August 2003

Karin L. Kross



The Net has been abuzz with chatter about Scott McCloud's The Right Number, not so much for its artistic worth as for the fact that it premieres alongside the new BitPass micropayment system. Other artists -- not just comics artists, but musicians and writers as well -- have also jumped on the BitPass bandwagon. After some false starts in the world of Internet commerce, it looks like BitPass may be a workable micropayment model. That it works, though, doesn't necessarily mean that anyone is going to make money off it.

First, a little explanation. A micropayment is generally defined as a small monetary payment of less than $3-$5. An informal survey of the artists using BitPass shows fees ranging from a dime for works of fiction to $5 for an album's worth of music. One significant problem that would-be dot-com entrepreneurs have had with micropayments is the issue of fees; after a certain point, the costs of doing business outstrip the financial rewards. The solution that BitPass has devised is perhaps imperfect (according to some, a truly perfect micropayment system would deduct money directly from your bank account or your credit card), but it seems to have resolved a number of issues.

When you sign up with BitPass (or, in their parlance, become a "Spender"), you purchase a virtual "card" and load it up with cash in amounts ranging from $3 to $40. To pay for it, you can either have BitPass directly charge you, or you can use PayPal. With this "card," you can now pay for creative goods from anyone who has set themselves up to do business through BitPass (become an "Earner").

Earners are charged a small percentage of the transaction: 15% on items in the $0.01-$0.50 price range, and 5% on the $0.51 and up range. This, presumably, is to cover BitPass's expenses on the PayPal and credit card transactions. But the idea, ultimately, is that the artist gets approximately (or, as McCloud contends, more than) what he or she would get on per-book retail sales, and without the hassle of dealing with a publisher/distributor/other middleman. There are a couple of additional advantages for both Earners and Spenders: Earners have their content protected by the BitPass login system, and Spenders have an extra measure of identity protection (for example, when you buy something via PayPal, it's clear to the seller who's paying for it; with BitPass, all the seller knows is that someone paid for their stuff).

That's the mechanics; the question is whether this is really the creative godsend that Scott McCloud suggested it might be in Reinventing Comics. The answer, at this early stage, is unclear; and it hinges largely on the Net culture of Getting the Milk for Free, and whether your average surfer can be broken of that habit. If you're Scott McCloud or someone of his stature -- namely, a known creative quantity, with an established fan base -- it's likely that you actually will probably do as well or better on the micropayment system as on the standard many-middlemen publishing model.

But what if you're not Scott McCloud? There are problems both for established artists and new artists alike. Established artists with a previously free body of work will inevitably experience an audience drop-off. And if you're a new artist and an unknown, how do you prove to a prospective reader that you're worth not only their time, but their $0.25 (or $0.50, or $1) as well? At this point, the number of micropayment-using artists is sufficiently small that you would probably get readers just out of the curiosity factor alone. But if micropayments catch on, that state of affairs can't last forever.

This touches on a problem already faced by webcomic artists: how do you get anyone to know that you're out there? There is, at this point, not much in the way of a mechanism for cataloguing and reviewing web comics. Generally, if you ask someone how they found out about a web comic they like, the response is something along the lines of, "I saw it mentioned in someone's blog," or, "A friend emailed me the link." Word of mouth, while powerful, is not terribly reliable, and it requires someone to actually read your work so that they can rave about it at all. And if you're charging money for your comic, and that turns off some subset of prospective readers, it makes getting that positive word of mouth that much more difficult.

I really don't like to rain on the micropayments parade; it seems like it has a lot of possibility, and that it has the potential to benefit creators who might otherwise wait a lot longer to reap any kind of financial reward from their works. The issues, really, come from the greater culture of the Internet. It's not whether the creators will buy into the system: it's whether a giant readership, accustomed to free stuff, is willing to pony up for it. Even if it's just a few cents at a time.