One of the Friday presenters at the Festival of Cartoon Art was Dave Kellet.
Titled "The Freeing of the Comics", his presentation was a reply to Bill Watterson's 1989 Festival Speech "The Cheapening of the Comics".
Before we begin - please remember that this is Anne speaking - not John. I don't want any confusion.
(Probably one of my favorite moments was when Dave put up the only existing photo of Watterson and said "You know - if you're going to cut yourself off from the world and leave behind only one photo of yourself - do you really want it to be this one?!")
Before I start, I'd like to say that I have a lot of respect for Dave. I'm aware of his standing among the webcomic community and his book "How To Make Webcomics" (with Scott Kurtz Kris Straub and Brad Guigar). I've seen his comments on cartooning boards a few times, I've listened to his Tall Tale interview with Tom Racine, and recently I started reading Sheldon and I really like it.
So this is not going to be an anti webcomic scree or another print vs web battleground post.
Some of Dave's points:
1) Web guys see syndicates as irrelevant middle men who take too large a cut (50%)
2) Newspapers will successfully transition to digital, comics will not.
3) Success on the internet depends on a tight bond between creator and consumer - paywalls hamper this relationship.
4) All media are seeing large audiences dwindle - network TV sitcoms considered successful today draw a fraction of the viewership once considered the mark of success - there are too many entertainment options - comics suffer from the same fate.
5) To be successful at cartooning you must be accessible, entertaining, and kind
6) Free content is the only way to spread your work virally and reach a dedicated audience that will buy your art.
7) Successful webcomics have a variety ways their income breaks out - most get the lion's share of their income from selling original art and book collections with advertising and stuff like mugs bringing in a smaller percent.
8) Digital devices like the ipad are not going to "save" print media or syndicated comic strips.
I would like to offer my thoughts (for what they are worth) on these points.
1) The syndicate 50% thing - yes, this is a steep percentage and Dave is right when he says that no other business gets this high an amount - that Hollywood agents only get 10%.
I would like to point out that, to the best of my knowledge, Hollywood agents pretty much sell you in Hollywood. Syndicates employ a large sales team that literally physically travels the world making sales calls. Edison is in papers in Guam, South Africa, Saudi Arabia etc. not just the US. It is true that, if papers go all digital, these calls will become moot. But we're not there yet. Of course, you could argue that the internet is truly global and webcomics have fans all over the world, but the reach of print in other countries (and the syndicate picking up the tab for translations) is still huge. We often ignore the power of print in less wired countries but it is quite real.
It is also important to note that all syndicate contracts are different but the 50% thing is not across the board. It applies to certain areas of the business and not others and some syndicates hold a tighter leash than others.
It is also important to state that some syndicates pay a minimum guaranteed royalty and some don't. If you are lucky enough to sign with one that does, that means that those early years of audience building are subsidized. I have not yet heard of a web comic with that kind of funding right out of the gate.
2) The transition of papers to digital. The early forays of newspapers into digital format gave me a headache. The web guys are absolutely right when they point out that the sites gobble too much bandwidth, are difficult to navigate, and are not user friendly. Not only that - most papers saw the move to digital as an opportunity to drop the albatross that they consider comics to be and did not bring them along for the ride. This is changing - it turns out that papers - even digital ones - that provide comics have happier readers and higher eyeball retention. Programs like Comics Kingdom are still in their infancy and their impact remains to be seen. I can only tell you that, since the launch of Comics Kingdom, we have seen a steady rise in income from digital sales of Edison. It's not a huge amount of money, but it's growing monthly, as are the number of papers carrying the platform.
3) Paywalls and the creator/consumer relationship. This one is a biggie. Dave is right - both about the need for the cartoonist to build a strong, passionate relationship with the audience, and the fact that paywalls are off putting and hamper that relationship. However - there is absolutely nothing stopping a syndicated cartoonist from having that same relationship with their fans - any cartoonist in this day and age that doesn't have a fully interactive website, that is tended regularly is going to get left behind.
And as far as the paywall goes - paywalls will disappear and not disappear at the same time. Syndicates are finally starting to let consumers view the comics for free on a creator's website daily - I take this as a sign that they have been paying attention to folks like Dave and are ready to steal a few plays from the webcomic playbook. So that paywall is leaving.
But a new one is coming. And it will come and people will pay and no one will care. Because, while everyone sitting at their desktop computer expects content to be free (especially when they're surfing the web at work!) taking content mobile is where free stops.
