Or, a Buyer Beware Guide to Supporting Web Comics

Once upon a time, creative success depended on luck and the generosity and goodwill of more wealthy individuals. These days, luck is still a factor, but if your work can translate to the web, you can distribute it yourself. If you are especially talented and lucky, you might eventually get to the point where you can support yourself and family from the work you produce and distribute online. Talk about an artists dream – to be able to maintain control of your artistic endeavor, and make money off of it, without having to compromise your vision in the slightest? Truly it can be said that the internet has done more for the artist than any other innovation in years.

For a webcomic artist, the income formula is fairly standard. Your comic is going to be free – and posted regularly, to generate a steady traffic flow. From there, most successful and profitable webcomic strips will use some combination of three possible income streams. Reader donations (Something Positive and Subculture are two good examples of this, both having Paypal donation buttons on their site), Advertising (Either through brokers like Project Wonderful or if you are large enough: direct sponsorship, and Merchandising.

While donations are often a good way to earn a little income from very generous and devoted readers, nothing attracts average people like an online store. It appeals to a base commercial instinct in most of us – we like to advertise what we like, especially if it involves wearing something that you can’t get just anywhere. This is especially true for “geeks:” and said consumers make up the vast majority of the webcomic market. Plus. many people are wary of donating money because they like to have something tangible in exchange for their money (and “free enjoyment of a creative effort” isn’t really tangible).

Merchandising is easier than ever. Cafepress is a great alternative for the beginning artist, but as your audience and orders grow, an entrepreneurial webcomic artist will need to make some changes to allow for flexibility in their product line and to maximize profits. For many this involves hiring a personal business manager and printing the materials yourself, or hiring another merchandising company to manufacture and sell the products for you.

So what does all of this have to do with Jeph Jacques? He, as many of you know, is the creator of Questionable Content, a week-daily webcomic strip. It’s won its fair share of awards, and has built itself quite a strong audience. To be perfectly frank – the strip is fantastic. I remain a fan of his work. Jacques is one of the fortunate few who has been able to turn his art into a profession. His website boasts the trifecta of income streams – a Donation Button, Advertising, and a Merchandise Store.

So here is where the story takes a darker turn… one that comes with a lesson we should all remember when shopping online – just because you are a fan of a comic strip does not mean that the artist is your friend or trustworthy. Advice I should have remembered at the time.

As it would happen, I happen to be dating a girl that is… less than open to comics. I don’t force my strange hobby on her, but over the years when I have found something she likes I definitely encourage it. This has resulted in many Strangers in Paradise, American Spendor, and Ghost World related purchases, to be sure. Needless to say, when she got turned on to Questionable Content, I did everything in my power to encourage that. So, on January 16th, 2009, I decided to order her something from the Questionable Content store – specifically the “Hannelore Worry Shirt.”

Long story short? It’s been 7 months, and this order still hasn’t shipped.

Of course, after about a month, I started to get concerned. The order still hadn’t shipped, and I had no idea when it would. I decided an email would be the best way to go at this point. Now, on the Questionable Content site, Jacques specifically states the following:

All merchandise inquiries should be directed to qcmerch (at) mac (dot) com or user name “qcmerch” on AOL Instant Messenger. Merchandise-related questions sent to jephco (at) mac (dot) com will not be replied to.

OK, so email qcmerch@mac.com. Got it.

I didn’t email bomb the guy… I first sent out an email om February 11th politely asking for an update. The thing was, though I was specifically sending my inquiry to the correct address, no one ever replied. I followed up with a second email on March 4th. Again… nothing rude or inflammatory, just a request for an update on the order. Neither email received any kind of reply.

Here is where my concern started to grow into a little something more. See, I was getting ready to move in April. I didn’t consider this at the time I made my order, but at that point I felt it was reasonable to assume that an order would be shipped well before three months had passed. I was even willing to wait – but since I still hadn’t received a reply of any kind at all, I was getting more than a bit irritated, as well as worried the package would ship to my old address (which was vacant), and sit on that front porch until someone decided to toss it. So I decided to take the unforgivable step of sending an email to jephco@mac.com, which appeared to be a more personal email address.

Now I must admit that considering that warning on his contact page, I found it a bit backwards that the first time I actually got a reply to my question was when I sent an email to the address he specifically warned he would not reply to.

Jacques‘s reply on March 15th was polite, though brief:

“We’re still catching up on January orders; your shirt will be in the mail by the end of the week if all goes according to plan. Sorry about the delay.

jeph”

He didn’t make any confirmation about my address change, but heck, it was a response with a timeframe. That satisfied me, for a time. I sent a thank you and went back to waiting. I waited another month.

Finally, April 15th rolled around, and I decided to send another email. I went back to the “proper” email address of qcmerch@mac.com, and let him know that I still hadn’t gotten my order, and I had since moved. I included my new address and asked that the item be shipped there. I did express a little irritation at the wait, but nothing too serious or offensive. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but that email was ignored as well. As was the follow up email on June 11th (sent to both addresses), when I finally asked for a refund. After that email was ignored, I sent another one on June 27th, once again asking for a refund. Finally I sent one last email on July 16th, explaining who I was (something I don’t like doing, but heck, it was the only thing I could actually do that might have some effect at that point), and let him know that I would post an article about the transaction if we couldn’t come to some kind of resolution. I thought for sure that would get his attention, and he would just refund my money and be done with me at that point. I know I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I still never received a reply. Since I don’t really believe in making empty threats – here we are.

