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…
Filed Under: 4chan, business models, comics, cwf, engaging, erika moen, free, steve lieber, underground