Indie Comics in the Changing Economy

Nick Dedual recently posted and interesting piece on his Odd Truth Blog about making comics in "The Great Recession".One of the points that he makes is about the increasingly experiential nature of the comic convention.

Nick points out the cons are shifting to be more about what you DID THERE rather than what you GOT THERE. He is absolutely right about this, and it is only the tip of the ice berg. It is called The Experience Economy, a phenomenon affecting the global economy, accelerated by the faster-than-ever commerce of the web.

I first heard about it a few years ago in this TED Talk.

Basically it is like this... People used to trade at an agrarian level, where consumers actually consumed the products. Then came the industrial economy, where consumers were removed from the producers and were given a range of products to choose from. The consumers chose the best products, or the ones they liked the most. As manufacturing steadily leveled the production playing field, we moved into a service economy. When the product is universally available, the decision to purchase is made based on the service that comes with that product. And now that customer service is theoretically instant and around-the-clock, that decision to purchase has shifted to the total experience that comes with owning a product. I am not an economist. Watch the video if you want a real explanation.

Is all of that true of comics? Is it true of indie comics? To some degree, individual artistic endeavors like making indie comics, will always be on their own micro-trajectory within a larger economic movement. But, also, they're not.

Let's walk through where we are in each stage and how it might affect us going forward.

Agrarian Economy- Lots if the interactions in indie comics fit pretty nicely into an agrarian system. Specifically, I mean the barter economy the fuels much of the actual production. "I will write for you if you draw for me". Individual producers producing for individual producers. The one-on-one sales that we make at conventions and where ever else are also at this level. I have it, you want it. Done. Indie comics will always do fine at this level. Developments at the industrial level and higher may take a chunk out, but they will never close this door on us. Even when we go completely digital, it is still happening at the near-barter level.

Industrial Economy- Industrialization has largely been a boon to the indie comics world. It gave us Print-On-Demand. Largely as side-effects of movements in the larger economy, we have discovered all kinds of ways to make out comics faster, easier, and cheaper. Industrialization has also affected consumer expectation. A consumer can now see Rapid City right along side X-Men and Booster Gold, be it paper or digital. That is a great opportunity, but it also affects the way that the books are seen. They are a stack of items to be purchased. While the irregular production and quality of an indie may have once been part of its charm, even a selling point, they have now become areas where the indies might not measure up to their shelf-mates. There is an expectation that comics will be produced on a regular schedule... a monthly schedule. I am not saying that indies can't be produced at that rate, I am saying that the expectation is an artificial side-effect of industrialized publishing. The counter-industrial nature of indie comics gives us some small advantage as we easily side-step into the realms of service and experience. It is easier for a reader to have a personal interaction and relationship with an indie creator than with a large publishing machine. There is, however, a fine line to walk between the two worlds. Similar to the artificial expectation of a monthly publishing schedule, the indies have generated an artificial expectation of personal relationships with creators. And this is great. And it is usually accurate. But, it can cause a creator who is meeting with success to navigate awkward growing pains. It is reasonable for a fan of Rapid City to expect that I would respond personally to emails or letters that I receive. It is not reasonable for a fan of Hellboy to make the same assumption of Mike Mignola. The minefield of expected interactions between my level of success and his is uncharted and ever-changing.

Service Economy- When a major purchase factor is the mode of delivery, you are in a service economy. The old-school comic convention dealer room is some bizarre hybrid of agrarian, industrial, and hunter/gatherer. And it is the opposite of service economy. It thrives on the scarcity of service. Though there is some thrill in hunting down that certain rare treasure, those sales conditions would not exist in a world where there were other service options. Which is why I am amazed that those show-floors still exist. Ebay exists. Ebay is a kryptonite crucifix to comic con back-issue retailers. As a side thought, maybe they exist as some nostalgic experience economy... but how long can that last?. The positive effect of this trend is that more con attendees are there to look something other than rare back issues. I will talk more about what they are looking for in the service section. With digital delivery and print-on-demand, the indie creator can compete pretty well in a service based market place. It is harder for us. We simply have fewer resources to devote to every aspect of the customer relationship. But, the fact is that the tools are there. And, the more that more of us use them, the easier they get to use. The barrier of delivery, a key factor in a service economy, is rapidly vanishing for the indie creator.

So, what's left? Experience Economy- The wild west. As the industrial and service fields get more and more level, the remaining stand-outs are those that excel in creating a great user/reader/fan experience. In comics, no one knows what this means yet. At best, some folks have a piece of it. And, until the big publishers can really get a handle on their experience model, this is a chance for us indies to seize some ground. The strength and power of the major publishers comes with a bit of immobility. Because their appeal is so broad, it often fails to reach readers directly. Personally, as a fan of big-time superhero comics, I often have to shrug and willfully over-look something by saying "well, that wasn't meant for me". Indies, however, don;t have the luxury of having this problem. Our readers have sought us out because they want what we have. They are a self selected group whose expectation is expectation is for more of what we are already doing. Outside of content, which is where the experience economy lives, the indie creator can offer a much more direct experience to a reader or fan. That is the value of social media. That is why I write this blog. That is why I work in the Rapid City Open Studio. None of those are a product. None of those even help get a product in to, or cash out of, a reader's hands. They are part of what a reader thinks of when they think of Rapid City. That is the reason I try to have a personal conversation with anyone who approaches my table at a con. That is why I will draw silly stuff on the comics if a reader will let me. That is why I let folks with kids know just appropriate my books may or may not be. It isn't just to sell a book right in that moment, it is to create a pleasant experience that can be carried forward to the next interaction. Which brings me to the idea that inspired this post to begin with. From Nick Dedual:

...as comic cons become more pop-cultural events and less about comic books, the audience at the comic con will look more for experiences they can enjoy at the moment...

More and more, the comic con is becoming an event. Attendees are there for the experience. So, what does that mean to those of us in Artists Alley? How can we take advantage of this? The bigger guys host panels and make announcements, but not everyone can do that. What can we offer in the realm of live experience at a convention (or some other venue that we have not yet thought of)? And, how can we monetize that experience? Is it enough to just generate good will and hope that it comes back in the form of a strong fan base? Can we sell "A lunch with Josh Dahl!"? I don't know. Right now, our versatility and connection to our audience seems to be offering us a lead in this new market... How do we take that lead before it slips away?

-Josh Dahl