Talking Moneyball and revisiting “The Economics of Digital Comics” with Todd Allen

When we last spoke, Todd Allen was in the middle of making revisions to his book “The Economics of Digital Comics.” First published in 2007, Allen set out to explore the developing landscape of the “webcomics” field and help fans (and creators) understand where and how money was being made.

A lot has changed since then and Allen set out to address those changes when he completed the newest revision in 2014. The book has been met with praise, winning the endorsement of Thrillbent.com founder Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, Insufferable) who also wrote the forward.

I caught up with Allen as he was preparing to send out some Kickstarter editions and returning to his duties as comics market analyst – and all around gadfly – at The Beat:

Geek To Me: What compelled you to revisit “The Economics of Digital Comics“?

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“The Economics of Digital Comics” Author Todd Allen

Todd Allen: Too much has changed since I wrote the last edition of the book in early ’07.  I’d actually started the background research for an update in the summer of 2010, but every time I’d start to make progress, something would come up and pull me away for 6 months.  Eventually, I had a break in the schedule and decided I was just going to hole up and finish the update.  I’d been away from the book for about a year at that point and it was almost like starting from scratch.  There was a LOT of change from 2013-2014.

In general, I think it’s important for people who want to work in the comics field to know where the money flows from.  How do publishers make the money that they give to you?  How do comics work if you want to go it alone?

When I started documenting these models back in ’02-’04, comics were in very shaky shape and I wanted to make sure people knew what their professional options are.  It’s not nearly as dire a landscape right now, but it’s still important to know the different markets, what your options are and whether you’re being treated fairly.

Geek To Me: What changes did you see in the market from when you did the first version of the book to this current one?

Todd Allen: The eBook/digital download format like you see with Amazon/Comixology and iVerse didn’t exist back then.  Crowdfunding didn’t exist back then.  The first edition came out in 2005, so I don’t think xkcd had quite launched yet. The Oatmeal was four years away and PAX hadn’t started up.

The fundamentals of day to day webcomics are similar (advertising is a little easier to get), but everything else has evolved.

Geek To Me: I’d say that this is like the book “Moneyball” in that you have some folks in the comics industry who’ve taken exception to some of the ideas you’ve put forward, just like some in baseball did to Billy Beane’s book. How would you address that?

Todd Allen: I prefer “Moreyball”, (Reference to: Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets – E.) but that’s because I went to college with him.  Brad Pitt‘s not going to play Daryl in the movie, though.  Matthew Perry is the proper casting.

There can be a problem if people try and put the business model before the actual comic.  Granted, you see the print publishers doing this ALL THE TIME and there’s the old Howard Chaykin maxim of “just because it’s commercial, doesn’t mean it has to be crap,” but it’s really better to start out with a concept and then build the commerce and presentation style around the concept.

People are usually going to know if you’re just hacking something out trying to fit a perceived revenue model and sell some t-shirts.  There really are a lot of bad feelings in the webcomics community about people who design a t-shirt before coming up with a comic.  And you know what?  It’s OK not to like that.

The griping tends to be about what some people do with the ideas, more than the ideas themselves.  Anytime you need somebody to stop and make that distinction, you’re going to have that happen.  Although I did get a good laugh about the guy who got mad because I’d never done any webcomics.  Sorry, but I wrote one for about a year and a half.  Got accepted into the Mystery Writers of America for writing, too.  You’ve read Division & Rush, haven’t you Elliott?

At any rate, in the rules of “Moreyball”, Daryl has been known to say that you don’t want to ignore what your eyes are telling you when you look at a player.  Data is an excellent way to check up on whether you’re really seeing what you think you’re seeing and to discover things that you ought to be looking for.

The ideas are a menu of different ways people make money.  Does one of the methods look a fit for what you’re creating?  Adapt it, give a test run, by all means measure your results.  If it’s not working, you need to ask yourself if the implementation was a little off or it just doesn’t fit your comic.  One size really doesn’t fit all and I hate it when people say there’s only one way to make money from comics and you should just be like them.

Geek To Me: Okay, the counter argument to any statistical one is that “numbers lie”, so how do you address that?

That’s usually a complaint from the print creators.  There are some definite parameters on sales reporting in print.  The Diamond estimates are accurate for US sales, but tend to be around 10-15% low because UK sales aren’t included.  Add 10%, you’ll be pretty close.  You don’t see newsstand, but newsstand is, at best, 2% of sales and that’s if there’s newsstand distribution for the title in question.

Subscriptions, if they have them, are invisible and aren’t terribly large unless you’re talking about Spider-man or X-Men.  There’s some nickel and diming with those hidden channels, but your US direct market sales estimates are accurate and everything from month to month is an accurate comparison of that market.  Period.

If you’re going solo, you’re probably not going to have subscription and returnable newsstand sales, so the variances are even lower.

marketshare.xlsxEverybody who does sales estimates states the above and if you can’t figure out what’s being estimated at this point, that’s your problem, not the person doing the sales estimates.  You’ll also note that there’s very little, if any, variation between Comics Chronicles estimates and ICV2 estimates.  Those numbers are solid.

