Applying a Webcomics Business Model to Serialized Literature

by Roni Simunovic

It’s obvious to anyone familiar with the two industries that books and comics publishing are dissimilar for creators, publishers, readers and retailers, despite both dealing with similar traditional models: artists and/or writers create work, which is managed, compiled and distributed by a publisher to a series of online and brick-and-mortar retailers for purchase by readers. But, where indie publishing is concerned in both industries, things start to vary. Book publishers have the option of self-publishing, either through a vanity press or an on-demand self-publisher—a quick Google search turns up hundreds of these organizations in Canada alone—but the outcome is usually the same: a print book or ebook, usually produced at some cost to the author and distributed by any means they see fit, with or without the help of a distributor. In the comics world, however, it’s much more common for creators to start a webcomic, meaning, a serialized comics posted online, with some regularity, by an independent creator. The comic itself can be read for free, but creators are supported by three main revenue sources: placing web ads on their site, selling print books and collections, and accepting donations, usually via Patreon, a crowdfunding service for creators founded in 2013, where backers pledge a certain amount of money every month in exchange for access to backer-only extras like concept sketches, extra content and livestreams—sort of like an ongoing, indefinite version of Kickstarter. Print comic books are sold, usually funded by a Kickstarter campaign or in partnership with an online comics retailer like TopatoCo or Hiveworks, but they contain the same comics available online for free, and are usually purchased by readers to show support for the creator as opposed to being the main form of content consumption. This business model has been the norm in webcomics for some time, where a creator’s biggest strength is their audience, and their success is made or broken by word of mouth, online popularity and social media use. Many webcomics creators—for example, Noelle Stevenson (Nimona) and Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie)—have had their comics picked up by mainstream publishers as a result of their success, and others are able to make some kind of wage through this model, which suggests that it isn’t a total failure financially.

With that being said, my question is: what if the webcomics business model were applied to literature? There is currently no webcomics business model operating for literature, or if there is, it is not widely popular. Printed serial novels have a long history in cultures worldwide. You could argue that they’ve lost popularity in North America since the days of Charles Dickens, but a form of serialized micro-lit called “cell phone novels,” which are short novels sent in pieces to readers via SMS, has become immensely popular in Japan and has taken root in other countries, including China, Italy, Brazil and India. Likewise, serial fiction is massively popular online in the form of fan fiction—primarily on Archive of Our Own, a site dedicated to hosting transformative fan works—and although this is not monetized, the popularity of fan fiction shows an interest in reading serial fiction online. If literature were to adapt a webcomics business model, it would look something like an amalgamation of the aforementioned forms: writers would serialize work for free on their own websites (although possibly with less frequency than webcomics, which can update 3–5 times per week) and gain revenue through ads, selling print books to interested fans, and collecting Patreon-style donations.

There is so much to consider when discussing a webcomics business model for literature. Just because it’s working for independent comics creators does not mean it would work for writers. It would mean that print books would become a luxury item only for dedicated fans, because work could be read for free online and disseminated freely, and the role of authors, publishers and readers would change immensely were this model to become the norm.

Viability for authors

On a micro level, there would be pros and cons for authors under a webcomics business model. They would need certain hardware and know-how: their own computer, Internet access, and the ability to create a website or pay someone else to do so. But, this model also allows for virtually no gatekeepers: anyone can purchase a domain, create a website, and make their work available online for free. There’s no real need for publishers under this model, which, on the other hand, would mean that it could be a labour-intensive process for authors: they would do their own editing, web maintenance, ad sales, campaign management and shipping, as well as being their own promoter. And, without a traditional publisher, dissemination would be a largely independent venture, resulting in a greater cost to the author for web hosting, purchasing ads and the possibility of shipping books and other merchandise. There would also be issues with the form of the content itself: serialization lends itself to fiction. The majority of non-fiction, especially reference texts, history or textbook-style non-fiction, would be disjointed and impractical if released in a serialized, chronological order, which is probably why serialized non-fiction has yet to take off. Creative non-fiction, however, like collections of essays or memoirs, could work well serialized.

This model would also change things for authors at a macro level, when looking at implications of this model for a greater community of writers and the creative industry as a whole. Authors would have to place greater emphasis on networking and brand-building in order to get noticed in lieu of a publisher who promotes them in traditional marketplaces. Audience would become currency in place of book sales, because the wider audience a creator has, the higher their web traffic and thus, the higher their ad revenue. Likewise, audience and popularity would play a different role online than they do in the current publishing industry. When a work is consumed almost entirely online, as would be the case with the webcomics business model, social media replaces the merchandising that currently takes place at bookstores. Instead of having your book visible on shelves or newsstands, you have people talking about your work online and sharing links. This also leads to a closer relationship with readers. In the traditional publishing model, authors rarely interact with readers. For example, JK Rowling may respond to occasional fan tweets, but her livelihood as an author does not depend on her engaging an audience on Twitter, because her books are (and have already been) marketed through other channels. Online serialization, by its very nature, requires active, frequent interaction: an author posts, then shares the update via social media, which invites responses. Under this model, authors would create a tighter-knit community between one another, as well, because without the support of a publisher, it becomes more beneficial for individuals in the industry to support one another through cross-promotion.

