Robot 6

Does ‘free’ devalue comics?

Download this graphic novel for free or the smooching couple gets it

In case you hadn’t already read, cartoonist Kyle Baker on Tuesday casually made put up on his website free digital versions of eight of his creator-owned graphic novels. That includes acclaimed works like Why I Hate Saturn, Nat Turner and You Are Here. You can read them through an embedded reader on his site, or download them. Sometimes the digital files aren’t the best, but all the more reason to go for the print version if your interest is piqued; each page has links to Amazon listings. While most are out-of-print, re-sellers are offering new and used copies for less than cover price in most cases.

This is a veritable feast for readers, but it’s an interesting and unexpected move by the artist. As mentioned, only three of the eight downloadable graphic novels appear to be in-print: Nat Turner, The Bakers: Babies and Kittens and Special Forces. As this doesn’t appear to be a promotional campaign to boost sales, it may be a way to prove audience interest to a publisher. Baker mentioned on Twitter last night that he’s negotiating for a new publishing deal, which could include a sequel to Why I Hate Saturn.

So if he doesn’t really have to worry about cannibalizing print sales (even though we know that doesn’t happen; we’ve seen time and again evidence to support the theory that digital sales actually help boost print sales), why just give them away?

Make no mistake: As a consumer, free is a great price! In fact, it’s my favorite price! But some argue that free cheapens the finished product and devalues the work put into it. Some go so far as to argue it can even make the product less desirable because consumers question whether it’s any good if it’s being given away for nothing. I think that can be true, but it comes down to what are you giving away. Free stickers of something I may or may not know? Yeah, no thanks. Free comics from an Eisner-winning, world-class cartoonist who can make you laugh and break your heart whenever he wants? Yes, please!

It helps that I’m familiar with Baker’s work, and that he has an established reputation he brings to the table. At first glance, it doesn’t look like he shot himself in the foot by giving them away. Based on only his announcement on Twitter and Facebook, there’s already been a buzz of activity and probably hundreds of downloads and reads (assuming that each Facebook “like” and share results in at least one book getting read online or downloaded). If this is to prove he has an audience, best to remove any resistance points like money.

So for his (albeit, assumed) purposes, giving it away makes sense. But maybe there’s something to the notion of devaluing work by giving it away. Whether it’s bootlegs, pirated downloads or just sharing free copies online or in real life, it’s undeniable that there are more ways to consume more entertainment without any cost now than at any other time in history. But people still need to make a living producing our entertainment. Or at least enough of a living that they can set aside the time to make it. Is there a cumulative effect on the perception of how much something is worth? Is the commodity of entertainment being lessened by too much free stuff?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that. Promotional events, like Free Comic Book Day, comiXology sales, and Kyle Baker’s digital giveaways, should still happen. But both producers and consumers alike have to remember that someone has to get paid eventually.

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Comments

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I don’t think I’ve ever read one of his books before, but as a result of him giving some away, and you reporting on it, I’ll probably have a go at reading one this weekend.

I don’t have a whole lot of money to spend on comics and comic related things, but almost all the money I do spend is on titles (or creators) that I originally read for free, usually online or from the library, because comics are pricey and I’m very hesitant to spend money on things that I might not end up enjoying when there’s so much I haven’t read yet by creators I know I like.

So if I end up enjoying his books then there’s a very good chance I’ll end up buying others at some point, specially if one’s a sequel to one I’ve read and enjoyed, and if it wasn’t for him giving some of his books away, and if none of the local libraries have any copies, there’s every chance that I would never buy or read any of them.

All amazing work, especially Why I Hate Saturn. Anyone reading that for the first time has a helluva treat ahead of them.

I think that, realistically, we’re basically in “bolting the barn door after the horse has left” territory with “competing with free.”

As you point out, “there are more ways to consume more entertainment without any cost now than at any other time in history.” This isn’t new, and it isn’t going to unmade short of a civilizational crash (in which case we have bigger problems anyway). This is just the context; you either find a way to create within that context or you do something else.

Truthfully, I think that the challenge of “people still need to make a living” in a world where more and more goods and services are available without paying a person is a lot bigger than comics or even entertainment as a whole. Automation is making that an issue in more industries than not.

Dealing with this theoretically “nice problem to have” is going to be one of our big challenges as a species, over the coming decades. Basically, I think the attitude that “it’s hard on workers but it’s great for consumers” is going to be pursued to its logical extreme, at which point we will either 1) finally realize that “consumers” and “workers” are not in fact separate categories, or else 2) reach a post-Singularity Utopia in which work becomes obsolete and we are all just consumers.

I’m honestly not sure which happens first. For the foreseeable future, it will probably neither one but, instead, “the [layoffs and downsizings] will continue until morale improves.”

I think “free” waters down a product’s commercial appeal and cuts off the long tail. Of course, not every content creator and not every entity/institution involved in marketing and distributing that content have a vested interest in the long-term commercial viability of the product… but I see “free” is a conscious way of gutting a building-sized safe full of pennies.

However, in the comics business, or any niche product business for that matter, it’s probably a healthier form of self promotion. That long tail scales down considerably, and the revenue margins look decidedly ill, when your audience awareness is but a fraction of the whole industry in which you serve. Sometimes, it’s not worth the cost to maintain the product (printing, inventory, sales/cust. service, server space), and an indie artist or indie publisher may be better served using an aged, finished product as a hook for new readers than trying to double their promotional efforts on a product that may not sell as well as others.

Television and periodicals often give the content away “free” in order to attract a larger audience which will increase ad revenue. As owner of my content, I monetize it any way I can. I get paid for the ads, I get money from Amazon for books sold via my links, and I get a royalty from the publisher on new books sold. The reason the scans are crummy is that I downloaded them all illegally as bootlegs. So I monetized my bootlegs. Thanks, bootleggers!

All I can say is THANK YOU Kyle Baker for helping out us comics lovers who can’t afford today’s overpriced comics, most of which is DRECK (not DEADPOOL MAX, though, THAT was great. PLASTIC MAN was real good too). I’ve read nothing but good reviews on Baker’s solo work and now I’ll finally get to see it. Thanks again Kyle!

Don’t worry too much about Kyle giving it away. I tried a couple of his comics and the type is too small for my tired eyes. Ten pages into “Saturn” (which I was digging), and I had to stop.

Today’s marketplace pretty much forces anyone but the big boys to offer *some* content for free. As a consumer myself, I will mostly ignore work that doesn’t offer the first issue free. There is so much material these days, it is up to the producer to prove their work is worth following.

Perhaps because so much work is not, that consumers grew tired of “trying out” stuff at a cost and hating it? I dunno, but it is what it is. Heck, I still hold the opinion that DC should have given out every first issue of the “New 52″ free – prove themselves. I’d have tried every one. Instead, I bought maybe 6 and ended up following 2. A numbers game should have incentivized them to offer more free.

I did similar experimenting on my site – offering up a few thousand pages of full color free content for a long while. My page count exploded, with over a million a day for a long while. Still, translating that to sales was a hell of a challenge and eventually I scaled back and offer only first issues free. But, the initial free run did get me over 30,000 mailing list members that I still send newsletters to and is a decent source of sales.

If I had a larger budget, I’d still be doing a lot more free content – but you have to be able to survive a massive negative profit period for it to work out.

Does radio devalue CDs? Does free-to-air television devalue cable (or DVDs)?

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