A Micropayment by any other name…

I saw this article over at ComixTalk today, as well as its predecessor, both revolving around the continual struggle to make micropayments work.

Now, the battle to make micropayments successful was pretty much lost before it began, and even the most dedicated proponents finally set it aside. But that was, really, only the original conception of micropayments itself – Joel Fagin wants to look at new and improved ways to try and make money for webcartoonists.

His main proposal is the sale of downloadable high quality collections of comics – paying a small bit of money so that you have a permanent electronic collection of the strip, allowing you to avoid internet load times when reading from comic to comic, and though these strips would be the same as the ones available online, you would benefit from much higher quality, no ads, easy browsing – lots of little advantages designed to make it worth the $2-$3 price tag.

Now, the articles themselves are very well-written, and analyze some interesting ideas. The proposal of the downloadable comic archives is… well, not a terrible idea. At the core, there is something solid there. I don’t think it is something the majority of readers will care about, as Joel seems to believe – but there could definitely be enough to make a production of it.

At the moment, the biggest weakness I see (outside of the market for it being much smaller than imagined) is that there really isn’t any software capable of fully presenting such material – not in the way they want. CBR is the format they are using, and it is certainly serviceable – but the entire idea is to boost the experience well beyond reading it online. CBR gets the job done, but that’s pretty much it. If there was a really dynamic bit of software out there that could truly enhance the reading experience, then I’d start seeing it as worth-while. As it is… it isn’t quite there.

But it did get me thinking on Joyce and Walky, which I realized is both a successful micropayment and subscription system – and just about the only one out there in webcomics. The deal – $2 gets you access to a month of strips (updated on Tues and Thurs). The strips continue the adventures of Joyce and Walky (a-duh), and unlike the free strip he updates each weekend, they have their share of the classic drama for which he is reknowned. They are good stuff, primarily designed for the more dedicated fans – and despite costing around 25 cents a strip, people are willing to pay the price.

The advantage of them is that, once paid, you have indefinite access to the month of strips you’ve purchased. Unlike with ModernTales, where you are cut off from the archives when your subscription ends, you are effectively purchasing lifetime access to the month you buy. The downside – especially now that this has been running for almost two years – is that anyone who wants to catch up on the plot has to purchase pretty much every single month they’ve missed out on.

But still – it works. It’s been working since August, 2005.

Now, I don’t know the numbers on it. I don’t know how many subscribers Willis actually has. But it seems to be enough to make it worth continuing – and seems to be proof that somewhere, somehow, something resembling micropayments can actually work.

We don’t need to call it micropayments, of course – but it is darn near the closest thing out there, and the only thing I’ve heard of that is remotely successful.

So… what makes it so?

Well, Willis had a built-in audience when he started it up – It’s Walky ran for years and ended up with a decent sized following. More importantly, I would estimate it had a much larger percentage of truly devoted readers, likely due to the intricate nature of the story. When it ended, readers proved willing to pay for more content – so Willis was able to start the subscription system without walking into it completely blind.

The Walkyverse is, at heart, one that focuses on elaborate characterization and plot development. So unlike a daily gag strip – though it has those too – it brings with it a lot of motivation for audience members to keep reading. And once they get into the habit of buying their monthly subscription, it is awfully easy to keep going.

Willis is also a webcomic powerhouse. He’s able to crank out content at an unbelievable rate – such that he can offer free content in the form of three to five Shortpacked strips every week, plus a weekly Shortpacked!@TNI and Saturday Joyce and Walky strips, in addition to the two strips a week for subscribers. He’s able to retain a presence with those who aren’t subscribers, and that in turn lets him potentially attract new readers. Very few webcomic artists could produce that much material without getting burnt out – that’s probably why few have tried it, since in order to move to subscription strips, most would have to halt their primary work in the meantime.

Willis managed to make it work. Not everyone could do so, of course, and it is only part of the income Willis gets from his comics – he’s also got plenty of advertisements, merchandise, and the occasional limited prints.

But still. This is a demonstration that it is possible to sell webcomics directly.

It might be in a limited form, it might require a very specific set-up and set of circumstances to make happen – but I suspect there are more than a few out there that would be able to pull it off. I don’t know if they should, of course – but I also don’t think the discussion over micropayments is quite as dead as some people think.

Joyce and Walky is proof of that.

One response

  1. Thanks for reminding me I need to renew my subscription. LOL

    From a users’ viewpoint, Willis’s set up is so easy and affordable. There are no passwords to remember, and he throws in wallpaper at the end of the month. And I can still look at all the months I paid for.

    It took a year before I realized I missed the story, and subscribed. But I was well pleased with what my $24 bought.

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