Chris Grady didn’t know much about the webcomic world when he launched Lunarbaboon, a semi-autobiographical comic about family and parenthood. But shortly after launching the comic, he started sharing it to Reddit, and suddenly Lunarbaboon was being seen and shared by tens of thousands of people.
Flash forward a few years, and Lunarbaboon has over a million followers on Facebook. Grady generates $1,500 a month on Patreon and has launched several successful Kickstarter projects related to his comic. His latest Kickstarter, this one for a board game he helped illustrate and create, has already generated $50,000 in backing.
I interviewed Grady about what it takes to maintain a successful webcomic, how he grew his audience, and why popular webcomics often make much more money from merchandise than they do from ads.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.
A transcript is below.
Simon Owens: Hey Chris, thanks for joining us
Chris Grady: Hello. Thanks for having me.
So you have this extremely popular webcomic called Lunarbaboon. It has over a million fans on Facebook. What’s it about?
It’s about a 30-something dad who suffers from depression and anxiety, and he’s mostly trying to get through each day.
It’s semi-autobiographical, right?
Yeah, semi. Obviously I take normal situations and make them either funnier or sadder, depending on my mood at the moment.
This isn’t a fantastical comic. It’s very heavy on the emphasis and themes of family, and childhood, and parenthood, and what it’s like to be a father who’s raising a child.
Yeah, that’s a good way to explain it.
How did you end up launching this webcomic?
Six years ago I started it, and it was a really rough patch for me. I was sort of told by a therapist that one of the ways people can deal with dark times is by writing stuff down or using another medium to get your ideas or thoughts out. So I just started in a little notebook making comics. I always liked to draw. I was mostly just trying to find the funny in really bad situations. And then I started showing people, and they really liked it. They said maybe you should consider sharing this.
I had never managed a website before, but I built one as a place to just sort of plop them. And it took off from there.
Had you been following other webcomics? Were you really familiar with the space when you started?
Not really. Now, I feel like I’m very connected to that world. Through Twitter. But prior to that, I always liked comics, growing up. But I didn’t know there was a whole comics world on the internet. So I kind of happened into it.
You start posting them to this website. How did you start gaining an audience?
I use Squarespace, and at the bottom of my website there were these drop down share buttons. Reddit was on there, and some other ones, ones that probably don’t even exist anymore. And I just started clicking on them all and sharing them at different places. I had a Facebook page, my own personal one. My brother was the one who made a Lunarbaboon Facebook page and said you should probably just post in here. But yeah, it was pretty slow going in the beginning. I don’t know what happened. There were one or two that hit really big, and it kind of went from there.
Where did it hit really big? Where were those initial places where you saw an explosion in traffic?
I had a good couple of years on Reddit. Not that it always translated to new followers, but I knew a lot of people were seeing them through Reddit, because I could see the numbers on my own site go up. And then I also started sharing the full image on Facebook. I used to share the link and hope that people would go back to my site, but at a certain point I just stopped trying to get people to go back to my own site, and instead I just posted the whole comic to Facebook. And that’s when it all changed. Once people could share it without having to click on anything, it really took off from there.
I’ve written in the past about the role that Reddit has played in launching the careers of webcomic artists. There are several who have gotten an early boost from Reddit. There are two different subreddits, r/comics and r/webcomics, and both have several hundred thousand subscribers. And if you can make it near to the top of those subreddits, it can drive a significant amount of traffic to a brand new comic. How important do you think Reddit is to the webcomic scene?
I think it must be pretty important. I’ve seen a lot of webcomic artists really blow up on Reddit. It allowed audiences to see me. I was picked up by Webtoons through there. I don’t know if it translated to my followers on Facebook and Twitter and those other places. Once I was seen enough times it became a real thing. People just assumed I was established at some point.
Did the community start to recognize you there? As your comics did better there, did you start to notice more comments from people who recognized you as an entity who had shown up there several times?
Yes, I definitely noticed that in the comments. People would say I really love seeing your stuff. There was a time when whenever I posted there, my content would always do well. I assumed I had a following that really liked it.
You seem kind of ambivalent about whether your success on Reddit translated to more followers on your other platforms. I’ve heard that ambivalence when I’ve talked to other artists. Reddit is good about generating interest on its own platform or on Imgur, but it’s not always easy to translate that into actual loyal subscribers on other platforms. Do you think that’s a flaw of Reddit that it’s good for if you’re on Reddit, but not great outside of it?
