Navigating the Digital Publishing Landscape: Discrete Sales

You made your comic. But now what?

You've decided to self-publish it, but what does that really mean?

In the modern comic industry, it could mean a lot of different things. The game has completely changed and there are now more ways for you to get your comic to your readers than there ever have been.

The other side of the coin is that with so many more opportunities and possible avenues to take, you're left with an over-abundance of choice.

When you have too many options, it can make it difficult to decide or determine which to take. There are new digital platforms every day, and as a result the digital publishing landscape is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate - a veritable Times Square. A dense urban jungle you need to cut your way through.

In this series on Navigating the Digital Publishing Landscape we're going to be equipping you with everything you need to clear the vines in your path.

So read on, you'll find your map & machete ahead.


This is Part 1 of the "Navigating the Digital Publishing Landscape" series.

Click here to read Part 2, on Subscriptions.

Click here to read Part 3, on Flexible Sales.

Click here to read Part 4, on Free models.

early-map

The Map: Methodology

In figuring out how to best navigate the digital publishing landscape of comics, there are a few elements we need to consider.

The first is the nature of the transaction you're asking your reader to engage with.

Publishing is a collaborative relationship between a publisher and a reader. Both parties need to meet halfway. Distribution is the publisher's half - it's their job to get the book to the reader. The reader's job is to actually buy the book, and engage the transaction.

Different types of transactions completely change the way readers consider whether or not to purchase your comic. Asking a reader to buy your graphic novel is very different from asking them to subscribe to your new series.

It's only after first understanding how your transaction type impacts your readers that we can explore how different platforms (Comixology, Scribd, etc.) affect that relationship.

Once that's clear it becomes a lot easier to see the relative merits of each platform, in terms of how they deliver your product, enable you to monetize your work, and can fit in to a larger cohesive strategy. Then you'll be able to decide whether that channel is right for what you're trying to accomplish.

I know this probably seems like a lot, but stick with me and I promise it'll be a lot clearer when we're working with a specific example. So, let's.

The Machete: Discrete Sale

A Discrete Sale is the simplest and most common transaction in comics. Any time you buy a comic at shop, that's a discrete sale.

It has a fixed price point and when you buy it, it's yours.

There are two major aspects in Discrete Sale transactions that impact your reader's experience. They are price point and friction.

Price Point

The price point is the price you charge for your comic. It's extremely important because consumers have a limited amount of funds to spend on comics each month. Plus, there are so many great comics out there competing for the same readership. If your trade paperback costs $20, that's the same as two Volume 1 trade paperbacks from Image - not much of a competition.

Obviously this favors higher volume publishers like Image, and can lead to a race to the bottom. But you can only lower your prices so far before your profit margin is completely gone.

Price point doesn't just impact the decision making of your potential readers, it also impacts your ability to sustainably produce your comic. It helps determine how much money actually makes it back to you and the rest of the creative team you've collaborated with.

When we look at specific platforms later in this post, we'll examine the cut they take and how that may impact your ability to keep making your comics.

Friction

Friction refers to obstacles that obstruct your reader's ability to actually get their hands on your comic once you've reached them. It's an extremely important factor in converting potential readers to actual readers.

You want as little friction as possible. If you remember in methodology I mentioned how publishing is a collaborative relationship where both parties, the publisher and the reader, meet halfway. Well, I was kind of lying.

In reality, it's up to the publisher - in this case, YOU - to go as far as possible to reach the reader, so the reader has to do a minimum amount of work to get your book. The less friction, the easier it is to make the sale. If you can go 99% of the distance, it's a lot easier to convince your reader to contribute that last 1% and get them onboard.

Now, let's look at some specific channels.

comixology

Comixology

Comixology is a digital comics platform, owned by Amazon, through which mainstream and independent publishers alike offer their comics for purchase.

Though you can subscribe to a series on Comixology, the platform is primarily characterized by Discrete Sale transactions.

Now, on Comixology, your product is pretty restricted. Anything you publish on their platform is going to stay on their platform - there's no flexibility to take it beyond that.

Anything that you produce is also going to be filtered through their guided view technology. Reading on Comixology is a very specific type of experience, completely different from reading a print comic. Even within Comixology, the experience changes depending on whether you're reading on a computer, tablet, or a smartphone.

You can make efforts to design your book specifically for the tech, but this can make the production more complicated and make it more problematic to bring your comic to another platform later.

