How Wowio Works for Lone Star Press: An Interview with Bill Williams

Wowio log

In response to my post on Free Comic Book Day rejecting webcomics, Bill Williams of Lone Star Press expressed a lack of surprise, saying

The middlemen in the print arena are afraid of getting cut out and do their best to bury the indy digital creators. I have books and comics by Bill Willingham and others available for free at WOWIO and I cannot get a press release run on a major site.

I thought this presented intriguing ground for further discussion, so I was pleased when Bill agreed to answer my questions.

First off, can you please introduce yourself and your company to the readers? Who are you, what is WOWIO, and what connection do you have with it?

Wowio log

I am a comic book hobo, so I’m a fan and a creator and a publisher and an ex-retailer. Back in the stone ages, I was Keith Wilson’s inking assistant, then I moved to self-publishing. I started Lone Star Press in 1997 and put out 40+ comics, some with critical acclaim. I published comics with work by Bill Willingham, Jeff Parker, Mike Leeke, Paul Ryan, and more.

Because the books never penetrated the market, I burned out and drifted away and wrote a few spec screenplays and short stories. But I love the possibilities of the medium, so I drifted back to comics to try using the new distribution tools. Now I write and draw a webcomic called SideChicks which runs on the www.graphicsmash.com website. It updates a couple of times a week and has been running with only one week off in eighteen months.

I am one of the many publishers who has material on WOWIO which has free downloadable .pdf comics and books. WOWIO offers legal downloadable copyrighted ebooks from publishers for free to readers. The books and comics have an ad at the front and at the end of the book. Publishers get paid every time somebody downloads a book. In my case, I get to work with material I love and write checks to the freelancers that created the work. In the eight weeks I have had books on the site, we have had almost 5,000 legal downloads.

How long has WOWIO been around?

I dunno. According to their website, they opened the doors in August 2006. I found them in April 2007 and blew them off thinking that the deal was too good to be true. That decision cost me thousands of bucks (like many of my decisions). Like many of the people on the internet, they do not post numbers anywhere about the readership or traffic or anything.

Which are your top downloaded titles? How many people have downloaded comics from you?

The numbers are a bit confusing due to the rolling rollout of the material. Some books have been up since mid-November 2007 and some went up last week. About eight weeks in, Bill Willingham’s Pantheon script book is moving the most. A couple of the short story compilations by Matthew Sturges and Mark Finn move well. And the first issues of comic book series like Pantheon, Strange Heroes, and Heroic Tales move well. And then most people come back to read the rest of the series.

I don’t know how many different people are reading the comics and books because the numbers track in terms of total downloads for a period of time because that is where the financials come from. I can tell you that readers of my novel about a retired costumed hero break down as follows…

Sex– Female- 18.1%, Male- 81.9%
Age– Under 18- .9%, 18-24- 21.7%, 25-34- 18.6%, 35-44- 32.6%, 45-54- 17.6%, 55-64- 5.4%,
65 and Older- 3.2%
Race– African American (black)- .9%, Asian- 3.2%, Caucasian (white)- 57.0%, East Indian- .5%, Hispanic/Latino- 1.4%, Middle Eastern- 0%, Native American- 2.3%, Pacific Islander- .9%, Inter-racial- 1.4%, Did not answer- 32.6%

[Note: Many other stats removed for readability, including education, income, and various purchase preferences.]

Now, looking at those numbers, you have to start discounting some of it. No one was there swearing an affidavit as people were filling out the reader info. And I will let the readers draw their own conclusions. I am delighted by the amount of people that just left some stuff blank.

While that is the fact sheet for a genre novel, a quick check reveals that the numbers hold pretty well for comics too.

Are all of your downloads version of previously printed comics? Or do you have original content as well?

To date, WOWIO has been the home for digital versions of print comics for me, but there are more projects in the works. I’ll be bundling the SideChicks webcomics into the comic book format and putting those together for .pdf files. I hope to get back to writing and get a couple more original prose things up onto the site before the end of the year. I don’t look at the internet as one or the other, but there are more projects in the works that are ‘internet first’. I have been reaching out to other creators, so Mark McKenna’s Banana-Tail book is up and earning for him.

One of the things that I am pretty proud of has to do with the Mantlo: Life in Comics book. I reached out to David Yurkovich and I will be posting that benefit book up on WOWIO as soon as we can get the technical end of the book handled. The revenue generated from all downloads of that book will go to the long-term medical expenses of Bill Mantlo. And I am waiving my regular fees associated with formatting a book and managing the backend, so all of the dough will go to his brother Michael Mantlo.

