Navigating the Digital Publishing Landscape: Free

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 4 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.

Click here to read Part 3, on Flexible Sales.


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: Free

In this fourth and final installment of the series, we're getting to one of the biggest distributions available to you: Free! That's right, putting your comic out, online, for free - no strings attached.

Everybody loves free. Not only is free cheap, but it's also easy and accessible.

But its strength is a double-edged sword. Though putting your comic online for free maximizes your ability to reach people, it does so at the cost of any sort of monetization That's why Free, as a publishing strategy, can't sustain a comic unless it's paired with one of the other transaction models mentioned in this series.

That's how free works. It's a loss leader, meant to benefit another strategy. If you do it right, there can be major benefits. You can generate readership and build up sales for an eventual printed or 'deluxe' digital collection. Many online comics have shown this to be extremely effective, adopting crowdfunding channels like Kickstarter and Patreon to monetize their work after having built an audience by making their comic widely, and freely, available.

But, recently, a few channels for free comics online have been growing aggressively - redefining what's possible with free comics.



Now, I'm very interested by Tapastic. I will admit to not having spent too much time on the platform myself, but I did do some research for this post.

From what I can tell if Scribd and ComicsFix are "Netflix for comics," then Tapastic could be aptly described as the YouTube for comics.

There's no upfront money required for readers to sign up and the entire Tapastic experience is embedded with social elements such as being able to like, comment on , and share their favorite comics. Readers can also subscribe to creators whose comics they want to regularly see updates from.

For creators, the experience is as easy as signing up and uploading. Then you can start scheduling installments of your comic as you please and keep track of the performance of your series. At this stage, Tapastic has listed that they have 9,065 creators onboard.

As for the reading experience, itself, creators submit their series in installments called "episodes." The episodes are multi-page segments of varying lengths depending on what you want to upload.

In order to read a series, a reader scrolls vertically down through the uploaded pages. Once at the bottom they can scroll further - past the comment section - and the next episode will load in automatically.

This makes the experience seamless, unlike the standard experience of reading webcomics. Not needing to click to go to the next page (or scroll, then click) is massive advantage and makes the overall reading experience that much better for the reader.

I'm not sure how many readers are currently on Tapastic, but the more readers they can get onboard, the better they can deliver on the promise of a social reading experience and all the good things that come with that: community, more potential readers, and the possibility for greater ad revenue.

That's right - ad revenue. Tapastic has three monetization options available to the creators on their platforms. They are: Ad Revenue, a Support Program, and a Premium Program.

Ad Revenue

Tapastic's ad programs enables creators to make money off of the ads they show to people reading their comics.

Unfortunately the ad revenue program gets to one of the biggest relative weaknesses of the Tapastic platform. The fact that you need to drive large amounts of traffic to make use to it. You do benefit from the fact that if other creators do the same readers might end up finding your comic, too.

They also boast a CPM of $1.04 (essentially earning the creator that sum for every thousand impressions their comic gets) - which they say is higher than any individually-operated sites can earn - but they take 30% of that revenue.

Depending on your perspective, you could come to the conclusion that the tradeoff isn't worthwhile, or you could look at it as a monetization channel you wouldn't even be using, otherwise - or at least one you don't have to set up yourself.

I won't make that decision for you and, regardless of your perspective, Tapastic has two other monetization channels available to you.

You can learn more about Tapastic's Ad Revenue Program here.

Support Program

Tapastic's support program is a monthly subscription donation service layered onto the Tapastic experience. It gives readers a way to support their favorite creators in exchange for some exclusive perks.

In terms of how these perks compare to the perks a similar supporter might get on Patreon, there's a lot of overlap.

Both offer creators the same ability to offer exclusive content - most often either early access or behind-the-scenes material - though Tapastic has the advantage here in its native content. All the bonus materials are available on the same platform you're actually reading the comic, unlike with Patreon where you're asking people to come to a different site from where they read the comics in order to see that kind of work or early updates.

They do differ slightly in the way they structure their rewards, though. While Patreon is most meant for recurring goals and uses collective milestones as a way to incentive a creator's entire audience to support them, Tapastic goes about things differently.

They track how much an individual supporter has given a creator over time, and when the cumulative total reaches certain milestones it unlocks specific rewards for that individual.

As for the deal itself. Tapastic takes a 15% commission off of any support listed, but they cover all transaction fees. Patreon takes 5% in addition to payment processing that usually ranges from 4-6%.

So, which should you choose? Well - I've noticed creators currently on the site falling on both sides of the line. Taking your work to Patreon does add friction to the equation, but it's also a dedicated platform that caters to this experience better.

