"Making Money from your Webcomic" with Bill Barnes
by Georgia Ball
September 20, 2005

On August 20th, Bill Barnes of the popular webcomic Unshelved, presented for Cartoonists Northwest on "Making Money from your Webcomic." Bill led a series of panel discussions at last year's San Diego Comic Con and found that the two most frequently asked questions were "What should I write about?" and "What kind of comic would make the most money?" When considering what to write about, Bill takes the advice of one of his mentors, syndicated cartoonist Brian Basset: don't start a comic strip you're not willing to do for 15 years. The content of a comic strip, Bill explains, "flows from within you." It's also a good idea to consider how your comic would be collected and printed later on, because although the internet makes all kinds of sizes and shapes possible, printing collections is a possible source of income. Bill cautioned that it's wise to wait a year before printing a book, focusing on building a larger audience over making money. But once it is time to make a profit, the primary ways of doing so are donations, charging for content, and merchandising.

Donations are generally collected through a button on the comic's website that provides a way for fans to support their favorite strip in whatever amount they choose. Paypal and Amazon both provide a method for creating and operating donation buttons. Popular comic strips such as The Norm and Goats do get a slow trickle of income through donations.

Charging for content can be done in a variety of ways. Scott McCloud's micropayment experiment asks readers to buy a certificate that can be used to pay for content in small values. But the creators of Goats found that they had more success with merchandising, as micropayments were so small that readers chose to support their strip that way instead of buying higher-priced items. Some comics offer extra content for a subscription fee, some offer all of their content by subscription only, and still others such as ModernTales restrict viewing of their archives unless the reader is a subscriber. "People are trying a lot of different things," says Bill, "and we can learn from their success."

Merchandising is another way to profit from your comic, and the most common form of merchandising is printed books. Self-publishing and print-on-demand are both low-risk ways for a new comic strip to get started. "It took over a year to sell our first 3000 copies," Bill explained. "The second year we sold 4000 copies." Consider whether to print a book or a comic book, as they may appeal to different markets. And while printing books is the first thing that comes to mind when merchandising a comic, Unshelved has a lot of other items for sale. T-shirts, hats, stickers and the popular Library Raid Jacket have all been sold to eager readers and were primarily produced by Blue Rhino Graphics. "When I'm wearing the shirt, I'm identifying myself as part of the thing," says Barnes as he describes what motivates a reader to buy his merchandising.

But once a piece of merchandise is created, there is still the question of where to sell it. Consider Book Surge, Amazon Advantage, or offering items for sale off of your own website. Half of Bill's sales come from his website, followed by selling at conferences and finally distributors. Paypal is the most common form of accepting payment through the internet. Comic conventions are a standard way of reaching potential customers, but some comic creators may also want to consider conventions for other markets; Unshelved is a popular staple of library conventions. There is also the standard process that comics have gone through for years, distribution through Diamond to comic book stores.

One final way to produce income from comics is through talks. Bill Barnes makes several paid appearances per year as a public speaker, where he describes his life as a cartoonist to listeners across the United States. One thing he always emphasizes: "Make a personal connection with your audience." No marketing plan can sustain a comic that doesn't draw in its readers with characters and stories that make them want to support it.

Contact: Georgia Ball

Georgia Ball is a freelance Flash designer and the script writer for the cartoon strip Scooter and Ferret.