Affects on the publishing industry

If the webcomics business model became prevalent for literature, publishers would become less of a necessity than they are now. In this model, print books would be a luxury item, so publishers would not be able to exist in their current state, which deals largely with the creation, distribution and promotion of print books. However, they could adapt to survive, like Hiveworks has done in the webcomics world: Hiveworks assists creators with advertising, marketing, web hosting, e-commerce, scheduling, and crowdfunding efforts, and provides community and a storefront for creators in exchange for a cut of advertising and merchandise revenue; all content rights remain with the creator. If this model were applied to literature, the above list of services would include editing, proofreading and fact checking, and publishers would act as a support network for authors, as opposed to the “gatekeeper” position they currently occupy. Any author could put their work online and benefit from this business model, and although they would benefit from the help of a publisher, they would not require one to get their work to the reading public. You could argue that, with the growing popularity of self-publishing, authors don’t require a publisher now, either, but a self-published book gaining success seems more like an anomaly than a norm under the current system.

The role of readers

This business model would work in favour of readers in a big way. Readers would get to read serialized literature for free, and have the choice of supporting authors through crowdfunding campaigns or by buying merchandise like print books. They would be able to read on any device that could connect to the Internet, and would not be limited to a dedicated ebook reader (which I would view as a positive thing, but ebook fans might not). And, as a result of all promotion and dissemination moving to an online realm with an increased reliance on social media, readers would have more chances to interact with authors. If the webcomics business model were to be applied to literature, I think readers would benefit the most out of any group, as they would receive free content and the choice to financially support authors.

Limitations

Outside of the above points, there are some larger issues with applying the webcomics business model to literature. If we have the means to do this now, and why isn’t it already happening? Some of the only thriving literary communities that operate successfully via serial fiction, as previously mentioned, are fan fiction communities. Although there are extremely talented writers in these communities, whose stories gain thousands of views in a matter of weeks, there’s a divide between the amount of original fiction and fan fiction online. These authors aren’t writing original fiction or, if they are, they aren’t posting it.

So, why aren’t authors serializing original work online? I think the answer to this lies in the visual culture of the Internet. People do read online, but on the social networks discussed here, most popular content is art, illustration or photography. Consider Tumblr, which is a main social media platform used for promotion in the webcomics business model, meaning that creators post content there, use it to notify readers of updates, and interact with readers. Tumblr gives users the ability to post text and quotes, but the reality is that Tumblr is largely a visual platform: the vast majority of things that get shared are photos, art, illustration and comics, and if there is a literary community on Tumblr, it’s of a much lower profile than illustration and comics communities. Why this is happening would require in-depth research, but to scratch the surface, I would posit that it’s because reading is a greater time investment; you can look at a photograph or drawing online and take a couple seconds to process it, but reading a short story could take twenty minutes or longer, which is a sort of delayed gratification. So, while the webcomics business model is working well for indie comics creators, there are a number of barriers that prevent it from working for authors creating original work at this time.

References

Archive of Our Own, a website that hosts transformative fan works.

Cell Phone Novel: A New Genre of Literature
Dhananjoy Roy, Language in India, March 2012.

Getting Paid for Giving Away Art for Free: the Case of Webcomics
Liz Dowthwaite, CREATe (RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy), February 25, 2014.

HarperCollins picks up webcomic Nimona
Heidi MacDonald, The Beat, November 7, 2012.

Hiveworks, an online webcomics publisher, manager and storefront.

Image Comics Solicitations for January 2016
Image Comics, October 20, 2015.

Japan and the Internationalization of the Serial Fiction Market
Graham Law and Norimasa Morita, Book History, 2003.

Patreon, a patronage/subscription platform for creators.

Topatoco, an online retailer and comics publisher.

Webcomics: The Influence and Continuation of the Comix Revolution
Sean Fenty, Trena Houp and Laurie Taylor, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comic Studies, 2004.

2 Comments

  1. First off, it is such an interesting idea that you used the comic book industry and compared it to the book publishing industry because I assume that not many people know much about comic books in general. I, for one, pay no attention to comic books so reading this essay was quite intriguing. While I love the idea of having a crowdfunding system for authors, it may not produce the biggest amount of income for the authors themselves if they do not have high popularity rates. As I was reading through your essay, I noticed that for this system to be able to work, the author or creator has to have a big audience or fan base in order to obtain high income. It would have been nice to also talk about creators with a smaller audience so that we could see that it is a model that would fit both groups of authors.

    It is good that you talk about the pros and cons of this model, but I think you are missing a conclusion paragraph. While the limitations section is important to push your idea across, you did not summarize your overall points in a conclusion paragraph. As a reader, it is important to have a conclusion paragraph to read over because the points and arguments made throughout the essay will be easier to digest if all the points are summarized into one last paragraph. For yours, I had to go scroll back through each paragraph in order to summarize your entire writing piece in my head. Another thing I would like to say is that I felt that you had all your sources and references piled up into the first few paragraphs. It would have been nice to see more sources scattered throughout the essay.

    I liked the link between how the author can obtain help from its readers without the intrusion of the publishing house. The idea that you suggested about crowdfunding and having the creator take care of all the roles like editing and promoting through social media is great because this will allow the creator to have less expenses to take care of. In all, I can see that there are a lot of similar techniques that can be taken from the comic industry and placed into the book publishing industry. I think it is a good idea for authors to develop a system that allows readers to donate a sum of money and then gain access to goods as it not only allows creators and authors to obtain another source of income, but also allows readers to gain access to other works.

  2. This essay is well organized, and presents some solid arguments, but its precise use of language and concepts makes it difficult to follow. The key concept of the essay—the comic book model—is not used consistently throughout the work, which ends up complicating the interpretation of many of the paragraphs. Is the comic book model one of serialized fiction? Is it serialized fiction + self-publishing? Or SF + SP + certain financial models? The lack of definition or consistent in the use of the term is the essays biggest flaw, but if one is generous in their interpretation of the term, the essay does present some good ideas is a logical manner.

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