At The Beat, Heidi Macdonald provides an overview of the increasingly important role that crowdfunding is playing in comics publishing. This is one of those stories we all know at some level, but Heidi's coverage of several recent campaigns (both successful and unsuccessful) really hits the key trends and dynamics well.
One of crowdfunding's key promises is to cut out all the middlemen and gatekeepers in the publishing process. For creators who have struggled with the sometimes conservative and hidebound comics retail sector, this may look very appealing:
You could look at indie’s increasing reliance on crowdfunding as a rebuke to a retail system that doesn’t support challenging or truly independent work.
However, the rise of crowdfunding as a direct-to-consumer also raises an interesting possibility: what if it also obsolesced the traditional comic book publisher? While publishers of varying sizes (from Fantagraphics and Archie to Retrofit and Rosy Press) are making use of the crowdfunding model, are they still necessary? For instance, Heidi notes Wild Life as a successful example of the webcomic to Kickstarter pipeline. Soon, publishers may need crowdfunding more than Kickstarter-savvy cartoonists need them. While there are risks for artists of becoming entrepreneurial self-publishers, it's not like risk and entrepreneurialism are foreign concepts to freelance comic creators under the current model.
But publishers do more than provide capital and access to distribution channels. Publishers also traditionally act, by virtue of their gatekeeping role, as batteries of cultural value. That, in the final analysis, is what a publisher's "brand" and "list" is all about. This has perhaps been less evident in comics than literary publishing where the idea of the prestigious publisher is still relatively recent, but as we note in chapter 6 of our book, innovation in comics has often been associated with particular publishing houses and imprints: Marvel in the 1960s, DC in the 1980s, Image and Vertigo in the 1990s (see chapters 7 and 5 of our book), a very different Image again in the 2010s.
It is this symbolic role that individual, entrepreneurial creators may struggle to replace. A successful track record and a cannily leveraged social network (providing blurbs and endorsements as well as backer rewards) won't hurt, but I think the rise of the "crowdpress," i.e., the publishing venture that is really a series of Kickstarter campaigns under the hood, is very telling. The trappings of a traditional publisher communicate trust and stability and, moreover, allow these publishers to store up cultural value in their brand and re-invest it in future projects.