We Don't Need No Steenking Syndicates!
August 2, 2004 4:12 PM   Subscribe

Scott Kurtz throws down the gauntlet. The mighty creator of PvP offers any newspaper the opportunity to include his fine and funny comic strip on their comics pages absolutely FREE OF CHARGE,, thus totally destroying the aging and now ineffective syndicated cartoon business model. Check out his theory on why the syndicates are goin' down, soon, and the background behind his decision to challenge them on their home turf.
posted by zoogleplex (37 comments total)
it's totally destroyed, eh?
posted by quonsar at 4:14 PM on August 2, 2004

Note that PvP has a daily readership of roughly 1,000,000 unique visitors - yes that's ONE MILLION - and that with hard work and honing of his craft, he's built PvP into his sole supporting income... and a pretty good one at that. With something like a dozen issues of print comics, a few trade paperback collections, some cool t-shirts and the insanely great and popular Skull plush toy (I got mine, woo hoo!), he's got a darn good racket going. So good that he turned down the syndicates flatly when they approached him to buy PvP.

Making this outrageous offer is pure Kurtz... but IMO it's a great idea and I hope it not only pays off for him, but rattles the very foundations of the content/copyright ownership "business practices" that exist today.
posted by zoogleplex at 4:17 PM on August 2, 2004

Heh... well quonsar, obviously not immediately. But, certainly the offer flies in the face of the "establishment" and has great potential. I just think it's ballsy and appropriate.
posted by zoogleplex at 4:18 PM on August 2, 2004

Couldn't the syndicates just respond by saying 'anyone running that free PvP strip gets no more of our syndicated comics'?
posted by reklaw at 4:32 PM on August 2, 2004

A couple months ago my newspaper of choice ran a survey to see which comic strips its readers like. While they never published the results of that survey, a few weeks ago a few strips disappeared from the paper.

Both the Post and the Rocky Mountain News operate under a JOA, and the Post gets to put out the sole Sunday edition. When the JOA was first starting, they advertised that they had the largest color comics section in the country, at 12 pages. Slowly, slowly, the number of comics has dropped from the comics, and now we are down to eight pages. (Westword ran an article on the situation awhile ago).

The thing is, they are dropping features regardless of popularity. While I lamented at losing Prince Valiant (a less popular feature) they also have dropped Fox Trot and Funky Winkerbean. No real justification was ever given to the public, and the papers certainly aren't trying new and interesting young comics. Kurtz is right: some paper some time will risk dropping the comics all together, will weather the backlash from some readers, and discover they don't every have to print them again.

I read a lot of comics online, both web only and tradational. I can get to the strips I like while avoiding ones I can't stand. But I also like reading strips in the papers with my kids, and discussing what they mean, and watching their sense of humor develop.

Comics are thriving on the web; they are moving away from the papers that helped them grow and develop. While I wish them a long life online, I'll miss clipping favorites to stick on the fridge, watching them slowly yellow with age, as well as the joy of spending time on our bellies on the floor, reading the sunday funnies together as a family. It's just not the same gathering around the glow of a monitor.
posted by jazon at 4:44 PM on August 2, 2004

Note: the link under "new" should go here
posted by jazon at 4:46 PM on August 2, 2004

Couldn't the syndicates just respond by saying 'anyone running that free PvP strip gets no more of our syndicated comics'?

They could, but it might violate the antitrust laws, especially if they act together in doing so.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 5:20 PM on August 2, 2004

kurtz has, and always will be, a total joke.
posted by jimmy at 6:15 PM on August 2, 2004

as much as i love Kurtz and wish it was true that he had *that* many readers, there are no independent webcomics with 1,000,000 unique readers per day. i think the biggest strip is around 150,000.

that said- i was on the panel where he announced this and if it works, it's a goddamn checkmate idea. i can't wait to see how it turns out.
posted by clango at 6:15 PM on August 2, 2004

The guys says it all, he wants to be on newspapers and he understands newspapers aren't much interested in comics people can get for free on the net ; the incentive to buy the paper goes right out of window, if the reader figures out he can get the strip on the net for free.

