by Bruce Lidl
It’s end of the year roundup/predictions time again at The Beat, but one pretty safe prediction is that we will likely hear of many more creators, in all sorts of media, exploiting new distribution channels to connect directly with fans. As Michael Wolff points out at leading tech blog GigaOM, “Everywhere you look, artists are taking more control over their own economic well being, in large part because the Internet has enabled them to do so.” Citing some well known recent examples such as comedian Louis CK, author Barry Eisler and comedy podcaster Marc Maron, Wolff sees a growing trend of artists cutting out traditional middle men and presenting their work unfiltered directly to customers, and especially in the case of Louis CK, profiting handsomely from it. And Wolff doesn’t even mention a number of other recent examples of the artist as entrepreneur trend, from multi-platform musician Cee-Lo Green to the Humble Indie Bundle video game collection.
Not surprisingly, any celebration of new revenue streams for creators is rapidly met by a few standard criticisms: only already big name entertainers like Louis CK can do something like this, or conversely, only small up-and-coming artists can afford to take these kinds of risk. And fundamentally, many artists strongly feel that they should not have to become self-promoting business people just to make a living.
Of course, the idea of combining artistic and business creativity is nothing new in the comic world, something Will Eisner pioneered decades ago and creators have continued with various levels of success ever since. More recently, leading web-comics makers like Penny Arcade and PvP have made a habit of coming up with innovative revenue streams will distributing their work on-line for free. In a different vein, Kickstarter and IndieGogo funded comic books made a breakthrough in 2011 and are likely to only get more popular in 2012, while independent comic creators used every other avenue open to them to produce steady revenue, even as the direct market struggles and printing costs continue to rise.
However, the most innovative opportunities for comic creators going forward will likely be digital, as the growing proliferation of comic-friendly tablet devices continues to explode. Adding to the already remarkable success of the iPad, the Kindle Fire (and the Nook tablets as well) have really brought lower cost alternative devices to the fore, and while no official statistics are available yet for Kindle Fire sales, estimates have over 4 million Fires sold in the US since introduction in mid-November. App-based comic sales, primarily on the iOS devices, have grown considerably, with comiXology, iVerse, and Graphicly adding publishers and expanding their feature sets available to independent creators. Will we see the equivalent of an Amanda Hocking or a Louis CK success story in the comics world in 2012? If so, distribution directly to fans digitally will almost surely be a major component of it.