Since 2008, all comics sales – single issue and graphic novels – have been in steady decline according to ICV2.com. The one bright spot is that for the first half of 2011, graphic novel sales are up while single-issue sales continue to fall. (An aside: DC's rebot of their universe has given single-issue comics a bump, but there's no telling how long that bump will last and, once it fades, I don't think that DC can reboot its universe again.End of aside) The decline in sales of single-issue comics is significant because comics publishers have traditionally used these as a loss leader for graphic novels, toys and other merchandise. The Weekly Standard pointed out this practice in article, “The Crash of 1993”:
This might sound like an industry marching toward oblivion, yet in 2009, Disney paid $4 billion to acquire Marvel (DC was already owned by Time-Warner). The reason for this gaudy valuation is that the comic books themselves are no longer important to the comic- book industry. They’re loss leaders. The real money is in the comic-book properties, which power toy and merchandise sales, theme parks, and above all else movie franchises. Since
1997, 26 comic book adaptations have gone on to gross more than $100 million at the box office. Twelve of these grossed more than $200 million. More—many more—are coming soon to a theater near you.
Italics are mine in that quote, by the way.
Increasingly, publishers are interested only in titles they believe can be exploited across other media, and they are less and less likely to take a chance on unknown properties.
Publishing first to the web, and gaining a following, seems to be a way to sidestep all of this. Penny Arcade was among the first web comics to garner enough of a fan base to warrant a print edition (Dark Horse Comics published their books starting in 2006 and Del Rey stole them away from Dark Horse in 2010), but it's not the only one to see this sort of success. Publishers are also using webcomics in place of the traditional single-issue monthlies to build an audience. Avatar Press had great success with Warren Ellis's FreakAngels. Even first second, the comics imprint of traditional publisher, Macmillan, launched a webcomic, Mark Siegel's Sailor Twain.
And if one wants to eschew traditional publishers, webcomics are a way to attract an audience and self-publish. There are many examples of artists doing just this – Richard Steven's DieselSweeties (which also enjoyed a run as a print comic in several weekly newspapers based on its success online), Steve LeCouilliard's Much the Miller'sSon, and Ben Costa's ShiLong Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk are recent standouts. The lesson here seems to be that an audience will follow you from one medium to the next and, more importantly, support you financially if you can gain their loyalty.
Personally, I am leaning toward self-publishing once The Lonely Spaceman is completed, and there are a few different ways to gain funding for such a project. One is to apply for a Xeric Grant. The Xeric Grants were founded in 1992 by Kevin Eastman, of Teen-Age Mutant Turtle fame, with the express goal of helping independent creators pay for the production of their self-published comics. Tens of thousands of dollars are awarded every quarter.
Another means of funding your comic is to use a crowd-sourcing website like Kickstarter.com. Kickstarter allows artists to post their projects on their site and ask complete strangers to pledge money toward their creation. Artists are only given the money of their projects are fully funded, but Kickstarter has a great track record of helping to produce comics. According to Publishers Weekly Kickstarter funds roughly as many projects as DC's Vertigo imprint. And it could be considered the third largest publisher of independent graphic novels in the US, behind only Dark Horse Comics and IDW. With the right pitch, a comics project has a decent chance of being successfully funded.
These factors, tradtional publishers embrace of webcomics and outside sources of funds for self-publishers, make me confident that a web comics project could actually be a viable commercial endevour. All one needs is a solid comics project.
Is The Lonely Spaceman such a project? I guess we're going to find out.