What I guess he doesn't get, is that the newspaper has no interest in publishing the strip unless he PAYS for the space as the strip is taking space away from advertisement, so it better command a stream of affectionate readers..but they're mostly on web one would think.

As for the syndacate, there's syndacate and syndacate. If the syndacate demands are unreasonable, you just don't join it.

Look at what RIAA (yeah ok it's a interest group ..I think It doesn't fit the law defition of cartel but it's not far from a cartel) is doing ; they're employing the same bully tactics used by some corrupt workers unions, yet at the same time I guess RIAA owners would be the first to condemn workers unions as "evil" ...talk about double standard.

Yet RIAA is doing a fine job at scaring the bejesus out of ordinary people with lawsuits and they are getting in bed with universities by blackmailing them.

Talk about an effective "evil" syndacate.
posted by elpapacito at 6:18 PM on August 2, 2004

Okay, to start: I'm a cartoonist who's only seen on the web, save for the occasional request for a reprint. So let me explain why Scott Kurtz is a bit unfair in this statement: because he's Scott Kurtz.

I like PVP; I read it every day and I have no animosity or jealousy or malice or anything like that towards him. Just so we're clear on that. However, the very user who posted this FPP noted the key element of Kurtz's "throwing down the gauntlet:" he already has hundreds of thousands of readers.

Kurtz's offer is INCREDIBLY easy for one who has already made it as a professional and doesn't really need to earn more money out of it. The gauntlet makes a great impact when it's dropped from an extreme height.

Kurtz is a bit misguided as far as his "keep your rights" stuff goes because there are many cartoonists in papers who do this: they're called alternative cartoonists. Small press cartoonists. Comics can get in the paper without syndication (Tom Tomorrow prints in 150 papers and magazines and has never been with a syndicate), and some cartoonists like Ted Rall and Ruben Bolling ARE syndicated and still own their own strip. Kurtz didn't get an offer that let him keep the rights to his strip, so his response evokes the mentality "well screw you, syndicate! I'm popular on the web, so I can just give out the comics for free!"

You know who can't do that yet? Me. And about six thousand other people. I love the webcomics, PVP included. But, to be honest, the constant philosophising from the six or seven webcartoonists on the surface of the entire planet who "made it" taking about how great and wonderful it would be to shift paradigms because they're comfortable gets to me sometimes.

Kurtz misses the fact that syndicates are what put a single strip in hundreds of papers, reaching out to contacts in a way a single person can't do alone. I can make the annoucement Kurtz made on my site tomorrow and I won't get an offer, because I get about a thousand readers to Kurtz's hundred times that. "Great plans" can't involve "pre-existing audience of thousands" and actually be feasible.

That's not to say I like syndicates. If I could get my work printed, I'd prefer to not to have to go through them. But Kurtz is challenging a structure in very infeasible ways: syndicates like McMeel/Universal and Tribune Media Services don't just own the rights to strips, they own the papers that print them. They get a cut of merhandise that they share with the cartoonist. Why, if they control many of the publications that fuel this merchandising machine, would they accept a free strip that equally profits them nothing, when they can put a property they own in that space?

Imagine, if you will, that you make beer in your basement. You'd like it to promote it. You decide to go to your local bar, tell the bartender you know a lot of people who like the beer, and you'll give away all your beer to patrons for free. Oh, but you own the rights to the beer. He can't make or sell the beer himself. And any donations of sales of merhandise related to the beer go to you, not him. Explain to me why he'll do that for you when he's got a hundred customers in the back happily paying two bucks a bottle of Budweiser, with him getting a profit from the sales. Because that's basically the logic that Kurtz just dished out, and I guess I'm just really confused.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:26 PM on August 2, 2004


posted by Stan Chin at 6:36 PM on August 2, 2004

he wants to be on newspapers and he understands newspapers aren't much interested in comics people can get for free on the net; the incentive to buy the paper goes right out of window, if the reader figures out he can get the strip on the net for free.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:37 PM on August 2, 2004

clango, I thought his advertising package says quite clearly that he gets 990,000+ uniques per day. I could be wrong, that might be per week or per month... sumtymes my reeding caumprehenshun isnt so goud. :| You would know better than I, so I accept your numbers. 150,000 a day is still nothing to sneeze at; it's more people than buy the top print comic book in any given month

Papacito, I'm not so sure about the newspaper being uninterested in having his strip if it's free. Currently, the newspaper PAYS the syndicate for the comic strips; if comics are something a newspaper wants to have, then they are paying a big fee for them. Kurtz offers a much more entertaining strip than most of the syndicates, for nothing.

