Interview With The Guy Who Embraced The 'Pirates' Of 4chan

from the embracing-fans-is-a-good-thing dept

This week, for our Case Study Series (check that link to see all previous case studies), we've got a fun one. Last week, we wrote about Steve Lieber, the comic artist who discovered his recent work Underground was being scanned and placed online in a 4chan forum. That story generated a ton of discussion, with some criticism, and plenty of interest in Steve's overall story. Steve agreed to do this interview, and to make it even better, his studio-mate Erika Moen, who jumped into the conversation both on 4chan and here at Techdirt joined the interview as well. Erika's perhaps most well-known for her comic DAR!. The top portion of this post will be the case study writeup, based on my conversation with both Steve and Erika, and after the jump I have the entire transcript of the interview if you'd like to see the full thing.

One of the points that we really try to get across here on Techdirt in discussing various business models and dealing with a changing marketplace is that one of the absolute key aspects is learning how to connect with fans (CwF) at a really deep level. That means a few things: it means going beyond just checking the boxes, but figuring out (a) what your fans want from you and (b) how you might deliver it, even if it may be contrary to your initial impression. And, part of that is often recognizing that when people are making unauthorized copies of your work, it's not because they're "thieves" or "immoral" or (as one of our commenters insists) "douchebags." Often, it's because they really love the work, and they want to experience it in a different way or they want to share that with others. What some people look at as "piracy," others realize is part of the way humans experience culture.

So, given that this is happening, there are all sorts of ways you can react. You can resort to the insults and name calling. You can call the lawyers and the FBI and send out angry announcements. You can call up your local elected official or pay for a lobbyist to "change the laws!" Or... you can embrace the fans, understand (1) what it is they're trying to tell you, (2) see if there's any way to provide that, and (3) use the sharing to your advantage. Now, when we posted Steve Lieber's story, one of the points that we tried to highlight in the post was that this wasn't just a case of "piracy leading to greater sales." That's similar to the whole "give it away and pray" concept. Instead, what made the Lieber story interesting was that it was clear that he engaged these fans (both old and new), and that's what drove them to want to support him and his work.

The moral of the story was not "gee, 'piracy' is good." The moral of the story was that engaging your fans in intelligent and meaningful ways, often where and how they want to engage can help you do much better than you would have otherwise. It doesn't mean "engage and you're an automatic success." It doesn't mean "engage and you'll never have to work again." It means "engage and you'll do better than you would have otherwise."

Lieber's case is a clear example of that. He admits that when he first heard about his work he had "the usual knee-jerk irritation," assuming that there was just some massive datadump of links to downloads. But when he went to 4chan, he realized it was something different:
I assumed I'd see a rapidshare link to a zip file with my book and twenty others, and someone posting a picture of a horse autopsy. Instead I arrived up at /co/ and saw a long thread in which "Internet Man," the guy who posted my book, had done so one page at a time. He had to hit "browse" and "upload" over a hundred times to post the book, and all throughout, he was talking about how great it was, nagging people to read it and discuss the story with him. That didn't feel like a pirate. That felt like a fan. And indeed, some people were starting to talk about it. So I did what I always do. I joined the conversation.
Meanwhile, his studio-mate, Erika, joined the conversation for a couple of reasons. Not only is she just interested in the whole business model issue, and loves to get involved in such discussions, she also wanted to plug Steve's book, noting that he had been "too much of a gentleman" to suggest people buy the physical book.

