PR: What Not to Do: Free Online Bait and Switch

Yesterday morning, via their blog Journalista, Fantagraphics announced that The Comics Journal‘s final print issue as a magazine, issue #300, would be put online in full for free. They were promoting their upcoming plans to expand the website with lots of free content, while in print they put out “bigger and more elaborate” versions only twice a year.

The Comics Journal #300 cover
The Comics Journal #300
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This announcement got widespread coverage, since it sounded like there were plenty of good, meaty articles to read. I saw it mentioned on many news sites (for example).

However, by the time I decided to check out the pieces — I waited because I knew I’d want to spend some time on the site — the announcement had changed.

Update: Well that didn’t take long. All apologies — we’re withdrawing the whole concept.

I’m afraid that on Gary Groth’s instructions the experiment in online marketing has been cancelled. Sorry.

Not only does that resemble a bait-and-switch scheme (“hey, that content we said was free? Psych! You’ve gotta pay to see it!”), although I’m sure that wasn’t the intent, now all those links on all those sites promoting the idea are broken. All users see is a message that says “Subscribers’ Area You are not authorized to view this resource. You need to login.” Visitors to the home page see this message: “(All apologies for the earlier “enthusiasm” on the website.)”

I’m guessing that various people who stood to make money from selling the issue, including retailers, complained. The lesson here is that you’ve got to be sure of what you’re doing before you make an announcement of that sort, since you risk turning a great promotional idea into a bad taste in customers’ mouths.

Update: (11/19/09) The latest Journalista explains:

We pulled TCJ #300 offline largely due to retailer concerns over not having been given adequate warning about said plans before ordering the issue. It was a fair point, and one that we hadn’t properly considered. The issue will again be made available online in late December, after retailers have been given time to sell the print edition.

Sounds like a great compromise and a good kickoff to their continuing online plans.

Update: The issue is completely online as of today, January 8. So a week late, but that’s not bad.

19 Responses to “PR: What Not to Do: Free Online Bait and Switch”

  1. Inkwell Says:

    That’s unfortunate. I told a bunch of people about it, too.

  2. Bill Williams Says:

    I was reading the Fraction/ O’Neil interview and when I went for a page turn and nada.

    Which is too bad. I’m not buying that magazine, but I might read some of the content for free and be exposed to some advertising.

    Different distribution options bring in different segments of the market. When will this sink in?

    There is more to gain than there is to lose.

  3. THE BEAT » Blog Archive » Things that were on the internet that aren’t any more: TCJ 300, Fandral Says:

    […] And we’ll read it when our hard copy arrives, just like always. Johanna Draper Carlson has commentary, […]

  4. Johanna Says:

    Oh, Bill, that’s terrible. In the middle of the article? Yikes.

    We gave up buying the Journal, after having it back to issue numbers in the 30s, because it was just too expensive for the material, with the book-like binding, given that our tastes had moved in different directions. I was looking forward to sampling to see if that decision should be changed.

  5. Matt Says:

    Thanks for writing on this Johanna–it frustrated me as well as I was also mid-read on the same Fraction/O’Neill interview when it went kaplooie. It’s possible Bill and I share a brain although I’ve never met the man. :)

    This was such a disappointing and confounding move; I guess it is down to not doing the right legwork before executing? I was thrilled to read the material and thought the PR move made sense given their previous announcements of focusing more on online content.

    For what it’s worth, I’d recommend at this point putting the issue back online for free 4 weeks or so after the hard copy goes on sale. Might be a nice make-good for this blunder, cause it kinda pissed me off, honestly, and I can’t imagine I’m not alone.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Any guess I would make as to the reason for the change of heart would be just that, pure speculation. I know in the past retailers get very angry when publishers do not tell them of plans to post material online before their ordering deadlines. Many stores say that that will affect their purchasing decisions.

    Your suggestion, to make up for it later, is a great one.

  7. Ted Rall Says:

    Frankly, Johanna, I’m amazed that someone who writes a comics blog would admit to not reading The Comics Journal. Shouldn’t you be reading every major comics-related periodical?

    Like it or not, and I often find it maddening, it’s an essential read.

  8. Johanna Says:

    Well, by that logic, I’d also have to read Wizard. Which I refuse to do.

    It’s a good question, though. I don’t know that there really ARE any “major comic periodicals” anymore. Last time I saw the Journal’s statement of ownership, they only printed 5000 copies an issue. I get that readership here on a good day. (I may be misremembering, and it may have been more in the 2000 or 3000 range. I’m erring on the side of generosity.)