IE, they could replace a strip they're paying for with a better one that they don't have to pay for. Sounds like a good deal to me, and services the readers by continuing to offer the time-honored funny pages.

If enough cartoonists offered their strips for free, it could mean major competition.

Actually, what nearly all webcomics people do is exactly that - offer the strips for free (for the most part). This gets them an audience to whom they can sell things directly, and also sell advertising space on their sites for other people who want to sell the audience stuff. Kurtz has done this quite nicely with his site; I think the majority of his income (up until recently with comic books, collections and now the plush Skull) has been from advertising sales.

Extending that meme to the papers - where you do them the favor of providing them something entertaining for their readers for nothing up front, then (hopefully) allowing that exposure to create you a very large audience to whom you can sell stuff - ain't such a bad idea!

And of course the syndicates would have difficulty competing with that... assuming a lot of great strips become available in this form.

On preview; XQ, beer is different than comics. But, I do concede your point that Kurtz is essentially negotiating from a position of strength. However, he didn't get there by magic; he got there by talent and bloody determination and a lot of very hard work... and of course some luck. He writes a darn funny comic that has reached a large audience. There are not going to be thousands of people who can do that - I've also done a webcomic and found out how hard it is to get and keep an audience - so not everyone will be successful, as in any venture.

I think what Kurtz has done in terms of building his comic into a force to be reckoned with, through sheer guts, BEFORE dealing with any sort of corporate entity, is the sort of thing any creative person should strive for.

Because the syndicates (and media corporations) have built their entire empires on essentially forcing people to turn over their creations completely - because creators were NOT negotiating from a successful position. Remember, if everyone who comes up with great creations refused to sell them off, the corps wouldn't have anything to make money with.

This is a wild idea and may or may not work, but I think it's cool.
posted by zoogleplex at 6:37 PM on August 2, 2004

Okay, a corrolary to that: my other issue is that Kurtz based a lot of his argument on the "status" of the comics page. That is to say, his fear that the syndicates will decide to drop the comics page after realizing their sales won't suffer.

Amidst offering his good- better than most newspapers- comic for free, he misses the most blatantly obvious solution to this potential problem within his own offer- make the damn comics page better.

Within Kurtz's own argument is the agreement that the comics page sucks. In some sense, it's the tiredness of the comics in it. On the other hand, comics pages have to be diverse in a way PVP doesn't have to be: a webcartoonist has their own site. People come to it. The comics page comes to you. Because of that, it has to offer a selection- I've never met a single person, and never will, who likes every single comic on the comics page. That doesn't mean the thing should be abandoned.

If a paper takes up Kurtz on his offer, I don't think it'll get the reaction he hoped. It would be a move from the paper to see if they can get better sales. If they do, then the syndicates will recognize that new blood needs to make it to the comics page. It won't increase the grip of the syndicates. But it might bring a wider range, hence a wider potential readership to them. And that part of the offer I would endorse wholeheartedly.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:40 PM on August 2, 2004

I'm a cartoonist who's only seen on the web, save for the occasional request for a reprint

I've read your stuff and I've gotta ask, WHO is making these requests? Are we talking mama & papa XQUZYPHYR, looking for something to put on the fridge?
posted by jonson at 7:03 PM on August 2, 2004

Having just looked through some of that PvP stuff, I think there are lots more issues here. I didn't find most of the strips funny. There are a lot of "guest strips" mixed in there. There's also a lot of humour that wouldn't make sense to someone who isn't part of the web/webcomics scene.
posted by reklaw at 7:14 PM on August 2, 2004

And some of it is way too adult/geeky for a broad-circulation daily paper.

chill, jonson--XQUZ was published for quite a while. Check out his site.
posted by amberglow at 7:21 PM on August 2, 2004

Achewood sucks.
posted by Stan Chin at 7:28 PM on August 2, 2004

I've read your stuff and I've gotta ask, WHO is making these requests? Are we talking mama & papa XQUZYPHYR, looking for something to put on the fridge?

