Editor’s Note: The Dobson Chronicles’ Kymberly Reid recently sat down with McGill grad Alex Park, co-founder and CEO of Tabulit, a digital agency and publisher that is 100 percent by indie comic creators for indie comic creators. Learn more about how they’re working with comic creators to build a creative economy around their shared love for comics.
Tabulit is a digital media platform that publishes graphic novels made by indie comic creators. The platform uses a subscription based model to build a digital creative economy that fairly compensates its creators. The Tabulit team includes Alex Park, Ed Kang, and Minjoo Cha.
Alex Park, the co-founder of Tabulit and a McGill alumni, shared the vision and core mission behind this platform.
Kymberly Reid: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Alex Park: I am a Korean-Canadian, I came to Canada when I was about 11 years-old and spent my youth in B.C. I did my undergraduate degree here in Montreal at McGill University for Med-P before switching to Psychology. I then continued to graduate studies for creative writing in England at the University of Oxford. I finally came back to Montreal last summer.
KR: What inspired you to start Tabulit Comics?
AP: After I graduated and finished my thesis, I tried to publish my novel. I was looking for publishers and trying to find agents that could help me but as it turns out, I really did not like the publishing scene.
The print publishing scene is built so that the typical royalty for writers is only about 10 percent. For example, if the cost of a paperback is about $19.99, half of that would be taken by the bookstore and then the writer would get 10 percent of the other half. Based on the cost of a paperback, authors would only make about a dollar from each book. A bestseller in Canada is anyone who sells 5,000 copies, so a writer may even be a “best-seller” but may have only made about $5,000 for a few years of work.
I didn’t really like that and I didn’t like how complicated it was to publish a book and how little experimentation was allowed by publishers. So I wanted to find a digital solution for that. When I went back to Korea, and while I was growing up, there were these very popular serialized web novels that are published in ‘bite-sized’ bits as they are written. In a sense, this allows everyone –readers and writers, to complete the book together. This is the main idea behind Tabulit Comics.
Myself and James Park first founded the company and after finding a technical co-founder, Jeff Yoon, as well as a few others, we established Tabulit Media. While James and Jeff are no longer with Tabulit Comics, Ed Kang and Minjoo Cha have jumped on board as COO and CTO respectively.
KR: So why comics?
AP: In the Korean publishing world, I am a big fan of this genre called Webtoons. Webtoon portals are run by major South Korean corporations, such as NAVER, and I have been with these portals since the very beginning. I grew up with these portals and looked forward to different days when a new series instalment was released, very much like how we would watch a television series.
If you look at the American graphic novel world, there is a lot of emphasis placed on superhero comics with big brands like Marvel and DC. There doesn’t seem to be much that is targeting the wider, mainstream audience. However, in South Korea, one of the most popular comics was about an intern learning to adapt in the corporate world which is not something that would gain popularity within the North American graphic novel world as it is now.
In my opinion that is only because of the momentum that the North American comic scenes have built here and popularized. However, when you dig into the indie comic scene, there is much more content that people can relate to which covers much more diversified areas in the dramas of life. I am also a fan of these kinds of graphic novels so I thought that it would be a good idea to apply what we do with novels into graphic novels that would target a larger audience.
Another reason we chose comics was our desire to find an alternative medium since books are so competitive. There are numerous startups that are trying to do something within a text-based book model. We had three different prototypes of our web platform before our current one, and the first two were text only. The first one bombed but the second showed us that getting people to pay for digital books is really difficult unless you have a substantial marketing budget.
We started with just digital novels and then thought to incorporate graphics as a way to attract readers. Eventually, we decided to stick with comics which we found to have a lot of potential because it is so unexplored. In South Korea and Japan, comics as a medium is really evolving so there is no doubt that it will grow here as well. The East Asians had it first because their digital media and mobile systems are so much more densely incorporated into everyday life. Mobile adaptation and the readiness to spend money on digital goods is much more established there but I think we are slowly moving towards this as well here in North America.
KR: What is the digital creative economy?
AP: Creatives have a big disadvantage at the moment for monetization and selling their work. Going through a publisher usually amounts to very little revenue returning to you. Also, it is very costly to find a way to duplicate and sell a physical good. Using digital media is therefore much easier for creatives to market and distribute their work. The problem is when you take the digital approach, people often take it for granted that it is free.