I don’t know if it’s a flaw, but I’ve definitely noticed that that’s the case. I’ve seen a lot of people who hit it big there, and they were really excited for the day, but it doesn’t translate into anything else. Because it’s hard to link your other things to it. People don’t generally want to leave Reddit. They just want to quickly skip to the other comics. I think the reason people share things on other platforms is because they want to share things that relate to them. And I don’t think Reddit has that shareability. It’s a great place to view content. I don’t know if a lot of people share stuff from Reddit.
You mentioned that your content started doing really well when you stopped worrying about your website and just uploaded your comics natively to Facebook. I see a lot of webcomic artists doing that. Do you think that, because these platforms like Facebook and Instagram and Tumblr and Twitter reward you if you keep your content on their sites instead of making people click away, it’s forcing a lot of users to upload their content natively in order to get any traction?
Definitely. If you put a link hoping someone’s going to see your stuff, it’s probably not going to happen. I have a million followers on Facebook, but that doesn’t translate to a million dollars. You really have to keep pumping out stuff for free, and you hope that you have those fans that like it enough that they’ll support you on Patreon, or if you have a book coming out they’ll buy your book. You just have to keep making the art and hope that the people who like it will really support you.
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Does it frustrate you that you have to be so reliant on these platforms? Facebook has been in the news for how much it’s been downgrading pages within its algorithm in favor of content from your friends or Facebook Groups. How has that impacted you? Does that frustrate you that you are forced to play on this platform and have to deal with the whims of its algorithm?
I find it a little frustrating. I’m in a rare situation where the comic isn’t my full-time job and I’m not hoping for it to be. I have recently thought about what if something happens to these sites? Does the comic just disappear? Social media sites are all we have to promote ourselves. Nobody’s coming to my site, or at least not a lot of people are. I do feel like we’re at the whim and mercy of social media. I have seen the numbers change on Facebook. It kind of stinks.
How do you monetize? I know you have a Patreon account. You’ve done a few Kickstarters. What’s your approach to monetizing your comic?
Patreon’s a big one. Getting that dollar a month from someone who reads the comic and likes it is so important.
And Patreon is a subscription platform, where instead of paying one lump sum, people subscribe, and then at the end of every month it takes however much they’ve pledged, whether it’s $1 a month or $5 a month, and you get that as recurring, steady revenue. What are some of the things you offer to entice people into subscribing to you on Patreon?
I’m doing a new book, volume 3, and they’ll get their name in the book, a thank you there. They get the comic early. They get sometimes videos of me working, behind the scenes stuff. Big pledgers get themselves in the comic. It’s a lot of little things. They’re less interested in the reward, and more interested in supporting something that they like and they know is free. I do it myself, I’ll give a dollar to other webcomics I like or podcasts I listen to. And a dollar is not that much to me. But when I get a bunch of dollars then it does help.
How long did it take to build up a meaningful subscriber base on Patreon so you felt like you were making decent money?
I started a few years ago. It’s slow build. It plateaus at times. I started it four years ago, three years ago. It’s decent money now. I couldn’t live off of it. I also work for Webtoons. They’re like a separate platform. I make two comics exclusively for them a week. They pay comic artists really well.
I know you’ve done a number of Kickstarters. Unlike Patreon, where it’s recurring revenue, with Kickstarter you’re going all in on a single project and trying to raise a lump sum. Tell me about that. What projects have you launched through Kickstarters?
I’ve done two books that I self-published. They did pretty well. In the end I ended up making some profit. But the real profit is you wind up with a ton of the books. I have a garage full of books, and you take those to shows or sell them on your site. People are pre-ordering the books, and then whatever you have left over you can sell. And whatever you sell afterwards is pure profit.
I’m doing a Kickstarter right now that has like 17 days left on it. It’s a board game that I’m doing with Golden Bell Studios, which makes games. So that’s also an offshoot. It’s not Lunarbaboon, but it’s similar. It’s called Parenting is Easy. I’m pretty happy with it. It’s a fun thing.
Is that common with webcomic artists? I know board games are kind of having a moment, especially on Kickstarter. The guy who does The Oatmeal, he created his own board game that went pretty viral. Tell me about that scene. Is that a common way for webcomic artists to make money?
It has become that. This is a board game. It’s a little bit different, it’s a bit more cost intensive. For card games, you find a simple mechanic for a card game. You already have the skill of making the art, and you already have an audience that likes your art style. Cards aren’t expensive to make. It’s a good way to create something that’s fun but also not very expensive. I can see why it’s a draw.
