Hints that the webcomic model is maturing

I’ve always maintained that the webcomic business model will have successfully matured when it outgrows the do-it-yourself business stage that it’s currently in and support industries are able to move in and allow artists to do focus on being artists and businessmen take care of business. There are several such businesses that have cropped up, so I see it as an encouraging direction. The Fleen Guy Gary Tyrrell has an interesting interview with Holly Post, VP of Special Projects at TopatoCo (who he describes as “the world’s largest webcomics merchandise company, and probably at least in the top 20 of the hemisphere’s best internet e-stores in general”) about “her company’s recent growth, plans for the future”

Fleen: A recent press release listed Dave Kellett and Kris Straub as your 43rd and 44th clients, respectively. How big are you planning on growing TopatoCo? Or maybe the question should be, how big can it grow and still be TopatoCo?

Post: We’re on kind of a moratorium right now, because we’ve grown so quickly over the past year and we don’t want to fail to serve our existing clients they way we should. But we’re not dumb, so if we get an email from somebody that makes us go “Wow, I can’t believe ____ emailed us!”, we’re finding a way to work them in. We’re looking to partner with the right clients, which might not necessarily be individual creators. With the right employees, we could grow to maybe 75? 100 clients? Beyond that, it wouldn’t feel like us anymore, and there’d be so much on our website that it’d be tough to find anything.

Read the whole thing.

34 thoughts on “Hints that the webcomic model is maturing

  1. There’s an mis-directed emphasis that I’d like to correct, here.

    The key to the webcomics business model is not that the artist should be “separate” from the businessperson. In fact, the fundamental key is that the artist maintains a *very* direct control of the ownership, the responsibility, the ideation, the decision-making, and the implementation of their business…even in the delegation of tasks to companies *they* contract to work for *them*.

    I have delegated the production, sales and shipping of the shirts I design to (the excellent) Topatoco. And I have delegated the production, sales, and shipping of my books, other merch, and art pieces to stay in my shop. But the key point is that both are *mine* to control at all times. And ultimately, I alone am responsible for the short-term and long-term growth of my business, not a third party. No intercessory company or intermediary editor/salesperson/distributor is telling me what should or shouldn’t be done to better my webcomics business. It’s me. Wearing the artist hat, wearing the business hat. And because the “do-it-yourself” attitude stays in place, I walk away with the lion’s share of the net in both cases…in both of the delegations I described above.

    The bottom line is, as the “mass” in the mass-market for comics continues to shrink, the only way to maintain a great income is to maintain a great profit margin per reader and per sale. And the only way to do that is to maintain a largely do-it-yourself attitude. The removal of traditional middle-men is key. If you don’t have a business-person’s eye, you darn well better cultivate one pretty quick.

    Because it’s not that you have to *do* every single thing in the running of your business: It’s that you have to *understand* every single thing in the running of your business: To better grow it, profit from it, and yes, to delegate when necessary. All while keeping control.

  2. Thanks Dave for adding that to the discussion. Re-reading what I had written, it’s paints a picture that I believe the webcomic model will have matured when it looks like the syndicate model (the artist does the artist thing and the business side does the business side). That isn’t what was running through my head. What I should have more clearly written is that I think the model becomes more mature when there is a healthy/thriving market of third parties that can take over some of the day-to-day no-artistic tasks thereby freeing up the artist to be more focused on the art.

    Your point is well made and thanks for allowing me to clarify my position.

  3. Dave, I fail to see the necessity of an artist controlling directly the business end of his Web comic. What you are arguing is the same thing the publish yourself folks have been saying – making direct business management of a property by a comic book creator a new ideal. In practice, making art and business management are separate fields.

    I honestly think that perpetuating this ideal has slowed down the progress of many comic book properties in the past as many creators think of themselves as capable business heads when they are not.

    I have been writing against this state of mind for years, making any cartoonist think he can be the next McFarlane. If it works for you, continue to do it, but don’t promote something which is really a judgement call that is based on personal preferences as opposed to verifiable business practices and results something others should adhere to. Why does one assume that it takes years of training and practice to become a competent cartoonist or writer, while no one questions the fact that every day, some cartoonist thinks he can manage his own business, without having any business training and experience? Running a business is a serious affair, even if it’s but a Web Comic where in theory, control over the business means are within the grasp of the cartoonist.

