Beyond the store: The new face of webcomic “merch”

11 Feb

T-shirts, mugs, mousepads… there is no shortage of random stuff you can slap art on via RedBubble or CafePress and sell online. And as webcomic artists, we’re also often going to conventions. So you might also produce buttons, stickers, and prints for conventions, and then shove the things that didn’t sell onto an online store for everyone who couldn’t make it to the show.

But even if an image is getting a lot of response out of your readers, or a print is very popular at conventions, you might be disappointed when nobody picks it up from your online store. Why is that? And what can you do about it if you’re just starting out?

The challenges of trying to sell art online:

  • If I’m online, there’s probably a million other things I came here to do. Check my email, post pictures of my catcar on Facebook, read my daily webcomics. Any transaction you ask me to do is extracurricular and will completely mess up the flow of what I was doing. So if you’re gonna ask me to crack open my wallet, it’d better be easy, and it’d better be worth it.
  • When I am in shopping mode, the business with the biggest budget’s probably gonna win. They’ll get more ads in front of me, they’ll be able to offer better sales/cheaper shipping, or they’ll have brick-and-mortar stores in my neighborhood where I can see the products firsthand.

    And geek products aren’t exactly a rarity. I might not be able to get your cool picture of the steampunk catcar/DeLorean mashup, but it turns out a mass-produced poster of the Death Star from Target will do the same job of decorating my wall.
  • I don’t get to see you online! I need to see how proud and excited you are about your work so I can feel that about you, too.  I need to know you’re not just another company trying to nickel-and-dime me. Seeing a real person making the stories you love is refreshing and exciting!

What you CAN sell online are stories and experiences

Nobody is going to be able to tell the stories you tell. That’s why they follow your webcomic, that’s why they make fanart of your characters.

We’ve already figured out how to tell our main story: the one we’re already posting online once/twice/three times a week at our URL (most of the time for free).  But you don’t have be a ten-ton-juggernaut or make a subscription wall to be successful. If you can make more stories and find the right way to present them, you can get more support from people who already know and like you.

Trying to find your niche in online sales? It may take some trial and error to find what’s right for you, but here’s some approaches to try:

Characters first

Shobana “Bob” Appavu has a great Patreon reward where Patrons receive written letters from the quirky-yet-loveable Pogo, the main character of her webcomic Demon of the Underground. These kind of extras are also great because they build on the brand of your longer story in a fresh way you might not have the room to do in the story itself.

Try a character-driven approach if: You’ve got a clear fan-favorite character. What does the story look like when it’s told from their point of view?

Short stories make them hungry for more

Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey-Heaton published two 10-page stories last year (Silver Button and Knot), bringing their fairy-tale art and story-telling style to standalone stories.  These served double duty: digital/physical versions were quickly purchased by long-time readers of their main project, Namesake.  Then later these stories were made available as small books for conventions and on social media to attract new readers at their store.

Try a short story approach if: Your readers comment on and appreciate your signature art/writing style.  What other kinds of similar-but-distinct stories can you adapt your style to? Think about Gumroad for easy digital distribution.*

Don’t fear the crowdfunding

Ally Rom Colthoff has enjoyed a small but loyal following on her webcomic Chirault, and took herself by surprise when her Kickstarter earned 200% of its goal for people scrambling to finally own a copy.

Crowdfunds are their own meta-Pinocchio story: a humble, kind-hearted craftsman carving their dream and wishing upon a star, a roller-coaster plot that can turn any which way at a moment’s notice, and the team of fairies that finally deem it worthy, descending from heaven and make it real by throwing their magical, magical money at it.

Try a bare-bones Kickstarter or Patreon if:  You have long-time readers, repeat customers for commissions, or other fans and you haven’t tried crowdfunding yet.  They’re probably itching to own your comic and looking for ways to support you and become part of your story!

Videos humanizes your art

Video based updates are worth considering more seriously with Patreon (I love watching Brittany’s vlogs from her Bad Carrot Studios Patreon.)  Even if you’re camera-shy, live streamed art or a director’s commentary series a la Gunnerkrigg Court may be connected to a paid tier on Patreon, but with the launch of my own Patreon, I’ve also decided to do regular public updates this way, as well.

Try making videos if: You have a long-running series and your audience might like a refresher, or if you’re a giant ham about being on camera (like me).

Don’t be fooled by the tchatchkes

It’s easy to fall in love with your art on a shirt or mug, because the story behind it is a thousand times stronger to you than it is to anyone else. It’s also easy for people to say “Sure I’d buy that!” and never follow up on that promise.

Don’t pin your hopes on moving the merch online. Use every opportunity to embrace a larger audience and show them the person behind it. With time, trial and error, you’ll find the story that works for you.

* A lot of things are changing in the wake of VAT regulations for EU sales. This post isn’t going into that because I’m sure as heck not a lawyer or CPA. Here’s hoping for all of us the EU sorts itself out about that.


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