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September 24, 2006

Comics and Convergence, Part Four

This is the final in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide dealing with the ways that the comics industry is responding to shifts in the media landscape that was originally posted on my blog. This segment deals with how we pay for digital content. Reading back through this, this section felt less au current than the other excerpts on comics I have posted here. When he spoke at MIT last week, Scott McCloud, himself, conceded that micropayments have not so far taken off in the ways that he had hoped and that other business models were emerging to support online content. To bring us up to speed on the latest developments in this area, I have arranged to run an interview tomorrow with industry observer Todd Allen, about recent trends in the digital distribution of comics.

Long touted as an alternative economic model for the web, micropayments (small incremental charges for accessing content) may be ideally designed to support webcomics. In 2003, Scott McCloud joined forces with BitPass, to test the viability of this economic model, posting "The Right Number," one of his most interesting webcomics and charging consumers a quarter to access each installment. Subscribers go to the BitPass homepage, enter their credit card information one time and buy the digital equivalent of a debit card, which can be used quickly and easily with any of the affiliated venders. McCloud argues that a micropayment system would allow media producers (recording artists, independent game designers, web comics artists, authors) to sell their content directly to the consumers, cutting out many layers of middle folk, adjusting prices for the lowered costs of production and distribution in the digital environment. Such a system helps both consumers, who can sample from a range of different media producers without being locked into a subscription, and artists, who can collect a reasonable return on their work.

So far, content providers are using micropayments to set their own prices at a level they think their market will bear. In some cases, where consumers want to build an ongoing relationship with a particular content provider, subscriptions will represent a better alternative, whereas in others, we may prefer to pay for only the content we want to access. Most readers subscribe to some magazines and purchase others off the news stand when they have content which seems interesting or when they have time to read.

Most will subscribe to a finite range of web content - just as most of us subscribe to only a few (if any) premium cable services. An economy based exclusively on subscriptions will evolve over time towards media concentration. Only rarely do alternative artists get their acts together to form subscription-based services. In the case of web comics, for example, a number of independent artists have teamed up to create Modern Tales, a subscription based service which for $2.95 a month provides unlimited access to the work of more than 30 alternative comics creators. Micropayments, however, would support the fragmentation and diversification of web content, allowing a broader range of producers to compete for our entertainment dollars.

People who like comics tend to read a broad selection and are often willing to try unknown artists if the content is cheap and accessible. One can imagine micropayments thriving within niche media communities: hardcore gamers can use micropayments the way they use tokens in an arcade; techno fans might think of themselves as plopping quarters in a well-stocked jukebox and for digital movie fans, this could represent a return to the nickelodeon era. Micropayments will be most attractive where a range of small scale producers are trying to service the needs of committed and motivated consumers, where the reputation of certain pioneers (such as McCloud) will generate an initial market and create coat-tails for other less well-known artists, and where the price point remains lower than can be accommodated by traditional credit cards.

By early 2005, Bitpass had attracted a range of different content providers - from experimental filmmakers to comics artists and rock groups, from online games to educational software. The little company had not taken over the web, to be sure, but it was showing that the micropayment model worked in a range of different contexts.

For some counterperspectives on Micropayments, see Todd Allen and Clay Shirkey.

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