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The webcomics approach to printing

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The New York Times strikes yet again, this time with a profile of XKCD creator Randall Munroe and his plans to go to print:

The print xkcd book is not being published through a traditional company but rather by breadpig — which was created by Alexis Ohanian, one of the founders of the social-news Web site reddit. The site has sold high-concept merchandise like refrigerator magnets or T-shirts, but never a book. (Its profits go to the charity Room to Read.)

“We never made any projection — 10,000 seems like a good run,” Mr. Ohanian said, adding that this lack of research “is laughable from the perspective of anyone who knows the book industry. It’s what makes sense.”

The book — with the working title “xkcd,” though Mr. Ohanian says it may carry a subtitle like “a book of romance, sarcasm, math and language” — will not initially be sold in bookstores, and probably never in the big chains. Instead, it will be sold through the xkcd Web site.

“It doesn’t need to be in bookstores,” Mr. Munroe said. “I don’t have hard numbers about this, but the impression I get is that the amount of eyeballs you get from being on the humor shelf at Barnes & Noble — it is almost insignificant.”


Munroe is just 24 years old, and he doesn’t see the need to go with an Andrews McMeel or Random House to be successful. Barnes & Noble and Borders are completely beside the point. He’s either yet another in a long line of naive creators who don’t want to look at numbers, or the prophet of a new way of thinking that isn’t ground down by a system that obviously isn’t working any more.

Compare this story with a recent one in PWCW about CTRL+ALT+DEL, which is employing a similarly “mavericky” publishing strategy — creator Tim Buckley has already self-published several collections but is now teaming up with an already trusted collaborator — not a book publisher — to get into bookstores, for whatever that’s worth.

OTOH, Jon Rosenberg has the opposite idea with his GOATS collections — and he’s going with Del Rey.

It’s way too early to tell who is going to win this race …in fact, there could be MULTIPLE winners. Or different roads to the same destination. The Big Takeaway is that today’s creators — including some of the most creative — are approaching their business models free of any old notions of success and failure.

  1. The Big Takeaway is that today’s creators — including some of the most creative — are approaching their business models free of any old notions of success and failure.

    We kind of have to don’t we? I think the biggest problem today is the *industry* is in a total state of flux as we make the slow(?) painful transition from paper products to digital products. In the meantime, we sort of have to keep the free content coming to keep the attention of our current fanbases.

  2. This a perfect example of a guy who sells his house by himself with a sign he purchased from the local dollar store or the guy who asks a real estate company to sell it for him. Buyer beware. There are good webcomics and there are bad ones. I like the whole package. When my 10 year old daughter can draw better than Randall Munroe, I should consider self publishing her stuff too. I say if he is able to sell 10000 copies of his book, he should get a job at the majors. Good luck Randall, you are going to need it. I was a dreamer at 24 too. I think am getting too old, but I don’t get the strip. I am not parting with my money Randall. CTL+ALT+DLT is a bigger bang for my buck.

  3. “I say if he is able to sell 10000 copies of his book, he should get a job at the majors.”

    or em.. carry on what he’s doing and keep all the money himself? Isn’t that the whole point?

    “I think am getting too old, but I don’t get the strip.”

    Then it’s not for you, not that the whole process is flawed?

  4. tone, you’re absolutely right that this would be a “perfect example” of such a situation… IF the homeowner working with the real estate company was left with only %5-15 of the sale price (with the real estate pocketing the other %85-95) once the house was sold.

    This approach to publishing is one that’s being championed by marketing “gurus” like Seth Godin. Basically, you give up any attempts to sell to “the mass market” (because it just doesn’t exist anymore), and you focus on ways to sell to the particular niche to whom your product already appeals.

    If Munroe is able to sell even 500 copies of his book (and having an idea of his following, my bet is he sells more than that his first week), he will have already made more money off of those sales than he would have going through a traditional publishing house and selling 10,000 copies.

  5. Tone, I’m not sure if you know this but xkcd is wildly popular. Just to show that comics success isn’t all about whether a cartoonist draws well (or in some cases, at all). His comic isn’t drawn with any special expertise of draftsmanship, but for something driven entirely by humor in our contemporary culture which allows for conceptual content to come in any container (ie, lo-fi, lo-res, off-the-cuff), it gets the job done well enough for his audience. Also, his audience seems to come from outside of the comics world and don’t necessarily prize comics mastery as much as they prize material that speaks to their interests.