I actually found this part of Erika's response the most fascinating of all. Part of the reason she joined the conversation was to share and help others learn from the overall experience. It's a recognition of how a true community works, where different folks in the community help each other out:
The second time I spoke up was to explain the logic behind why someone would publish their book for no pay. If you have no experience in the comics world and are unfamiliar with how Image works, yes, that could look like a bad deal. The world of publishing is completely fascinating to me and I love to prattle on about it any chance I get. At the last Stumptown Comics Fest I even hosted and recorded a panel on self-publishing, because the more people that are informed, the more people can try it out for themselves. I never could have produced all my books and navigated being self-employed without all the help and support I received from my friends who had done it before me, so I like to pay it forward to anyone if I can.
Erika's definitely been a big believer not just in engaging with the community, but also in how "free" can be an important component of a business model, noting that DAR!, as a free comic, acts as an advertisement for the books of archives, which she can sell. She's also realized that free can create new opportunities, even in the physical world:
There is one active marketing tool that I do use at comic conventions that has really helped. I give away a free sampler of the comic in the form of a single sheet of printer paper, folded in half to be a flier containing four of my favorite strips. I spend about $40 on 500 copies and almost always run out by the end of the convention--which large portion of my sales coming from people who had never seen my comic before coming back to buy the book because they enjoyed the sampler. It has been genuinely effective. I can count on the fact that I will sell at least 100 books a con and I have no doubt the flier is the cause behind half of those sales.
While Steve has always been big into engaging with fans, he hadn't thought that much about the value of free works in combination with that engagement, but that's changing. He says that after this experience, he's definitely going to make more works downloadable and shareable. Some of his work is with the big comic shops (his next book is from DC Comics), and he doubts he'll be able to release those freely, but his own works are going to be available. Part of this experience was making the key realization that obscurity appears to be a much bigger problem than piracy:
Scans of my comics are sitting on hundreds of servers in countries I can't even spell. My stuff will be out there for free, no matter what. Ok. So now what? My goal is to tell good comics stories. I'd like people to read them in print editions, because I love print, and I think that's where I think my art looks best. Everything I've seen tells me that the people who have read my work digitally are more likely to pick it up in print than people who don't know my stuff at all.
Of course, the big question that caused a lot of discussion was how well did the comic actually sell, with some arguing that the following chart, without a scale or absolute numbers didn't tell very much:
However, the details suggest that this little engagement did quite well. Again, even if you didn't have the absolute numbers, the key point that we've been highlighting is that by engaging, you can do better than you would have otherwise, and that seems quite clear from the chart, no matter what the absolute numbers are. However, let's dig into some of the details. First, it's important to note that, while the book got tremendous reviews, it just didn't sell very well. Steve noted that both he and Jeff Parker (the author of Underground) have decently high profiles due to past and current work, but for whatever reason, Underground just didn't sell all that well when it was released. As he noted "it happens," and said that "we gave it our best shot and it was time to move on." So they had pretty much stopped thinking about Underground until all this happened.

So, once Steve (and Erika) engaged, what happened? Well, the book went from a random sale every here and there via their Etsy store, to over 150 sales in just as few days. And that's just the versions on Etsy (which contained a few different options), with the most popular being the signed book by the Jeff and Steve. The book (unsigned) is also available on Amazon, and Steve and Jeff won't know about sales there until their next monthly statement, however, there are indications that it's been selling well on Amazon as well -- and... people have just been hitting the "donate" button on the website as well:
Our Amazon rankings skyrocketed and stayed there for days. We were listed as #7 on Amazon's manga list, (a weird classification, but whatever.) And on the charts for our own publisher, Image Comics, we were the only book to crack the top ten that wasn't a volume of The Walking Dead (source of the much-hyped AMC tv series.) The donation button been insane too. Lots of $5.00 donations with requests for another book.
The key point in all of this, again, comes back to the one thing that we started this case study off with: the engagement was key. Connecting with the fans, in combination with the free work, is what made this work. Erika noted that many of the people who ordered on Etsy or who donated left notes basically saying that it was Steve's "totally awesome" participation in the community that drove them to willingly (happily) give him their money. She also notes that Steve didn't just join in the conversation, but he really got involved. As she noted she saw him go in there "out-niceing and out-classing everyone, even the people trying to troll him." That seems to have worked wonders...

Thanks to Steve and Erika for taking the time, and if you'd like to learn more about them, here's Steve's website and his Twitter account. Here's Erika's website and her Twitter account. And, of course, here are the links to the works they discussed, Underground and DAR!, where you can find out all you need to know about their works and ways to support both Steve and Erika.

The full transcript of the interview is after the jump for those who want to read it...

What marketing strategies have you used in the past for your comics (both Underground and other comics)?

STEVE: I'm a frequent exhibitor at comic book conventions: currently 4 or 5 a year, but in the past when I was pushing "Whiteout," I'd do as many as a dozen. Stores and publishers sometimes fly me in for signings. For my creator-owned work, I'll send complete previews to as many bloggers and stores as I can reach.

As for online, I've always go on message boards, blogs, twitter, facebook. Even Usenet, back when. I try not to plug my own work much. I like to rave about the great stuff I'm reading, and find out what other readers like. This can be a sort of promotion. People I've talk with sometimes check out my work. But really the reward is just being a part of the conversation. I'm no scholar, but I know a lot about comics- both the medium and the industry, and it's a pleasure to contribute to a healthy discussion.

