Gannon Beck recently posted a lengthy piece on cultivating a webcomics ecosystem via Patreon, and brings up a number of good points. But before I get to that, let me make sure we’re all the same page. Patreon is a crowd-funding platform that allows everyday users to help support creators on an ongoing basis. Unlike Kickstarter, which focuses on relatively short-term project-based initiatives, Patreon connects creators with users on an ongoing basis where they can provide continuted financial support. Basically, it lets me set up a recurring payment to Beck (or whomever) just so he can keep doing his webcomic; it can be as much or as little as I can afford with whatever frequency I’m comfortable with. It’s a platform that turns the audience from consumers into patrons.

Frequently, creators who set up Patreon accounts also establish reward tiers not unlike Kickstarter. If you contribute a certain amount, you’re given access to additional items that regular readers aren’t. Sometimes that includes seeing material in advance, sometimes that includes process development work, sometimes that includes wholly new content. So it’s a little different than just a simple “donate” button on a site.

As I said, Beck makes a number of good points about the Patreon setup.  Rather than reiterate all of them here, I’d like to focus on one piece in particular: the finances.

Despite some note-worthy success stories in webcomics, some people seem incredulous to the idea that someone can actually earn a living off the medium. But what Beck is quick to point out, with some actual numbers, is that print comics aren’t all that financially lucrative either. For example, a $2.99 comic that sells 9,000 copies through the direct market — what would be considered a reasonable success for an independent book — would earn a little less than $3000 for the entire creative team involved, including the publisher. Not bad if you’re entirely a one-person operation but, even then, that’s $36,000 a year if you can publish twelve issues and they all sell that well. I won’t break down all the possible permutations of how that $36,000 might have distributed if you have more than one person working on the book, but you can figure pretty quickly that adding anyone to the mix is going to drop that income level really sharply.

By contrast, if you could get 9,000 people to back your webcomic through Patreon, they would each only need to put up 36¢ each month to get the creators to that same $3000 threshhold. Or, to look at it another way, you would only need 3,300 people to put up one dollar each. The upshot is that, since a much, much greater percentage of the money is going to the creators, there’s a considerably lower sales bar to get to decent living wages.

And I suspect that’s where a lot of people outside the industry have difficulty understanding. They’re so accustomed to layers and layers of middlemen each taking a percentage that they can’t fathom how a more direct sales method changes how big an audience a creator really needs to earn a living. It is, as Beck points out, an entirely different ecosystem than the somewhat-now-ironically-called direct market and letting others know how the system works so differently might be part of the key to getting them to accept that there’s other viable options than what they’ve been doing.