It sounds like a paradox: Webcomics.com is a how-to site explaining how you can make money as the creator of a free webcomic.
But you will have to pay to see it.
The standard model for creator-owned webcomics is to put the comic up for free and make money via ads and the sale of books, T-shirts, and other merchandise. And one of the most influential guides to that model is How to Make Webcomics, authored by the four members of the Halfpixel collective: Brad Guigar (Evil, Inc.), Dave Kellett (Sheldon), Scott Kurtz (PvP), and Kris Straub (Starslip).
In late 2008, Halfpixel took over the domain webcomics.com (previously owned by T Campbell) and reconfigured it as a how-to site for webcomics creators, providing advice on everything from how to draw word balloons to how to build an audience. Guigar is the editor-in-chief and writes most of the articles, with Kurtz and occasionally the others also providing content.
On January 3, literally overnight, Guigar put all the content behind a pay wall and announced that henceforth, readers must pay a $30 annual subscription fee to access it. The internets swelled with outrage, but Guigar pointed out that the site is a professional tool, not a webcomic, and thus of monetary value to creators.
I interviewed Guigar via e-mail about his reasons for the change and his reaction to the criticism that followed.
Brigid: OK, let's get the obvious question out of the way—webcomics are free, so why are you charging for your site?
Brad: That's a misunderstanding that I've been dreading ever since I decided to do this. Webcomics.com isn't a webcomics site. It's a site about webcomics.
In other words, it's not an entertainment site; it's a site that tries to help people who want to build their webcomics into a successful business by giving them the tools and advice that they need. I have three other sites that are webcomic sites. Those will continue to operate as free sites just as we discussed in our How To Make Webcomics book—which also must be purchased.
And, in order to continue doing a Monday-through-Friday update schedule, like I have done for the past two years with few exceptions, I had to find a way to make the site generate revenue.
I couldn't use advertising. The site is very much aimed at a niche market. It doesn't generate the volume or the type of traffic that an advertiser would find attractive.
So that left subscriptions. Or closing the site so I could direct my attention towards something that was going to give me the financial return on my investment of time that I needed.
I like doing Webcomics.com. I wanted to keep it going.
So this was the option I chose.
Brigid: Historically, not only webcomics but newspapers and magazines have had a lot of trouble getting readers to pay for content. Why do you think this will work for your site?
Brad: Newspapers and magazines offer content that can be easily found elsewhere—and much of it is information that readers may not feel as if they need. That's not the case with Webcomics.com. I think the quality of what I'm doing on that site will prove to be worth well more than $30 per year to my readers.
Brigid: What will readers get for their $30?
Brad: — Frequent updates of news, advice, tutorials and strategies by webcomics veteran Brad Guigar.
— Monthly contributions by webcomics pioneer Scott Kurtz and Penny Arcade's Business Guy, Robert Khoo.
— Personalized features like a new e-mail-based organizer to help you plan for upcoming conventions.
— Feedback and guidance for your comic and the small business you'll create running it.
— A fully rounded, indexed repository of two year's worth of information that you can use to help improve your work.
— A moderated, passionate, supportive community of webcomics creators.
— Inside information on conventions, vendors and other entities that webcartoonists access to advance their businesses.
— Deals on merchandise.
— You will have access to all of this plus the entire Webcomics.com archives, one of the most helpful and supportive forums for creative people on the Web, and several members-only offers.
Brigid: How will the premium site be different from its previous free incarnation?
Brad: It will be very similar to the traditional Webcomics.com, with a more intense focus on helping members get organized and build their webcomics.
Brigid: In the past, you had guest writers on the site. Did you pay them? Will you be paying your guest writers going forward?
Brad: We accepted submissions on the site. Participants were not paid, and we have no plans to pay anyone who wishes to submit items in the new site. Truthfully, I've written the vast majority of the site posts on Webccomics.com. I was happy to get submissions, but they comprised a very small percentage of the content. I've already stated on the site that if anyone feels awkward having their submitted material behind the subscription wall, they only need alert me, and I'll happily take it down.
