Todd Allen on his 'Economics of Digital Comics' Kickstarter

What a difference seven years makes! When Todd Allen published the previous edition of his book, the title reflected the digital comics scene at the time: The Economics of Web Comics. Even more tellingly, he didn't produce an eBook version — it was print -only.

The world of digital comics has spun around on its axis several times since then, and Allen, who writes about digital comics for The Beat and has taught e-business courses at Columbia College in Chicago, is now working on a major revision of his book, now titled The Economics of Digital Comics. And this time, he's funding it through Kickstarter, another major force in the comics industry that didn't exist seven years ago. We asked Allen how he constructed his Kickstarter, what his plans are for the book, and where he thinks digital comics are going.

Robot 6: First of all, congratulations on exceeding your goal! You started with a very modest goal of $500, and as of this writing your backers have almost tripled it. It doesn't seem like a lot of money — what will you use it for?

Todd Allen: I definitely took the minimum-costs route on this. I need to set up a couple files with my print-on-demand provider. I may or may not upgrade some software — I'll worry about that when I've got everything written and am ready to go into production. Could I have counted my labor for the book and time spent running a Kickstarter toward the cost and put the goal at something like $12,000? There's a case to be made for it. I'm doing a Kickstarter Campaign Diary over at Publishers Weekly, and this week's installment is about setting the pricing and goals.

The short version is, I strongly believe you shouldn't get greedy with your goals. I was a little surprised I hit the goal off social traffic, considering I haven't been going out soliciting social followers, but that's not a bad thing. Still, if you're delivering a product that has value and people want, it shouldn't be about the amount of the goal, it should be about how many people are interested in the work.

Are you planning on self-publishing the book or are you working with a publisher?

This will be my sixth foray into self-publishing. I go through Ingram's Lightning Source unit, which puts me directly into the traditional bookstore system for print, and then I'll handle uploading the eBooks on my own. eBooks weren't a huge thing back in 2007, and I'd put off making an eBook for the second edition because I kept meaning to update it. I did have some limited comic shop distribution in Chicago while I was living there and it always sold through, but I just can't justify the discount I'd need to give to Diamond. I've got some retailer bundles in the Kickstarter, and that may be how it gets into shops this time around.

Who is the audience for this book — creators who are looking to monetize their work? The general public? Someone else?

There are a few different audiences. Creators looking to monetize their work is definitely one. Anybody who wants a grounding in how the business end of the comics market works. Previous editions have been taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design, so there's an academic market. A lot of the general principles apply to online content as a whole and to the transmedia community especially, so there's some general tech crossover. Comics as a concept is a whole lot closer to the mainstream than it used to be.

The last edition of this book was published in 2007, and it was titled The Economics of Web Comics. I notice you plan to include webcomics in the new book. How has that scene changed? And how are you defining "digital comics" for the purposes of this book?

Back in 2007, we didn't have the digital downloads/eBooks like we know them today -- things like comiXology and comics in iBooks. Micropayments were far from mainstream. Almost everything online was a webcomic, closer to the traditional comic strip model. So part of the update is dividing the digital scene into that more comic strip/free-to-view (not always, but usually) webcomics model and then the paid digital download/eBook model. I'm examining the print, digital download and webcomics models individually and then comparing them for a better view of comics as an ecosystem.

Crowdfunding has also emerged as an alternate funding model that can spring out of an existing property or launch a new one in any of the above formats, so that gets a run-through, too.

What do you see as the most profound change in the digital comics marketplace since 2007? What took you by surprise?

Digital downloads went from the failed BitPass experiment to comiXology having a lofty status in terms of sales on the Apple platform. I wouldn't say that necessarily surprised me, but it sure was a big change. The thing that took me off guard the most has been Patreon. It's early in the game for them, but they've essentially taken the tip-jar concept, which previously had mixed and inconsistent results, and turned it into a monthly subscription. Interesting and promising.

We have seen a lot of digital comics startups come and go in the past seven years. Do you have a rule of thumb for predicting which ones will work out, or any helpful advice for creators who are contemplating throwing in their lot with one of them?

Depends on your definition of success. Not everybody wants to make money with their art. In general, humor strip webcomics are the easiest path to success. No continuity, easier to pass around as a one-off, frequently easier for merchandising. You do see successful story-based webcomics, but that may lend itself better to the eBook format. One of the things I'm specifically looking into after the Kickstarter closes is circulations on the digital downloads. One hears a lot of different stories at this point.

This question may seem premature, but given the speed with which the marketplace is changing, what is your plan for keeping the book up to date over the next few years?

That's something I need to play by ear. With digital downloads, things ARE going to be changing and reacting to Amazon acquiring comiXology. Will the basic models change or just the percentages publishers are charged? If the percentages and which publishers are using which services are the main things changing, that isn't necessarily an urgent update. The downloads and crowdfunding are the things that weren't on the playing field last time around. The question is what pops up next that has a significantly different business model?

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