Beyond that, there's monetization. Though you no longer have to deal with Apple taking 30% of your money from in-app purchases, you still are dealing with Comixology's cut of 50%.

That's right 50%. It's better than when Apple was also taking a cut, and you obviously don't have to deal with printing and shipping like you do with print comics, but you're still missing a sizable chunk. If you're interested Jim Zub has a great post on the economics of Digital Comics, specific to Comixology, though it was written before the change in in-app purchasing.

The change I'm referring to is the decision Amazon made, after purchasing Comixology, to stop allowing people to buy comics in the app. From the on, in order to buy comics on the platform, readers have had to purchase them on the site first.

This has greatly increased friction for readers. I've heard reports of people earning less since the change, and though this is anecdotal, it's also completely logical. That said, with the higher cut creators are getting maybe it balances out.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to be sure. Comixology is notoriously bad at releasing any stats on their sales (they don't!) and I haven't seen any creators releasing their own info - so there are no effective data points.

Regardless of the impact, the friction is unfortunate. Comixology's strength is the way it allows publishers to reduce friction. By consolidating the sales of digital comics onto its platform a publisher can make it that much easier for readers to buy their books.

Consider how much less convenient it would be if every publisher just had their own app and required readers to sign up for their own individual services. The aggregation is a definite plus, the downside for creators is that it gives them the ability to command a higher cut of your profit.

That's what you have to keep in mind when deciding whether you want to employ Comixology as part of your digital publishing strategy. It's also probably important to note that they do require you to keep your comics on their platform, though not exclusively, for five years.

You also have to decide how much you're willing or able to give up in terms of profit margin in exchange for the friction that Comixology helps smooth out. It's possible that your audience isn't even on Comixology. I've always wondered how much of the Comixology readership is primarily comprised of Direct Market readers versus the massive non Direct Market audience.

And even if your audience is there, publishing independently on Comixology tends to mean publishing through Comixology Submit. Though the books do get billing on Comixology's front page they are, otherwise, in their own section of the site.

Now, Comixology does do a good job of running promotions for its Submit titles, a lot of the weight of discoverability and getting readers to your comic is still on you. You still need a lot of presence if readers aren't naturally seeking out your comics like they might better publicized comics also available there.

Hopefully, we'll eventually see better implementation of Amazon's own great recommendation engine into the Comixology platform.

There's also the approval / Guided View translation process. Even after considering everything else, you can't control the release of your comics on Comixology as well as you might elsewhere. Being unsure when exactly your comic will be available on the platform and having inconsistent processing can make it difficult to regularly and consistently release your comic there and tie in your efforts on the platform to any overall strategy.

I'm sure this is something they're working on and I do have to admit I don't have any personal experience with the platform as a publisher or creator, so there may be changes to this that I'm not aware of.

Many creators have had success through the Comixology platform. Some are independent creators, like Fabian Rangel Jr. who has attributed some of the success of his Kickstarter Projects to Comixology Submit. Others are more established creators like Josh Fialkov who, along with co-creator Joe Infurnari, created The Bunker and launched it on the platform. The success he found there led to a publishing deal with Oni Press and, eventually, a television adaptation.

In any case, there seems to be little reason not to use Comixology as part of your strategy - even if it's not the cornerstone. Since their deal is non-exclusive, many comics maintain or have developed their own web presence after initially being available on Comixology so unless you have anything moral against the platform there seems to be little reason not to Submit.

kickstarter

Kickstarter

Kickstarter, if you're not familiar, is a crowdfunding platform that, to date, has brought $40 million to the comics economy and brought life to over 3,000 comics.

Despite the varying pledge levels a creator can make available to potential backers, Kickstarter still employs Discrete Sale transactions.

However, its nature as a crowdfunding site makes it very special in how it affects the relationship between the publisher and audience.

This is especially evident when you look at the pricing on Kickstarter. Comics on the platform often cost more there than they would elsewhere because of Kickstarter fees & fulfillment. However, because your audience are not just customers but backers - and are actually helping make your project happen they tend to be willing to accept the higher cost. They're joining you on the journey, supporting your effort to actualize something they want to see. They're far more invested than they would be just buying your comic elsewhere.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that by buying into this relationship, the creator incurs a large responsibility to fulfill the project and meet the expectations of the audience. This is not just a lot of pressure, it's also a lot of work. Kickstarter's are tasking endeavors and take a lot to manage, not just while the campaign is live, but also afterwards in fulfilling the campaign.

