And let me tell you, it’s much easier to just sit back and ramble until I fill up a column; sometimes though, a story presents itself and you’ve got to follow it wherever it goes. And yikes this one goes lots of places.
A small bit of background — as you may or may not have read, last week Keenspot and Kel McDonald parted ways, with a certain degree of hard feelings, judging from McDonald’s telling of the tale. Keenspot responded, the flood of comments began, musings appeared from third parties, at least one other creator decided to leave (no permalink; newspost on 18th December) as a result, and Bobby Crosby tossed in his two cents (at some point in the future, there may well be a “Bobby’s Law”, the point after which no useful discussion on a webcomics topic can take place). The claims and counter-claims of the parties were all out on the record, and if it seemed perhaps similar to John Troutman’s departure over the summer, there also didn’t seem to be much of a story there.
Fast forward to two days ago.
I was given (or, if we’re gettin’ all journalistic up in this bitch, “leaked”) what purported to be a confidential communication from Keenspot to its creators (and which you may read for yourself below the cut). Short form: the (in the copies I have received, unsigned) communique announced that on 1 July 2010 new, mandatory contracts will go into effect, which would essentially transform Keenspot into a traditional publisher and away from the nature it has had in the past (although we should note that Keenspot has had numerous corporate personae over the years). Creators that signed the contract would be required to be hosted by Keenspot, use their updating program, turn over control of ad slots, and accept a 50/50 revenue split on the advertising.
We’ll let those terms soak in for a moment.
I spent time yesterday contacting various Keenspot members, looking to confirm the validity of the document; some declined to speak on the matter, but those that did all confirmed that the posting was genuine. More than one said that they had not known about it until contacted by other creators, none said that they had received communication directly from Keenspot.
By last night, Keenspot CEO Chris Crosby had contacted me to make himself available for questions, and also confirmed the news. So it’s official: sometime about six months from now, Keenspot will cease to be what it has been, and will become something entirely different.
In the meantime, the existing creators will have to decide whether or not to accept the new contract terms; the announcement makes clear that Keenspot does not expect many of its members to stay. Crosby noted that:
As well as not inviting or accepting any new members, we may also politely decline existing members who decide to sign the new contract. We’ll be having long discussions with each interested creator (assuming there are any) in order to work out what’s mutually beneficial and what’s not. If Keenspot cannot bring something substantial to the table for the creator in question, we will stop working with them.
He went on to describe the business decision to reduce their pool of associate creators by such a severe degree (I have no formal data to back this up, but I feel it would likely be at least a 90% reduction) as allowing a greater degree of focus and ability to manage those comics that remain:
Keenspot has always been spread far too thin, and this will immediately solve that problem.
The reactions of creators that were willing to talk with me (and each on the condition of anonymity) to the announcement are uniformly negative. One creator of long standing expressed it as:
Every Keenspot member I’ve spoken to agrees that this is the Crosbys’ way of firing everyone without having to fire anyone, since trying to ditch Kel [McDonald] blew up in their faces.
The new contract is ridiculous, completely unreasonable, and they know that. It doesn’t just mandate a revenue split, but requires cartoonists to give up their domains, and the contracts are slated to last three to five years.
The Crosbys are doing their best to pretend that this has been in the works for ages, but it’s clear this is fallout from the beating they took over trying to fire Kel. They were still adding new members up until very recently, like Tiny Kitten Teeth. Those aren’t the actions of people contemplating a radical restructuring.
For the record, in case the “of long standing” part wasn’t sufficiently clear, that last quote was not from Frank Gibson or Becky Dreistadt of Tiny Kitten Teeth. Asked to respond to this point, Crosby replied that the announcement did run earlier than planned:
[P]artly in reaction to the Kel McDonald situation, but this is something we’ve discussed over and over again internally for years. We formally decided on finally doing it within the past month or so. Terminating Kel’s contract was a step in the direction of reducing the line-up (as she represented four Keenspot comics), but we don’t plan to terminate any other existing members in advance of the change.
He also indicated that the two most recent Keenspot additions (from August and October of this year) were from prior to the final decision on the transition, although that would put the acquisitions well within the period of “years” of discussion of the forthcoming change.
The other chief objection I’ve heard from creators is that the form of communication (posted to a forum) was insufficient. One reported being in communication with five other creators, none of which had learned of the impending changes from Keenspot’s efforts. Crosby characterized the notification as:
The initial announcement was made via a mass E-Mail to the private Keenspot member list that linked to a private forum thread where the full announcement was located.
Although this has been disputed by creators; one told me:
I did have to read that Keenspot thing on the message-board and rumors had been out for days and days before they made their official announcement. Scott Kurtz knew before I did.