My question is, why should it be free? At the moment we have this idea of digital creative content being funded by ads or something like Blockchain. Right now, a good CPM for an ad-based model is a dollar or two dollars. What that really means is, for a million impressions, you get about $1,000 to $2,000. This model is extremely ineffective for a creator who toils over something for an extended period of time. This may work well for someone that can constantly pump out content but it takes a lot of time to make high-quality content.
“What we would like to do is define a monetization strategy that will guarantee a consistent income for the artist.” – Alex Park, co-founder and CEO of Tabulit
For this reason, you can’t rely solely on ad revenue because it doesn’t provide a consistent revenue stream. This is why platforms like Patreon or Kickstarter have become so popular. However, the problem with these kinds of platforms is that it becomes a begging competition unless you have an established reputation, so it does not do much for emerging artists. There are also many store options out there for creatives to build shops and sell their work. The most attractive thing about these marketplaces is the ability to sell digital copies which many graphic artists have gravitated towards.
There is so much available but each option has its limitations and artists are forced to do so many things just to get their work out there. It is already a full-time job to create something good and the best things happen when you have the time to focus. When you ask the creator to also play the roles of a marketer, and publicist, and a business person, how are they going to consistently produce decent work? This problem is really what has continued to motivate me.
Right now, monetization options are very limited but I have seen a better model at work. For example, in South Korea, comic artists are earning six-figure salaries while just doing their work. This is because the portals take care of everything and they are able to earn a monthly income as valued employees of the company. Here, it is hard to imagine that a comic artist can be on the same level as someone like Ryan Gosling because of the cultural associations. However, since value is given to comic artists in the East, you do see some artists with high celebrity status.
What we would like to do is define a monetization strategy that will guarantee a consistent income for the artist. The solution is getting people used to paying for digital content which is what has contributed to the success of the Webtoons industry. In a free system, the only person that wins is the ad guy and the platform. The quality also comes down because the creator is not being compensated. My goal is to have a creator on our platform that can say they are making their sole income on Tabulit. Also, when someone says “I want to be a novelist” or “I want to be an artist,” I want that to be on the same level as saying “I want to be a banker.” When this is said, the first response should not be “Well, what is your actual job going to be?” This is the kind of world I want to help create and that’s what I mean by the digital creative economy.
KR: How do you balance the freeness of the digital sphere with monetization and making a profit on digital goods?
AP: There are a few things that we do to ensure profit such as making free previews so that our viewers can make a decision to pay or not. The second thing we have done is paid previews. There are a few artists on our platforms that have separate free blogs where they share their comics. If, for example, they have released a series up to issue ten on their blogs, we will build on this and offer up to issue twelve on Tabulit. So readers can pay to be ahead and get more issues.
We constantly try to motivate people in various ways because we know that people love free stuff. We know that it is hard to change this and suddenly tell them, ‘now you have to pay for things’. However, we’re trying to change that. At the moment, web comics are so chaotic because each creator produces their own series on separate websites so it’s all over the place. We are trying to groom our platform into something that combines quality content from various creators so that people don’t have to go searching for it.
We also really try to keep it very diverse so that one genre doesn’t dominate the entire platform. On free platforms, this tends to happen a lot. On some platforms, fantasy dominates while on others, supernatural or sci-fi genre takes over the platform. We really want to keep it diverse and curated with unique art styles and story content without any one genre being superior to the other just because it gains more readers.
We would like to have something for everyone where anyone can find three of four things from our selection that they enjoy. Web comics nowadays have the reputation for being something that is just whipped out in a few hours. We are trying to optimize and organize that sphere, as well as the genre of web-comics itself despite there being many domains under that. It is still a new sphere so we have a lot of work to do.
KR: You use the term indie to describe the style of comics, what do you mean by this?
AP: When I say indie comics, it means they are not affiliated with any publisher that they have to be exclusive with or limited by in by in any way. Either they are self-published or minimally affiliated with an organization. If they are affiliated with a pulbisher, then it is very minimal. Those publishers tend to focus on print. This way, we’re able to introduce a digital platform to them. These publishers also tend to be much more open to experimentation, unlike larger publishers that tend to be more business-minded and weary of risks.
When someone says “I want to be a novelist” or “I want to be an artist,” I want that to be on the same level as saying “I want to be a banker.” – Alex Park, co-founder and CEO of Tabulit
KR: What makes Tabulit special?
