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Stephen Pastis to webcomics: show me the money?

Hmmm… I guess this is the second time today I’m going to post something from Sean Kleefeld (by way of Fleen). Stephen Pastis of newspaper comic Pearls Before Swine has been voicing some concerns about the economic viability of webcomics in IndyWeek, which, I assume, is some online magazine for Formula 1 racecar driving.

Pastis acknowledges the market for newspaper comics has changed drastically since Pearls went into wide syndication in January 2002. “When I started, if you got syndicated, you were basically set — you’d make a good living, and you wouldn’t have to worry much else,” Pastis says. “In the 11 years since then, that door has basically closed. There is no new great syndicated strip, and there probably won’t be. Literally, there are no new launches.

“Now, to make it, you have to go that web route. Many of those guys, from Penny Arcade to Cyanide and Happiness to The Perry Bible Fellowship — which are all excellent — claim to make a living, but how do you know? I can tell you that even if someone does a strip and it’s fairly popular online, the money is not online. I question a lot of claims about the money being made, and the question remains that if things continue to go that route for newspapers, and you have to make money online, how do you do it?”

However, he remains optimistic about the longevity of newspaper comics. “While new papers are not coming around, I’m still in 700 newspapers, and I’m still making a good living,” Pastis says. “Syndicated content is cheap content — they don’t have to pay employees to produce it.

“Sometimes I think the obituary for syndicated comic strip guys has been written prematurely — it’s almost impossible to break in, but for those who have, the readership is still there. Sometimes I want to remind people that I’m doing OK! Most towns still have a newspaper, and at the end of the day, you still have to have local news. Even Yahoo and Google rely, by and large, on content that originally comes from local newspapers. It might take different forms, but local newspapers will survive, and I feel comics will be part of that.

He’s also impressed by the diverse styles and content of online comic strips, most of which feature deeper subject matter and more R-rated language than found in a daily newspaper. “The fact that strips like that can go online and build their own audience is amazing. I love to see that — it keeps things going. Just because you can’t get syndicated in newspapers doesn’t mean the comic strip has to go away, and those guys are proving that.”

So, I thought overall Pastis was pretty complementary of webcomics. (“The fact that strips like that can go online and build their own audience is amazing. I love to see that — it keeps things going. Just because you can’t get syndicated in newspapers doesn’t mean the comic strip has to go away, and those guys are proving that.”) However, both Kleefeld and Tyrell zero in on Pastis’ questions about the money making.

Gary Tyrell (Fleen):

Jesus. Tapdancing. Christ.

Okay, in the altogether vain hope of putting this damn thing to bed, here’s what I’m going to do. Tomorrow, or this weekend, or sometime during the run of NYCC, I’m going to seek out Matthew Inman (whom I’ve met briefly, and liked quite a lot), who has a new book out, and I’m going to ask him if he’d be willing to release an approximate copies-sold total for that book for, say, the three months of quarter 4, 2012. Then come January we’ll run that number here, and Pastis can compare it to the first three months of whichever Pearls collection he likes.

And then maybe we’ll all finally come to the conclusion that no, the money isn’t online, it’s in the merchandise and the collections, and the same damn thing has always been true for syndicated strips. One last time for those at the back: Sparky or Jim or whichever megasuccess you wish to discuss did not become richer than God off of syndicate checks. The money came from getting the people who read the strip (and essentially paid nothing for it) to buy other stuff with characters on it.

Sean Kleefeld (Kleefeld on Comics, MTV Geek):

Pastis has never struck me as a stupid man. Granted, I’ve never met him in person, but from the interviews I’ve read, he seems reasonably well-spoken and thoughtful, and he seemed to make a pretty good living as a lawyer before taking up cartooning. So why is it so hard for a newspaper cartoonist like himself to wrap his head around the idea that webcomickers can earn a living?

I mean, he’s got to know it’s a different business model, right? Even if he doesn’t know what that model is or how to exploit it, he has to know that, because they don’t have a syndicate paying them, they have to get their money from somewhere else. Why is it so hard to believe that doing something BESIDES syndication might work?

So anyway, there you go. I’m gonna sorta follow the example of the ostriches here and stick my head deep in the sand on this one.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on October 10, 2012, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I think the reason Pastis doesn’t see the profitability of webcomics is because there’s a massive difference between webcomic publishing and newspaper comic publishing. It’s next near impossible to get picked up by a newspaper comic syndicate, but if you do you’re set for life. Pastis gets paid a lot of money to do Pearls, and when he talks to his newspaper comic buddies, he knows they make similar amounts.

    Webcomics aren’t like that. For every The Oatmeal or Penny Arcade with millions of hits and boatloads of merchandising money, there’s 1000’s of comics with no attention and no money. And in 99% of webcomics that are obscure because they’re crap, there might be several being overlooked that deserve better. Even between comics of comparable traffic, there’s no guarantee they’ll be making similar amounts because the webcomic author is the one who has to manage all the merchandising and publicity. And that’s probably why Pastis doesn’t see webcomics as viable.

    • I was just about to make that point. Those webcomics mentioned by Tyrell are the exception to the rule. The truth is there are many, very many webcomics that are not being given attention regardless of quality or content. The authors and/or artists are responsible for overseeing any venue of profiting from their works, whether they be from merchandising, advertising, etc.

  2. To Tyrell’s challenge, I’d like to zero in further, and ask Pastis how much of the gobs of money he makes comes from “syndicate checks”, and how much from “buy[ing] other stuff with characters on it.” If it’s the former, fine; I’m sure he misspoke and meant something far more sensible. If it’s the latter, shake him around and slap him. If he can’t answer, he loses all right to talk about business models in any context.

    He definitely seems like one of those old fogies who clings to the good old days, though. Sure he’s complementary towards webcomics, but he’s still smugly and irrationally defensive of newspapers in general.

    • Not really. A sizable number of his comics make fun of other newspaper comics (his main target being legacy strips), newspaper publishing, and the newspaper publishing industry in general. I think he either doesn’t get the business model or gets it and doesn’t want to sacrifice convenience for full creative control.

  3. Pearls was up on United Media before it went to print, so his own experience as a webcomic producer is rather out of date. On the other hand, he has over a dozen books published and a lot of merchandising.

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