  4. “Why does one assume that it takes years of training and practice to become a competent cartoonist or writer, while no one questions the fact that every day, some cartoonist thinks he can manage his own business, without having any business training and experience?”

    The most cogent thought on this subject ever posted here.

  5. It DOES take years of practice and hard work to be a good business man. Webcomics like Sheldon were not successes overnight. Each webcomic has a unique audience and things that work for one webcomic don’t necessarily work for another. You have to be creative and experiment with different aspects of your business to see what works best for you. Fortunately, with a little common sense, and a good group of peers to ask for advice, mastering the business aspects are probably a lot less difficult than they may appear at first.

  6. Hey Wiley, pretty much every entrepenuer and innovator has been a creator first and a business man second. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, shall I go on?
    Do you know why?
    Creating things is hard.
    Business isn’t. You can learn it in a couple of community college classes or by reading a couple of books.
    ANYone can be a businessman. It’s a learned skill.
    You can’t teach someone how to be creative.

  7. Why are you addressing me on that, John (who apparently can’t be bothered with following Alan’s rules here regarding anonymous posting) ? I simply agreed with what another poster said. Pose your question to him, not me.

    And Bill Gates creative? Steve Jobs? They’re both businessmen who excelled in marketing. They didn’t create anything, only capitalized on what other people created.

  8. “…John (who apparently canâ??t be bothered with following Alanâ??s rules here regarding anonymous posting)”

    Wiley, if the web site is any indication, it appears that “John S.” is a devotee of “John K.” as in Krisfalusi and that his feature is either an homage or incredibly similar to Ren & Stimpy. Therefore he’s to be excused from normal protocol.

  9. Hmmm Isn’t it up to Alan to enforce these rules?
    INot that it matters, but the S stands for Sanford. John Sanford. If the fact that my ENTIRE last name doesn’t appear vexes you so, I’ll go ahead and write it in.

    Your rather narrow-minded opinion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs aside, I directed that comment at you because you declared it to be the ultimate truth, did you not?
    However, you are probably right. That was unfair, os I will say to Herve, now, that business skills are learned skills, and can therefore be learned by anyone.
    I believe that a creator in ANY medium would do well to keep a hand in his business, if not control it all together if they choose to. You will be better equipped to adapt to the changing times.

  10. I run a small design studio, which has varied over time from twelve people to four people, and with the current economic crisis, just me (some of my major clients are in housing, and they’re still reeling). I can tell you that as soon as things get beyond a couple of people, they become increasingly complex, and detract mightily from the part of the work that I enjoyed – the design. Right now I am still making a living, but I’m enjoying myself much more than before.

    My point is that while anyone CAN be a businessman, it does make for less quality of life unless it is something you WANT to be. Money aside for a moment (seriously), you have to think of these things.

    Now, I did delegate many of the business tasks to others, notably my wife, and my accountant. Just the same as I delegate other tasks to other people who could do them better than I could. It’s the only way to stay sane when you get larger than a certain point. It’s up to you where the point is located, but, internet willing, you will get there eventually.

    When we downsized, I had to learn a lot more of the details of how things work at my own business. But if and when I expand again, I fully intend to bring people back in to help me.

  11. ” believe that a creator in ANY medium would do well to keep a hand in his business, if not control it all together if they choose to. You will be better equipped to adapt to the changing times.”

    Couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve admonished cartoonists for years keep in mind that it’s a business, and they need to deal with it in such a manner, not just expect to draw cartoons and not think about business matters.

    The point is, which is what I was agree with, is which comes first and foremost, and that, for the cartoonist, is the art, not the marketing. Without the product, there’s nothing to market, and if most of your time is spent marketing, then the quality of the art is going to suffer, making it less marketable. That, as I see it, is the dilemma here.

    But I still don’t understand why you’re going out of your way to pick a fight with me. I’m not “enforcing” any of Alan’s rules here. It’s simply a matter of good manners to follow his rules as a guest here. Why is that so difficult?

  12. Doesn’t matter if you’re the creator or the businessman right now. No one is buying anything, anywhere. I can’t believe that even the supposed heavy hitters of webcomics aren’t feeling the pinch.