Dave said something really important about the idea of people paying for comics. He said that, because the price of a newspaper encompasses so much material, folks have never really felt that they were paying for comics in the first place - they pretty much already see them as free. And that is where the new paywalls will be smart - they will succeed because they will be virtually invisible to the consumer. The mobile industry has a jump on the market because - right out of the gate, they forced consumers to pay for everything. (I have to pay for incoming texts for crying out loud!) If comics can bundle into another product - as they have for decades in newspapers - they will continue to be paid for by consumers. It just has to be as invisible as it is in papers.
4) The fragmentation of audiences. Again, Dave is right on and he had some good parallels across the entertainment industry. But people crave a hub. Cable may have 900 channels competing for your attention but there are still shows that are huge hits as long as they resonate with a big portion of the public. Especially if they really manage the mob dynamic and become an event like "Lost".
I fully believe that the success of facebook and twitter stem - not from their content - but from the fact that they are a hub. They are where everyone is hanging out. A hub is where all the gossip and action is.
I think we can look at other media from the past and see that each new thing, radio for instance, went through a phase where there were a billion channels and sort of a wild west thing going on. But eventually people like to distill things down to a hub. I don't think we've seen it yet with the internet - facebook is just a start - but I do think a hub will come. I hope it has comics on it.
5) Accessible, entertaining and kind - true again. But any feature can be that - not just webcomics.
6) The free thing and file sharing - Yes and no - see points 4 and 8. Yes, free has been successful so far but that is when you depend on having one central location for your work (as in your own site or comics.com or something like that). You then depend on other people to share your comic and get the word out. The big problem I see now that there are thousands of webcomics is with an audience finding you in the first place. Again - that's where a hub comes in to play. We may be entering a new phase where you have that model but other models like comics kingdom in place as well. Why not chase every avenue for distribution that exists?
7) Successful webcomics have diverse income sources - again - not unique to webcomics. This is something any feature can do. Merchandising and selling original art is nothing new.
8) The ipad won't save comics. Here I disagree completely. As someone who had her life taken over by an ipad 6 months ago - I can't even begin to tell you what a difference it has made to my media consumption. I'm paying for all sorts of comic apps and stuff that would have been inconceivable to me 2 years ago. The race to get your comic made into an app has already started. There will be some freewheeling material for these devices. But Apple and some other companies that worry about questionable content will probably prefer to deal with syndicates where they know the material has been vetted.
Which brings me to my final point. Dave was right about an awful lot about how things have been and which models have worked so far. But I seriously disagree with his view of where things are headed. Because - to me - it all comes down to who owns the internet.
For the past 15 years the web has been owned by a certain personality type. I'm going to call them techies. For techies the web is this great free playground where half the fun is finding a workaround for any and all obstacles you might encounter on the internet. Paywall? Find a way around it. Security protocols? Hack 'em.
For techies, the internet is not a consumer environment. They do buy stuff on it, but they only buy stuff with a tangible, substantive form (like original art and books).
That was then.
But a new breed is showing up on the internet.
They don't know how to hack anything. They don't want to know. They don't want to surf for hours to find some cool little thing. They want what they want when they want it. They want convenience and they don't have a problem paying for it. They want content that has been vetted so that they don't have to worry that viewing it at work is going to get them into trouble. And they want to be entertained. And they're on the internet 24/7 - Farmville, anyone?
And that is the audience that comic creators and syndicates and everyone else needs to tap. I know because I'm one of them. And trust me, I'm not that unique.
Update: Some additional thoughts that I meant to put in but somehow forgot - (it was midnight) in case it isn't clear from my post, I think the folks who have been doing webcomics have a lot of great insight but many of the things they do to grow their audiences needn't be exclusive to their platform. Especially the way they all link to each other and feed audience growth. Unlike newspapers where artists are competing head to head for a spot of real estate, on the web there is only more and more appetite for comics. If you recommend another comic on your site, your fans aren't suddenly stop going to your site in favor of the new one - they'll simply add it to the list of things they read producing a bigger audience for everyone. Syndicated artists should not be shy about linking to and endorsing other comics.
In general, there is absolutely no reason for syndicated comics not to follow the lead of webcomics, both adopting methods that have been proven to work, and creating new opportunities by trying new ideas as well. Internet and mobile device marketing is a nut that can be cracked. If it is, it will be up to syndicated creators to see to it that they get an appropriate slice of the pie. Dave made the point that creators should always be able to wear the hat of the business man and not shy away from that aspect of doing a comic. He's right about that as well. Syndicated artists need to know what's going on, they need to understand their contracts and, if they don't, they need to hire good lawyers who do. And they need to talk to each other and help each other and build a community that benefits the business as a whole. And not just sit back and wait for the new model, but to be working with their syndicates to help build it.