No, jonson, my family happily reads the comic off the website. My mom wouldn't have room for the strip on the fridge anyway, having already covered it with lists of all our neighbors and her personal opinions about each of them. I think she has some self-consciousness issues.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:35 PM on August 2, 2004

A clever rebuttal, and I am (honestly) ashamed for my cheap jibe!
posted by jonson at 7:45 PM on August 2, 2004

Stan Chin is a somnonanist.
posted by soyjoy at 8:14 PM on August 2, 2004

is that a sleepwanker? just checking
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:44 PM on August 2, 2004

reklaw, the guest strips are an occasional thing, the occasion in this case being Scott Kurtz' conference attendance. As for jokes that require context you could say the same thing about many other strips (Doonesbury, for instance) where it helps to have read the strip for a while. I discovered PvP a year ago, quickly became a fan, and went back to read the archives from the beginning. There are certainly many jokes in there that are aimed at computer game aficionados but there's plenty of stuff for nongamers. Kurtz will simply have to choose carefully which storylines and jokes he targets at a more general audience. As for his new business plans, I have no idea how they'll work out, but I think he's to be commended for trying to do this on his own terms.
posted by Songdog at 8:53 PM on August 2, 2004

zoogleplex: indeed some newspaper is paying for strips as they probably have reason to believe a portion of their sales comes from strip readers ; good for them, if true that free pvp comic could be interesting.

On the contrary,other newspapers would like not to pay because they don't have reason to believe strips influence sales as much as they want or at least as much is needed to break even.

My guess is that given that (afaik) most newspapers are in the hands of relatively few publishers, sooner or later they'll start demanding to get paid to publish comics (if they don't hold the rights to the comics) as they're effectively bringing the strip to the paper domain, out of electron domain. The alternative is that of publising some advertising instead of strips.

Maybe comic writers need a syndacate more then ever, but of course they must not effectively give out their rights to syndacation and the free strip idea may just send this message to old syndacations : you're history and we're going to change you.
posted by elpapacito at 5:58 AM on August 3, 2004

I have to admit to tnot reading PVP every day, or even every month for that matter, so this is rather uninformed:

Are people going to want to read it in the paper? If I recall he had some pretty topical stuff in there, where 'topical' generally meant 'computer games-related'. How many gamers are reading the paper for the comics?

More power to him, I guess. If it's in the paper I might glance at it more often, but I'm probably not a majority nor among one.
posted by codger at 6:24 AM on August 3, 2004

Since nobody has yet, I'd like to point out that there are some naughty words and sex references in PvP. Tame ones, yes, but papers still won't allow in their comics the same sort of content they write into the rest of the paper.
posted by kevspace at 7:19 AM on August 3, 2004

Well, I just read some PVP for the first time, and then read some of XQUZYPHYR's comics for the first time. The verdict:
Kurtz: Not funny, too many "in" jokes
XQUZYPHYR : Mostly funny, generally topical.

XQUZYPHYR wins. If I had a newspaper, I'd let him put his comics in it for free.

kevspace, most likely no one mentioned that because they read the article.
RTFA dude.
posted by Outlawyr at 7:42 AM on August 3, 2004

This move creates for him a self-serving business model that's bad for the rest of the industry. What Kurtz is communicating here is that cartoons are not worth paying for.

Sure this works for him since he survives either way, but this is VERY bad news for other cartoonists and the entire cartooning industry because it decreases the value of what others are doing -- others that don't have the benefit of a fanbase made up entirely of video-game playing teenagers with disposable income for Cafe-press t-shirts.

To be honest, I enjoy PVP, but speaking as another cartoonist, I hope he does not succeed. It's bad for the industry and bad for every cartoonist but himself.
posted by Robot Johnny at 7:42 AM on August 3, 2004

Maybe comic writers need a syndacate more then ever, but of course they must not effectively give out their rights to syndacation and the free strip idea may just send this message to old syndacations : you're history and we're going to change you.

