Ryan Estrada caused a minor sensation in the digital comics world last summer when he published a bundle of digital comics, "The Whole Story," which he sold to readers for whatever price they wanted to pay.
Now he's back with a second bundle, "The Whole Story: Winter 2013," and this time he's on Kickstarter. This bundle consists of four stories, by Estrada, Ryan Andrews, KC Green and Jang Young, and supporters can get them for as little as $1, the minimum pledge. Anyone who pledges $13, which is the average price paid for the first bundle, will get bonus comics, and the rewards escalate from there. So far it seems to be working: As of this writing, Estrada has raised over $12,000, far outstripping the original goal of $2,500, and in the first three days he raised more than the previous version raised in 30 days. I asked Estrada to talk a little about whether the pay-what-you-want model works -- and how it fits in with Kickstarter.
CBR News: "The Whole Story" uses a radically different model from most digital comics. Why did you decide to take it to Kickstarter?
Ryan Estrada: I love digital comics. I move to a new country every year. So I love being able to load an iPad with thousands of pages of comics without worrying about what to do with them when I move. And I love being able to spend a long plane ride reading the entire run of a 20-volume manga without having to carry a bookshelf's worth of books. But the way digital comics are sold drives me nuts as a consumer.
I tried to buy a digital copy of one of my favorite print series and found out that buying digital access to every volume was three times as expensive as having the one volume print edition mailed express to Korea. I've paid cover price for books that ended up being delivered as what seemed like 10dpi and viewable only in a proprietary app that was nearly unusable, and could only be opened on mobile devices. I've paid more than the price of a movie ticket for comics that ended on such an abrupt cliffhanger it felt like I'd read a trailer for the next issue.
So I built my site completely different, from the ground up, to reflect what I wanted both as a consumer, and as a creator! Complete, creator-owned, Retina-resolution, DRM-free, name-your-price.
Allowing people to choose what to pay seems like a straight route to poverty. What was your experience with the first "The Whole Story" bundle?
I've found that when you give them the option, people are far more generous that I would be with my own pricing! In the original bundle, the average price paid was $12.70. This time around, it's $19. I noticed that consumers who buy books seem to be extra generous. The Humble Bundle, a video game seller whose service I got the pay-what-you-want-bundle idea from, usually has an average price of around $6. But recently they, too moved into books, and their average price shot up to -- around $13, just like mine!
This time around, I even had people making, say, a $1 bid just to get access to the comics, reading them and enjoying them so much they immediately increased their pledge to $100.
Do you think that this will continue to be a viable paradigm, or will it stop working once the novelty wears off?
I think pay-what-you-want will be a viable model for a long time! It's great for both creators and readers! The reader gets to place their own worth on the work -- paying less if they just want to give something a try, and more to support an artist they already love -- creator gets to have many more people sample their work without having to work for free, or have all their readers resort to piracy.
Piracy has always been a double-edged sword for creators. It's great promotion to allow devoted readers to share your work, but it often leads to more piracy. Scott McCloud talked in "Reinventing Comics" about how if you make it easier to get your work directly from the artist, it removes all incentive to piracy. There's no reason to hunt for a shady download of something that can be gotten by paying a dollar directly to the artist with one click!
The only way pay-what-you-want will stop working is if people stop using it to deliver quality work!
A lot of Kickstarters go to pay for production costs. Your comic is almost done, so it seems like you are really using Kickstarter as a storefront. Do I have that right, and why are you going this route as opposed to simply marketing it through the website, as you did with the first book?
Yes, before I start a Whole Bundle, I always invest about six months of my own time and money to make sure everything is perfect for the customers. I've already gotten the ball rolling, and even if the Kickstarter failed, it still would have been done and I still would have had to have paid all the artists.
The reason I chose Kickstarter was more of an experiment, and a promotional tool. I wanted as many people as possible to try buying comics this way and get a look at the great books I've put together. And so many of my friends and collaborators have been so successful recently building new audiences on Kickstarter, I wanted to give it a try!
I've also found that when introducing people to such a drastically different model, it helps to attach it to something they already know. For example, the original bundle was delivered through Gumroad, which is a fantastic and convenient digital delivery service. A couple weeks in, by request, I added a PayPal option. Even though PayPal was a much more confusing service, and it meant they had to wait for me to wake up and deliver their comics by hand, sales shot up and everyone started using PayPal. With Kickstarter, a site people are extremely used to supporting creative endeavors on, there was an even bigger spike!
You are absorbing the production costs and dividing all the Kickstarter money among the contributors. That's not all that common on Kickstarter; why did you think it was the best use of the money?
I love comics, and that's why I run this thing! I think of myself as just one of the customers! I'm naming my price too, but at a reward tier where I get to e-mail all of my favorite creators and childhood heroes and ask them to make brand new comics just for me and my friends! That's not to say I won't ever make a dime off "The Whole Story"; everything that's happened so far has proven that spending money on great comics is a great investment!
And as far as paying the creators, that's just the way thing should be done! I've strived to make sure "The Whole Story" works for the creators just as well as it does the readers. We don't even ask for a lick of rights to anyone's work. Any of the creators could start giving away their books for free right now, or even selling them in direct competition. But I've worked to make it beneficial to them to put their work in our collection, and help promote it!
You have raised way more than your goal. Why do you think that is? Do you think the fact that you already had a following before going to Kickstarter made a difference?
I wish I had that much clout. Even with over a million social media followers, the original bundle was successful, but I just barely made back my investment, and didn't sleep for a month trying to find ways to promote it. After going to Kickstarter, we beat the original bundle's 30 day run in three days, long before I sent out a single press release, and it's still going!