How recent are your downloads? How often do you add new titles?

I started with the books that I originally published, which were a novel and a short story collection written by me and the script book by Willingham. All three of these are available through Amazon.com. After seeing them earn for a few weeks, I talked with Willingham and we posted his Beowulf novellas and I started working my way through the Lone Star catalog.

I have also been working with his old pals from the Clockwork Storybook, so there are a couple of books by Matthew Sturges and one by Mark Finn on WOWIO. To date, most of the Lone Star material is online at WOWIO with more on the way. The first thing to go up was Willingham’s mini-series Pantheon. Next was the couple of issues of Ex Parte, the series about a lawyer that represents costumed folk. Then the anthology Heroic Tales and now I am working my way through the Strange Heroes series that Willingham wrote.

I add material as fast as I can because time lost equals dollars lost. Because I do not have a load of books in the pipeline, I do not have to worry about the ire of the retailers. But every publisher has to make that decision for themselves. Given that we are moving analog material to digital format, the current pace is a couple of comics a week on the production side. I hope to get back to writing in the early spring.

Have publishers found that this cuts into back issue sales, or is it closer to “found money” for them? How much money have you made?

I don’t know about anybody else’s numbers, but our mail orders have dwindled to almost nothing over the years. WOWIO-generated revenue is roughly a hundred times mail order-generated revenue and frankly, the WOWIO numbers are fire-and-forget numbers. LSP makes a .pdf file, writes a solicitation, sends it to the WOWIO server in the sky, and that is it. No boxes to pack and none of the drudgery of the warehouse.

I think that digital money is found money for publishers. Fans and buyers look at your material and consider buying it and they make a decision. Cost is a factor. Removing cost from that equation, I think people tend to try more material. On iTunes, if you click on a song, you hear a few seconds of it for free so you can try it before you buy it, and I think there is an element of that at work on WOWIO. Your cost is storage space on a drive somewhere.

If sampling free comics online did not work at some level, the publishers would stop wasting time on it. I think the opposite is the case. And I think that the internet highlights the distribution problem of the content. The current distribution model does not serve all of the publishers. There are new business models forming that do not include the direct market because the structure of the DM does not allow for exponential growth. And the retailers are raising a fuss about it. I think that there should be a ‘fair warning’ to people buying non-returnable material, but in practical application that ‘fair warning’ will just be an excuse for a retailer to pass on a book. If anything, some will do it just to send a message.

If I can find my way back to the original question, in the near future (meaning sometime later this year), all of the digital versions of the LSP books will have been seen by more people and will be more profitable than the print versions.

You mentioned that you’d had problems getting press releases placed on online comic news sites. Can you elaborate on that? To what do you attribute this problem?

Maybe I write crappy press releases. Maybe tiny publishers swarm the newssites with a blizzard of digits screaming about free comics. You would think that free comics by an Eisner-winning writer would at least be interesting enough to warrant space alongside of the manufactured hubbub surrounding second prints and zombie variants.

I get the feeling that there is a Luddite streak out there in the distribution arm that wants to stop any digital distibution. Cracking into the public space with paid ads is cost-prohibitive. Our average click-thru on our ads driving people to the free WOWIO books have about a 1 in 1,000 success rate as a goal.

Look at the vitriol surrounding the successful marketing campaign by Boom! Studios. Their rollout was a little clumsy, but the instinct was spot on. And they have a success because they got people the chance to try a book before plunking down dollars on it.

What are your plans for future expansion?

Future expansion will be along a couple of tracks, which can be shorthanded to inhouse and outreach. Back in 2000, I experimented with the showrunner approach to making comics with the Ex Parte series, and we have several comics in the can that never came out. Some need a cover and some need a little color and whatnot. I’ll be spending a little time getting those books into the system and I’ve already reached out to a cover guy that I love working with. So, I’ll be clearing out the inventory there.

I’ve been reaching out to other publishers and I’ve reached out to some of my favorite folks. Jeff Parker did some work for me back in the day including the hilarious Ape Company story in Heroic Tales #10. I talked to him about the Interman book and if he ever gets a free moment again we might talk again. I contacted Mark McKenna and have his kids book Banana-Tail up and earning on WOWIO. And I’m looking to work with creators and publishers who want to make a few dollars out of their backlist.

Do you want to know how well WOWIO works? Lone Star Press has brought in $25 in the time it took to answer these questions. You make money while you’re doing something else.

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Thanks very much to Bill Williams for participating — I think I need to check out that Ex Parte comic!

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