One is never really prepared for the truly weird moments at SDCC; case in point: being introduced to the very nice lady that bought a Chris Yates original Baffler!, and recognizing the signature on the credit card receipt: Lynn Johnston. Weirder: having her tell me that she bought her son (presumably the one that “Michael” is based on) one of Yates’s POOP signs last year. Weirder still: she did her best to convince other people in line to purchase POOP signs (or, from another angle, dOOd). She was lovely and it was a delight.
Also odd: the Penny-Arcade booth staff all had those brainwave-reading catgirl ears that respond to emotions. At his panel later, Robert Khoo would don a pair and react to Scott Kurtz’s mad experiments¹.
That panel (and additional details on the Dave Kellett/Stripped panel are extensive and appear below the cut.
Friday purchases: Kris Straub’s Starslip Companion².
¹ Sample: Okay, I’m going to put an image of me in your head and we’re going to watch the ears. Me pooping. It’s a hard poop. The ears indicated interest, then deflated in existential horror.
² A book so white and understated/tasteful in its presentation, when photographed against a white background, it threatens to merge into the fabric of reality itself.
Robert Khoo, Scott Kurtz, and Brad Guigar returned for their Business of Webcomics panel, and went straight to the questions. Semi-transcript follows.
Question: When building a site, do you have to construct for every possible mobile device?
SK: I don’t; there are so many different devices, they’re changing so fast, and these days tablets and smart phones just open the site as you expect it to be.
BG: I think we’re going to start seeing resolutions (presently, 72 dpi is standard) nudge up thanks to things like Retina displays.
Question: What are the top three best ways of getting a good following for your webcomic?
BG: Do a fantastic comic.
SK: Which is an answer that angers more and more people these days.
BG: Help readers to spread the word; there are so many tools to have quick, viral spreading of the word of your comic. Three, be available, be a presence on the web; webcomics means we’re very approachable, very accessible.
RK: 18% of our traffic comes from Facebook these days; being available to your readers is critical. That platform changes, though. Two years ago, we saw Facebook as a competitor, but they really saw that creators should be pro-Facebook instead and have provided tools to make that happen.
Question: What is your profit model, and how do you make money?
BG: I rely heavily on ads, run a chain of ad networks, optimized for delivery. The other way is merchandising — self publishing and selling books.
SK: It’s been different for every year of PvP; in the first year, the dot-com money (which was a pyramid scheme that was legal somehow) paid my mortgage, then Gamespy liked my content and they paid my mortgage, then selling comic books and Image gave me a contract and that paid my mortgage. The key element to all of it is the content. Right now, Google AdSense pays the rent.
RK: For Penny Arcade it’s a diversified set of income streams: merchandise, licensing, advertising (for the time being), events (PAX, PAX-East), when you do things for yourself and have processes, you develop expertise around those areas. Now we have clients that utilize our warehouse, our pick-and-pack fulfillment, other companies that use our convention to promote their products.
Question: I’ve been debating the value of tools in my arsenal to promote my webcomic, like should I hire a publicist?
BG: It’s attractive to think, I’ll just hire X and then that will be taken care of. Especially in your opening days, use what’s available to you already — you’ve got Twitter, Facebook, you’ve got a publicist. I would not pay money for somebody to do those things until my time is so valuable that taking time to do those things is hurting me.
RK: If you don’t have a comic you, you have no business getting a publicist, you’ll never see a return. No! It’s not allowed! You’re forbidden.
SK: Wait, has your comic launched?
Response: Not yet.
SK: Okay, what’s the name of your webcomic going to be? Nobody cares! Siddown! Okay, I’m awake now. How was that? I was too gentle before. Ramp it back a little?
BG: A little. Find that midpoint.
SK: I’m going to give you a phrase: “Cargo Cults”. Know what those are? I see this a lot in webcomics, it’s such a difficult thing to tell people to work on the content, this is a ten year overnight success you’re trying to be. You end up doing all these things that have nothing to do with making a comic.
Question: Paper comics companies like DC and Marvel are making big shows of switching over to the web; will the viralness of webcomics be able to match the mass of the big companies coming to the web?
RK: There’s a bunch of things there. One, target markets: DC and Marvel are going after mainstream readers. Two, how much of that is because of the movies, and who reads the comics? Take slices of the audiences and ask if they recognize a property and yeah, I hope that most of your moms don’t know what Penny Arcade is, because then we’re going after the wrong audience. Will the viralness of social media catch up to the advertising of Marvel & DC? That’s where they throw their money, but I think you’ve got it backwards.
SK: It would be dumb for me to try to match the advertising of those companies. I will never be of a size to need to do that. You can’t compare the two; we’re independent artists, we don’t need to support Time Warner or Disney. Can we match Image? IDW? BOOM? <whispers into the mic>Yes. We’re already doing it. Don’t tell Image, that’s why I left.