Kickstarter has simply done a great job of presenting itself as a central hub for creativity, and made it social enough to help creators build a passionate community! Talking with some friends of mine, it seems pretty constant that about 20-25% of the funds raised come directly from new readers looking for new projects to fund. And many of those new readers have been following our mailing list and talking about us online, so in the future we can choose to return to Kickstarter, or branch back out to our own site with our newfound readers!
What have you learned from this experience, and what would you do differently next time? Will there be a next time?
There most certainly will!
I've learned time and time again that making things easy and beneficial for everyone else you work with -- collaborators and customers -- is just great business. And in the future, I'll be looking for even better ways to do that.
I'm sure that by the end of this, I'll have several dozen blog posts' worth of ways to do that, but the biggest thing I've learned is that experimenting is great! Even if you find success doing what you love, you need to keep trying new ideas -- in the way you tell stories, and the ways you do business.
Comics activity has slowed down on Kickstarter of late -- there were only 61 comics projects going as of this writing, as opposed to about twice that for most of last year. That lull may simply be because fewer people start projects during the holidays. Anyway, here's a look at a few of the more interesting projects that are running right now.
CJ Draden's Pinocchio
What's the big idea? CJ Draden's Pinocchio is very different from Walt Disney's Pinocchio; it's a three-part graphic novel in which the first part explores the loneliness of Pinocchio's creator, the second is a philosophical exploration of creation and biology, "and then the third act is the insanity," as Draden explains in the video.
Moving force: CJ Draden, an independent artist whose entire bio is "Expand your consciousness." This is his first graphic novel.
Selling point: If you love carefully handcrafted objects, this is the Kickstarter for you. There's a beauty and intensity to this project that goes far beyond the graphic novel itself. Draden made his own Pinocchio out of wood and metal, and he also created a host of other objects to be used as premiums; his art for the book itself is paintings done on glass, which is an incredibly demanding medium.
Premiums: Fine art doesn't come cheap. $10 gets you an e-mail of thanks and some stickers. For $20 you can get a poster of Pinocchio. The book will set you back $40, but even at the lowest level, Draden will do a sketch in it. The interesting extras kick in at $60 and up, and they include glass necklace charms with a painting of a heart, original paintings on glass, casts of the wooden heart Draden made as part of the project, a hand-bound sketchbook, and a special scratchboard sketchbook. It's really worth taking a look at this Kickstarter page (and the videos) to see the artistry Draden has put into these objects.
This caught my eye: The comic is hard to find among all the photos of Draden's Pinocchio and the handcrafted extras, but it's there, and the art is powerful, with sort of a Lynd Ward aesthetic to it, but much more vibrant.
Deadline: January 17.
What's the big idea? "Hit!" is a mob story of a hit gone wrong, but the mob in this case is not the Italian mafia but the Irish mob, and the story is set in Arkansas. The story will be told over six comics; this Kickstarter will fund the first.
Moving force: Craig Schroeder, who has a degree in creative writing and history from Florida State University and is doing the day job thing while he writes the comic (he's currently scripting the sixth issue). Schroeder lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and he recruited a local artist, Daniel Hooker, to illustrate the comic.
Selling point: It's a superhero story "set in the gritty world of any Martin Scorsese film." Also, I really want to know why the main characters are wearing dog and pig masks.
Premiums: Prices are high: $5 for a thank you, $15 for a PDF (this is a single issue of a comic, not a graphic novel). For $25 they throw in a button and a sticker, and for $35 they add a print copy of the comic. That's a lot of money for one comic. Higher-level rewards include character cards and pin-ups. Cameos start at $350 (and are divided by gender), and the $5,000 premium is a trip to Comic-Con International in San Diego, including travel, two nights in a hotel, and admission to the con.
This caught my eye: "If we reach our KickStarter goal, we have a very regimented plan for distributing our comic. We are based in Tallahassee, FL and have already spoken with all of our local comic shops and they are excited to carry a local indie book. We are also going to reach out to local shop in the surrounding areas (Gainesville, Jacksonville, Orlando, etc.). Once we debut our comic, we will hit the Con Circuit hard, promoting and selling HIT!" It's unusual to see creators take marketing so seriously in their initial Kickstarter, and that made this project particularly interesting to me.
Deadline: February 10.
What's the big idea? It's an anthology of work by emerging creators—i.e., rookies—that is designed not so much for general readers as to promote the work of the artists included. This is the first of a planned series of anthologies, all of which will be curated, and submitters whose work is not accepted will be paired with a mentor. So it's not just a book, it's a whole concept.
Moving force: Serhend Sirkecioglu, a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts, who draws cartoons under the pseudonym AACRO.
Selling point: Sirkecioglu has lots of good ideas, but ultimately, with a book like this, it's all about the comics, right? Well, the comics look pretty good.
Premiums: A $5 pledge elicits a thank-you, and a hard copy of the book is $20. Oddly, there is no digital option, although that would seem to be a logical way to get the book out to a lot of readers. The $55 pledge has a really interesting premium: It's a Moxie Press Kit, and the pledger is expected to be part of the "guerilla ad campaign for the anthology, by putting up flyers (which will be sent to them), visiting comics shops, and coordinating events. In other words, it's a pledge of time as well as money.
This caught my eye: Sirkecioglu clearly views this book as a promotional tool for the creators: "We only want to print enough books to send to publishers, press, and art directors then sell the rest at MoCCA; The bare minimum to get Moxie off the ground." One of his goals is to create enough interest to get plenty of submissions for the second volume.
Deadline: February 5.