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Monday, 11 May 2009

How startups can help the comic industry

I have been a big comic fan for the longest time. In my room sits boxes of comics, including classics from the Silver age era. Needless to say, I am a big comic geek.

Like all media, the comic industry is undergoing drastic changes. The traditional comic books, for example, are now experiencing problems. In January, the Diamond Book Distributors raised its minimum advance orders from comic stores to $2,500 (from $1,500) before willing to distribute a title. This means independent artists will find it harder to break into traditional channels, which are gearing towards block busters. Sounds like a familiar problem?

Comic strip artists don't have it any better. Traditionally, they depend on syndication models from newspapers as their sole revenue sources. However, with newspapers in trouble, many artists are finding their only income becoming less and less dependable.

Fortunately, the comic industry has seen more business model innovations than the other media sectors. Online syndication models like comics.com are becoming a network play, where content is aggregated and reverse syndicate to other places. The only weakness is that they have not found a revenue model to reward the artists.

We are also starting to see different examples of artists diversifying their income streams, like what we are seeing in music. This NYtimes article hints at these diverse examples. The common element is that the content is given away for free but earning back through the following:

- Fans can purchase books, calendars and other items featuring characters from the comics

-Garfield.com allows fans of Jim Davis’s strip to send cards via e-mail, play online games and download screen savers

-Visitors to Dilbert.com can download widgets for their Web pages or replace the punch lines of the strip’s creator, Scott Adams, with their own

-The creators of the comic strip “Zits,” which is syndicated by King Features, are working with Jantze Studios in San Anselmo, Calif. , to develop “audio comics,” in which a camera pans over a strip while actors read the text

All these are examples of how artists are creating new revenue streams. However, they are mostly unique instances rather than common practices. As startups, how can we help?

- Create services to help bring these new revenue streams to all artists. Each of the above examples can be made into a real businesses. We need startups to bring about all these new ways of earning money.

- Create mobile services that can monetise user generated comics. Let the artists' works be the base and allow users to remix and resell them on the phone. As I mentioned before, mobile has a proven model in generating revenue for user generated content. We should leverage on that to create new income for artists.

- Enabled comic artists to build their fans base easily. This means they need tools like those from TopSpinMedia, BandMetrics etc but for comics. As Taylor Davidson said: the vast, untouched opportunity for professionals (is) to use data to create new business and economic models for the music (comics) industry.

- Finally, look at the process for a self publishing comic artist. How can startups value add to this process? It is beyond efficiency. How do we create different forms of organisational structures like markets, networks or communities to power the next generation of comic creation, distribution and consumption?

I really do love comics and I hope that startups can help to revitalize this industry that means so much to me (and I am sure many others). If you know of any startups creating new innovative services, do cite them in the comments section.

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