    Anyway, it’s his website, he knows his stats. Even if it seems like he’s winging it, he knows what he’s doing and who his audience is more that we do.

    I think that anybody interested in comics and the web should pay attention to stories like this, regardless of how they feel about the work themselves. I keep seeing comic people responding to news about business with personal opinions about the style or content of the art. Not the point, folks.

  6. BTW, to explain this particular strip:

    There’s the meme (among geeks) that got going because of overblown rumors and speculation surrounding the possibility that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, once activated, might cause temporary, microscopic black holes to form (though they would almost instantaneously collapse). The aim of the LHC project is to try and observe a theoretical particle (the Higgs boson).

    In this strip, Munroe has scientists at “the lab” (CERN is “the world’s largest particle physics laboratory”) realizing the consequences of messing around with the so-called “God particle” and arming themselves with crossbows to deal with whatever monster (or demon-spawn from a parallel universe) they’ve unleashed.

    It’s not about being too old for the strip… it’s about not being a math/physics geek. And it’s also about American culture’s (mis)conceptions regarding comic strips. I agree with Ryan North (another webcomic creator) when he says:

    “The death of newspapers is going to be great for comics, you guys!

    “I think it’s fair to say that newspaper strips are the only comics the average adult in North America has a chance to read every day. They’re in the same paper that the news comes in! That’s CONVENIENCE. And what sucks is that most comics appearing in newspapers are BLAND. Terribly, similarly, depressingly bland.

    “I’m referring to these comics as ‘bland’ because they’re all telling the same sorts of jokes, jokes that have long become predictable. I’m not saying they’re terrible, because they’re obviously appealing to an audience – and judging by the interchangeability of their humour and their comedic aesthetic, it seems like they’re all appealing to the SAME audience.

    “That’s where the problem is! The comics being printed in most newspaper comics pages don’t appeal to the majority of people. Obviously one comic is never going to appeal to everyone, but there’s so little variety in most comic pages that it reduces down to presenting only one sort of comic, only one sort of comedy, day after day. There’s a variety of reasons (safety, momentum, the syndicates themselves) that these comics, the safe ones, are the comics that most people are exposed to, day after day.

    “Can you really fault the public for deciding that maybe comics just aren’t that good? For confusing the medium with the only examples they’ve seen of it? After years of reading the comics page and finding only one good comic – or worse, of reading the comics page and finding nothing but a sea of depressing comics that follow the formal structure of a joke, but are so wholly and unambiguously unfunny, they defy classification as ‘humor’ – can you blame them for finally concluding, ‘Wow, maybe comics just aren’t for me’?

    “And with newspapers (in their current format) struggling, so too is their comics page. It’ll either die slowly or it’ll morph into something different, and either way it’ll be an improvement. It’s going to be great, you guys! In 15 years, when young people hear the word ‘comics,’ they’re not going to think ‘Garfield.’ Nobody but Garfield fans will think that! The rest of us will either be thinking of a comic that WE enjoy, or we’ll never have actually read a comic and have fewer negative preconceptions about the form.

    “The good newspaper comics will still be just as good when you’re reading them online.”

  7. I think there’s no one right model for print-publishing webcomics, you need to take your material and audience into consideration. For someone with Randall’s gigantic audience, it makes a lot of sense to self-publish. He doesn’t need the exposure that a big publisher would bring, he’s way past that, and self-publishing is a good way to maximize your profit. I’ll be amazed if Randall doesn’t sell out his entire run within a few days of release.

  8. Travis I agree with you 100%, a well written comment.

    I only have a problem with a statement like…

    “We never made any projection — 10,000 seems like a good run,”

    The death of the newspaper is about greed and mismanagement. A dinosaur that refused to evolve. Comics will survive in other forms. My naivety to the xkcd matters not, but as a publisher myself I am dumbfounded. I do not see how 10 000 copies of xkcd will get published.

  9. “He’s either yet another in a long line or naive creators who don’t want to look at numbers”

    Dingdingding. Even a cursory look at xkcd will reveal that Munroe’s a mathematical savant with little intelligence or wisdom outside his comfort areas, an emotional adolescent with a deep-seated aversion to thinking critically about his preconceptions, and a techno-counterculture Pollyanna. His “gigantic” audience consists largely of similarly-inclined nerds who will no doubt cream their shorts over his using a supposedly outre method of publication; it will not increase substantially beyond that through this.