Whichever you choose, it doesn't stop you from making use of Tapastic's Ad Revenue Program, or the last part of their monetization options.

You can learn more about Tapastic's Support Program here.

Premium Program

Tapastic's Premium Program is a curated selection of comics which they present as a storefront, through which selected creators can sell their comics directly to their fans.

Unfortunately, premium content is no longer available for free. If people want to read the premium work, they need to pay for it - so it seems like it would work best for creators who have an already successful book on the platform and want to migrate their work over there after the series has run its course.

Here, they take a 50% commission of sales - which is competitive with Comixology. I don't know if they command the same kind of audience as Comixology, though.

The fact that the store is curated - and that subs are not officially open for it yet - also means it's not an option you should specifically consider as part of your platform.

In the longterm it could become relevant, but right now it's just not part of the equation for Tapastic - so it can't really be listed as one of the platform's strengths.

You can learn more about Tapastic's Premium Program here.

Given Tapastic's multiple monetization options, I do think they are a reasonable option to consider. The deciding variable in their platform really comes down to traction.

The larger an audience they have, the higher your chances that people will find your comics and that you will benefit from building an audience there.

Their product will likely develop over time, too. Possibly addressing some of the issues that I mentioned - like how closed their Premium section is (at least by opening it up to submissions, officially), fleshing out their support program - so it can better compete with Patreon's, or improving discoverability - so that you don't need to drive as much traffic to your comic & their native audience can find your work more easily.

In any case, diving deeper into Tapastic has definitely made me appreciate them more. They don't take any of your rights and boast a growing stable of creators. I didn't think that they would hold up to deeper inspection, but they have. If you want to learn more about them, or check out the site for yourself, you can start here.


LINE Webtoons

LINE Webtoons is another online free comics platform. Run by NAVER, a Korean search company with their own webcomics portal there, they're a company with experience in this field - touting more than 6.2 million daily users there. If they can replicate that success here, that'll be a hell of a thing to see. Regardless of whether they do make it there, they're already a formidable force.

Like Tapastic, they offer a vertical experience. You're forced to click over from one chapter to another, but because of the length of each chapter it doesn't detract too much from the experience.

The content of the comics themselves, plays into this, working to distinguish each chapter from the other and lessening the need for a second mode of reading (with scrolling down being the first mode, and the second being clicking to the next chapter). Being successful despite this is a massive strength.

They're not a straight clone of Tapastic - their platform is different, in a significant way. Unlike Tapastic, which is really an open channel at heart, Webtoon is an open platform, too, but places its full strength behind providing a more curated experience.

Their curated Featured Program is really highlighted on their site. Unlike Tapastic - which primarily displays comics regardless of whether they've used their monetization options, Webtoons emphasizes its featured comics all over its front page, genre page, and popular page - relegating user submitted comics to the "Challenge League."

While the decision may seem odd, it becomes easy to understand once you learn how their monetization is structured.

There are no monetization options available to the public who submits to the Challenge League. The draw of submitting, in terms of monetization, is in being selected as one of Webtoon's Featured Creators. Why? When you publish on LINE Webtoon as a Featured Creator, you're guaranteed monthly compensation starting at $2,000 /month.

That's right. I think this works for them, as a company, because they can make use of the aggregated hits, but - to be completely honest - I'm not fully sure of the model behind this.

But it's clear that it's enough of an incentive to bring creators onboard who had previously been running their webcomics independently.

When combined with the incentive system they've built to provide their Featured Creators with additional payment, based off the views they manage to accumulate, it makes publishing on Webtoon an enticing offer.

They use the same collective weight that a platform like Tapastic has, to bring readers to their site. Just from looking at some of their best-performing comics, it's obvious that the readers there don't tend to just read one comic, and end up looking through at least a few of those that have been featured.

As a creator looking to benefit, just becoming Featured is a major leg up, though being in the Challenge League seems to bear little advantage. You can still publish elsewhere - from what I understand - but you reduce your chances of ever becoming Featured if you're not purposefully driving traffic to the Webtoons-hosted version of your comic. For Webtoons, this is great, because any traffic you bring might spread to other comics. Of course, this works in your benefit, too.

The biggest drawback seems to be in the design of the content itself. I talked about the vertical reading experience before - in order to better fit that experience, the work on Webtoons is formatted specifically to fit that experience. That means rather than being like a traditional comic, the work makes greater use of white space and some of the other storytelling elements available when working on an infinite canvas.