This message simply won't happen. I wish it could, but Kurtz, popular as his strip his, is very naive as far as his "power" over a syndicate is. PVP, which is probably in the top five webcomics, gets about 100,000 readers. A syndicate can distribute one strip to 500 papers, each of which have a readership of anywhere from 10,000 to 1.2 million people. There is no competition. There is no threat. Kurtz, I love ya, but you will never- I repeat- never- beat Garfield through the internet in terms of distribution.

What he can, and will do, however, is beat the newspapers in terms of profit ratio - that is, a higher amount of money offered per consumer. Kurtz likely takes in from one average fan what a syndicated cartoonist needs from ten times that, because of the cut going to the syndicate and legal people and all that.

I met Jon Rosenberg of Goats fame (aka MeFite toothgnip) and the rest of the Dumbrella crew at a comics show last month, and I'm amazed at the potential Dumbrella has to profit almost entirely through merchandise. That's, frankly, something the published cartoonists rightfully should be drooling at the prospect of. That's the model I'd love- I think seeing someone wearing a shirt with one of my characters on it beats someone telling me they loved this week's strip any day.

The problem is that this model is very selective- for example, most political cartoonists can't make huge merchandising deals. I agree with Robot Johnny- Kurtz's method establishes the premise that comics shouldn't be considered worth paying for... simply because he offers his for free and profits. But the ratio of that success is up there with most local lotteries. Syndicates and publishers take a cut, and can be unfair. But they also get the artist money and recognition. The problem, as noted with Garfield, is how few of those strips actually deserve the money and recognition. In a perfect world Jim Davis would be a greeting card artist and Jon Rosenberg would be lighting stogies with twenties.

What is needed is an alternative, not an opposition. Instead of expressing a fantasy of "destroying" the syndicates, Kurtz could easily set up another great idea: make his own. A combination of Keenspace-style promotion and actual hands-on print-media PR staff could easily let the "popular" webcomic crowd handle press awareness for a distribution model for print media. Kurtz's problem doesn't seem to be as much with the concept of syndication itself as he is with the idea of controlling rights when syndicated. So why not make a new syndicate with its own rules?
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 8:02 AM on August 3, 2004

yeah, I can see how giving that away is his only option.
posted by badstone at 9:12 AM on August 3, 2004

XQUZYPHYR, if it's any consolation, your insightful comments led me to check out your site, and I'm still laughing about that 'yes you are' comic. I will be adding your page to the list of comics I read regularly (which includes Kurtz).

I agree with you that he's negotiating from strength, but here's what I think he's trying to do. He's trying to prove that comics that are routinely ignored by the syndicates in favor of the old faithfuls are worth going after. If he can do this by offering his comic for free, then what he's doing is making the syndicates take comics like yours a little more seriously. And that's something only somebody in his position can do.

And yeah, everybody making comments about his content, please RTFA. He offered to edit his content for public consumption.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:49 AM on August 3, 2004


not shockingly, i'm in agreement with what you said about dumbrella, jon rosenberg & merchandise. out of the six main dumbrella sites, 3.5 of us are making a living via merch ... and the biggest of us has less than half the audience of PVP.
posted by clango at 1:01 PM on August 3, 2004

There's a lot of talk over at ToonTalk (click on General Discussion) about this, including comments by Kurtz himself and several syndicates cartoonists.

Unfortunately the discussion has evolved into a lot of namecalling and mudslinging.
posted by Robot Johnny at 1:26 PM on August 3, 2004

This move creates for him a self-serving business model that's bad for the rest of the industry. What Kurtz is communicating here is that cartoons are not worth paying for.

That's a terrible conclusion to draw. Imagine if we were talking about musicians and music instead of artists and comics. What is essentially happening here is like a musician saying "I hate the whole record industry and their crappy payola system, any radio station can play my music for free."

Does that mean the music has no worth? No, the musician is savvy, knowing it will help promote him or her and the rewards will be reaped when it comes time to tour around the country. I think PvP falls into the same area. Free comics everywhere means the artist behind it can sell more printed books, more t-shirts, and make back all the money and more that he would have gotten from signing rights over to a newspaper deal. It's savvy marketing -- a less now for more later type of thing.
posted by mathowie at 2:39 PM on August 3, 2004

Mathowie, I can introduce you to dozens of professional cartoonists who will tell you I'm right.