    None of which is to say he won’t be able to make some decent scratch off of this; the Penny Arcade guys have, after all (their books, interestingly enough, are published through Dark Horse). But anyone thinking this is some sort of wave of the future is kidding themselves.

    And since when are magnets and T-shirts “high-concept”? Anyone involved in the publication of that sentence should be publicly flogged.

  10. Michael: Insulting the cartoonist and his audience. Nice. Value judgements based off of YOUR notion of what xkcd and its fans are. None of which have anything to do with the point of the article.

    This is a business article about a publishing trend. You don’t have to like the strip to appreciate what is happening here from an industry and publishing standpoint. Also, this isn’t exactly the first comic strip online to be self-published in this way.

  11. I was going to respond to Michael’s bizarre, bitter rant, so ridiculously over-the-top that in any other forum I would take it to be a pure troll, but then I went to xkcd and got caught up clicking the “RANDOM” button, laughed and sighed pleasantly a bunch of times, and forgot what I was going to write.

  12. Ask Jeff Kinney if he regrets publishing his webcomic through a major publishing house. His books get plenty of “eyeballs” on the shelves at B&N.

  13. I think he should dispense with the stick figures, replacing them with his own ink-stained fingerprints. Much faster.

  14. Ah, so his book will not be available to the big guys, which means that Amazon’s and BN’s and Borders’ websites can’t recommend the book to people buying similar titles, like “Piled Higher and Deeper” or “User Friendly”.

    Which also means that the Geek Diaspora working in bookstores can’t handsell the book to customers. That university bookstores will be less likely to carry the book. That many libraries won’t acquire the book.

    I understand him wanting to sell the book directly from his website. Hopefully he has staff to handle the workload.

    Selling direct is not a new concept, Dave Sim caught bloody hell from retailers when his collected editions were only available via mail order. What Mr. Monroe should consider is what Studio Foglio does, which is sell advance orders with an extra attached (in this case, a signed bookplate). Or sell the book exclusive on the XKCD website for six months, then offer it to comics and bookstores. Test that market for one year, and see if sales support the added expense.

  15. Torsten, well said.
    I applaud him for taking his webcomic by the horns, but he will limit his audience. If he’s okay with that then godspeed, but there will be those who would love his book and not even know about it. He has the ability to reach more, if he wants. Perhaps that’s a second-stage for the future.

    Knowing the business side of art doesn’t mean selling one’s soul.

  16. To take another example of a self-published, sell-direct-to-my-existing-fans-and-don’t-worry-about-traditional-bookstore-and-library-markets project, J. Michael Straczynski has used a similar model to publish the screenplays for Babylon 5, and similar for-B5-fans books. In 2006, this endeavor was written up in no less than USA Today in a “future of publishing” story. That story claimed that the project may be have come to $1.5 million in sales. Even with a fair chunk of that going to a POD printer, one imagines that JMS was left with a fair return on his investment of time and treasure.

    In the end, it depends on what the creator wants and what he/she can reasonably expect. If this creator can indeed sell a print version to existing fans of the webcomic, and if he doesn’t particularly care about whatever prospects of reaching new readers through conventional bookstores and libraries, then this ought to work great for him. Others may want other things, and may opt for other arrangements.

  17. Torstein,
    Well said, as always -hey, maybe Dave Sim’s model is the future:)
    In any case, all I know about the strip is that it’s crazy popular among my son and his friends -and even his math teacher.

  18. Everyone has to keep in mind that Munroe isn’t some guy who has yearned his whole life to be a published cartoonist, slaving away at his craft, sending off hundreds of submissions to publishers and syndicates and getting back hundreds of rejection letters, printing ashcans on a photocopier and sitting in Artists’ Alley hoping to make back his table fee.

    Munroe is a programmer who one day was cleaning out old papers, found a bunch of funny doodles he had done and decided to post them online. People liked them, so he made more. He began selling merchandise. He already lives off of the sales of merchandise alone. You worry about him “reaching new readers” by not being available in bookstores or libraries? xkcd gets shared them around by email and social networks and quoted ad nauseam in forum discussions and arguments. He gets 70 million hits per month.

    He has never existed inside of the comic production and marketing model you know and has been quite successful in spite of that. Why should he engage it now?

