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.


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.


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.

Not So Different: Technology, Publishing and Sports

by Roni Simunovic 

You could argue that the publishing industry’s relationship with technology—in the creation of new digital formats, online modes of dissemination and movement away from traditional markets—is something that’s being mirrored in creative industries worldwide. The music industry is the most obvious example, since it has faced both the rise of digital music downloads and, more recently, music streaming services, which might be outperforming all previous forms of purchased music—but what about industries outside the creative sector? What about, for example, the sports industry? Although the games themselves might not have changed in any immense way (unless we’re talking about technical advancements with regards to physical equipment, which is a different conversation), new technology has affected the way consumers interact with professional sports in a big way, just as it has with publishing.

The publishing industry creates a form of entertainment for consumers in books, and the sports industry does the same through the spectatorship of organized sports. Both industries traditionally employ a “few to many” system of dissemination: a few writers from big-name publishing houses write heavily-promoted bestsellers, and a handful of major league teams play specific sports that are shown to millions of fans. (Although this is changing in creative industries, the sports industry might not be ready to take a chance on the same diversification of content.)

In both cases, the introduction of technology that could make dissemination easier, faster and cheaper caused “techno-panic” and was fabled to ruin each respective industry. The printing press was supposed to cause a harmful overabundance of data and a lack of appreciation for the written word, and in the early days of radio, teams banned live sports broadcasting in their hometown to encourage fans to attend games. Now, however, technology has a similar effect on both publishing and sports: readers have the option of purchasing a book’s traditional, physical form, or its digital form, via a reader or other mobile device, and sports fans can either attend games or experience them with the help of television, radio or online streaming services.

For both books and sports, the traditional mode of consumption is generally seen as more expensive (the cost of printing adds value to a book that’s generally passed onto the consumer, and tickets to major league sporting events are more expensive than ever) and less convenient, because print books usually require a trip to the bookstore, and sporting events require attendance. On the flip side, digital editions don’t take up physical space and have no constraint on supply, and games can be listened to for free on the radio or seen in a sports bar, or purchased on cable at a fraction of the cost of a ticket.

Likewise, technology has created ways for both readers and sports fans to connect with their communities another outside the traditional act of reading or watching a game: readers can use the web to find new books, see reviews from others and join online book clubs and forums, and sports fans can chat on any number of sports forums or use online fantasy leagues, both of which create a community around each source of entertainment apart from actual physical contact. Similarly, creators in both industries are using apps to make consumption easier: reader apps catalogue and track which books you’ve read, and sports apps keep track of schedules, scores and stats for a myriad of major league teams.

The two industries share similarities outside modes of dissemination and consumption, too. Ebook piracy is a new fear for publishers (although the issue seems to not be as pressing as it is with film and music) and, in a similar way, illegal live streaming of sporting events may threaten the value of television broadcasting rights. In both cases, it’s argued that if the form of entertainment is available for free, even the digital versions of the product (ebooks or broadcast sporting events) will become worthless. However, you could easily argue that although the financial value of these things might drop, neither “product” is in danger of dying out: books will not stop being written, regardless of the form they take, and sports will not stop being played, regardless of the way they’re viewed. In both industries, the issue being dealt with in the face of new technology is not quality or prevalence, but the financial health of each industry and its ability to profit.

With that being said, the big difference between the two industries is obvious. Sporting games do not require space for viewers to consume, only time—there are no warehouses full of unwatched sporting events, building up and waiting to be seen. As long as sports exist, they take up the same amount of space in arenas and not in the homes of viewers, so when we discuss the way that technology affects sports, we’re talking about dissemination and consumption, and not form; unless, as previously mentioned, we’re talking about technology with regards to equipment and things that really do affect the way sports are played, but these have no real relationship with the consumers of sport, only the players. On the other hand, traditional print books definitely take up space, and when we talk about digitization, we’re talking about dissemination and the product’s physical form: technology is affecting creators and publishers by redefining what a book is, and readers, by changing how the written word is consumed and interacted with. In the future, the sports industry might use technology to change the “few to many” mode of dissemination and allow fans to somehow interact with physical games in a way that changes their viewing experience, in the same way that ebooks have changed the relationship readers have with literature—virtual reality, maybe? But until then, the two aren’t quite the same.

But, the big question is: is the sports industry being affected by new technology in the same way that the publishing industry is? Is the publishing industry being negatively affected by changes caused by new technology? As far as sports go, early fears that broadcasting would make less fans attend games seems to be largely unfounded: between 2014 and 2015, game attendance has stayed relatively the same or, depending on the league, has increased or decreased—there’s no real pattern. You could argue that fans who can afford tickets and who enjoy the experience of live sporting events will continue to attend, and those who can’t have many cheaper, more convenient options available to them, be it viewing via television, radio or online streaming (pirated or otherwise). The same could be said about books: the jury is still out on whether “print is dead,” as terrified bibliophiles are crying in the streets, but there’s no conclusive evidence that suggests print books will be going extinct anytime soon; on the contrary, ebook sales may be dropping. To suggest that print is dead because ebooks exist is like suggesting that arenas will close because cable television exists, which sounds ridiculous. For the foreseeable future, both industries have traditional modes of consumption that will be championed by those who love them, and for everyone else, there are a growing number of options available: my dad can stream a Serbian UEFA game on his computer, and I can save up for Canucks tickets; I can read ebooks on my phone while sitting on the bus, and my mom can have a library full of hardcovers. There’s still going to be something for everyone.

Related links (in order of appearance)

The Death of Music

The Long Tail

Three months on, is the NWSL failing to exploit USA’s World Cup victory?

Don’t Touch That Dial! A history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook.

Radio and its Impact on the Sports World

Have Concerts And Sporting Events Become Too Expensive For The Average Fan?


Fantrax Fantasy Sports

5 Apps to Help You Track Your Personal Libraries

Tracking Your Teams: The Top 5 Sports Apps

Online Piracy Threatens the Value of Sports Broadcasting Rights

3 Ways Virtual Reality Will Soon Impact Live Entertainment

NHL Attendance Flat For ’14-15

NBA Sets Record For Average Season Attendance

After peaking in 2007, NFL attendance steadily has declined

The publishing business as we have known it is not going away anytime soon

The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead

© 2020 vsimunov. Unless otherwise noted, all material on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Theme by Anders Noren

Up ↑