    It’s bad everywhere.

    I’m not ignorant to business, I know enough to pay attention and keep tabs on my dealings. That said, this seems like a suicidal time to start your own fledgling internet business. If the large syndicates can’t sell features and merch, what makes you think your simple comic will sell? On top of all that, look at the shear number of webcomics out there already. How many T-shirts do you think the public needs? There will be a point, in the near future, where the market is so saturated that only a handful will be the money makers.

    Just like the old syndicate model â?? A lucky few with the drive and will to make a living off of comics. The rest of us sitting back, trying to figure out how we can get a slice of the pie.

    But yeah, It’s a new day. The Internet and free content idea will change everything.

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  13. Well put, Herve. Most of us have had to learn promotion, PR, web design, blog design and Photoshop, and most of us are best at cartoons. I have to say, I have a lot more respect for the experts in these fields now!

    I understand Dave K’s point – wouldn’t we all like to control everything? 🙂 I just don’t think it’s the best one. Unless there’s no other choice.

  14. One of my webcartoonist friends and I were just talking about this. What’s needed for online comics are the go-between businesses that connect artists and those who would give them money–readers, advertisers, merchandisers, etc. Those businesses exist in print (syndicates, agents, etc.), and while they are far from perfect, they have poured tens of millions of dollars into the pockets of cartoonists over the years.

    Most cartoonists can probably become businessmen. What they cannot do is become seers. Most don’t have the ability to get, and work, the connections that they need to make their web-based businesses work.

  15. “…wouldnâ??t we all like to control everything? ”

    I’m assuming you’re referring to syndication here, Donna. In fact, we do control everything, as it is our feature. The syndicate is a partner, not an employer.

  16. “Because itâ??s not that you have to *do* every single thing in the running of your business: Itâ??s that you have to *understand* every single thing in the running of your business: To better grow it, profit from it, and yes, to delegate when necessary. All while keeping control.”

    Again, how is this that different from signing with a syndicate? Syndicate contracts can be negotiated to grant creator control on several levels. The myth that the syndicate owns your feature and that you have no say in how they promote it needs to be dispelled. As someone who works and signed with a syndicate, I can tell you it’s simply not true.

    Dave surely pays Topatoco a fee to take care of sales and merch, the same way a syndicate splits royalties to do the same. If he decided to take his feature into animation/film, he’d most likely have to make a deal with an animation firm to promote and produce his idea.

    As webcomics grow, more and more cartoonists will find they need to farm out the marketing and sales to growing companies like Topatoco, who, in turn will grow, inevitably increasing their take and become more selective in who they let into the fold.

    Again, as I mentioned in my last post, just like a syndicate.

    So, with the prediction of newspapers and the syndicates dying, and webcomics becoming big enough for the creator to no longer to handle sales on their own, will these internet sales portals take the syndies’ place, only online?

    Just an interesting pontification.

  17. Also, allow me to point out that I don’t think the sales of shirts through Topatoco is bad or wrong… In fact, I have inquired in the past to sell merch with them. I’m just trying to understand how the whole free content model is better, in the long run.

  18. “will these internet sales portals take the syndiesâ?? place, only online?”

    Sites like Topatoco are completely different than a syndicate. A syndicate is a gatekeeper. Topatoco is a order fulfillment and distribution company. The webcomics that are doing business with Topatoco were already successful in their own right. But eventually their business got too big and time intensive that these creators decided that it was more cost effective to have someone else fill the boxes and ship the orders. It also makes it easier for the webcomic creators to have a full selection of sizes for t-shirts.

    Topatoco isn’t creating business for these webcomics. Their clients are a diverse set of webcomics that probably don’t even have that much overlap in audience. Most of the traffic Topatoco gets is probably from all their webcomic clients sending their readers to this site.

    If you have a small to medium sized webcomic (and enough free time on the weekends to fill your orders), then you’re better off doing this work yourself and maximizing your profit instead of giving Topatoco a cut.

  19. Corey stated, “There will be a point, in the near future, where the market is so saturated that only a handful will be the money makers.”

    Do you think that this might be indicative of a total market collapse that may very well HAVE to happen before any real web model can cement itself as a stable market standard?

  20. There is such a thing as too many choices. One of the knocks on the web is that the selection of content is overwhelming.