ERIKA: Because I've primarily been a web-based cartoonist, my marketing "strategy" (which is a misleading word, since it implies I actually have a master plan) has mostly been word-of-mouth. I've been putting my comics, for free, on the internet for over ten years now and only within the last few have I started utilizing the tools available to me to make money on it. From 2003-2009 I ran a weekly comic called DAR! (It's my autobiographical story about being a lesbian who falls in love with a man, plus a whole lotta dick and fart jokes) which accumulated a decent-sized audience pretty much on its own without any ads or networking on my part. I just drew the comic I wanted to draw, the people who would find it that were interested in my specific subject then told their friends about it and did all the advertising for me. Even negative publicity from people who didn't like it increased my audience and my income.

Until 2008, DAR! was just a for-funsies hobby I'd do once a week. But then the recession hit and my entire studio got laid off so suddenly I had to figure out how to make money on my own until I could find another "real job" My friends urged me to capitalize on the archive of comics I had, so I self-published my first off-set, squarebound, for reals book and released it in April 2009. I pretty much sold out of the first 1,000 book print run in 6 months, which is really good for a total newbie who was doing all the distribution herself.

In April this year, I released the second volume of DAR! as well as made a second print run of Volume One. They both continue to sell consistently, though sales have tapered down quite a bit since their initial release. I'm sure it did not help keep sales strong when I ended the comic in December 2009, but what can you do? The comic had come to its natural conclusion so I had to end it.

Now I look at darcomic.com as an advertisement for the books, rather than the end goal itself.

There is one active marketing tool that I do use at comic conventions that has really helped. I give away a free sampler of the comic in the form of a single sheet of printer paper, folded in half to be a flier containing four of my favorite strips. I spend about $40 on 500 copies and almost always run out by the end of the convention-- which large portion of my sales coming from people who had never seen my comic before coming back to buy the book because they enjoyed the sampler. It has been genuinely effective. I can count on the fact that I will sell at least 100 books a con and I have no doubt the flier is the cause behind half of those sales.

December 1st I will be launching a new comic called Bucko, written by fellow Periscope Studiomate Jeff Parker (also the writer of Underground, coincidentally!), and I will probably release a few ads for it on Project Wonderful, but nothing that costs more than $10. I'm happy to sit back and let the audience find this comic on their own, without being aggressive to find them outside of my usual online outlets. By which I mean, of course I will also talk about it on my Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. But I'm not going to go outside of my usual accounts to drum up readers.

What made you decide to respond the way you did when you found out the scans were available on 4chan?

STEVE: When @Mr_trickster sent me a tweet, telling me that my entire comic had been posted on 4chan I felt the usual knee-jerk irritation. I assumed I'd see a rapidshare link to a zip file with my book and twenty others, and someone posting a picture of a horse autopsy. Instead I arrived up at /co/ and saw a long thread in which "Internet Man," the guy who posted my book, had done so one page at a time. He had to hit "browse" and "upload" over a hundred times to post the book, and all throughout, he was talking about how great it was, nagging people to read it and discuss the story with him. That didn't feel like a pirate. That felt like a fan. And indeed, some people were starting to talk about it. So I did what I always do. I joined the conversation.

ERIKA: Let me start off by saying that I am a huge fan of Underground as a book, and Lieber and Parker as creators. And honestly, it really, really bummed me out that this book did not get the reception I thought it deserved when it was released earlier this year.

The reason why I joined in initially was to plug the link where people could buy the book if they were enjoying the free scans-- Steve was too much of a gentleman to do it himself. I was kinda hesitant to go in there with my name attached, since everyone knows the kind of interaction they can expect on 4chan, but at the same time it felt worthwhile to make sure they knew where to go if they wanted to support Lieber and Parker's comic efforts.

The second time I spoke up was to explain the logic behind why someone would publish their book for no pay. If you have no experience in the comics world and are unfamiliar with how Image works, yes, that could look like a bad deal. The world of publishing is completely fascinating to me and I love to prattle on about it any chance I get. At the last Stumptown Comics Fest I even hosted and recorded a panel on self-publishing, because the more people that are informed, the more people can try it out for themselves. I never could have produced all my books and navigated being self-employed without all the help and support I received from my friends who had done it before me, so I like to pay it forward to anyone if I can.