While this helps to improve the reading experience, the downside is that it makes the work impossible to translate to print. In order to get a physical copy of these comics that really fits the description of a comic, the artist would need to spend a lot of time converting the existing artwork to properly suit the format.

That's the tradeoff you're making with Webtoons. $2,000 a month - as a baseline - is a lot of money. But it might not be enough to sustain 4 installments of your comic, if you're expected to post weekly and intend to make a sustainable income off your work.

Obviously, the specific takeaway will differ depending on your individual situation. With that in mind, I'd highly recommend that you check out Webtoons for yourself to see if it might be the right place for whatever you're working on.



Despite these new platforms, the old guard - the traditional webcomic model - still remains. It ignores the consolidation-based advances that platforms like Tapastic and Webtoons have made in the Free Publishing, in favor of control and an experience tailored to the individual comic.

As is typical, self-distribution's advantage lies in its flexibility. You can decide exactly how you want people to be able to consume the content. This extends to the format, too. Unrestricted by a platform, you can embrace the infinite comic model, or go for a smaller, landscape view, to better fit with our horizontally formatted screens.

And when it comes to monetization, this truth continues. You're able to make use of whatever revenue models you want to support your free comic after initial posting - or none at all if your intention is to truly create a free comic, with no desire to turn it into a sustainable affair.

Now, just being able to use whatever model you like doesn't guarantee you finding success with that model. For example, with ad revenue, since you don't have the collective strength that consolidating platforms like Tapastic and Webtoons use it's likely you'll find your ad revenue to be much lower - though you'll get to keep 100% of whatever you do manage to earn.

And if you embrace a subscription support model like Patreon, directing your supporters to your Patreon page subjects your readers to the same kind of friction we discussed when looking at Webtoons.

These difficulties get at the truth of self-distribution - a truth that's only made more pronounced with free comics. That truth? Self-distribution is entirely what you make of it. But what you make of it is limited by the nature of distributing alone. These limitations are most evident when it comes to money and time.

With money, for example, it's unlikely you'll be able to build an app for your comic. So you probably won't be able to give your readers a mobile experience that's competitive with what the other platforms can offer.

With time, there are too many examples to choose from. Some overlap with what you'd need to do on a platform - like market the comic, engage with your audience, and manage your uploading. However, when you go alone you also need to build your site, and aggressively pursue the monetization options you desire. You won't get chosen to earn a monthly rate like you might on Webtoons or benefit from the effort others exert to drive traffic to the platform you're on.

So, with all these limitations why would you ever choose to self-distribute a free comic?

In my eyes you'd only do it if you dislike something the other platforms are doing or have a specific vision you don't see emulated anywhere.

Given this, self-distributing your free comic - or going free at all - probably isn't the place for the existing comic you made. The comics that will work best online are those specifically tailored for the experience. If you set out with this in mind from the outset you can also avoid some of the difficulties presented by Webtoons, for example, by ensuring that the digital version of your comic would translate well to a more traditional format, if that's part of your plan.

There are other ways you could use free comics. Such as presenting them as bonuses for certain reward levels on other crowdfunding projects or offering them as incentives to get readers to subscribe to your mailing list. These aren't bad ideas.

You just have to decide how willing you are to give your work away in order to slowly build an audience? You need to ask yourself if you're patient enough to walk this path and do it for a long enough period of time that it will be worthwhile and help you maximize the success of your future projects via the fanbase your free work has helped you accumulate.

A lot of the biggest successes on Kickstarter today come from longstanding webcomics. For them, their future work is massively benefited by the investment they've put in free distribution.

But for the years where you're unable to make use of that investment, you're swallowing cost. Free is hardly ever truly free. There's always a price associated with making comics, and if you want to build a career you should have a plan to recoup those costs.

Because comics aren't just a medium, they're an industry, too. And building a career requires understanding of the industry - of the business side of your art.

That's why we've spent the last four weeks looking at the Digital Publishing Landscape. If you've read each of the last posts on Discrete Sales, Subscriptions, and Flexible Sales you should be much better equipped to answer the question of what comes next after you've made your comic.

And, hopefully, you're in a position to ask that before you even start work on your next comic. Business can be an integral part of the creative process. If harnessed properly, it can be the foundation for major creative accomplishments. If ignored, you might find yourself with a completed comic and no idea where to turn.

But now? You have options.

If you enjoyed this series, you should be happy to know that while this is the fourth of four installments on the blog, I am planning more! That's right, this isn't the end!

I'm currently work on 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. You won't want to miss this.

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.