    If someone wanted to read a webcomic and Googled ‘web comic’ how many hits do you think they’d get? I got “about 28,700,00” – sure, they’re not all strips, but even at .010%…Wow. That’s still almost 3000 that could be strips.

    Maybe the success story will be the site that collects the best of say, 50-100, and charges a modest fee to corral them into one easy to find, easy to read location.

    Isn’t that what syndicates have been kind of doing for newspaper strips forever anyway?

  21. “Maybe the success story will be the site that collects the best of say, 50-100, and charges a modest fee to corral them into one easy to find, easy to read location.”

    What are you even talking about? There is no need for some authority to proclaim that such and such are the top 50 webcomics. Who would they be charging a fee to? The creators? The readers? There are plenty of successful webcomics and they have their own, creator-owned sites.

    At the end of the day, a given webcomic is only as successful as enthusiasm of its own individual audience. To say that there is some top 50-100 webcomics is irrelevant. What is would be the metric? Achewood has a different audience than xkcd, which has a different audience than PvP, which has a different audience than Anders Loves Maria. Each is trying to monetize its own audience in a unique way that is appropriate to its readers.

  22. Take it easy, Tony. We’re all just pontificating.

    We all know how strongly the webcomics community feels about the current system.

    The next thing you know we’ll have the Print Codgers and the Webcomics Mafia all in here trying break each other’s pencils.

    I was merely pointing out that at some point, the good will need to be weeded from the bad, or finding new readership and paying customers (for your merch) will be next to impossible online. One way to do that is through places like Topatoco. Merchandise portal or no, it is one website, instead of 100 to find merch from your fav comics.

    And don’t try and tell me that having your stuff lumped in with those other comic’s merch won’t generate sales. there are what? 48 comics on there now? You mean to tell me that no one visiting that site won’t browse the list? I know I have.

    All this aside…You all want to know what my biggest problem with a lot of the webcomics and print guys is? Thick skin. No one seems to have any anymore. I even thought I lost mine, recently (turns out it was in the liquor cabinet). Every time one of us brings up an idea, a thought, a worry â?? God forbid, we throw in a joke like “Print Codgers and Webcomics Mafia” â?? Someone jumps all over this forum, crying “no fair!” “I take offense!” “You sound like my Mom!”

    Thought I’d lay that out there before the petty bickering over “Glorified IT guys destroying the dead guys’ place in the newspaper” inevitably begins.

    Joke. Making a joke. there.


    Corey “my email is on my website” Pandolph

  23. I think you missed Shane’s overall point, Tony.

    When you open up a newspaper, you know what kind of comic fare and professional quality you’re going to get. When you open up a New Yorker magazine, you know what to expect in the quality of the cartoons. When you open up Playboy, you know what kind of fare is going to be offered in their cartoons.

    That does not mean all of those cartoons are going to appeal to everyone, as that is impossible, which is why there’s a variety of cartoons vetted for each publication, but you will know there is a standard of professional quality. Such a vetting system does not exist (to my knowledge) on the internet for web comics. The sheer volume of stuff makes it virtually impenetrable and uninviting for casual readers. Most of us simply don’t have the time to wade through the mountain of rather bad, amateurish work to find the few gems. This is why I don’t read web comics, and I could very well be missing out on some wonderful stuff.

    This is why I’d like to see a site with a professional vetting system to do that mining for me, so I can pick and choose from the comic fare that has already been weeded out for quality. That doesn’t mean I’d like everything offered, just as I don’t read every comic on the comics page in a newspaper. I just have better things to do with my time, as do many others, than spending hours on the internet hoping find well written, intelligent comics to bookmark. Life is too short.

  24. Tony,
    Didn’t mean to push your buttons, I was just spitballing.
    I think it’s fair to say not all web comics are equally good, just as is the case with all print comics.

    As far as ‘who is the authority’ to decide which 50 or so are the best, isn’t that already happening anyway? That’s like asking ‘who does the Dallas Morning News think it is cherry picking the print comics it wants and disregarding others.”
    It’s their paper. The have the right to decide, based on customer input, whose work goes into their paper.

