My Experiment with Pay-What-You-Want Print Comics


photo by Waygook Photography

Last week, I was a special guest at AlleyCon, a small English Language nerd-culture convention in Gwangju (South Korea’s 6th largest city.) I’ve sold at a number of Korean conventions, to varying degrees of success, but I was excited for this one. I’m a nobody in the Korean teen comic crowd but English-speaking nerds? Those are my people! Surely I could interest a few of them in my wares.

But there were only 200 attendees! I’d been to cons with thousands of people where I sold only 3 books, so I was scared of another long, awkward day at a card table not selling anything.

I was more interested in sharing my work than leaving rich anyway, so at the very last minute I decided— what the heck. I would try something new. A name-your-price table. I’d had great success online, but when selling real-world objects that cost money to produce, it’s risky business! I was just excited to meet some fellow foreign nerds in Korea and show them my comics, so I went forward with the plan.

I put a bunch of books in my table and decided to see what the market thought they were worth. Would they be more generous than me? Or would I end up losing my shirt after everyone grabbed up my books for less than it cost to print them?

I found out when I arrived that I wasn’t alone in taking on the experiment…

photo by Waygook Photography

I was just across from a pay-what-you-want Banana Bread table. (run by Kiki!) And a few floors below a guy who does pay-what-you-want iPhone repair. Good company to be in.

First of all:

Holy shoot. Everyone at AlleyCon was so amazing. It turns out I wasn’t introducing them to my work- it seems I taught at least 75% of the people there learned how to read Korean with my weird Hangeul comic. I had so many people come up and say such nice things and make me feel like a celebrity and holy shoot that was one of the best days of my life.

It feels kind of crass summing the whole thing up in terms of dollar amounts, but everyone there seemed to enjoy my ultra-nerdy numbers-filled talk about being an independent artist, so I’m sure they’d enjoy this super-ultra-nerdy breakdown of they money that I made there in the building.

So how did I do?

I sold $200 worth of comics (at cover price.) I made $300.

That’s 150% of what I would have charged.

Even better, that’s $1.50 per attendee at the con, including the ones that bought tickets and didn’t show up. 300 bucks might not seem like a lot of money, but that’s like making 2.76 million at San Diego Comic Con.

How did people decide what to pay?

It really did seem to work as it was supposed to. People paid according to the value the book gave them.

The most expensive book at my table, Aki Alliance— which I normally sell for 4 bucks, was the least-earning book. It usually went for around a dollar or two. That’s because it’s translated into Korean, so wasn’t worth a whole lot to an English-Speaking audience.

The cheapest book at my table, Learn To Read Korean in 15 Minutes— which I usually sell for 2 bucks, was the highest-earning book at the table by a WIDE margin. People were paying 5, 10, 15 bucks for that sucker, and getting doubles for their friends. That’s because most visitors had come to my table to thank me for making that very book. They’d already read it, but the purchase was often treated as a sort of tip for helping them adapt into Korean life.

The little card-sized minibooks, that I usually sell in 3-packs for 2 bucks got almost no buyers. Likely because people felt awkward paying less than a dollar while I was looking at them, and didn’t want to spend more than a dollar on something that tiny.

The most generous sales happened right after my panel on how to be an independent international artist. Once again, it seemed to be as a ‘thank you’ for the (hopefully useful) information I’d given them. People were also more generous when asking to buy books at the after-party or at the hostel the next morning.

Did guilt have something to do with it?

Yes, but not as much as I’d expected it to. I made it a point not to take anyone’s money myself, but rather have them throw it into a big red bucket while I made eye contact and pretended like I didn’t peek. People were still generous!

People were even generous when I was nowhere to be seen! Occasionally, when I had a panel to run or an event to get to, I would leave my table unattended with a sign that said just to throw money in the bucket and I would always come back to find it full of more money.

What did I learn from this?

I think what I learned is that every convention is different.

This was MY CON. Many were already familiar with my work, so they placed value in getting it directly from the creator. They are all trying to adapt to Korea, so they place value in a comic that teaches them to read Korean. It was almost entirely attended by college educated adults working as teachers. Therefore they place value in education. Many told me they were stationed in small rural towns. Therefore they had money to spend on geeky things that weren’t available where they lived, and placed value in having geeky things come to them. The convention was largely gaming-focused, so people were familiar with pay-what-you-want projects like The Humble Bundle, so they placed value in seeing it experimented with.

I think the real test would be to try it at, say, Busan Comic World. The reason my cover prices are so low is because that’s where I usually sell them. Those attendees seem to be in their early teens, without jobs or money of their own, from a culture without tipping (service workers are simply paid a higher wage by their employer) and that has no idea who in the heck I am except that weird foreigner who’s always there. They come to the show to get fun, cheaply priced merch from their favorite fandoms. They usually buy bookmarks or stickers, so they’re used to spending less than a dollar. So my weird unfamiliar comics don’t have as much value. If I let people name their price there I would likely end up with a lot more coins than bills. (though I’ll totally give it a try.)

There have been a lot of think-pieces lately about ‘what’s killing cons’ and I have to say that— nothing’s killing cons. There are smazing conventions everywhere, from major cities, to small towns. Each one has its own culture. Some focus on fandom, some on indie creators, some on gaming, some on anime, some on cosplay, some on tv and movies.

Everyone goes to conventions for different reasons and it’s totally cool if noticing you exist doesn’t even factor in at all. People spend buttloads of money to attend cons and no one gets to tell them what they have to care about. If you don’t do well, maybe it’s because you aren’t offering something those people put value in. Maybe your approach needs tweaking, or maybe it’s not the con for you!

Look at the con, the culture, the people who are there and the things they place value in and if what you have to offer doesn’t fit into that equation, try another con! Who knew the most best con I’d ever go to would be a tiny Gwangju, South Korea con that just one year ago consisted of 60 people playing board games in a bar.

Banana Bread Breaking News!

I’m updating the post because I heard back from Kiki, (Lianne). Apparently ‘Cause Banana Bread is ALWAYS pay-what-you-want, and supports charity! Here’s what she said about the con!

“People gave from $1 to $10 per slice! Average was $3. My model is always name your own price — people usually order by the loaf and give between 10 and 20. I think it’s fair!”