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How David Harper built a huge audience with his comic book criticism
Harper's podcast Off Panel was an instantaneous hit, rocketing to the top of the Apple iTunes charts.
David Harper wrote hundreds of thousands of words over a five-year period without making a single penny from his comic book criticism. In 2009, he and a couple friends launched Multiversity Comics, a fan website that went on to be nominated for an Eisner Award, which is basically the comic book equivalent of an Oscar.
In 2015, David struck off on his own, launching an incredibly popular podcast and website. As his audience grew, he began to think about ways he could monetize it, and he eventually rolled out a paid subscription model. In my interview with David, we talked about the origin of his comic book fandom, where he found his audience, and how he designed his subscription offering.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Converting comic book fandom into content
David’s comic book fandom started out when he was just a kid. “Marvel Comics did a Transformers series in the 1980s, and it was actually the origin of most of the names of the characters that people know and love. I was a Transformers maniac back then, and this was the first time I realized that I loved comics, that this is something that's really cool.” Eventually his fandom migrated to X-Men, Batman, and other mainstream superhero comics. “And then basically ever since then, with the exception of a two or three-year gap in college, I've been just full steam ahead. I would say I’ve been a comic books fan for probably 31 years.”
David was born and raised in Alaska and moved back to the state after college to work in marketing. One day he was surfing one of his favorite music websites when he stumbled onto its message boards. While combing through its various threads, he found one that focused entirely on comic books. “I spent like years talking comics with people on there, and one of them decided that he was going to start a site, and he started this site called Multiversity Comics. I asked him if I could write for it, and I ended up spending a little under six years writing for that site.”
Over the course of those six years, David wrote thousands of articles, and the work started to pay off. “We did have lots and lots and lots of people reading it. I don't remember the exact numbers, but there were thousands and thousands of people reading it. In 2014 we'd been nominated for the Eisner Award for best comics-related site.” That’s pretty much the comic book version of an Academy Award. “Unfortunately, we were not well monetized, but we were just having fun.”
Striking off on his own
Eventually, David decided to stop writing for Multiversity Comics. “One of the things about comic sites, at least with the bigger ones, is that a lot of them fall into the same content traps that come with a banner ad-driven world, in that they have to produce a lot of content. And for comics, that often means writing lots of reviews, running lots of previews of upcoming comics, running interviews that aren't necessarily very in-depth or interesting.” David didn’t want to get stuck in that content mill in perpetuity. “I would probably have felt like that was a waste of time and not a good usage of my skills.”
For his next act, David decided he wanted to slow things down and publish more in-depth content. “I started a site called SKTCHD (pronounced Sketched) and a podcast called Off Panel. The podcast is basically just me having conversations with comic creators, journalists, comic shop owners, people who are adjacent to the industry, things of that sort.” His website features longform, well-researched articles about comics and the people behind it.
David’s podcast was an instantaneous success; the first episode featured an interview with a well-known comics writer, and it got written up by major comic book news sites. Apple Podcasts also featured it on its recommendations page. “That resulted in my podcast being ranked 80th in the entire world for a small amount of time.” While most podcasters have to slowly build up their audiences over time, he had a strong listener base from the very beginning.
Monetizing his audience
For his first several years of creating content about comic books, David didn’t make a dime, partly because he wasn’t all that interested in advertising-based business models. But a few years ago he started to notice that more and more creators were successfully convincing their audiences to pay for content. He eventually launched a Patreon account and installed Memberful on his website.
The Patreon has several payment tiers and offers up things like early access to episodes and the ability to submit questions for guests. For SKTCHD, David locks most of his articles behind a hard paywall. Each day he publishes an article under a different theme. “Tuesday is normally when I publish a longform feature article that I’ve been working on for some length of time. On Wednesdays I publish what I call The Pull. It’s an article where I share my recommendations and curiosities from the week. On Thursdays, I normally have a column or an interview or something where I get to mess around and be silly. And then on Friday, instead of writing about news, I have a column I call Comics Disassembled, where I look at ten things I liked or didn’t like from the week of comics.”
The Patreon generates about $842 per month, and SKTCHD subscriptions are steadily growing. His subscriber base is divided somewhat evenly between fans and those who work in the industry. “I would say probably 60% of subscribers are probably in the industry in some capacity and the rest of them are just enthusiastic readers. A lot of the people who subscribe have been following me for a long time. They subscribed to my newsletter after I left Multiversity. They've been podcasts listeners. It’s been 10 years in the making.”
David doesn’t have any big secrets for how he converts subscribers. “I have a very Field of Dreams view on it: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ And so far I have, thankfully, been largely proven correct.”
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