Pirate My Work

TL;DNR: From a purely creative perspective. I don’t care if you pirate my work, so long as it stays accredited and unaltered, and you personally recommend it to people who would like it. On the other hand, I don’t want my distributors to get cheated, since they’re supporting my efforts, so I’d prefer you to pay them. I’m going to be doing this either way, even though it would be nice to do it in the black. Maybe down the line that perspective changes  but these comics cost me more than they earn, so I guess I’ll take the free publicity and word-of-mouth recommendations to a friend. 

Reading this essay, “Why I Pirate,” this fellow’s making all the points I would. I’m not sure it gets around the defense of why you shouldn’t commit such an act, but the fact is, the broadcast TV structure has begun its descent into moot medium. Not allotting for online access is cutting out large chunks of the same demographic that actually buys advertisers’ products.

This sort of debate has always existed. Before filesharing it was mix tapes and VCRs. Personally, as a creator, I think it’s inevitable and healthy to let some stuff spread around. When I was a kid I only got $5 allowance a week, so at most I’d buy five new comics; that meant I knew there’d be some that weren’t worth it to me, and if they were, I could probably read them at Joe Black’s house anyway. And when I got there, he’d show me something I hadn’t seen, and I’d lend him the same. The best marketing in the world will forever be, “Hey, you HAVE to read/hear/see/play this.”

As someone who puts all his content online for free anyway, I’m not losing or risking much if you torrent my stuff. At this level? Maybe a few cents, about what it’d be worth to have 10 new people exposed to my work anyway. Comics have this weird structure that’s simultaneously accessible to the independent creator and completely exclusive. I could print it (and have) and after calling 100 stores, manage to sell 20-100 copies to the five retailers willing to take a risk (and usually a bath) on them. Or I could put it on a website and get 1000 views the first day at no further production costs. And then at no personal cost, maybe 10% of those readers come back as regulars, while probably a quarter to half have found a comic they enjoy and check back for more stuff periodically, or recommend it to friends.

I put donation buttons on the comics a year or so back, because I wanted to keep the artists working before they drifted off to other publishers, and freelance wasn’t going to make that happen. I didn’t expect to make much, just to see if revenue changed at all from anyone buying the print editions. Sure, you might not want to go buy a digital or print copy of a comic, but maybe you just read it and enjoyed it, and you tip the busker, as it were. Several score thousand readers later, I think I’ve managed to sell five issues and got one tip. (I am, do not get me wrong, tickled for the custom from those readers brave enough to take a chance on the material, or kind enough to throw me a tip. Thanks, guys!) In that time, many, many more people have scrolled through the nearly 700 pages of comic installments, driving up ad revenue, even though they’re all there in easier gallery form. Thanks, gang.

I once read a post by a very popular webcomic artist whose work amuses me knocking the tip jar concept as an unprofessional way to admit you can’t sell your content. But with all respect to her delightful vignettes, and the wealth of ideas she puts forward: all her stuff fits on a t-shirt. It’s easy to have that attitude when your art style is fast and simplified* and your content is single-panel. But if you’re doing long-form stuff serialized by row like the we do here…artists gotta get paid. I can’t draw that fast, and I certainly can’t draw the six comics a week we were putting out in our heyday. You can put a quip next to a stick figure, and it’ll spread easily throughout the internet because there’s no high concept that needs to be explained. You can put it on a print or a t-shirt, and if even one person buys it: boom, $20 for fifteen minutes’ work.

*and great! I think it’s perfect for her humor, delivering a universally accessible quality, as Scott McCloud discussed: the simpler the face, the purer the experience of identification becomes. I’m thinking of trying such a thing myself to get the daily comic updates restarted here. But let’s be honest: stick figures may have art and technical prowess, but even the best of them can be drawn very quickly.

But try profiting from 24+ pages of comic nobody’s heard of multiplied by each artist’s and colorist’s page rates at $4.99/unit gross (net, it’s more like…seventy cents to a couple bucks, depending). Each book costs me three to six months’ rent to produce. In my side of the webcomics industry, trying to produce something on par with what makes it into the Diamond catalog, a tip jar’s not an admission of inability, it’s a reminder that so long as you like what we do, you’re getting a great deal, and we’d like to keep making it for you. It’s not like I want to ask for money. I’m doing these comics regardless. I just want them complete in under a decade. I have industry friends who have done very well with Kickstarter, but that doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to actually hit anybody up for money. Obviously I’m not making any. I just don’t think it’s at all a bad idea for online creators to have a gentle reminder: if you like it, support it. It’s the interent; we all want everything for free, and it should stay that way. This is where the most entertaining efforts arise, most of them done for love and nothing else, which is why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Like anybody else, I have my own weird and inconsistent ethos about pirating. I’ll listen to a song 100x on YouTube, but the only ways I’ll download the audio file are if it can’t be bought (B-sides, etc.), I intend to buy the author’s work soon anyway, or some other mitigating factor that boils down to “I try to pay you for things I like that you’re selling.” Any TV shows I watch, I try to find on Hulu or the channel’s website. Most others, I can wait for DVD. But even then, it’s like…look, am I going to go pay $60 as a consumer to buy the DVD set, or am I going to get the exact same thing on Amazon for $10? And if it’s the latter, I’m not giving you, the producer, any money you didn’t already have, and now I have to own a DVD collection I only needed to watch once or twice, when I’d really rather pare my worldly possessions down to a gym bag full of clothes, and computer that fits in my pocket.

Make it digital, disposable, and dollar-priced, and I’ll buy it, but even then, I’d really rather just…I dunno, pay a decent subscription fee and have you divide the revenues among the shows I watch. Throughout the aughts I lived in a number of places, and the only thing uniting them was roommates who wanted the most expensive cable package whereas I didn’t even feel the need to own a TV, but I didn’t veto the cable package. I think one household let me skip out on the deal since I made it plain I could barely keep up with my Blockbuster queue. Now that television is loaded with excellent shows, and I’m watching a lot, I try to support them. I also feel like maybe after ten years of massive cable bills, I’ve got credit at the bank. If I had my ideal situation, I’d just pick five channels and only subscribe to those, or even better, just the TV shows. Track what I watch, and divide my $20 a month among them. If I only watch Community all month, those four episodes get $5 each. If I watch three other shows, divide it up by screentime. I want to support the things I love, you know?

So basically, I don’t advocate piracy in general, even though I’m often reluctantly found doing it. But I can give you approval in the veil of ignorance to pass my stuff around to benefit what I’m trying to do here anyway, which is establish our work. I believe that ultimately benefits the creator. We have to accept that we’re not going to maximize 100% of potential revenues in a work. A solid chunk of it, for as long as humanity has existed, is going to circulate itself after the point of sale, and that’s as good for the Jerky Boys as it was for Shakespeare.

I don’t buy comics much anymore; very little interests me, other than some indie stuff and what friends are putting out. I look at making comics as my new hobby, even though it’s very much my career. Costwise, it’s about the same, and if you don’t regard it as fun, you’re liable to take it too seriously and never get anything made. So it’s not that I need the money, but I’d like you to support anything that gets put out through Shadowline or Devil’s Due so that they see people actually like our work, and they don’t get skinned for taking a chance on it. But if you’re absolutely going to swipe these comics, just make sure the authorship’s intact, and try to give us a good recommendation to your friends. Point ’em to those distributors.

Fair deal? Fair deal. Thanks.