With the book channels, there’s a lot more variance.  Bookscan is nice because it’s confirmed sales, but they don’t cover the whole bookstore market.  It’s going to depend on what kind of book, but you could be missing as much as 30% there.

Diamond, you could have a book sell 200 copies every month, fall below the top 300 list, sell 1200 copies a year and be invisible.

Library sales aren’t tracked, although you can go to Worldcat and piece together a lot of that if you have the time on your hands.  Basically, you can only do a “confirmed sale” estimate with trade paperbacks and then adjust up.  It’ll give a ballpark estimate, though.  The exception is really the kids’ graphic novels which can sell an obscene amount in school book clubs.  Those people tend to be happy with their sales and not complain about not getting any respect, though.

One of the things I’ve seen with complaints about the trade paperback sales reporting is the creator doing the complaining not realizing that his publisher is giving him total sales and not just Direct Market.  So you’re never sure if the huffiness is some kind of humble brag or they don’t really understand where the books are sold.  “Congratulations.  You can sell books in bookstores and libraries — and if you subtract out the Diamond number, you’ll have some idea how much of your audience buys in those places.  Or did you already know that and need attention?”

All that said, if you’re looking at this from a “what kind of numbers are possible?” standpoint and project possible sales, you want to be taking a conservative number.  Anytime you deal with sales numbers, you’re going to have some ambiguity, no matter what the field.  It’s about accounting for variance in the reporting.

Pro Tip: If your work is sold in bookstore channels, sign up for an account at Amazon Authors Central.  It will give you access to Bookscan data and where your books sell by geographic region.  You’ll love it.

Geek To Me: Let’s say I’m an average comic reader who may or may not follow trends in comics sales, what is the one thing you hope I get from reading “The Economics of Digital Comics“?

front-coverTodd Allen: A sense of how the comics are made.  Why the prices are like they are.  Why some people like Phil Foglio and Batton Lash switch over to digital.  This is probably where the “Moreyball” analogy fits.  Business book for baseball, business book for comics.

Geek To Me: Why are numbers for digital sales so hard to come by?

Todd Allen: Oh, it’s not just digital sales, it’s also pageviews on the webcomics side.

For webcomics, I get the sense nobody really wants to be compared to the other webcomics in terms of hard popularity stats.  That’s fine and webcomics have worse flamewars than print comics ever had, so I understand not wanting to make a target out of yourself by parading your numbers around.  Oh, you can reverse engineer some of it, but those measures can get a lot fuzzier than the print estimates that people still get touchy about.

For the digital downloads, nobody wants to give a hint at what their market share really is.  Outside of Comixology, which is now Amazon and no longer a startup, sales lead to valuations and you’d prefer to keep that to yourself.

Publishers have channel conflicts with the Direct Market retailers to worry about and seem like they don’t want to antagonize the Direct Market by saying “look at all these sales you didn’t get.”  You’re starting to see more publishers talk about what percentage of their business the digital sales are, and this may continue as digital is gradually more accepted by the retailers as something that isn’t going away.  Certainly, the retailers don’t like it, but they’re not actively angry about it like they were 3 or 4 years ago.

When something BIG happens it will slip out.  Marvel is loath to say exactly what Ms. Marvel is selling digitally, but it’s close to print numbers — I suspect digital sales were greater than the first printing for #1 and the multiple printing eventually put print ahead, but Marvel being very careful with their wording when asked about it.  We only heard about that because the creators were so stunned and started talking about it and Marvel was forced to somewhat clarify the situation as the rumors got out.

You also have a different situation in how distributed digital sales are. When we have estimates for Diamond, that’s going to be 90-100% of sales for almost every comic on that chart. Archie and Bongo being the most consistent exceptions.

With digital, you’ve got Amazon/Comixology, iVerse, iBooks, Nook, Drive Thru Comics, Google Play and the list goes on, all selling comics.

Yes, where it stands now, the Amazon/Comixology stats (which are still two separate sets of number for the time being) will bring you the closest, but there’s just a lot more places selling digital comics and different comics will sell better or worse on different platforms.  You’d need something like BookScan to keep tabs on that.

All that said, let’s see how Comixology gets integrated into Amazon — we might be able to get some estimates, depending on how sales ranks are displayed.

Geek To Me: What’s the single piece of advice would you give to a creator who wants to get into digital comics?

Todd Allen: You need to start building up contact lists.  Email/newsletter lists.  Social media followers.  Do not rely on a publisher to do your publicity, be able to direct people to your work on your own.  Discovery is a huge problem in the digital world, so if you want to play in that sandbox, you really need to be able to point an audience towards your work, be it today’s webcomic or the eBook at iBooks.

Geek To Me: And finally, What’s next?

Todd Allen: I need to mail the hardcovers of the book from the Kickstarter, which just arrived.  Past that, I’m not really sure yet.  I’ve been sequestered writing the book for 6 months, 7 if you count the Kickstarter.

I started having some conversations about what’s next last week. In the immediate future I’m way behind on my comics reading and starting to catch up on that.  Far enough behind, I have to legitimately ask myself if I should switch over to trade paperbacks for certain titles.

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For more information – or to buy a copy – click HERE.

Follow Todd Allen on TWITTER.

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