I like Kurtz, and PVP, and what he's doing on the web, but to enter a specific market (newspapers) that others have to bust their asses off to survive in and say, "Ignore the rest; I'll do it for free" truly devalues an already underpaid artform.

You are right that it's savvy marketing, absolutely. For him. But it's still telling the people who buy cartoons that they don't have to spend money to get them anymore, and in the end that's bad for the industry because not all cartoonists are in the position to be able to offer their work for free without a pre-established Internet fan base to offset all other costs.

Will he put a dent in the sales of the syndicates? Probably not. It's a stunt and nothing more. And he will benefit from it even if he only gets in one paper... but he's still sending a message that many cartoonists are unhappy with.

As for the music analogy, yes that's true only as far as Kurtz has already been doing business on the web. But now he's entering a market where people DON'T work for free.

Let's say you're a band who wants to make it big, so you tell the record labels (who sell your work to the masses, like a newspaper would for a cartoonist) that you'll let them put out your CD and they can profit 100% from it because all you want is the exposure and the t-shirt sales. The record label thinks, "hey this a sweet deal! Let's re-negotiate all our other artists' contracts." I guarantee the other artists won't think this is such a good thing for the industry.
posted by Robot Johnny at 3:20 PM on August 3, 2004

Robot Johnny, I'm guessing those dozens of professional cartoonists - and I know quite a few of them too - have been making their living off the system as it presently exists. And that is certainly possible! Provided you get picked up by the syndicate and they are able to get your strip put into enough papers. These guys would of course be of the opinion that Kurtz's actions would make their work appear "worthless" - because it's essentially their sole income (or at least the steady, stable core of it). And they are of course justified in feeling that way.

In talking to someone like that (and I will at our next CAPS meeting), my challenge to them would be to create a new, interesting comic strip of their own and make the same offer to the newspapers the same way as Kurtz has. I love these guys, but a lot of them have fallen into a rut of rehash because they are "stuck" with the syndicates owning their work and if they don't pound out 7 strips a week, 8 weeks ahead of print date, they don't make money. Stagnation is part of the overall problem. Maybe if they did something fun and innovative for themselves, that only they had a stake in, and capitalized on their current fame (or notoriety) to use a new strip, which they could then base their OWN direct merchandise and book sales on, some great stuff might appear and their daily "grind" might be a bit more sprightly.

And hell, Jim Davis hasn't drawn a Garfield strip in at least a decade, to my knowledge, as he has an army of employees; most of these guys could turn part or all of their drawing over to assistants, young cartoonists who'd like to make a steady living for bit as they gain experience, while they worked on something new.

Also, your "put out a CD and let the record label profit 100%" analogy doesn't hold water; the record labels essentially DO put the music out there, FREE for the consumer, on radio stations every day, to get people to come in and buy CDs. This business model works - though it's hardly the ideal version of the model at present. The point is that people can turn on their radio and hear the music for free, and THEN go buy the product - or go see the band live, for which they will also pay and pay handsomely. Thus the products sold in the music biz are the physical CDs and the artist's live presence and entertainment.

In the case of these cartoons, the product would be trade paperback collections, perhaps other comic books with "bonus" stories not seen for free in the papers (things like Kurtz's "women control the boobs" gag), and various merchandise like tshirts and hats and puzzles and plush dolls and maybe even tie-ins like video games.

The key is that ONLY the newspaper print rights are given away free. You charge for everything else. Pretty simple, and I think it could be highly effective.

Imagine if Bill Watterson decided to come out of retirement and do this. *SWOON*

XQ, the next time I'm in the same place as Jon Rosenberg (as I was at San Diego not long ago, it happens about twice a year) I am going to hand him a stogie, a twenty, and a zippo... because I just have to actually see that image you created in my mind. :) Jon, if you're reading this, that's a promise!
posted by zoogleplex at 5:27 PM on August 3, 2004

« Older Iraq's Child Prisoners   |   Melek Can Dickerson...took hundreds of pages of... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments