lady Sabre, and Battle Pug were all represented on Patreon. I would support every single one of them month in and month out.

Those are already things that exist. I want them to stick around, so I’m willing to support them, even though they are published as free. Funding art others can enjoy is what being a patron is all about. Patrons stand with creators at the beginning of creation, not passively waiting at the end for consumption. If you’re looking for webcomics to support, here is a list of webcomics that currently have Patreon pages: Megalist

I would love to help new things emerge. Skottie Young and Terry Moore have both alluded to the possibility of doing webcomics on Twitter. I would love to see both of them give it a go.

Traditionally, trying to fund a webcomic has been risky. If you produce a webcomic in hopes of Kickstarting a print edition, you won’t know until your Kickstarter campaign if you’ve been wasting your time or not.

With Patreon, you can put it in the hands of your fans and avoid the all or nothing gambit. Unlike Kickstarter, where your campaign has a limited shelf-life that caps your funds at the end of a specified time, on Patreon you can slowly build your project with the help of your fans. You don’t have to put all your chips in at once. You can start small and grow your project as fan support grows.

It’s important to note that funding a creation is different than paying for a product. The calculus for a patron shouldn’t be, “Am I getting enough for my money?” rather it should be, “Is the project I’m backing at a sustainable level of funding?” This is where transparency makes a difference.

If Skottie Young or Terry Moore, Steve Rude, or any other creator with a significant fan base launched a webcomic through Patreon, they can use their stated goals to dictate their level of production. For instance they can start out at 1 page a month of webcomics until they get to a different funding level. When they get to the next funding level, they can adjust their production. It might look like this:

Goal $xx per month
1 page a month of webcomics

Goal $xx per month
2 pages a month of webcomics

Goal $xx per month
3 pages a month of webcomics

Goal $xx per month
4 pages a month of webcomics

I don’t know what their page rates should be or what it would take them to invest time in this opportunity versus another opportunity—but they do, and they can let us know. The goals aren’t for them to hit, they’re for us to hit. Skottie Young is currently writing and drawing Rocket Raccoon, (which looks amazing, by the way), and is putting his energy into it. It’s a great opportunity as the direct market still works at scale, which Skottie is almost certain to achieve.

But what if he, and others want to dip their toe into the world of webcomics? Can they do it without risk? I think they can. All they have to do is communicate to us, their fans, as to what works for them and then let us see if we can make it happen. Under this model, if it doesn’t work, all they’ve risked is a page a month. BUT, if it does work, they’ll have added a great revenue stream for themselves, and possibly a new foundation for the rest of their careers.

Beyond Patreon
I’m not implying that funding webcomics through Patreon is the only thing that creators will ever need to do. I just think it can be the starting point in the revenue chain because of the reduced friction in both marketing and payment.

Once you’ve got your fan following, you can do other things with your webcomic. You can collect your webcomic in a trade and Kickstart it like Ryan Browne did with God Hates Astronauts. Ryan published his webcomic for free online and was still able to raise over $75,000 on Kickstarter when he collected it in print.

Faith Erin Hicks did a webcomic, Friends with Boys, then published her book through First Second Books in print. The webcomic was online only until the book came out, at which point only the first 20 pages were left. If Patreon existed back when she was doing Friends with Boys (it didn’t), she could have created a Patreon page to supplement her income. I would have supported her in a heartbeat.

There is nothing keeping a creator from archiving large story arcs in print or on digital platforms like ComiXology. Patreon is about what you are going to create, not what you’ve already created. As a backer, I wouldn’t mind getting a PDF of something I’ve backed if it’s going to eventually be archived. I don’t see any reason why creators should limit themselves to one platform. As a fan, I want creators to do what they need to do to make a living. Patreon is the best place to start because no other method allows fans to give money so easily and directly for ongoing projects.

As stated before, there is a huge benefit to sharing your comic through the web because sharing is spreading. As marketing guru Seth Godin states, ideas that spread win. Ideally a creator will have free stories online to spread, but archived stories for sale on the web and/or in print for residuals. Residuals are important in case a creator has to stop production due to injury or illness.

Let’s say Terry Moore does a webcomic. And let’s assume he archives each story arc on ComiXology when he starts a new arc—say, every six issues. While the old arc would no longer be free, the new arc would remain so until completion. He could have a rolling arc of free webcomics to find new fans. That means that someone who finds Terry Moore’s comic online and falls in love with Terry Moore’s art and writing, becomes a good candidate for Terry Moore’s back catalog, which could be purchased on Comixology.

I know what it’s like to become a recent Terry Moore fan. When Terry Moore tweeted about the low sales of Rachel Rising, it made me take action. I realized I was not supporting creator owned comics as much as I could and opened a ComiXology account. I knew who Terry Moore was, but I had never read one of his comics. After reading Rachel Rising, I realized that, as it turns out, I like his comics an awful lot. Once I finish Rachel Rising, I’ll check out his other two series to see if I like them, too. If I end up buying his entire back catalog on Comixology, as it looks like I may, I’ll end up spending over $200 reading Terry Moore books. In order to do that, though, I had to overcome the friction of signing up for Comixology and the friction of buying a few of his comics to find out if I liked Terry Moore’s style. Turns out that I love it, but if he did a webcomic, there would have been less friction to overcome and I probably would have been a fan long ago.

Who Will Lead Us?
Creators with fans have to lead this. Bryan and I don’t have the fan following to make a large impact but there are a lot of creators out there that do. If creators with lots of fans make the leap of faith to attempt funding webcomics through Patreon, we fans need to support them.

Zach Weinersmith has fan support that he brought over, it’s true, but it’ll take more than one creator with a large fan base. The situation reminds me of my favorite Seth Godin post of all time where he talks about the importance of the person who goes second and third. Here is Seth’s post:


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“Guy #3

Paul just sent over this video of a dance tribe forming spontaneously at a music festival.

My favorite part happens just before the first minute mark. That’s when guy #3 joins the group. Before him, it was just a crazy dancing guy and then maybe one other crazy guy. But it’s guy #3 who made it a movement.

Initiators are rare indeed, but it’s scary to be the leader. Guy #3 is rare too, but it’s a lot less scary and just as important. Guy #49 is irrelevant. No bravery points for being part of the mob.

We need more guy #3s.”

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Right now Zach is a crazy guy dancing. If Patreon is going to become a webcomics movement, we need crazy guy dancing #2 and guy #3. That’s what it’s going to take to turn this amazing possibility in to a reality.

Comics are a wonderful art form. I want more of them of all different kinds. I also want those who create the comics I love to be able to make a decent living. I’m willing to help them as directly as I can with my dollars. I’m already on Patreon. My credit card is entered and I’ve got a monthly budget allocated on Patreon that I’m not even close to yet. I’m willing to give money every month to my favorite creators until I die or go bankrupt. The only thing that is keeping me from maxing my budget on Patreon is that most of the creators of the webcomics I read haven’t created a Patreon page yet.

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I want to give a special thanks to my fellow compatriots at the Comics Experience Workshop. This essay was shaped by the many conversations I’ve had with the talented and thoughtful comics creators on the forum.