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Should Scott Kurtz Charge Readers to Read "PvP?!"

The image above comes from a particularly memorable storyline from Scott Kurtz's "PvP" in which the future of PvP: The Magazine is in danger of running out of money.  Actually, now that I think about it, there were TWO storylines in which the staff of PvP were in danger of the company shuttering and the characters losing their jobs!  Readers could maybe joke that Cole Richards just wasn't a good manager (and there were times he certainly wasn't), however the fluctuating fate of PvP: The Magazine had less to do with Cole's management style and more to do with an ever changing media landscape.  I actually grew up reading gaming magazines.  I read Game Pro, Nintendo Power, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Dreamcast Magazine, and Game Informer.  Today all but Game Informer is gone, and I remember I started reading less of them when IGN and Gamespot were giving me the same types of reviews and news articles at a much faster pace.

Then my reading of those websites cratered when YouTube came along and I could "watch" my video game news and reviews, and to a certain extent IGN and Gamespot now paywall various video features and interactive sections on their websites.  The issue isn't that any of these companies were doing anything particularly wrong per se, only that the way video game journalism is consumed is so drastically different these days,  That's time, it happens, and what one generation does doesn't nessicarily work for the next generation.  Heck, I look at my BluRay collection with pride and joy while my nieces look at it - on multiple shelves throughout the house - and see nothing but junk that takes up space.  In their minds why throw money away on plastic that can be streamed over the internet "for free?"

The constant money challenges the fictional PvP: The Magazine faces every few years is likely written from experience by author Scott Kurtz, who is always open when the media landscape changes to the point where he needs to rethink how his art is supposed to make him money.  At the moment he is doing random paintings of characters and auctioning them on eBay starting at a penny (which has almost always turned into a LOT of pennies by the time the auction is over).  In the past deals with Image Comics and sales of Skull plushies helped fund the series.  At the end of the day though we who do things on the internet tend to rely mostly on advertising.  While we may have taken the leap into self-publishing as either a vanity project or just to get our stuff out there, most of us remember when we discovered Google Adsense and what the term "monetization" actually meant (though, for the record, I'm sure Scott was using advertising models before Adsense came along).

However, like ad revenue dried up for magazines and shifted online so too has online ad revenue dried up and gone to video streaming sites.  As a comic that has been given away 'for free' since its inception, "PvP" has always relied on convention appearances, book sales, and ad revenue.  Covid-19 has made many of these sources dry up even more, and it prompted Scott to ask this very realistic question on Twitter:

And you know what...this isn't a bad idea.  Heck, it's not just not a bad idea, it's a GREAT idea!  "PvP" has been around for more than twenty years at this point.  I've been reading it since I was a teenager!  Despite the merchandise sales and random books I may have purchased, I've essentially been given free entertainment going on two decades at this point, and paying for something I've clearly enjoyed this long is a pretty logical thing to do at this point (heck, to not pay for it makes me feel like I'm stealing to a certain extent).  Especially if prices can remain reasonable!  Personally, I'm fine with paying $4.99 a month or $49.99 a year (little discount there) to read "PvP" either online or in my mailbox!  If he really wants to be competitive, he can even charge $1 a month or $12 a year.  I don't know what his readership it like these days, but if he could get 24,745 people to pay that (just to use a random number) that would be $296,940 a year!  That is NOT bad and would certainly keep the comic viable (not to mention the bonus money that would come from those paintings he's auctioning off)!

And there's so many ways to do this.  He could make the first couple years and the previous two years free of charge but charge money for the archives.  Or when the books are released make the comics that are not in book form available online for free and paywall them once a book has been published (in order to drive sales to the books).  Heck, he could even pull a New York Times stunt where readers get to read four comics a month for free before they have to pay to read more (a tactic that DID work on me with aforementioned paper)!  The sky's the limit and I believe Scott has the loyal fanbase to make this work!  

HOWEVER...there's a catch!  

If he is going to do this, the way things run behind the scenes are going to have to change in a MAJOR way, because once people starting paying for a product all bets are off: now, you OWE your readers something!  I know he hates this being brought up, but remember THIS thing from a couple years ago?!

Yeah, we all do!

Now, if Scott is reading this let me assure you: I am NOT going to shame you into not having these books in my hands here!  While I obviously have to express disappointment that I dropped $250 (plus shipping) in this two years ago and have nothing to show for it, I understand that life has been difficult and things came up that you could not have foreseen when you launched this campaign!