    All I’m saying is that if a website collected the very best of the web comics, wouldn’t they be doing the same thing a newspaper does? Which is why there would be more than one ‘accumulation’ site, I’m sure. One for more edgy comics maybe, one for more broad appeal comics, etc.

    The fee would be charged to the readers and go to pay the cartoonists and support the site. And if fee based content is so outrageous, why is Roger Murdoch considering it for his news sites? He’s a better business man than both of us, I’m sure. Maybe people don’t mind paying if the service is appealing. I know I don’t mind.

    Anyway, no webtoonist woulud HAVE to participate in such an idea as I was throwing out. It’s just an idea.

    It just seems if you want to mainstream webcomics, putting several really good ones in one easy to find place makes sense.

  25. It’s in the marketing and sales,I keep the focus on that end of the business.Drawing the cartoons is the easier part. Running the business comes naturally to some and not so easy to others.

  26. You’re all right. There are a ton of webcomics out there and it’s too overwhelming for someone to search. That’s why the web comic creator who is able to market his comic will have an upperhand. It’s up to the webcreator to invest the time and energy to seek out an audience and retain it. You can’t wait for them to find you amongst the thousands of other comics.

    Corey – with you doing four comic strips, it must put a strain on your marketing and merchandising side of things. Perhaps you need to drop something and balance it out a bit? Just a thought.

  27. What Wiley says above is germane to print v. online in general, not just comics. A lot of it has to do with becoming oder…once you have a decent career going, plus maybe being married and even having a kid, there isn’t time for flea marketing. You go to the store that you know has the thing you need, even if you have to pay more.

    That’s what’s next for the web: gatekeepers, editors, and payments. People want filters.

  28. “Thatâ??s why the web comic creator who is able to market his comic will have an upperhand.”

    Jason, I haven’t looked at your comic or website so I am only speaking in generalities, and not specifically about you or your comic.

    Marketing can only get you so far. Many webcomic sites and forums have the cavalier attitude of “you can sell anything”, as if marketing is some crackable code where upon reaching some critical mass of exposure, your comic becomes a money making phenomenon. I think its more important to invest time and energy into making a high quality and funny comic, especially in the first few years when you are building up an archive. The way internet fads and phenomenons REALLY spread is like a virus, a guy or gal thinks its funny and sends it to 5 friends, who sends it to 5 friends, etc. If a comic isn’t good (again not talking about you, didn’t even look at your work), it doesn’t matter how many ads or twitter posts or whatever you spread around the net, people won’t read it. Content is king.

    I have no interest in making a self sustaining webcomic, so that’s just my two cents. Take it for what its worth.

  29. Hey Jesse – that’s my point about retaining the audience. The quality of your strip will keep them coming back. The challenge, however, is to get your strip in front of an audience first – which is very difficult to do when you are lost amongst thousands of other web comics.

    You have two options. Either get your strip onto a popular site (instant audience) or market it yourself to gain an audience.

  30. Sorry if I sounded defensive. I was just trying to offer a different point of view than the one usually presented by the comments on this site. Feel free to take my comments with a grain of salt!

    @Corey: No doubt you will get some sales from being associated with Topatoco. But just consider the numbers. If Topatoco is taking somewhere around 1/3 or your profit, that means you have to increase your sales by 50% to make up the loss of profit. There is no way the visibility of being on Topatoco is going to increase your sales like this.

    @Shane: There have been some attempts to make lists of quality and/or popular comics. For example there are sites that use voting or traffic metrics to rate sites:


    The top comics on these lists will be better than the average webcomics (which doesn’t say much). But you’ll probably notice many of the most popular webcomics (Achewood, PvP) don’t even bother with some of these sites. This is because, as I mentioned above, such metrics are useless for determining the success of a webcomic.

    Webcomics have also formed collectives of comics, so that readers know that the group represents consistent quality. For example, check out


    But even forming collectives like this has fallen out of favor in recent years. The audiences of various webcomics are just too diverse for such groupings to really be useful.

    People don’t find quality webcomics by searching “webcomics” or something similar. That’s just too broad.

    For example, most of the new traffic to my site comes from other people linking to it. People will post my comics on their blogs, or forums, or email them to their friends. In this way they are essentially saying, “I like this, and I think you may like it too.” This is the filter of the internet. And since most of the people who are actively reading webcomics are getting their material filtered this way, there is no incentive to pay some site to do the filtering for them.