  19. I’m not sure this is a matter of “a long line of naive creators who don’t want to look at numbers.” Munroe gets more readers in a single day than any book printed by DC or Marvel has had in the past 10 years, so getting the “eyeballs” isn’t really that big of a problem for him. His material is also extremely nerdy and a perfect fit to the web-savvy, who are already buying things online.
    Meanwhile, the HUGE advantage of selling a book through your own site is that if an add-on purchase is made, it will also be your own product.
    Financially, what do other retailers offer?
    As for my favorite comic strip (limiting me to comics that use the strip format), I’d have to go with The System (http://www.notquitewrong.com/rosscottinc/)

  20. I think Jon and Maija nailed it. xkcd already has a fantastic audience that’s bigger than standard comic book readerships. It’s fueled by almost dependable Digg front-page appearances for his new posts and lots of high-quality geek word of mouth. If he can cut out the middleman and sell directly to his audience (who are already reading the comic where he’s selling it), why would he want to sacrifice percentages to get into a distribution model that’s not targeted toward his market?

    The way it stands, if someone knows what xkcd is, they can buy it. And given the nature of his material, I would be really surprised to learn that there’s a huge market awaiting him who isn’t already online — let alone one large enough to justify sacrificing his profits he could be keeping. Maybe I’m wrong.

  21. Brian, so Munroe must be “the prophet of a new way of thinking that isn’t ground down by a system that obviously isn’t working any more. “

  22. Everyone is just plain silly and Bill Hicks died too young.

    God I hate Fred Bassett. xkcd has been for me the long awaited follow-up to The Far Side and Calvin & Hobbs, which while lacking some of the rendering ability, is still emotive and often enough clever and humorous.

    I find reading xkcd more rewarding when considered along with Buddhist notions of impermanence, and I have to think a high, and if unintentional, organic appreciation for wabi-sabi – the japanese regard for imperfection, is also pretty well ingrained. Othertimes it is just downright funny.

    Someday we’ll all be rocketships, computers, or webcomics anyway. Until then more xkcd, more act-i-vate, and more slithy toves.

  23. I read both print and online comics. this past week, I plunked down coin for David Malki’s “Clever Tricks to Stave off Death” despite the fact that I read it every day online. I also got R. Stevens collection “Crush All Humans”. I like good creators and I will probably buy the xkcd book when it comes out.

    To answer Heidi, other online comics I read, plenty of things on Act-i-vate, Achewood, Questionable Content, Dinosaur Comics, Get Your War On (I also have those books), SMB, Medium Large, Hark a Vagrant…I can go on yet I still manage to spend at least $12 or more at the comics shop.

    I like that folks like xkcd and other web creators know their audience and know that a collection would sell. It’s the future of indie comics and magazines. Publishing on Demand is the next big business model and maybe more comics will start moving towards that.

  24. Kind of. I mean that’s the thing. However well one thinks the system is working, it’s definitely not pre-configured to accommodate his already highly successful webcomic that’s made its name on coding and very science/tech-nerd-oriented jokes.

    Jon, Ryan North and R. Stevens and a load of other creators have been doing just fine using this model and making their livings off of it for a few years now. Of course, webcomics like Girl Genius probably have a lot more to gain through gaming and fantasy audiences, but I think the self-distribution models that have been evolving for webcomics for several years now are already at the point where they’re almost a standard you have reject in favor of a favorable targeted publisher and/or distributor who know how to handle marketing your comics better than you to people you can’t already reach.

  25. … There are people who know how to comment on a blog who haven’t heard of xkcd?

    I don’t think I *know* anyone online who hasn’t heard of xkcd. I thought it was universal, like Calvin and Hobbes or something.

  26. “If Munroe is able to sell even 500 copies of his book (and having an idea of his following, my bet is he sells more than that his first week), he will have already made more money off of those sales than he would have going through a traditional publishing house and selling 10,000 copies.”

    And considering webcomics with less than 5% of Munroe’s daily readership have no trouble selling 500 copies of their collections, my guess is he’ll blow through 500 sales in a matter of HOURS, not days or weeks.

    Heck, maybe even minutes.

  27. “…there will be those who would love his book and not even know about it.”

    Really? A web comic that is targeted specifically at net geeks? NOT knowing about xkcd? Which is basically about net geeks?

    And I really don’t see someone like my mother even remotely interested in this. Nor anyone I know who doesn’t use the internet on a regular basis and already know about the strip. Sure, this may not be the best move for other creators, but IMHO, in this situation, it’s perfect. I simply can’t see this strip selling anywhere else, and it’s obvious its creators sees that, too.

