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By Patrick Rollens
Picture this: you’re surfing your favorite artist’s site, enjoying the fresh postings, when you stumble across a small Paypal button. Beneath it is a gentle reminder that the artist does this stuff for free, and if you like what you read, why not fluff up the site’s bank accounts with a few spare bucks?
It’s called micropatronage, and it’s a relatively new web development. Folks aren’t quite sure what to make of it. It’s not begging, but web readers aren’t necessarily getting a physical product, either. It’s something in-between, a puzzling resurrection of the Renaissance-era system whereby wealthy landowners financially propped up burgeoning artists, allowing them the freedom to pursue their works — but with strings attached. In those days, financiers supported artists for years and irrevocably owned the finished products. On the other hand, without the patron system, we would never have the Mona Lisa or Sistine Chapel. Now the scope has changed; a few dollars sent anonymously over Paypal buys web surfers peace of mind and a dose of self gratification. They don’t “own” the finished product, but they have bragging rights that they help fund the site.
There have been a few success stories (described below) but in general only media that can be distributed digitally can have a hope at micropatronage. Stuff like music, essays, stories, photography — and, yes, art. Comic book writers and artists — many willing to work for free just to get exposure — can take advantage of the uniqueness of micropatronage.
Micropatronage has its roots in community. “If you create relationships with your audience, allow them to feel part of your group, then the gifts start to flow,” says Ian Gilman, founder of Micropatronage.org. Gilman describes successful micropatronage as a sort of group project: a number of people bring finances, and the producers render a product for their patrons.
The most important aspect of micropatronage, says Josh Ellis, is quality of work. “Tell people what they’re paying for,” Ellis says. “Seriously.”
In April 2006 Ellis conducted his own experiment in micropatronage. He successfully funded a $600 trip to the Trinity Test Site (where the first atomic bomb exploded in 1945) using little more than a Paypal button on his web site and good publicity. The end result of the trip — a 5800-word essay and multimedia project posted for free on his web site — made nearly everyone who contributed feel like they got their money’s worth.
Contrast this with Jason Kottke, who quit his day job in early 2005 and attempted to fund a year’s worth of blogging entirely through micropatronage. The suggested donation was $30, and in addition to netting nearly $40,000 in donations, Kottke also got more than a little scorn and derision heaped on him for the marginal results that 40 grand bought.
Kottke’s experiment got him money and notoriety. Ellis’ Trinity trip, conducted at a vastly smaller scale, got him exactly what he wanted. What’s the difference between the two?
Adam Greenfield posted this on his blog soon after Ellis announced his intentions to travel and write about the Bomb:
“I think the difference lies in the disproportion between what was asked, on either hand, and what was produced in response. I’ve been thinking (and writing) about the ethics and economics of being an independent content provider for a reasonably long time, and I can see important lessons to be learned here by those who would follow.
“In the year of his micropatronage experiment, Jason Kottke offered content that appeared little different than what he had been offering for nothing, expanding on it greatly neither in subject nor depth.
“Ellis was equally explicit in telling potential supporters what they could expect in return for ponying up their aggregate total. His exertions resulted in exactly what he promised, something which by the standards of the Web is unusually concrete - a compact, discrete, all-but-graspable package of writing, imagery and reportage.”
Ellis offers some even more applicable suggestions to comic creators looking to garner a few bucks via micropatronage. “Treat your online work the same way you would an assignment from Marvel or Image or DC. Don’t half-ass it because it’s the Internet…at least not if you want people to pay for it.”
Micropatrons are notoriously fickle; it’s a positive effort on their part to contribute money, so artists need to produce at the top of their form to keep up. But many artists and writers have personal web sites they use to showcase work, so adding an unobtrusive Paypal button shouldn’t be too difficult.
Micropatronage is just one facet of a new movement to allow interested surfers to part with small amounts of their own money in return for a concrete result.
Fundable.org takes the concept one step further with a sort of “managed patronage” setup. The site allows users to set up ‘fundables’ to gather money for a specific event. The fundable’s moderator specifies both a monetary goal ($200, for example) as well as a minimum contribution (say $10). There’s a specific time frame to collect the donations. As each person signs up to participate, they agree to pay the requisite amount.
Here’s the catch: Fundable doesn’t actually collect on these commitments until the entire lump of money has been spoken for. So if your fundable falls short of its goal, the entire thing implodes and nobody’s Paypal account is charged. It just fizzles away, and you can start over again if you wish. However, if your goal is met, each person on the list is then billed for the amount. The total is then transmitted to the fundable’s moderator, who then is responsible for giving contributors their goods, services, etc.
It’s a setup that has a lot of potential for writers and artists. A quick glance at some recent fundables shows a variety of subjects: one woman’s hoping to raise money for jaw surgery, another group is raising money for AIDS orphans and a third company is making a limited print run of a new t-shirt. An artist, producing high quality prints, or a writer with short stories to publish can conceivably find a haven at Fundable.org.
Other players offer different options for diligent self-publishers BitPass bills itself as “the easiest way to buy and sell digital content.” It’s a micropayment system similar to Paypal, except BitPass specifically focuses on digital transactions: users send money and receive the product electronically. Rarely does a real-time exchange of goods take place. Interestingly, Ellis is the co-founder and creative lead at MPeria, a BitPass spin-off that specializes in independent musicians. “When I first met BitPass’s co-founder, Kurt Huang, the two big areas I saw micropayments succeeding in were music and microjournalism,” Ellis says.
It’s not too difficult to extrapolate “microjournalism” into “microcomics.” In fact, the leap has already been made. BitPass hosts a section of the site dedicated to vendors actively marketing pay-per-view online content — and it’s no surprise that “Comics” is a category, located just below “Business” and right above “Education.”
For many fans, the joy of comics lies in the tactile experience of buying, reading and re-reading an actual print magazine. Digital content offers none of this, so predictably the prices one can expect to receive are lower. Scott McCloud’s “The Right Number,” a web comic available from the BitPass “Comics” department, can be enjoyed for 25 cents. Fans can read Jim Zubkavich’s entire 176-page web graphic novel “Makeshift Miracle” for a measly 99 cents. Each of these prices also allows a limited number — sometimes 30, 60 or 90 — re-readings of the given content within a span of time (a month, for example).
BitPass transacts sums as low as one cent, and unlike Paypal, there are no large service fees. Fans can rest assured that the money they pay goes through BitPass and ends up almost entirely in the hands of the artist they’re supporting.
It’s a viable option for comic creators looking to produce content on a limited budget. But the success of micropayments depends on changing an established paradigm — not an easy thing to do, says David Hopkins, creator of Antihero Comics.
“The response is always ‘people want their stuff for free on the internet,’” says Hopkins. “How do you get beyond that? Numerous cartoonists post their work for nothing, and some other dude (equally talented) wants to charge? That’s a tough sell.”
Hopkins points to the success of Apple’s iTunes — itself an excellent example of micropayments at work — as the catalyst that might change the system.
“BitPass can do for comics what iTunes is going for music,” Hopkins says. “And it can be profitable.” But what the industry needs, he says, is a mega-networking portal that can host literally hundreds of different creators and their individual portfolios — rather than require the reader to seek out each creator individually.
Until that time, micropayments and micropatronage will be the realm of a few hardworking creators, folks who get fifty cents per read from their on-demand webcomics.
“We’re the first generation,” Hopkins explains. “Other people, communities and online technologies will build from what we’re doing and make it more accessible.”