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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Comic-Con 2005 - Merchandising Webcomics

"1:30-3:00, Comic-Con WebComics School 103: Making Money -- You may be widely read and much adored, but when will your webcomic start paying the bills? Bill Barnes (Unshelved) leads fellow web cartoonists Scott Kurtz (PvP), Steve Troop (Melonpool), David Willis (It's Walky!), Raina Telgemeier (Smile), and Andy Bell (The Creatures In My Head) in a discussion of how they have succeeded--and failed--to make money from their webcomics. Room 4"
...Thus read the Comic-Con events calendar listing for a panel I attended on Sunday, July 17. Before this panel I would have told you, if asked to define it, that merchandising is...it's...well...I just don't know what. Now I can say confidentally that merchandising is turning what you DO into something you can SELL.

A late addition to the panel was a representative of the business side of Penny Arcade Comics, Robert Khoo. Not an artist, he was invaluable in grounding the discussion in the realities of the businessworld. Even with some experience under my belt, I still want to make money from my creative work without having to observe the laws of economics. It's like wanting people to love you but not wanting to talk to them, or even be nice to them--also an affliction I have not fully shaken. Of course, "make money" does not equal "get rich". If you want to get rich, you're an idiot for becoming an artist (my own belief and not presented in the panel). Anyway, I have the distilled the panel discussion into its bare bones below.

In launching your merchandising empire, start first with paper products. They're the cheapest to make, and people always want hard copies of your work. Even though they might be able to access your Web work day or night, fans still like something they can take home to have and to hold and to smell. Scott Kurtz told how he had printed small copies of his work on high-quality card stock, then signed and numbered them and sold them at conventions individually, or offered them as free bonuses if readers also bought a comic. "Readers love deals," he said. He also urged, "Save everything you draw. Everything. Everything you draw can be repurposed for merchandise." The large number of artists' sketchbooks for sale at Comic-Con attests to the soundness of the advice.

Some great general advice for any artist, but certainly a fine base to build on from a merchandising perspective, was to be dependable. The proverbial flakey artist is an unknown and unsuccessful artist. Keep a schedule and stick to it. If you're releasing your material every Monday at 9am, make sure you stick to that deadline, come hell or high water. In doing so, you will begin to earn the trust of your fans. Without an audience, the artist is only half-complete. You owe your fans everything.

Simplicity seems to again and again rise to the top as the best policy. "Charge one dollar, not 75 cents," it was said. People can easily pull a dollar out of their pocket, can less easily pull out two quarters, two dimes, and a nickel. Present yourself professionally. If you operate like a professional, people will treat you--and pay you, one hopes-- like a professional. Ask for help. Call and email other artists to pick their brains and learn from their successes and failures.


There was discussion about whether it was a better bet to create merchandise using print-on-demand services like CafePress.com or by printing in bulk. One panelist gave an example of being able to print a run of 600 t-shirts for $4 each at a local printer, then he sold the shirts for around $10 each. Another simple way to keep your costs down is to limit the number of colors you print. Stick to 4 colors or less.

A downside to printing in bulk is manhandling inventory. Several panelists shared tales of woe about homes full of boxes of unsold inventory and having to transport these boxes to and from shows and conventions. Some of the panelists had sworn off CafePress because they felt there was too little profit for the artist, while others were very happy with CafePress as a means to evade this problem of inventory buildup, since CafePress prints material only when it is ordered, then ships it directly to the customer.

Print your merchandise locally, it was urged. You can meet face-to-face the person who will be printing it, and can personally oversee the process yourself and be available to address problems or questions. Andy Bell sited his experience putting his stuff in local mom & pop stores. Local specialty shops are a great means to get your shirts, dolls, etc. out into the marketplace and is surprisingly easy to manage with a little bit of footwork.

In printing shirts, one of the unexpectedly difficult, but essential, questions is how many to print of each size. These off-the-cuff calculations--based, I believe, on Penny Arcade sales made at Comic-Con--were presented as a starting point:

5% - Baby Doll
10% - Small
25% - Medium
30% - Large
20% - XLarge
5% - XXLarge
2.5% - XXXLarge


Nearly everybody on the panel emphasized an education in business as essential.
Learn about taxes. Over and over panel members emphasized the necessity of keeping track of your tax situation, paying taxes in a timely manner, keeping good records. Taking a business class also seems essential. Again, it is foolishness to expect to be paid for you work without knowing how and why it happens.

One panel member originally opted for sponsorship on his site. He charged a flat rate for one month, with a new sponsor each month. He then moved to CPM (cost per 1000) based advertising, where advertisers pay in proportion to the traffic on your site. This can be $2 - $10 "per click" depending on the volume of the traffic. On a cautionary not however, advertisers were described as "lazy" and can regard advertising on a site that has less than 100,000 page views per month as a waste of their time.

Finally, make sure you charge enough for postage, and unless you want a lousy table at the back, apply for booth space at Comic-Con 2006 now!


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ADDENDUM: The Penny Arcade representative on the panel was Penny Arcade's business manager, Robert Khoo.

- By Blogger Neal Romanek, at Sat Jul 23, 12:39:00 AM GMT+1  

Here's a response to this post emailed me by MAHEESH JAIN at CafePress.com. Thanks, Maheesh.

"Hi Neal,

I came across your post about merchandising Web comics. Thanks for mentioning us! We've worked with lots of Web comics since 1999. If you are interested in hearing me babble about what we've learned, feel free to call or email. For the most part, your post is pretty complete. My only real addition is that a big part of successfully merchandising a Web comic is the overal popularity of the comic itself. Needless to say, if nobody reads your Web comic - than you'll have trouble selling stuff. We've also seen some moderately popular comics make a ton of money from merchandising by being very active and doing many things like limited edition designs and products. Anyways - just thought I'd drop you an email.



- By Blogger Neal Romanek, at Tue Jul 26, 10:28:00 PM GMT+1  

Instead of this, why not use www.spreadshirt.com ? They offer extremely easy to use designer program that will just knock you off your feet – just combine it with extremely high quality of products and you can have the t-shirts and other apparel you ever wanted in a matter of minutes. You can open your shop for free and sell your designs to others, they take care of everything – you receive your checks. It’s extremely easy, check it out.

- By Anonymous Ken Adams, at Fri Jul 29, 04:06:00 PM GMT+1  

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