After I posted my little essay on publishing, my husband was like "Honey, why are you on 4chan? You are a delicate flower, you probably shouldn't go back because you know they are going to rip that apart" which is totally fair so I didn't check back in that thread afterward.

What can you share about the results?

STEVE: As freelancers, Jeff Parker and I won't know how Amazon did we our next royalties statement a few months from now. But it certainly looks like a lot. Our Amazon rankings skyrocketed and stayed there for days. We were listed as #7 on Amazon's manga list, (a weird classification, but whatever.) And on the charts for our own publisher, Image Comics, we were the only book to crack the top ten that wasn't a volume of The Walking Dead (source of the much-hyped AMC tv series.) The donation button been insane too. Lots of $5.00 donations with requests for another book.

ERIKA: I firmly believe that it was Steve's interaction with the board members that inspired all those sales-- the majority of the notes people included with their orders even said as much. Had that comic gone up without Steve's participation, yeah, maybe one or two people would have sought it out. But Steve coming into the thread, being totally awesome, and having a link for them to follow *right there* is what made all the difference in my opinion.

If you want to be a little more ethical about uploading someone's entire book for free, I hope people will include a link in their post to where readers can go donate or purchase the hard copy for themselves.

STEVE: Oh yeah. That means a LOT.

Beyond the before/after example you showed, how have the results differed from other things you've done?

STEVE: Jeff Parker wrote Underground and I drew it. We did everything we could to get the word out about it. Underground is a thriller set in the real world- no monsters or aliens, and that's a challenge for the comics market. But my profile was high because of the Whiteout movie, and Jeff's star was (and is) rising at Marvel. We attended conventions, gave away preview books, did dozens of interviews, mailed out postcards. Sent pdfs to every critic, blogger and comic book store we could reach. It got GREAT reviews - more than 20 of them before the first issue even shipped.

...And it barely made a dime. Sometimes you build it and they don't come. The comic store market in 2010 just wasn't in a position to get behind the kind of book we did. Comics retailers buy their stock non-returnably. If they don't sell something, they're stuck with it, so they have to be extremely conservative when they order. There were some huge projects at the major publishers that got all the attention and ate up stores' order budgets.

It happens. I figured that we gave it our best shot and it was time to move on. We made a book that we're proud of and that's enough of a reward right there.

Then I got that tweet about 4chan...

Has this experience changed your views on anything in particular? Engaging with fans? Offering digital copies? The concept of "piracy"? If so, how?

STEVE: Piracy? To tell the truth, I don't waste time thinking about it. Scans of my comics are sitting on hundreds of servers in countries I can't even spell. My stuff will be out there for free, no matter what. Ok. So now what? My goal is to tell good comics stories. I'd like people to read them in print editions, because I love print, and I think that's where I think my art looks best.

Everything I've seen tells me that the people who have read my work digitally are more likely to pick it up in print than people who don't know my stuff at all. I can't say that's true for everybody, but I can look across the room at Periscope Studio every day and watch Erika's audience grow.

ERIKA: Yeah, this has made me more open-minded to interacting with readers. As my comic got more popular, I really had to pull back from engaging with my readers, because people started to get creepy, aggressive and scary both online and seeking me out in real life at cons and stuff. It really put me off and made me afraid, so I pulled way, way back. When I get nasty comments, I never respond because that just validates the existence of the jerks. But then seeing Steve go in, out-niceing and out-classing everyone, even the people trying to troll him, well, it was pretty eye-opening. I don't know if I could do what he did exactly, but it definitely has given me something to think about when it comes to diffusing trolls and spinning a situation to be in your favor.

Will this experience change how you do things (creating, releasing, distributing, selling comics? and/or engaging with fans?)?

STEVE: The big difference will be that I'll make more of my comics downloadable and sharable. I don't have the right to do that with everything. My next book is under contract at a division of DC Comics, and something tells me Time Warner isn't going to be so quick to embrace this. But for the stuff that's mine to control? Absolutely!

http://www.stevelieber.com/download-comics-for-free/

Are there any specific lessons you think you've learned from this experience that you'd like to share with others?

STEVE: I wouldn't presume to tell anyone else what they should do. My career isn't anyone else's career, and my strengths and weaknesses are different. So far, I've had two things going for me.

One: I'm a solid cartoonist. I take my craft seriously and I'm good at it.
Two: "Engagement" has always been easy for me.