So truly: I get it!  I understand, no shame from me, I'm sure you're working hard to get these books done as soon as possible.

That said, it is SUCH a good example of how things can blow up in your face when you charge people money for something and they feel like they aren't getting value for said money!  Fans have been hounding Scott for MONTHS on Twitter about the status of the books!  He hasn't updated the Kickstarter page in almost a year.  Some people claim to feel robbed and have been contacting their credit card companies in hopes of getting a refund.  I want to stress that while I understand why this project got royally screwed, that is scant relief to people who paid money and felt they didn't get anything out of it!  If "PvP" is going to go behind a paywall I say go for it!  Heck, it might even prove that other webcomic creators can do something similar and bring stable finances back to this art form!  Here's the thing though: right now, you don't owe your readers anything because the comic is free.  The updates are sporadic and sometimes weeks go by without anything showing up, but that's fine because the comic - for all intents and purposes - is free.  You don't owe your readers ANYTHING!!!

Until you start to charge for it.

Once your readers start paying now you DO owe them something!  You owe them a comic and a schedule that you can reasonably keep.  You'll need to establish what it is your readers will be getting for their money, how often they will get it, and establish contingencies if there are days you can't deliver what is promised.  While I totally sympathize with your situation with your dad (and trust me when I say "Mort" is getting a HIGHLY positive review in the near future) the reality is that once people start paying to read your comic, your dad being sick (or any other life event) is NOT an excuse for missing a deadline for posting a comic strip!  So let's say you establish that for $1 a month you will get comics on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Considering there will be an average of 13 comics a month, your readers are now paying you about $0.07 a comic.  Not bad, those pennies add up.

But what happens if you miss a comic?  Probably nothing; it happens.  What happens if you miss four comics though?  Well, people are starting to get annoyed and you may lose some paying customers, but you're probably still ok.  Now what happens if a few weeks go by?  Well at that point the price of each comic goes WAY up and readers may feel they are no longer getting value from what they are paying you!  Then people start cancelling, complaints from the remaining paying customers get louder, and if you make people angry enough they'll walk away and not come back because they'll feel you've taken their money and run away with it.  And, again, I understand that life is complicated and tough sometimes!  I'm not shaming you for taking care of your family (which is absolutely the right thing to do).  What I AM saying is that IF you decide to go down the road where readers have to pay to read "PvP," then things have to change behind the scenes.

You're going to likely need a *shudder* editor, backup artist, and maybe a few additional writers as well.  You'll need to have a couple months worth of strips buffered before you even attempt to charge any money.  You'll have to decide what the schedule is going to look like and what the readers can reasonably expect for their money.  Behind the scenes you 'll need to establish a rule that no less than five comics are produced a week (assuming you do the M, W, F schedule), so that in the case a true emergency occurs you can take a week or two off without impacting the comic.  If you need to take some hard time off, a system will have to be put in place to give readers either discounts or refunds for the weeks you are unable to provide them with content.  You'll need someone to schedule the comics in advance (or you'll need to schedule them yourself).  Your editor needs to be given authority to act in the interest of the comic in case you yourself are not available to work on it for a time period.  And while I don't mean to sound like I'm talking down to you (you've managed to run an enterprise for more than twenty years, so you've clearly got some business skills) the fact is the comic as it stands is NOT a well oiled machine!

The schedule is messy.  Long breaks are taken.  Comics sometimes go up on random days at random times.  And I want to stress once more that family is WAAAAAYYYYY more important than updating a comic strip!!!  However, at the moment it's free to read, so rules can be loosey goosy.  Once it becomes a product that people pay for though the behind-the-scenes mechanics need to change.  I'm all for this becoming a reality.  Heck, I'll be one of the first people to fork over my money if this happens.  I've been reading this comic for twenty years myself, so I know it has value to me.  I would just hate to see fans of "PvP" turn on it because they started paying for it and felt they weren't getting their money's worth.  You almost never recover from a bad situation like that.  If done properly though, this could be the best thing to happen to "PvP!"  And the times (and revenue models) are changing, and like the fictional magazine itself, "PvP" the website needs to evolve or die.  I truly hope it evolves and everything works out!

Your Comic Book Guy - Kevin

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