    Smart man. Keep it to your niche and cut out any potential losses from overprinting your books and getting way too many returns.

  28. I’d also like to point out that with the economy currently the way it is, self publishing is sounding more and more appealing to creators like myself. If Munroe does well with this print run, it’ll hopefully set a fine precedent for other creators to follow. In traditional book publishing, many authors stress the benefit of finding your niche audience and marketing directly to them instead of to the mass market, because sometimes the material just isn’t appropriate for a wider audience. But if you’re a niche, more often than not, your audience is already at least seeking your genre/specialty out.

    And there are order fulfillment companies out there who operate on pennies, so even if something really picks up, it’s not like you’d be whiling the rest of you days away packing and shipping books. Or just freakin’ hire an assistant/secretary/minimum-wage-high-school-student, because if orders are really that out of hand, you can afford it. And stuffing envelopes is like . . . every student’s DREAM job. Used to stuff envelopes for companies and listen to my language courses at the same time, myself. :)

  29. And to show how recognizable this comic is: I had two people come up to me in the middle of responding that recognized the sample strip instantly and wanted to talk about how cool it is he’s publishing it this way. People NOT in comics and NOT in the book industry. But tech, science, and net geeks that follow it loyally, both who have absolutely no doubts that they’ll be buying it. And undoubtedly passing it on or recommending it to other friends who just might get it, too.

    Word of mouth is so much more efficient … and free! ;)

  30. The rule of thumb for online content is ~1% of your audience will buy something. 10,000 copies would be 1% of a 1 million readership. Seems reasonable, if not a hair conservative.

  31. If you guys think you have problems in the big US of A, kindly spare a thought for a lonely creator down here in tiny South Africa where there isn’t even one graphic novel publisher. I only wish I could have your problems and challenges. You guys are light years ahead of us here, and by light years I mean, (a) you’re aware that graphic novels exist at all and (b) you have fans and a growing market to support them.

    Over here I don’t even have the luxury of debating future business models, POD and new methods of delivery, I have no choice but to self-publish, and then have to put up with people running in the other direction because they think I’m selling a graphic (as in, explicit and extremely violent) novel. But fortunately with the limited penetration of broadband internet, print will still be king for the foreseeable future. Or is that unfortunately?

  32. Please look at the title of this thread and do not be confused by a bias with some of the content. “The webcomics approach to printing,” in its most bare bones, is a lean, mean, business model for publishing that in the hands of a webcomic artist, especially one with the following of Randall Munroe’s xkcd, is perfect.

    I can speak with enough experience, having published Comico comics, having authored books published by Carol and Kensington, and by having self published PODs on Lulu, this model WORKS.

    Creators put control in their own hands. They have an ability to reach a target audience. The capital risk is dramatically minimized. The return on each book is dramatically increased. The e-commerce is built into the POD provider’s “storefront” as well as the shipping leaving creators free to create. POD providers usually have a vehicle for ISBN numbers that also allow the books published to be available to booksellers and distributors.

    Self publishers are not stuck with a garage full of books that may never sell. Creators do not have to wait for quarterly or semi-annual accountings and tolerate royalties that are pennies on the dollar. Books can stay in print forever. Other than promoting the product and providing the content, there is NO out of pocket printing expense! The POD to an established niche market, which successful webcomics are, makes perfect sense.

    The successful POD always has the option of being picked up by a bigger publisher later. The biggest perk would probably be the nice advance at the beginning but my bet will be that there will be long-term disappointment with the size of the royalties and the lack of control over the property itself.

    The landscape to publishing and marketing comics is changing and the power is finally in the hands of the creators. It is time to celebrate. This is the culmination of the independent revolution and the future is bright.

    Good Luck, Randall!

  33. It always happens that a day or later I end up coming back to this one realization anytime the whole print/web/doom/creators/market/future discussion comes up, whether it be in comics, which is some ways can serve as a microcosm for the larger medias (or the equivalent of the arctic in global warming indication -nyah!) but I woke up today and realized that whoever figures out exactly what the future is going to be, how its going to work, and what is going to happen to everything else, is not likely to tell the rest of us.

    They are going to set about making the future happen and release it and it’s just going to seep into the world, and like a flash we’ll all see it for what it is and it will be like so much dignity as drawn by Luann VanHouten.

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