  31. “When you open up a newspaper, you know what kind of comic fare and professional quality youâ??re going to get.”

    Professional, hell (okay, maybe if you mean regular updates).

    Most of the crap on the comics page is bad…I only ever read it (when I had a paper) because it was there (freaking Family Circus…always ruining my day, and when I looked back and asked “why did the paper suck so bad today? Whose fault was it?” Keane’s comic would say “not me”).

    Most of the stuff on the web is crap, too. I just don’t feel as compelled to read it, but when that happens, I don’t go to that URL (kind of like how I didn’t go to that crap opinion cartoon).

    The good thing about the web (vs. print) is the word of mouth. When a cartoonist I like recommends another’s work, I look at it. If it’s crap, I don’t look at it anymore. I never had that option with the print medium, even when I heard about a good strip in another paper (oh, sure, I could write a letter to the editor, but I think Doonesbury is about as racy as my red state is willing to get). Example: my cousins’ paper had Foxtrot. I couldn’t just turn to a new comics page in the paper and start reading it.

    The good thing about print is it allowed some of you people to make a living with doodles–often poorly done–instead of having to slave away in a cubicle. Yes, i criticize without creating, because I’m your freaking audience. I am the consumer with the money, so you please me or you piss off.

    “Thatâ??s whatâ??s next for the web: gatekeepers, editors, and payments. People want filters.”

    Balogna…with the exception of coffee, water, and central heat and air, this hyperbole carries little mental content. Learn to google. If you’re typing in “webcomics” for your search, and hoping that you come up with something quality, then yes, you need a gatekeeper, editor, and payment, because you are too dumb to narrow your search terms. If I want to find a doctor in my town, I don’t type in “health” and hope that the first naturopath wacko site I come to just happens to be within driving distance.

    I’ve read it elsewhere, and I think it’s pretty clear that there’s an answer. Word of mouth. I imagine you’ll build up about twenty or thirty regularly updating strips in no time, if you just find one or two webcomics you like and check their links. Then your regular comics page substitute will be tailored to you, not to your syndicate’s editor (or however that works…I’m not a cartoonist).

    Now for another thing. All of you…e-cartoonists and print folks…need to get through your heads that you provide nothing of intrinsic value. It’s doodles (or if it’s an editorial cartoon, poop scratches) that you’re putting up there. The emotions that I feel toward said chickenscratch are my own, and if they are powerful enough, I buy your book, or your t-shirt. Otherwise, your comics page could burn tomorrow, or your server could crash, and the entire rest of the world would only miss you as long as it took them to find a new distraction.

    That may be why “free” content has such a cult following; because it is what the audience wants, and it takes them relatively no effort to get it. One could say the same about newspapers, but that would be taking for granted the proposition that I want what’s in there. Also, I think we all know the hassles that newspapers bring to our lives (“Two Dollars”…Better Off Dead? Anyone?).

    If you think enough people love your print comic enough to pay for it each day, you need to pull your head out of your hindparts. They love their newspaper, but it’s full of doom and gloom, so they turn to you to remember how happy the comics page made them as a child, and try to forget about how instead of Calvin and Hobbes, all they have is Non Sequitur.

    If you think enough people love your webcomic enough to pay for it each day, you also need to remove the cranium from the anus. They love their computer, but youtube only occasionally has something worth their time, so they look for a clever way to kill eight hours (archives, anyone?).

    Sometimes, the emotions your cartoons can inspire result in a purchase, but let’s be honest. All of you are just hocking a hobby that probably got you in trouble for doodling in the margins of your textbooks. Count your blessings. If it doesn’t pay enough, go dig a ditch or something.

    I know this is mean and harsh and rant-y, but I just came across the forum debates on all of this crap on this site, and I can’t believe how much self-important ego-felation you people engage in. Everyone has it tough. So piss off with this entitlement crap that you seem to be into. Syndicates get you readers in the same way that torture gets you confessions…there’s not much of a choice there. Free content gets you sustainable economics in the same way inventing does. Most people don’t need the Sham-Wow, but every once in a while, you’ll bring us the wheel.

    Buncha’ whiners. No wonder everyone calls you guys “starving artists”…it’s wishful thinking.

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