    I get more out of reading Journalista, CBR, and MangaBlog daily, along with many other blogs (some written by Journal contributors). I think that’s where the real coverage happens these days. Print just can’t be as timely as online.

    Don’t get me wrong. For those interested in their areas of coverage, the Journal does very good work. I think we’ll have to disagree on what’s essential to know what’s going on in comics.

  9. Bill Williams Says:

    Most of the time I feel like I share a brain and got second or third choice. I was reading the Fraction/ O’Neil bit because it is the thing that interested me first. When it comes to comics, O’Neil was one of the best writers of his generation and Fraction holds a similar distinction.

    On charging for content, I am performing an experiment at this moment. My supercool webcomic SideChicks is free on the internet. It is also free on WOWIO. It is about to go up for sale in the IDW iPhone app store. If Groth’s fear is real, I won’t sell a single iPhone comic.

  10. Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Hov. 18, 2009: Their level headed best Says:

    […] Johanna Draper Carlson and Tom Spurgeon react to Monday’s Little Launch That Couldn’t here at […]

  11. Ted Rall Says:

    Not to belabor the point, but–aw hell, let’s belabor. Why wouldn’t you read Wizard?

    If I only read publications that didn’t make my teeth grind, I wouldn’t be able to do my job as a political commentator.

  12. Chris Allen Says:


    I did get to read some of it, and even blogged about one of the columns, and agree with you it wasn’t a smart move to do this without consulting retailers. One can argue lots of retailers ignore TCJ anyway (I frequent a well-known San Diego shop that I think sets aside a copy for me and that’s it), but certainly the ones who do order it stand to lose some sales. I was also thinking about advertisers possibly being screwed with lost sales as well, as I didn’t see any ads in the online version.

  13. Johanna Says:

    I wouldn’t read Wizard because it’s a waste of paper. It doesn’t tell me anything I want to know, its area of interest (mostly comic movies and speculators) don’t overlap with mine, and it’s actively insulting to women.

    When I titled this site, I wanted to focus on the positive. I sometimes have a hard time remembering that direction, I admit, but I want to spend my time and money and direction pointing out good stuff, not ranting about the bad.

  14. Johanna Says:

    Chris, no one can demonstrate that the lost sales (presumably from people who read it for free who would have otherwise bought it) are more than the gained sales (people who like the free sample enough to want to own it or other Journal issues). That’s the big if when it comes to these kinds of online marketing experiments.

  15. Scott Bieser Says:

    In order to purchase TJC at a comics shop I have to drive something like 90 miles, to Time Warp in Boulder. I could subscribe, but frankly I don’t have time to read more than about a quarter of an issue. Hardly worth the scratch.

    Since I run a small publishing company using the “show it all free on the web” model I can attest that many retailers don’t understand how this model works and don’t seem to want to. But there are others who do and are enthusiastic about it. The key is to announce your plans well in advance of any ordering cycle, that way nobody feels like they’ve been ambushed.

    I suspect there is some communications problem among the Fantagraphics poobahs. Hope they get it sorted out.

  16. David Wynne Says:

    My LCS doesn’t get TCJ, and I’m not going to order something that expensive on the off-chance I might enjoy it. I have two or three copies of the Journal lying around the place- which I got for cheap at second-hand book shops.

    If I read an interview I like, I often want to return to it later. But I don’t know if I want to do that without having, well, read the interview. If the Journal was the price of a magazine, I’d definitely buy it- but in the current format, it’s just not worth the price on the off-chance that I might consider it worth keeping.

    Going online like this is the ONLY way the Journal is going to get my money- money that I’d quite like to give them. I really hope that the u-turn only applies to #300, and doesn’t indicate a complete reversal of their plans regarding online content. Right now, it feels like they don’t *want* my money…

  17. » Archive » Critical Links – The first taste is free Says:

    […] The Comics Journal releases their 300th print edition. At first, they put all of the issue online for free. Then they pull it without notice 24 hours later. […]

  18. David Wynne Says:

    That’s good. Glad they cleared it up! I’m looking forward to actually being able to read TCJ in future… and if I like what I read, buy it!

  19., 2 Months Later » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] the website last November, the site’s had a tough go of it. They’ve had to go back on posting plans and had delays in getting things running the way they like. Shortly after the switchover, site […]




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