I like to discuss obscure cartoonists, and sketch for kids at conventions, and explain why I set up a scene one way instead of another. I can talk with comics readers because I AM a comics reader. That "engagement" isn't marketing: it's what I do.

So that's two things, and they've taken me pretty far. But going digital? Encouraging people to download a whole book and then pay what they can? That feels different. I don't know if I'm carving the third leg of a stool, or just sawing off the limb I'm sitting on. What's important is that I like it. I'm ready to trust my readers to do what they can to support my efforts.

Meanwhile Jeff Parker and Erika had worked this all out for themselves ages ago. They've been developing BUCKO for months. I guess some people get it before others. (laughs)

ERIKA: Like I said earlier, it's made me re-think how you interact with the trolling, toxic readers that everyone inevitably picks up when their work starts to attract an audience.

If people want to learn more about both of your works, where's the best place to go? If they want to give you money, where's the best place to go?

STEVE: http://stevelieber.com and http://undergroundthecomic.com.

ERIKA: http://www.darcomic.com and http://www.erikamoen.com.

Thank you so much!

STEVE: Yeah, thanks!


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    Hephaestus (profile), Oct 26th, 2010 @ 1:35pm

    " Part of this experience was making the key realization that obscurity appears to be a much bigger problem than piracy:"

    Again I say it, the last thing we need is to learn the promotion thing that big content does so well. This is definitely one step on the path to that goal.

    @Steve @ Erika - Kudos for the way you handled this.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 26th, 2010 @ 1:49pm

    Yawn

    I don't know which is worse... watching Mike slowly rumble towards you like prostate´╗┐ cancer, or him appearing suddenly out of nowhere like a severe stroke.

    We are not impressed with your ability to get an interview from a guy from 4Chan. And it remains advisable to wear brown trousers to your next public discussion or promotional appearance for this Connecting With Fags thing you have.

    And by the way, that's an incredibly homophobic headline you massive poof.

    ~ Manager of 4Chan's Prestegious B board.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Poster, Oct 26th, 2010 @ 1:55pm

    Re: Yawn

    Psst. They didn't interview someone from 4chan, they interviewed an artist who had his work pirated on 4chan and decided to actually engage the community.

    Try reading the article next time.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Freak, Oct 26th, 2010 @ 2:00pm

    Huh . . .

    I have Whiteout on my shelf here, and TBH, it was pretty decent, ($5 at a garage sale; previous owner said he hadn't heard of anything else from the author, so I never bothered checking).

    Kinda wish I had been on /co/ to read the thread now, but it's still true that Steven's works, (now that I know other works exist), are way up on my list of stuff to look into buying.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 26th, 2010 @ 2:04pm

    Re: Yawn

    You don't even try anymore, do you?

    And I used to look forward to reading your ramblings...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 26th, 2010 @ 2:06pm

    Re: Re: Yawn

    "Try reading the article next time."

    I will read the article next time I'm waiting in line for a sex change because those take forever.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    icon
    chris (profile), Oct 26th, 2010 @ 2:38pm

    Re: Re: Yawn

    problem?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 26th, 2010 @ 3:02pm

    I'll read the article when I'm not driving. As for ramblings, I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about. Wrong Person?

    Let me just plug Windows 7 phone SE (Super Edition) It's "Insanely Great"!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 26th, 2010 @ 3:36pm

    Yawn 2

    HAHAHA DISREGARD THAT, I SUCK COCKS

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    icon
    Xander C (profile), Oct 26th, 2010 @ 3:36pm

    Re: Yawn 2

    Clearly, both of you are newfags at this.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Ben, Oct 26th, 2010 @ 6:38pm

    man this makes me want to storytime The initiative on /co/ and see if I can get Joe Casey to come and post and tell us how the story was supposed to end.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 7:58am

    Re: Re: Re: Yawn

    Yeah, probably that mike is pointing out things that work and contradict what all the IP Maxies are saying. You know the whole I will deny anything that doesnt fit in my version of reality thang.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    icon
    chris (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 10:20am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Yawn

    you don't get it. GP is a troll:
    http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Problem%3F

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    Brandon, Oct 29th, 2010 @ 3:36am

    What's the hub ub bub?

    It's strange when a small dose of fanboy rage that led to me tipping off Steve Lieber to 4chan can generate such buzz.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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