Crowdfunding is emerging as a new force in comics publishing, not only to fund new projects, but to address long-standing creator complaints like lack of promotion and advances—even projects with publishers are now going to sites like Kickstarter to cover additional costs.
Crowdfunding has more ties to music, film and charities, than to publishing in general or comics in specific. The basic idea is an artist/writer/director/creator posts a description of a project and a dollar amount they need to complete the project. Patrons and fans can then pledge money towards the completion of the project. As the amount of money donated increases, those donating will receive perks or premiums including things like a copy of the work, their name in the credits or original art. Some sites hold the pledged money in escrow and only release it to the creators if the target price is met or exceeded. Some sites pay out funds as they are pledged. Examples of Crowdfunding sites are Kickstarter.com, IndieGoGo.com, RocketHub.com and PledgeMusic.com. In terms of comics, Kickstarter is the primary crowdfunding site, with IndieGoGo also having a handful of mostly smaller projects.
Unexpectedly some of projects being crowdsourced already have publishers. Where once a published author might have looked foolish asking his audience for production or marketing money for a project that already has a home, the new reality is not only are creators asking for this, some of them are getting it.
“Most independent publishers don't give an advance to do this,” says Mark Andrew Smith. Smith used the popular crowdfunding site, Kickstarter, to fund the second volume of his “New Brighton Archeological Society” series. While the first volume in the series, published by Image Comics, generated enough critical buzz to create interest in a second book, it also failed to sell enough copies to pay off the production costs of coloring and lettering the book. Image Comics, one of the largest independent comic publisher and frequently the top choice for creators wanting to retain their copyrights, operates a little differently than most traditional book publishers. They offer no advances, offering royalties on the back end after the books have sold. The creators provide the complete package, so if the artist on the project isn’t a colorist or a letterer, it’s common for the creators to independently contract those services from third parties and in many cases pay for that up front.
For the second volume, Smith sought $6,000 from Kickstarter to pay for coloring and lettering, which would allow him and his creative partner, Matthew Weldon, to start with a $0 deficit when Image releases it. They ended up getting $8,670 from 184 backers, 3 of whom donated $500 to have their likeness drawn into the book.
“I see Kickstarter as kind of a side pot,” explains Smith, “where the creators can use comp copies, sell enough books to pay the costs, and it goes to stores and retailers can do their business.”
Smith isn’t alone in this use of crowdsourcing. Marat Mychaels is 2/3 of the way to his goal of $10,000 for “paying the amazingly talented people I have gotten to agree to be involved in this project” while reviving his 1992 comic, Blindside. While he hasn’t formally committed to a publisher, Mychaels says Blindside will most likely land at Image, just like New Brighton Archeological Society.
Perhaps the biggest name in comics to use crowdfunding for production costs is Tony Harris, who successfully received $11,820 to pay for his “page rate for penciling, inking and coloring 96 pages of art” and “administration fees for publishing, and promotional items” for a project already placed with “Desperado/IDW.”
The author complaining about his or her publisher not doing enough to promote them is so common as to be the stuff of clichés. This is another area crowdfunding is helping in.
“Image does provide a few marketing essentials, but any external advertising is up to the creators,” explains artist Kody Chamberlain. who used Kickstarter for his Image project Sweets. Of course, this goes for most independent publishers and sounds like the mid-list prose author’s lament, too.
Chamberlain received $4,633 from 79 backers for what he describes as “Facebook ads, banner ads, black & white preview books (called ashcans), posters, flyers, and convention expenses.” It also had an unusual side effect. “My Kickstarter campaign ended up being one of the biggest sources of advertising. It became viral, and word really started to spread about the comic.”
Perhaps the most unusual crowdfunding of all is the Sailor Twain project. Sailor Twain is an graphic novel scheduled for 2012 publication by First Second Books that’s being serialized as a webcomic. Its cartoonist, Mark Siegel is currently attempting to raise $7,000 for an ad campaign “mainly online on the major comics and comics news sites, a bit on social networks, and ideally to reach people who don't read comics (or webcomics) as well.”
Why is this unusual? Siegel is the editorial director at First Second. He also attributes the Kickstarter project to fan involvement: “The Sailor Twain experience online has blossomed in all kinds of unexpected ways, and it was a couple of readers who suggested Kickstarter as a way to support the project. It's an extraordinary approach, and I'm now supporting a handful of Kickstarters myself. In the case of Sailor Twain, it's a way to grow the webcomic's audience with the help of its readers.”
And really, while patronage may be technically more correct, crowdsourcing doesn’t take off without some level of fan involvement. Technology has now connected readers to creators in such away that creators can now reach out for support in areas that were traditionally the bailiwick of publishers and the readers are reaching into their wallets. The question is, how large will this trend grow?
[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and former adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. He also writes the Division & Rush webcomic. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics World.]