This ties into the friction element of the Kickstarter platform. Though Kickstarter benefits of having a lot of potential customers already present for you to reach, this only helps in getting their initial buy-in. Your readers can still encounter fiction through the fulfillment process - from when you first send out your backer surveys all the way through to the actual delivery of the comics. Adding to the pressure to deliver on what you promise, it's up to you to make the Kickstarter experience as friction-less as possible for your supporters.

Perhaps the additional work is worth it, though. Kickstarter is an admirably flexible platform. You can finance just about any kind of product you want - assuming you can raise what you need to make it.

If you want, you can do a Digital only campaign like Ryan K. Lindsay did with Deer Editor - a project which he discussed in an episode of ComixLaunch all about building digital campaigns.

You can also do anthologies, or series, or - as I said - just about anything you can think of. The possibilities are only limited by what you can raise. That's one of the advantages of crowdfunding in general, and Kickstarter especially.

Another its effectiveness as a monetization strategy. Kickstarter just takes a 5% cut and there's an additional 3-5% taken for payment processing. When compared to Comixology's 50%, 10% seems a lot more palatable. Of course, Kickstarter campaigns only run for a limited duration.

And, often, the money you raise a Kickstarter doesn't turn to profit, it's just used to cover costs. And Kickstarter Math can be complicated; you need to account for fees, reward pricing, shipping, and, generally, taxes. Many creators have gotten it wrong - sometimes it just means you need to pay a little extra out of pocket, but other times it can have disastrous effects - causing a project to crash and burn.

So, while I definitely sing the praises of crowdfunding, I do urge caution. Kickstarter projects can be more complex than they seem. But well worth it for creators who can't otherwise finance their projects.

That financing is a big reason of why Kickstarter works so well as a piece of a larger strategy. For example, if you can use the money you raise on Kickstarter to finance a large enough print run of your comics to fulfill your backers rewards and have comics leftover to sell then you can ideally sell the leftovers and earn a true profit on those.

Or, alternatively, rather than being the starting point, Kickstarter can also be the climax of your strategy. If you're releasing your comic online for free, you can use it as your major call to action and seek to earn out your free release via what you do there. In that instance, Kickstarter becomes a monetization channel first, and a distribution channel, second.

Despite Kickstarter's flexibility, though, there is a platform with far greater flexibility...

self-publish

Independent / DIY Discrete Sales

If the benefit here is flexibility, the downside is definitely the difficulty of building up a platform like this.

Having your own channel doesn't innately impact the reader experience unless you work to make that the case. I really like Jim Zub's post on making the Convention Experience positive & compelling for all the readers he meets and sees at shows.

If you can figure out how to bring that to your digital storefront in a way that's authentic to who you are and deepens the connection with readers who decide to buy from your personal channel then that's a major positive. This is where even the littlest things - like sending a personalized note along with your comic - go a very long way.

This all takes work. As does driving eyes to your site. But if you can market effectively and succeed here, the benefits are well worth it since you'd enjoy a far higher profit margin than you would on either of the other platforms, balancing out the increased friction of readers needing to make an account or input their payment information for your site specifically.

You can reduce that friction by using established payment processors like Paypal, Stripe, or Gumroad, that can remember your readers' payment information.

Once that process is smoothed out, you're able to deliver your product exactly the way you want. You get to control your strategy and release what you want exactly when you want to.

It's more work, but if you can go the distance, it could be worth it.


friction-vs-profit

There's an obvious correlation between friction and profit in the sales channels I mentioned. I didn't expect to find this going in - I only discovered it in analyzing each one.

And any of the channels above doesn't prevent you from exploring the others, but the analysis should at least help you figure out which channels are best suited to you.

This series will be continuing next week and will also be followed up with a larger eBook on the subject that dives deeper into the Digital Publishing landscape and includes the perspective and insights of others who have experience with different aspects of Digital Publishing.

I'll be making the finished eBook available, for free, to my mailing list after the series is complete and I've finished some of the special surprises I want to include with it. If you're already on the list don't worry, but if you're not and want to receive this deep dive, then sign up below and you'll receive it (along with my regular weekly emails with additional resources meant to help you build a career in comics)

Until next week!


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