Continuing on the topic of a more formal announcement, Crosby said:
When we formally introduce the new contract in January, we will contact each member directly. We decided to do the initial announcement earlier than originally planned in order to give attentive members as much time as possible to make other plans. In any case, all members will have at least six months to do so.
As an aside, one has to wonder if the mechanism for announcing the changes wasn’t the real cause of friction with the Keenspot creators who have spoken with me. From a purely logical standpoint, one also has to wonder about the secretive manner in which Keenspot attempted to make the changes.
Certainly, a company has the right to do business as it sees fit, and nobody is suggesting that Keenspot’s principals should have had their strategic discussions in public. But once they decided on a course of action, a direct email to all creators outlining the plans, followed by at least a small public announcement of forthcoming changes, with details to be forthcoming once the creators had been consulted with formally, would have allowed much more control of the process, and likely far fewer bruised feelings.
In any event, the thought that the process could be kept secret was a severe miscalculation; in the entire history of the world, no memo headed FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, DO NOT REDISTRIBUTE OUTSIDE OF [whatever] has ever been kept quiet absent an understanding on the part of the recipient that the sender has the means and willingness to absolutely ruin (or end) the life anybody that talks. No disrespect to the Crosbys and what they’ve built, but Keenspot ain’t the CIA.
Which leaves the question of what Keenspot is, or more accurately, what it will be. As one creator expressed it,
By the summer of next year, Keenspot will effectively be The Crosby Show.
Presumably, Chris, Teri, and Bobby are choosing colorful sweaters; some of the new fabrics are actually pretty lightweight and won’t be overly warm in the San Diego heat. But that slightly disturbing mental image aside, where is Keenspot headed? It’s had a long history in the world of webcomickry, and it’s completely fair to say that the medium would be in a very different place today if Chris Crosby and Gav Bleuel hadn’t seen the potential for a replacement to the failed Big Panda webcomics portal. Crosby sees the changes as offering a chance to resolve tensions:
I had hoped Keenspot the webcomics collective and Keenspot the independent publishing concern could co-exist happily. But after two years [following a 2008 reorganizaton and the buyout of former partners] the resounding answer is no. Those two sides of Keenspot resent each other, and neither side is happy.
[G]oing forward our focus will be directed solely at properties we have a long-term investment in, which is primarily Crosby-produced comics and related projects. That’s what makes the most business sense for us as a company, and we make no apologies for it.
Crosby added that Comic Genesis (née Keenspace) will continue without major changes, “for the forseeable future.” In the meantime, Keenspot will be nothing but major changes for the forseeable future, and once those changes all shake out it appears that The Big Green K will pretty much stand for “Krosby Komics”.
More on this story as it merits. Fleen thanks all who provided information (both on and off the record) for this story.
The text of the Keenspot reorganization internal memo is included here so that any discussion of these changes can proceed from a factual basis.
By July 1st of 2010, Keenspot as it has been known for a decade will drastically change.
Two years ago, we introduced the optional “New System” aka “100% Revenue” contract that turned a large portion of Keenspot into something more resembling a collective, or rather a glorified link exchange with optional free hosting, rather than the web publisher we began as. From most accounts, for many creators it was successful in terms of increasing and keeping 100% of the ad revenues they generate.
For Keenspot the company, the results have been mixed at best. The “collective” side, in which decisions are generally expected to be made by and in support of the group, and “publisher” side, in which decisions are solely made by the company owners at our discretion, are in a constant battle against each other. As a result, no side is truly happy.
The facts are, you do not need Keenspot. For members on the “New System” contract, everything you’re doing on Keenspot can be done on your own. You should go independent.
For those still on the original contract, you should strongly consider leaving Keenspot if you are not extremely happy with it. If we aren’t doing something for you that you can’t do on your own, there is no reason for you to stay.
On July 1st of 2010, Keenspot goes back to being solely a publishing company, but for the first time, one with a focus. We assume the vast majority of our existing members will leave, and we completely understand that. The comics that do remain will be given the attention and investment that a small company like us could not possibly give to the more than fifty comics currently active on Keenspot (and the hundreds inactive).
On that date more than half a year from now, a new mandatory contract will go into effect that does the following…
* Requires Keenspot to host your comic.
* Requires your comic to use the updating program of our choosing (currently AutoKeen).
* Requires your domain name to redirect to a nameofcomic.keenspot.com URL.
* Puts all ad slots in control of the company.
* Requires a minimum of two ad formats displayed per page.
* Requires a longer term.
* Pays the creator a set monthly rate in advance of 50/50 split.
We will present this full contract to remaining members in January 2010, but those few who decide to sign will not need to do so until July 1, 2010. If a creator requires more time to make other plans, we will continue to host them for as long as they need.
Additionally, we do not plan to invite any new members to Keenspot.
Thank you for being a part of Keenspot, and best of luck to you in the future wherever you end up.
Any questions? If you need anything from us, do not be afraid to ask.