Navigating the Digital Publishing Landscape: Flexible 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 3 of the "Navigating the Digital Publishing Landscape" series.

Click here to read Part 1, on Discrete Sales.

Click here to read Part 2, on Subscriptions.

This is Part 3.

Click here to read Part 4, on Free models.


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: Flexible Sale

In the third part of this series we're talking about Flexible Sales - a relatively recent approach to digital publishing that has completely changed the game. You might be more familiar with it under the name: Pay What You Want.

The most prominent characterizing factor of Flexible Sale transactions is the fluid price point. It's where the "pay what you want" name comes from.


Fluid Price Point

Rather than being offered at a specific one-time price, like Discrete Sales, or at a regular, monthly cost, like Subscriptions, Flexible Sales allow the customer to pay however much they want for the product.

There might be a suggested price, but there's no enforced minimum - if someone wants to get the offered comic for free, they can.

However, there's no maximum, either. Customers are free to pay whatever sum they they feel the content on the other side of the transaction is worth. And that's where Flexible Sale gets really interesting.

For the creator / publisher, it's a balancing act. On one side you have the potential for wide distribution - getting your comic out to a lot of people. But the price of that might be that most of these people are just going to be downloading it for free, when some portion of them might have bought it if it were sold traditionally.

On the other side you have the hope that your supporters will pay enough to make the entire prospect worthwhile, possibly earning you more than you would've made traditionally - or at least making up for those readers who opt to get your comic for free.

Considering only the monetary element, Flexible Sales are only worthwhile if the average amount of money you earn over each download of your comic is equatable to what you'd earn from a discrete sale of the same product.

Right now, there's not a ton of information about the lay of the land. The only data I've found - if you can call it that - has come in the form of vague reports of the personal experiences of exceptional cases.

But the draw of Flexible Sale transactions isn't its ability to bring about monetary success or get your audience to a mass of people. The allure of this model is due to its "middle-ground" nature. Having a free option maximizes your ability to introduce people to your comic, while the option to pay gives you the opportunity to earn some money back from willing supporters.

From the outside looking in, it seems like a great model. Especially when you realize that for customers, the friction is minimal.


Variable Friction

Friction is a very important factor in turning digital passer-by's into readers. As I mentioned in the methodology at the beginning of the psot, reducing friction is equivalent to the publisher closing more of the gap toward the reader - meeting them wherever they are. This is important because it reduces the digital "distance" your readers have to cover before getting your comic.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Flexible Sales, the friction element is variable. You can't count on these transactions always affecting friction in the same way. That's because Flexible Sales don't really have a platform that standardizes them.

Unlike in past installments of this series I've been able to look at specific platforms and sales channels like Comixology, when discussing Discrete Sales, or Patreon, when discussing Subscriptions.

But with Flexible Sales, you can point to Gumroad, Paypal, or the Humble Bundle - but none of them are truly platforms.

Where Gumroad and Paypal fail to be platforms is in their lack of an owned audience. Unlike Comixology, selling your comic via Gumroad doesn't increase the likelihood a possible customer will stumble onto your work. Instead, it's really just a sales channel.

The Humble Bundle does have an audience - though more because of its digital footprint rather than any characteristics typical of platforms - but it fails to live up to the expectations of the platform, because of how closed it is. The Humble Bundle is meant to provide a very specific experience and set of products to its users and this degree of curation makes it a restricted, if powerful, platform that's and not relevant to most independent creators.

So that puts the Humble Bundle firmly out of the equation. But Paypal and Gumroad are still channels you could make use of. The difficulty is that using either as your payment processor or storefront comes with all the same challenges that running any online storefront does.

You're trying to drive traffic to your page, rather than competing for a specific, targeted audience they've already accumulated. So, it's no easier to raise awareness about what you're selling. There's still just as much friction in getting people to the door.

However, if you get a reader to the point of purchasing, they might already have accounts with Paypal & Gumroad. If that's the case, then this might reduce friction for them - since they won't need to input their payment information.

And even if they don't have an account, but opt to get your work for free instead, there's still less friction than there might otherwise be, since they don't need to include their payment information to begin with.

One could argue that this further predisposes Flexible Sales transactions towards being a better system to reach new readers, rather than monetize a product, and that's a fair point.


The Breaking Point

If you're trying to build a business then you need to explore this predisposition. Trying to make a sustainable living making comics, means that you need to earn money from the digital publishing channels you choose to utilize.

And if Flexible Sales are really better suited to reaching a new audience, rather than monetizing an existing one, then that's relevant to know.

One of the key elements of the Flexible Sales model that I've identified is its variability. The price point is uncertain. The amount of friction you're removing from the reader's experience is uncertain. But these uncertain elements, impose very real market limitations on the product you can reasonably offer using this transaction type.

If your project would traditionally be thought of as a single issue, then, if traditionally sold, that generally implies 22 pages of story. But online that's not definite. Your format might be completely different and you have the freedom to make your comic as long - or short - as you like. However, doing so impacts the value proposition of your comic.

Since reader expectations of the value value proposition are still firmly linked to the traditional, established model offering a longer book might mean you don't get what it's worth.

If it's sold as a single issue, then any readers who encounter it might still pay whatever they'd pay for a typical standard issue, either thinking that's fair or feeling they're getting a great deal. This could mean that you end up earning a lot less than what your comic would be worth if sold via a Discrete Sale channel.