AP: The way we are right now, we are one of only a few, two or three subscription-based comic sites currently available. We deal with different themes and are very varied in terms of art styles. There is another subscription based app called Stela but they have a more traditional comic background with fantasy and superhero style content. However, we are a lot more open to working with the creators directly.
For example, we have our own Slack channel where all the creators talk to each other directly to make decisions together. Another thing is the serialization aspect where we provide weekly updated comics so that people can consume them bit-by-bit. This is very important because when people say they don’t have time to read, it is often because they don’t have two hours to spare. Our model allows them to enjoy our content with limited time.
Lastly, I think it is just the way we have portrayed ourselves from the very begin as creator-friendly in order to establish a sustainable creative economy. We are producing something unique that ‘feels’ different than your traditional comic spaces by allowing our readers to also participate in the content. We keep it as a walled garden so that once you pass the wall, you have access to all our content. These are the things we prioritize, we want it to be easy.
“Can you imagine asking a software developer to code something for free just because they love to code? This is what we ask of creatives all the time which is a cultural thing. We need to do something to reverse this mindset.” – Alex Park, co-founder and CEO of Tabulit
When I try to think of how we are different, there are so many small things that I could say but the thing that is most important and that I am so confident in saying is that we actually give a shit about the craft. I can say all kinds of things about our features but the main thing I would say is that we care about the craft and keeping the artist fed. It’s about constantly introducing new talent and making comics, as a medium, flourish. Comics until now have been about mining the same audience and the pie is not increasing, it is shrinking. We want to bring the medium out to a wider audience and increase its potential for storytelling.
I have seen what Korean comic artists have done and I want the same thing to happen here where we can see comic artists on the same level as Ryan Reynolds. The work that creatives do is real work, regardless of what anyone says, and work demands some kind of pay. Can you imagine asking a software developer to code something for free just because they love to code? This is what we ask of creatives all the time which is a cultural thing. We need to do something to reverse this mindset.
Tabulit can work spectacularly when scale is achieved. A dream scenario would be to have a million subscribers with 200 rolling works which will amount to about five million dollars in monthly revenue from subscriptions. Two-thirds of that, which would be about three million dollars in revenue, would be shared between 200 separate artists which still amounts to $15,000 per person each month. This will vary per artist but it would still guarantee a sustainable fixed salary for our creators. That’s the kind of system I imagine this to be, where people can get more value for their work.
At that point, we would also be giving creatives a practical career path where they can do what they love doing while earning a decent living. I was dreaming about this kind of company as I dreamt of becoming a writer, but there wasn’t one, so I decided to make one. Right now, creatives have no career path and we have to invent our own path with such limited options. There should be a place where someone can fully exert their creativity in a way that actually brings them money.
KR: Any advice for up and coming creatives?
AP: Remember that you have value. A lot of people try to intimidate young artists into doing something that devalues their work like asking for things for free. In the art world, the rate of pay is terrible which I think is due to lack of organization. There is no salary standard for people to work by and so people that hire creatives may pay them much lower than they are valued. You should say no – that’s what I mean when I say remember your value. Don’t jump at something that may seem like an opportunity but it’s really not… like the promise of exposure.
Some firms may ask an artist to create a logo and in exchange, they gain exposure but it is so unlikely that someone will see that logo and then go to the designer’s website. Sometimes exposure may be good if it is genuine but many times, the word exposure is thrown around when someone doesn’t want to pay. The work we do is definitely valuable and worth something that we can use. How did we get into the habit of paying a thousand dollars an hour for a lawyer? Yes, a lawyer studies and trains but so do many creatives. It takes a lot of time to develop and hone your skills. So there is absolutely no reason to accept unpaid work. Demand and mention an invoice so that you can ensure it’s a paid exchange.
KR: Would you like to say anything else to our readers? Where can they go to find these comics or perhaps contribute their own work?
AP: If someone has comic works, they can submit it to my email. Go to Tabulit and check out our content. We even have a subscription option that is a little cheaper because 100 percent of it goes towards supporting the creator. I would also like to say, please go out and pay for a piece of art or support someone on Patreon, or do something to forward this movement.
The more people that do this, the more we can create a model of direct exchange rather than a round-a-bout approach of value exchange for a creative good. That’s really where it starts and it’s actually very rewarding to directly pay a creator for their work and have a hand in making that happen. This is the kind of virtual cycle that needs to happen more often and on a larger scale.