BG: The thing to understand is Marvel and DC are casting a wide net, webcomics are focused.
SK: If you compare us to their web endeavours, we’ve got them beat hands down,. They know what the model is, I’ve screamed it at them a million times, but they KEEP. MISSING. THE. TARGET. [Editor's note: KHAAAAANNNNN!]
Question: There are a lot of webcomics, obviously not all of them successful, and a lot of ideas, not all of which are going to work in the market. How, in general, do you know if your story or idea work on the web?
SK: We didn’t have that idea when we started. I just wanted to have a syndicator see it and hire me. The other stuff just kind of happened underneath it.
BG: Let’s say you do a webcomic, you do the story you want to tell, as well as you can possibly do it, it’s a challenge, it brings you enjoyment, you can look at it and say it’s the best I could do and I’m proud of it and it’s not a business success. That’s pretty good. There’s something to be said for failure, for what you learn by failing, which may lead you to your next success. Have the courage to fail.
Question: How much time do each of your companies spend creating content, how much promoting and marketing?
RK: Mike and Jerry’s process is, day before the strip goes up, they start writing at 11:00, which takes three or four hours, drawing takes another two, three hours, and the strip goes up and we spend zero time promoting.
BG: Hard to pin down, a lot promotion I do is spontaneous, on Twitter, on Facebook. About 70% creative, 15% business aspects, 15% marketing & promo.
SK: About the same. Bad weeks it’s 50-50.
BG: This past week was 10% creative, 90% getting ready for San Diego.
Question: How many monthly uniques do you need before going to a small convention and giving out swag as a promotion for your comic?
BG: You’re looking for a magic number, but there isn’t one. Anybody trying to give you that number is trying to sell you something.
SK: Don’t be afraid to go to a local show if you’re not risking a huge cost — it’s a learning experience.
Question: How did you arrive at the process of figuring out the business model, balancing content vs promoting?
RK: I don’t know that my experience is going to be relevant — we have staff to do those other things.
BG: It was from making a lot of really dumb mistakes and learning from them, from having the ability to take some risk and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. There is no one single way of doing this — we all have a different process.
SK: Trial and error. If somebody else tries something and it works, there’s a lot of commiserating between creators, people jump on that. We didn’t sit down and say, “We’re going to find an ad network this week”, it’s all very organic.
Question: My webcomic now has 44 pages of story/art, we’ve been working on it for two years. What business problem do we not know about putting out a book that we need to know?
BG: Know in advance how you’re going to distribute, plan your cover price accordingly.
SK: Print on demand is always going to be more expensive, but you don’t have to keep as much inventory. Traditional printing is cheaper, but you’ve got to have more copies purchased up front. China is where you can do things easily, but it’s got to get over here and go through customs. It’s either low unit price because there’s a lot, or high unit price and look like crap because you’ve got 50 copies. Best way to make money early is prints and posters. You can get posters made for a buck apiece, you can ship 100 posters for the cost of shipping one carton of 10 books. Do that a couple of times, your readers get to have something that connects with you, and you get to build up money for books later.
At this point, the panel expressed surprise that nobody had asked about the Penny Arcade Kickstarter.
BG: I have a question for Robert. Does your Kickstarter mean that what we have all called the “webcomics business model” does not scale?
RK: Oh, it scales. Advertising works for it fine. People come up to us at shows and say “I use adblock, I don’t buy stuff, how can I support you?” and until now we’ve had to tell them there is no way for them to do so. With this Kickstarter, people will vote with their dollars. If it funds, instead of Mike and Jerry working on ad stuff — and people don’t know how much of their time is taken up with that, they have to approve every ad we run — will work on creative projects for the readership. If it fails, not a big deal, everything will still work as it has up until now.
SK: So, what are the implications for other webcomics?
RK: I don’t see a lot of the talk in webcomics finding the right issues on this. [Editor's note: read down to the Stripped panel report and note the bit about Liz Phair.] Fortune, Forbes, Business Week are all commenting on this for its implications on small media. It takes out the middleman of the advertisers. I have readers of Penny Arcade, and I have advertisers that want the readers to also look at their stuff. Let’s pretend that the readers would prefer to fund their content themselves, instead of being sold to advertisers.
SK: Do you want other people to try it?
RK: I absolutely want other people to try it. This comes down to what webcomics do better than any other medium which is connecting with their readers.
BG: So does this become a yearly thing now?
RK: It does. It’s their choice. If the readers want to fund this, they will.
SK: If I did one of these and funded it, I could play more golf. Golf with Mike, I can be his caddy! That’s a sitcom — Fat Caddy, Wednesdays on the new CBS.