[Note: Brad answered this question on Sunday night. On Monday, he changed the policy and removed all content from guest writers unless they specifically authorize its use. “We decided that it was better to allow them an opt-in,” he said.]
Brigid: Why did you make the change so abruptly, rather than letting people know in advance that it was going to happen?
Brad: My fault completely. I was completely caught by surprise by that—and I'm embarrassed about that. In hindsight, it was a no-brainer. As soon as people stated that it made them uncomfortable, I did what I learned in kindergarten. I apologized, and I did what I could to make it better. All submitted posts are hidden unless the authors release the content.
Which amounts to a small fraction of the Webcomics.com posts.
Brigid: Why did you decide to put all the material behind a pay wall, rather than going with a partially free model with premium content?
Brad: Honestly, because the decision was between continuing the site and ending it. See, I could take the time I put into Webcomics.com and launch another webcomic and build it into a revenue stream quite easily. And, honestly, over the long haul, I'd probably make more money. But I really think what I'm doing on Webcomics.com is significant. I just needed a way to justify the time I was putting into it.
Brigid: Why are you choosing not to use ads to support the site?
Brad: I couldn't use advertising. The site is very much aimed at a niche market. It doesn't generate the volume or the type of traffic that an advertiser would find attractive.
Brigid: What about the podcast and the forum? What will happen to them?
Brad: The forum is part of the subscription. The podcast is a completely separate entity.
Brigid: Are you concerned that having all your content behind a pay wall will make you less visible (via Google, Twitter, blog links, etc.)?
Brad: We're trying to build it in such a way that we can accommodate those things, but again, I'm writing for a very concentrated market. The things you're mentioning are very useful for casting a large net, but our net is quite small.
Brigid: How did you come to this decision, and how long has it been in the works—was it your intention all along to convert Webcomics.com to a paid site?
Brad: It wasn't the intention when we launched the site a couple years ago. It's something I've been mulling for months. I talked about it with Scott Kurtz and Robert Khoo (both of whom will be contributors) and we agreed that this was worth pursuing.
Brigid: Why did you go with a flat fee for the year rather than a lower monthly fee?
Brad: Charging $2.50 a month through PayPal just seemed as if it would cause more problems than it would solve.
Brigid: What will non-subscribers see when they go to the front page?
Brad: The introduction to each topic we're discussing.
Brigid: Do you feel that limiting the site to paid subscribers will raise the level of the conversation (both the technical content of the posts and the conversation with commenters)?
Brad: That's the one thing I'm absolutely sure of.
Brigid: Do you subscribe to any paid sites to help you in your career? If so, which ones? If not, what would make such a site worth the money?
Brad: Man, I wish there had been such sites available when I was learning this over the last ten years! I'd like to think I would have signed up in a heartbeat. Instead, I had to learn what I know from an awful lot of trial-and-error. That and getting advice from my peers—some of which was good and some of which was not-so-good.
To get my subscription, I think the site would have to offer me something that I couldn't find elsewhere—like Webcomics.com. :) Webcomics.com has a very high quality to its posts. And it's that quality that has brought subscribers in already.
Brigid: How are subscriptions going so far? Do you have a goal, and if so, how close are you to reaching it?
Brad: I'm completely astounded by the response. It's easily double what I expected for the launch. And the kind words of support and encouragement I've received from those people as well has been downright humbling. :)
I don't have a subscription goal in mind. I'm doing something that everybody says can't be done. Hitting a specific number isn't a goal. Surviving the week is my goal. Making those new subscribers feel as if they made a good decision is a goal.
Brigid: From what I'm seeing in comments, a lot of your longtime readers are signing up. But with most of your content out of sight, how will you attract new subscribers?
Brad: People will be able to see the topics and the first couple paragraphs to every post. If it intrigues them, they can subscribe.