Local cartoonist Erika Moen—who, it should be noted, has been interviewed in the Mercury, and has also appeared at Comics Underground, the comics reading series Alison and I produce—has a campaign up on Patreon, a newish crowdfunding site that, until this morning, I hadn't even heard of, let alone seen used for web comics. But now that I've seen how Moen's using it, I suspect a lot of web comics creators—hell, just a lot of creators—are going to start using the site.
The short explanation of Patreon, and of Moen's Patreon campaign, is this: Once you sign up through Moen's Patreon page, you're charged a small fee (in this case, $1 or more) every time Moen updates her excellent web comic Oh Joy, Sex Toy. (You can set a limit on how much to give each month, so you won't go broke if Moen uploads a billion comics at once.) In other words: You're setting a price for the content you consume, and you're also paying that price reliably—and giving Moen an incentive to keep cranking out installments of Oh Joy, Sex Toy.
If this sounds sounds familiar, that's probably because it is. Sort of. Just as the most successful book- and comics-related Kickstarters basically function as glorified pre-order systems, Patreon takes the old-school subscription model and updates it for those creating online content. And in doing so, it seems to strike a balance between the desires of consumers (who hunger for new content) and the needs of creators (who go hungry if consumers don't pay for what they use).
It can be tough to make a living creating online content, even if that content is top-tier. Moen's comic is popular, and she's a veteran of selling her art and her words, which means she knows how to make it work: Her comics are free, but she sells merch and ad space, syndicates Oh Joy, Sex Toy, and has PayPal donation buttons. But those forms of income aren't consistent. "I have a PayPal Donate button on all of my different webcomic series (darcomic.com, buckocomic.com and, of course, ohjoysextoy.com)," Moen told me over email today. "When I first launch a comic, I get a ton of donations in that first month. And then after that, I get maybe $1-5 every three-to-six months afterward. People get used to seeing that donate button on your site and it just sort of blends in to the background after a while, like the ads. Patreon is a fantastic answer to that, since it's a recurring donation."
Moen heard about Patreon via this video from Portland's XOXO Fest, featuring Pomplamoose's Jack Conte. Watch it! Not only does Conte talk about the difficulty of creating content while also making enough money to eat, but there are also robots.
After seeing a few successful Patreon projects, Moen decided to give it a shot. "I'd already been receiving a handful of requests from people that I start a Patreon or a Kickstarter because they wanted to support me, so I figured... okay!" she says. "Having a regularly occurring source income would be super nice, since all the other channels where I make my money fluctuate so dramatically each month."
That said, not everything pledged goes to Moen—Patreon gets a cut of every pledge. "I mean, don't get me wrong, that is totally fair!" Moen says. "Patreon and PayPal need money to run their businesses, and patrons should only be paying what they feel like; it's a recurring donation for a free product. As a creator, that's just the price of having access to this additional income stream. But I'm just nervous about the peanut gallery looking at my page and thinking the artists are getting that full amount and being judgmental about it. 'Look how much they're making each month, they've got it made in the shade now!!'"
Though it's still early, Patreon strikes me as a solid—and relatively direct—solution to some of the issues that come with original online content, whether that content is comics, music, videos, prose, or whatever. (It also bears a few similarities to Brian K. Vaughan's Panel Syndicate, another newish, pay-what-you-will distribution system for digital comics.) Moen, too, thinks it has promise. "So far, I've really been enjoying this platform," she says. "I only just launched my Patreon, so I haven't even had a chance to get paid yet. I'm excited to see how much I actually net from this."