The webcomics blog about webcomics

Making The Rounds

Long before I ever met Randy Milholland or his rampant, luxurious beard, I was talking about him and his work to others. In particular, I spent part of the reception at the Harvey Awards in 2004 (attached as it was in those days to the MoCCA Fest at the Puck Building) talking about Randy Milholland with Neil Gaiman, who had noted in his keynote address the import of his (that is, Beardy’s) jump to full-time comickin’¹. There is some secret thrill to be gained by talking with somebody you admire greatly, and finding out that you’re both fans of the same work.

In the years since, I’ve come to know Milholland reasonably well and to admire his work even more. All of which is to say, the going-pro event took place eight years ago yesterday, and I thought it worthy of note. So, noted.

There’s a lengthy piece on paying for music by David Lowery that’s been making the rounds for the past day or so. It’s very long, it’s very good, and I will not be excerpting it here because it deserves to be read in its entirety. Go do that now.

I’m pointing the three of you that hadn’t been linked to Lowery’s piece previously to it because I think it has something to say to the ongoing conversation about webcomics. On the one hand, piracy/ripping aren’t the issues for webcomics that they are for music, in that the model is predicated on giving things away and making money on the back end, the economics of which work better for webcomics (as an industry) than for music (again, as an industry). Naturally, there are contrary cases that one can find almost immediately, artists who have embraced the new economy with both hands and wrestled it into submission; we’re talking about the non-exceptional cases here, and Lowery makes a cogent argument about why those ways don’t necessarily work for the vast majority of musicians.

What I took away from Lowery’s piece wasn’t so much a parallel of the dangers (share sites for scanned comics, stripping away of attribution, even cases of outright thievery), or trying to work out an equivalence between “not paying for music” and “not buying from webcomickers”; it was more generational.

This page has made much of the generational shift in comics, between The Old Way and The New Way, but I think that struggle is pretty much done. Some people don’t (won’t/can’t) acknowledge that The Old Way ain’t coming back; the era of disintermediation is here, and attrition will take the hindmost. Lowery’s piece (and the posting that inspired it) really have me thinking about a reluctance to buy anything on the part of cohort that’s a half-generation behind many of the young creators I follow (and thus nearly a full generation behind me).

The direct creator:audience relationship has allowed a thousand artistic visions to bloom that otherwise would have been held back by gatekeepers, but now I wonder if we’ve at a pinnacle for that flowering, rather than the early days of a growth period. The kids that are just now getting onto the internet under their own identities (and Facebook’s trying to get them ever younger, with its efforts to sign up pre-teens) may represent a period of unparalleled demand coupled with an unparalleled willingness to pay for anything, endlessly mashing up and remixing what their forebears created and sharing it among themselves for reputation. New requires time (effort/compensation); reposting requires nothing.

It’s a more pessimistic way of thinking than I’ve had before, and I haven’t convinced myself as to how likely it is, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a bubble deflated before getting all that large. Any creators making it on their own now (or planning to) need to be putting serious planning into what their business will look like next year and the year after that — and only slightly less predicting what 2025, 2030, and beyond can (should/must) look like. The market for your creations in the coming decade won’t be so much what you can improvise (design/exploit), it’ll be what you force it to be.

¹ I got Gaiman to autograph a program from his speech to Milholland, and he drew a quite nice sketch of a Middle Ages plague-doctor; Milholland has since returned the favor.

I’m late to this, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about as well so this seems like a good place to vent some thoughts.

I’m 30, and I buy things. 5 years ago, I didn’t. That wasn’t because of a ‘reluctance’, it was because I didn’t have any money. Now, I didn’t infringe anyone’s copyright either, so I might not be the best example, but I think that it’s interesting to consider the transition of someone who only read things from the library or free online to someone who is able and willing to pay for things (as a side note, this is one of the reasons the free content business model works – you can hook ’em early). People want to support creators whose work they like, and will when they are able.

Kickstarter is a good example of this: some of the people who funded OoTS were just treating it as a preorder, but others were using it as a way of funding Burlew to keep doing what he’s doing. Everyone who funded Double Fine did it just because they want to enable them to keep creating. I doubt they would willingly give that money to a publisher for something uncertain, but they will for creators they trust.

I agree, of course, that the future is uncertain, and what is certain is that it will be different. Creators need to keep aware of what the current expectations of their audience are, and the changing conditions under which they will be willing to part with money. I don’t doubt, though, that those conditions will continue to exist.

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