In these situations, every person that downloads your comic for free further imbalances the profit potential of your Flexible Sale model. And if you go too far in the other direction, and put out a product that can't compete with the other comics that are available through all the various channels, you risk failing to excite your readers.

This, of course, assumes you're out to make money. Obviously, you need to do what works for you. But regardless of what you're trying to accomplish, you need to be aware of these elements, because they impact your side of the publisher-audience relationship.

Trust Fall.jpg

Leaving Your Fate to Your Audience

That publisher-audience (or creator-reader) relationship is integral to the entirety of publishing. But it's especially important within the Flexible Sales model.

Marcos Martin, the artist behind The Private Eye, and co-founder of Panel Syndicate along with collaborator Brian K. Vaughan did an interview in which he discussed how the Flexible Sale model "establishes a new, more direct relationship between readers and creators in which they both share equal responsibility for the success of the work."

He goes on, "As creators we are responsible for creating quality product to the best of our abilities and the reader is responsible for deciding the value he / she thinks that product has..."

And that echoes a lot of what I've been getting at. With Flexible Sales, your fate is in your audience's hands. You're leaving yourself vulnerable to them. And that's a risk. But there's a reward associated with risk, too, and that reward is the shared connection this kind of vulnerability can foster - just like you find on crowdfunding platforms.

Pay What You Want isn't just an exercise in seeing what you can get from your audience, but an exercise in trusting your audience. How well the model serves you depends not just on the channels you decide to use, but also on the dynamics of your audience.

How many are they? How badly do they want your work? How willing are they to support you?

And the other side of the equation - whether your work gets shared and spread around - comes down to the quality of the work you produce and your reach, both through your extended network of peers and through your audience of readers.

So, unlike the other transaction types and digital publishing options we've covered in this series you can't break this down per platform or standardize recommendations on whether you should use the model and can expect to do well with it.


Flexible Sale, Inflexible Strategy

I know this publishing option / sales model might seem to difficult to find your way, through. The inability to pin it down and the relative lack of informaiton surrounding its viability makes it difficult to discuss.

That said, I think "Pay What You Want" pricing can be a great way to incentivize readers who are not familiar with your work to check it out without taxing them. I also think it's a great way to enjoy that reach, without depriving yourself of a mechanism through which your fans can support you.

If you are comfortable taking this middle ground approach, then perhaps you're willing to test the waters. Unfortunately, if you do want to give it a shot I think you have to be willing to dive right in.

That's because the Flexible Sales model isn't a strategy that can fit in well with others. If you fund your series via subscription and then decide to raise funds for a collected edition on Kickstarter, that's totally reasonable.

But if you integrate Flexible Sales into the process, I can't help but think it would dominate the exchange. By bringing the possibility of free into the system you're changing the entire conceit of your transactions.

Think about what it might feel like to support a series with a monthly subscription and then find the entire collection available for whatever someone's willing to pay - if anything.

And on the other side, think about the challenge of financing a collection when your comic is generally available for free. Now, here especially, it's not impossible. Webcomics have gone beyond proving this model.

But it does add difficult. And it goes to show that Flexible Sales is like that one puzzle piece that just doesn't fit right with any other.

It could work for supporting or ancillary content. If, for example, Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky's "Just the Tips" (NSFW) book was released via Pay What You Want, while their regular Sex Criminals title continued to be released traditionally, I could see that working.

But trying to divide one complete series by selling part of it Flexibily and part of it Discretely, seems tough. It's here that you encounter the true nature of the model. It's not so much flexible, as it is variable and what flexibility it does have is balanced out int eh restrictions it imposes in the design of both your product and overall distribution strategy.

If a platform like the Humble Bundle was available to you, there might be more to state in the "pros" list - just because of the audience and extended reach the Humble Bundle offering provides.

Unfortunately, despite leading the charge for and demonstrating the power of the "Pay What You Want" model, their platform is curated and very specific. I'd love to see a collection of indie comics on the site, but I'm not sure how likely they'd be to perform well and deliver the kind of results their other offerings do.

With all that said and out there, it's up to you. I'm just here to chart the landscape. And though I would recommend at least exploring the model, that might not be right call for all of you.

You need to decide whether you're happy committing to this strategy - at least for one project. You need to ask yourself whether you think your audience will support your work and whether you want to take on the monetary risks. Nobody can make that decision for you.

Fortunately, whatever decision you make, this model isn't the only one available to you. If you decide to use it and find success through it, then that's great. If not, then you can try one of the many other channels available.

And if it's just not right for you from the start, you can go back and learn more about Discrete Sales, Subscriptions), or going all-in with "Free" distribution - which you'll be able to read about on this site next week.

This series will continue next week in the fourth of four installments. That's right, it's the final one!

They will be followed up with a larger eBook on the subject, that dives deeper into the Digital Publishing landscape and includes the perspectives and insights of others who have experience with the different models we've been covering.

I'll be making the finished eBook available, for free, to my mailing list when it's completed. If you're already on the list, then you can rest easy, but if you're not and want access to this deep dive, then sign up below and you'll receive both the eBook and my regular weekly emails with additional resources meant to help you build a career in comics.