Question: What advertisers have you had to turn down?
RK: We’ve turned down more advertising dollars than we’ve taken.
SK: Advertisers really want to push the boundaries of your readers, they want to skin your site, have your blog with double-underlined words.
RK: The reason is, we’re not just a webcomic, we’re editorial, people trust our opinions. As opposed to just being entertainment, it’s an important difference. In games media, advertising is broken, the boundaries between editorial and advertising are broken. We decided to merge it, so if we have the ad, we’re standing behind the game.
BG: This applies to you as well — AdSense, what kind of ads are you accepting? I could make more money with pop-ups, different content of ads, but would it drive away the readers?
SK: A year ago I announced I was taking sponsorsip from Wizards of the Coast, everybody wondered what it was going to be like, was I going to be really explicit with product placement. A week in everybody forgot I did it and they wanted to know what was going on with Val. It only worked because WoTC gave me a huge amount of freedom, said We know what you’re about, we’re going to let you do this your way. Three or four others have tried to do the same kind of sponsorship, but it hasn’t.
SK: [to the moderator that's announcing end of time] What happened to the five minutes warning? We’re done? But it hasn’t been a good fit for the strip.
By now, you all should have seen the big news from the Stripped panel, so no need to repeat ourselves. Here’s a few other items that caught my attention during the talk.
- Fred Schroeder, the filmmaker half of Freddave Shroeder-Kellett couldn’t be at the panel, but did manage to join for a portion via FaceTime. Hi, Fred!
- The film began when three or four years ago, Fred wanted to film Dave at work in his studio, as part of an exploration of all kinds of artists and their creative process. A few weeks later, Dave asked if Fred wanted to record more cartoonists, with a focus on comic strips. They started interviewing, got to talking angles of creativity, emotions, and the practice of being cartoonist. After 50 or 60 more interviews around US and Canada, it got really, really expensive, and the Kickstarter allowed them to finish the production work but also to get a whole new round of interviews — six months worth — making for a total of 300 hours of raw footage. Which now needs to be cut down to about 80 minutes. Yikes.
- The arc of the film is the history of comics, creativity of comics, and a newspaper business that is not dying, but is falling apart, and all of the implications for professionals. The first clip contrasted that sense of existing cartoonist of long standing with the new generation of cartoonists working in the digital realm. This section of the film (about 2/3 of the way through) is called The Digital Revolution, with a theme of How these kids make money. It was largely done via the metaphor of an 8-bit NES game, interspersed with talking heads on key points.
It was hilarious, especially the part when Brad Guigar and I looked at Brad Guigar on the screen and realized that Brad Guigar in real life was wearing the same shirt. Brad Guigar is a very handsome man, but may need a stylist to shake things up a bit.
- The score is by Stefan Lessard of the Dave Matthews Band, who has been so invested in the movie and its message that he’s picked up the considerable costs of studio and recording time and brought in world-class musicians to perform. During recording, it turned out that Liz Phair happened to be in the studio next door, and had an immediate reaction: Holy crap, this movie exactly relates to my business. Lots of artists in lots of fields are seeing the same sorts of challenges as the media landscape changes.
Via the Q&A:
- The NES-style music was from a Philadelphia artist named Dr Octorock, who Fred found through College Humor. It was composed via keyboard that plugged into Nintendo 64 soundboard.
- The biggest geek-out moment during filming was probably meeting Jim Davis of Garfield in the enormous, everything’s orange PAWS, Inc HQ in the wilds of Indiana, being surrounded by all the Garfield merch for the year.
- Don’t worry about the context, just enjoy the quote:
You have huge nerds makin’ a movie. We didn’t date in high school. This movie is the end result of not being attractive.
- Kellett is not in the movie himself, despite being a cartoonist; his illustrations are present, as is his voice in bits of dialogue and questioning, and Fred would insist that Dave’s fingerprints are everywhere.
- The toughest interview was Stephan Pastis of Pearls Before Swine; as he and Kellett have very different viewpoints on cartooning and had a three hour argument — not about anger, but about ideas, which Kellett holds makes the movie better because he doesn’t agree.
- A lot had to be left behind: The cutting room floor in this movie is just us crying all the time. I’m just weeping every time. If you ever meet Kellett, ask him about the Mort Walker quote that got cut because it sounded a little creepy, as there’s no way to express it properly without hearing Dave do the voice.
The film should be buttoned up by the end of summer so that it can be submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. Depending on whether it gets in, the film could be seen in mid- to late fall, or sometime after Sundance in February. It could end up getting to movie theaters, it might be provided direct to consumers, but with so many hours of interviews, the end goal is to get it to as many people as possible. To that end, the entire archive of the film will eventually end up at the Ohio State University cartoon research library, and the full interviews will be made available online.