This is the report of the third “Webcomics School” panel session at SDCC. After everything is vaguely back to normal around here, we’ll consult with the session moderator and panelists, expand these recaps, and keep ’em conspicuously posted as a resource for webcomics creators. Please note that these writeups are lengthy, and continue behind the cut for a good long ways.
As an aid to readability, these recaps are presented not as a transcript of a Q&A (although certain sections will quote participants at length, due to extremely critical information that doesn’t deserve truncation), but as a heavily edited narrative, with “takeaway” lessons that summarize the mood of the panel in response to each topic of discussion. Fleen welcomes corrections or clarifications from the participants.
Webcomics 103: Making Money
At the podium, Bill Barnes (Unshelved)
On the panel, Robert Khoo (Penny Arcade), Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary), Jennie Breeden (The Devil’s Panties), Phillip Karlsson (Dumbrella Hosting), and special surprise guest Scott Kurtz (PvP) fresh off his Eisner win. Back to room 3, seating 150, with every seat filled. Fan:want to make webcomics ratio of about 20:130.
Who We Are, How We Got Here
Barnes opened the session with a general question to the panel, asking each, “How did you get here, and how do you make your money?” Given the wealth of experience and wisdom at the head table, the answers took nearly a third of the allotted time; pay attention to their answers, as there will be a test later.
The Good Shepherd
Robert Khoo told of a history as a marketing and business consultant, working with gaming companies and coming to see that Penny Arcade was in the hands of talented comics creators with no idea how to run a business. Several pestering phone calls resulted in a lunch meeting with a 50 page business plan dropped in front of Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, laying out where they should be in six months, a year, two years, five years, and promising to make it work. Khoo backed up his promise by offering to work for Penny Arcade for two months for free, and if he hadn’t made progress towards the goals, to walk away. They accepted, and he quit his job to take his shot.
That was four years ago. Since then, Penny Arcade has grown to provide a living for full-time employees, creates what may be the most effective targetted advertising in the gaming industry, runs a million-dollar charity, and has built a rapidly-growing gamers convention. Addressing how the money is made, Khoo listed three business directions:
- Creative services and advertising (see here for an example)
- Merchandise and retail
- Events (cons, PAX)
Takeaway — Have a business plan and execute it; if you don’t know how, find somebody who does.
Workin’ For The Man
A couple of years ago, Howard Tayler was in charge of a $100M business unit for Novell, “trying to keep it from becoming a $30M business unit; I succeeded.” Comics happened on the side, and he wondered if they could be the main focus. So he very politely told The Man to shove off, cashed out, and made Schlock Mercenary the marketing arm of The Tayler Corporation (left over from his days as an independent record producer).
The key difference between Tayler quitting for a stab at webcomics and Khoo: Tayler has a wife and four kids to support. He laid out goals and a drop-dead line in the sand: if the mortgage had to be paid with credit cards, it’s back to working for The Man. So far, he’s been able to keep the cartooning gig, although the recent production of his first reprint book is notable for having made the entire affair less iffy. Also notable is a quote from Tayler at the Blank Label panel the previous day: “Although I didn’t know it at the time, what I was really doing in giving up my job was buying more time to spend with my family.”
Tayler identified three areas of income as well:
- Advertising (Google AdSense, direct ads through Blank Label, and blog ads)
- Books and other merchandise
- Digital content (donations for gift art)
Takeaway — Be sure you know your priorities, and be sure you know when to say, “I tried, but it’s time to regroup.”
The Most Important Person You Can Listen To Right Now
Jennie Breeden’s parents are artists; she went to SCAD and majored in Sequential Art; she’s worked in a really good comic book store in Atlanta. She does a journal comic that updates every damn day, publishes books, does prints & posters, sells her originals, and has the coolest boots in all of webcomics. Now pay attention to this next bit: “How do I make money? I’m really used to being poor. I like rice. [to Khoo] Can I rent you? [pause] For the comic, too.” On the topic of making money, Breeden cited “Baby steps, and a lot of trial and error … Robert and Howard are talking about numbers with commas in them, and I’m not there yet.” Specifically, she mentioned two items:
- Sales at shows and of her comic book are starting to break even
Takeaway — Jennie Breeden is designed on an almost genetic level to make comics, and she’s spent the last four years working day jobs to clear the rent so that two weeks ago she could finally give notice to her boss and go full-time as an independent comics creator. You are not going to find it any easier than she did. Now go buy some books from her.
Pay Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain
Once upon a time, Phillip Karlsson shared an apartment with, and was annoyed by, Jon Rosenberg; Karlsson suggested that Rosenberg create a comic strip about their lives together, hoping to occupy him for a few hours each evening. Since that time, Goats has improved its art, expanded its scope beyond two guys on a couch, and become a source of income. In those years, Karlsson also went back to school to obtain an MBA.
Until recently, Karlsson was responsible for the behind-the-scenes portion of Goats: building and maintaining the server and store, and generally running the business aspects, leaving Rosenberg free to concentrate on the creative end. Earlier this year, Rosenberg and Karlsson split the business between them, with Jon taking the strip and Phillip creating Dumbrella Hosting out of the back-end. Goats and Real Life are customers of Karlsson’s company; as a service to the webcomics community, he provides hosting for Oh No Robot, and is the publisher of Fleen. Karlsson’s identified income sources from both his days with Goats:
- Advertisements (various sorts, varying success)
- Donations (works once)
- Merchandise (key component of income for Goats)
… and his current undertaking:
- Hosting services
- Business services (oversees sales and business operations at shows for Dumbrella creators)
Takeaway — You don’t have to wait for a business guy to come to you; providers of services are available.
With Special Guest
Scott Kurtz, oddly enough, started as a professional webcartoonist; in the days before the dot-com bust, he was paid by a gaming website to do a comic strip for $500/month. It wasn’t until after Kurtz stopped looking at PvP as more than a paid gig, not until he starting caring about it, that it began to gain popularity. Unlike some of the others, his was a long transitional period, with no real leap-of-faith moment; where Khoo had a plan, Kurtz waited for the opportunities and followed up on them. Kurtz identified four main sources of income:
- Advertisements (including bonus strips)
- Merchandise (Kurtz cites his shift to ThinkGeek as improving sales)
- The PvP comic book
Takeaway — Keep your eyes open for opportunities, and be willing to try everything.
Still Doin’ That Part Time Thang
Moderator Barnes finished the round by answering his own question, noting that he and Gene Ambaum both do Unshelved part time, but have a number of significant revenue sources (one of which is unique):
- Other merchandise
- Speaking engagements
Unshelved has provided Barnes and Ambaum the opportunity to speak at conferences and gatherings of librarians, and at SxSW. Several other webcomickers (including Jon Rosenberg, John Allison, Jeff Rowland, Dave Kellett, and Randy Milholland) have been invited to speak before various audiences, but it may be that Barnes and Ambaum are the only ones to do so regularly.
Takeaway — There’s always another channel for making money; go find it.
That’s all for today; look for the conclusion of this session’s recap here tomorrow. And here’s that test we promised you before; it’s not a traditional paper-and-pencil kind of thing, it’s not a verbal test, not computer-administered, or anything you’re used to. Ready? Go make your webcomic. Do your best to make a living at it, if that’s your goal. Did you succeed? Congratulations, you passed.