And then you have these success stories. These games come out, they make lots of money, and it’s great. I can see why a lot of people are going that route. Plus board games and card games are very popular right now.
What is your role as the webcomic artist? Are you just bringing the brand and the illustration to it? Are you just expected to come up with the entire game? Or are they pairing you with game writers?
For this one I worked with a game writer. It’s not my full-time gig, so my free time is very limited. I mostly did the artwork. I did a book that got bundled with the game, as just something to add to the Kickstarter. My brand and my followers were definitely the big pull. Plus it’s a parenting game, so that also draws on my crowd.
Do you get a sense of who the people are who shell out money for this kind of stuff? I’ve heard that, with any online creator who’s able to build up a large audience, you have to really reach a kind of mass scale, because only about, at max, 5 percent of your hardcore fans will convert into paying users. Do you find that to be true? You have a million followers on Facebook, but is it consistently the people who you consider your hardcore fans who end up contributing to these campaigns?
I think that’d be fair to say. From my first book to the second book, there was a bit of an increase, a few hundred more people, but I think most people were returning fans. With a board game, there have been fewer people, because it’s a little different. It’s not comics. It’s not what people know me for. Unless you have something that somehow goes viral, or is very marketable to a large audience, I think most people are Kickstarting for their fans. Having a big audience is helpful, because even if you get 1 percent to pledge, then that’s enough.
In the writer community, you see a lot of camaraderie. You see them blurbing each other’s books. Is there similar camaraderie within the comics community? When you launch a Kickstarter, are there a lot of other artists within the community helping you promote it, and vice versa?
Yeah, there’s a lot of that happening. I’ve been to a bunch of shows with 30, 40 comic artists that I now consider my friends. I think we’re all eager to help each other. We know that, for the most part, none of us are doing this for a living. But it’s something we love to do. We all love each other’s work and respect it. So we’re happy to help where we can.
I know some people listening to this would say wow, a million fans on Facebook. If I had a million fans on Facebook, I would have made it. I’d be famous. I’ve talked to people who have a million subscribers on YouTube, and they’re saying, no, the audience is just not large enough for me to make a living.
Why do you think that is? Do you think there really isn’t enough money there for webcomic artists to make serious money off their art?
I don’t know. It’s hard. The product I have is free. It’s always been free. There’s no need for someone to pay for it. Yeah, I can try to sell things over and over again. I think the expectation on social media is that it’s free.
Are there webcomic artists that make good money from it? I would imagine the big webcomics like xkcd and The Oatmeal, at this point, should be making pretty decent money. Is the pool of webcomic artists making an actual living off it fairly small?
I think it’s fairly small. There’s Sarah Anderson who does Sarah Scribbles. I’ve been at shows where she has really big lines that stretch around the corner. She gets lots of book deals, and I think publishers will pay her very handsomely to make books. I think that’s where you’re making a lot of money. She probably sells other products. I know a bunch of webcomic people who do well selling plushies of their characters. If you have the right product. For me, I’m making a comic about a 30-something dad with anxiety. Nobody is going to buy a plushy. That was never its intention. Some people make a good living, but I think it’s a very small percentage.
What’s your interaction with your fans like? If you go to a show, is there a line of people to have their comics signed? How much interaction are you having with people who aren’t just casually coming across your stuff on Facebook, who know who you are and would consider themselves fans of your work?
I would say most shows I go to I have a steady flow of people coming by. But I’d never say that I have a huge line. I don’t have that kind of draw where people will be lining up for my stuff.
Most webcomic artists who I see making money, they do it by selling merchandise and doing crowdfunding projects. But not much advertising. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I’m working on this project with a publisher, and they’re very keen on advertising on my social media, which is great. I’ve always thought that people don’t really care. They see an ad pop up, they’ll just scroll past that. It’s annoying to them, so they block it. Very rarely, unless you want something, I don’t think ads actually work. For me, when I see advertisements, I find it annoying.
How crowded is the webcomic space right now? Is it like YouTube, where it was much easier to get big as long as you got into the scene years ago? Were you given a leg up since you got into this over a half decade ago? Would it be much harder to break in now?
It’s a good question. I’ve always thought that I was lucky, that I was making something at the right time. But there were a lot of people who came before me. There are a lot of people making webcomics. I do find that there’s been some that have come recently and already jumped out, and people share them, and notice them a lot more. I don’t know how many people were making webcomics when I first started. Hopefully people who are starting now aren’t just doing so because they hope they’ll make it big.
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