Here is where the object lesson comes in. At the time of my order, Jacques was sending out his merchandise himself, so there was no customer service line I could complain to. I paid through Paypal – so I thought I should file a dispute there. Unfortunately, you have to file a dispute within 45 days, and at that point we were well past that mark. I knew that there was a deadline to file a dispute, but in my line of thinking, I was supporting an independent webcomic artist – he would fill the order, all I needed was a little patience. So past the deadline, Paypal just shrugged their shoulders and didn’t do a thing to help me. I didn’t purchase the item on a credit card, so I couldn’t dispute the charge (and thus didn’t have a credit card company’s fraud department on my side).

Now this story isn’t meant to discourage you from purchasing merchandise from your favorite webcomic. But you should be cautious when spending your money online. Webcomic artists are members of our community, but that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. So here are some tips to keep in mind when making your purchase.

1. Size Matters. The more exposure the Web Comic has, the more likely you are to receive your item. Penny Arcade and PvP are likely going to ship your order fast, as will anyone else that contracts with a large, reputable merchandise service. This doesn’t mean you let your guard down with the big-boys, but it does mean you should be more cautious when dealing with less-mainstream names.

2. Reputation Matters Ultimately, if a site is likely to rip you off, odds are you will hear about it somehow. In addition to size, reputation is important – and a little time and effort on Google should reveal quickly if they are going to send your item or not. If you are dealing with a smaller, less-established webcomic store, take a little time to check them out before sending in the money. Also consider how long the comic has been around, or how long they have been selling items. If the comic is brand new and started selling shirts 2 months ago, you might want to wait a while before making that purchase. You might love the comic and want to support them, but until they demonstrate longevity and have several months of consistent shipping under their belt, you don’t want to be the one to test their trustworthiness.

3. Paypal is Not Your Friend. Sure, Paypal is extremely convenient, but you have to take care of yourself there. If you pay via Paypal and pass the 45 Day deadline to file a dispute, you literally have no recourse at all.

Instead, you should use a credit card or main a postal money order. Credit Card companies are much easier to work with when you have a dispute, and will often refund your charge while the dispute is being investigated. Any dispute you make with a credit card company should be done within 60 days of the transaction if you want to be protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act (which may not cover you if the charge is under $50), but Credit Card Companies will often go above and beyond to serve their clients, even if you are filing past the usual deadline. Just remember to try and resolve it on your own first, and document everything if you go this route – your credit card company will probably go to bat for you if you have been legitimately defrauded, no matter how long it has been.

Postal Money Orders may not be accepted by an online retailer, but if you can mail in payment, they add an interesting bit of added protection. If you pay for an item with a Postal Money Order and the item isn’t shipped – they have committed mail fraud. You can bet that the Post Office takes that seriously, and will prosecute.

4. Don’t Be Nice If something doesn’t ship within a certain time frame, file the dispute. If you use Paypal to make a payment, and you haven’t received your item on the 44th day, just file the dispute.There is no being friendly about it – you can’t decide to give them more time (this was the mistake I made). Remember the old “Allow 4-6 Weeks For Delivery” at the end of commercials? That is an excellent guideline. If you don’t have it in 6 weeks, and they haven’t given you a tracking number, something is wrong. You aren’t a bad person for demanding your item ship within a reasonable time frame, especially if you are paying for the item in advance and paying a shipping and handling fee.

5. Check The Forums If a Web Comic is popular enough, odds are they have a forum. Sign up for an account, and ask people there if they had ordered from the store, and how long it took to get their items. If someone is posting there still, odds are they will support the artist, but if you get a few people reporting slow shipment (it took a little while to get there, but he is so busy, so I was cool with it!), odds are they are not a reliable merchant, and you should think twice before ordering from them.

6. Wait for the Con A lot of times Web Comic artists will visit several conventions a year, and do make appearances. Odds are, they will have merchandise on them. Find out what conventions or signings they will be attending, and if possible, arrange to make your purchase there. There is much less chance of fraud when the transaction is face to face.

At the end of the day, I deserve what I got – I wasn’t a smart consumer, and I lost $23 in the process. So what now – do I organize some kind of massive campaign against Jeph Jacques for stealing my money? Boycott? Email attack? Show up at a convention with a photographer and demand he pay me right then?

Even after all this, I do enjoy his work. I still read the comic, and I would encourage you to as well. I would even say that if you were planning on purchasing some Questionable Content merch, that you could probably feel safe in doing so. Since I made my order, Jacques has contracted Topatoco to manufacture and sell his products, and they have developed a fairly good reputation in their relatively short existence. I think it is doubtful that anyone purchasing something today would experience anything like what I have.

So to try an organize what would probably be a futile attempt at retaliation? Kind of pointless if you ask me. Jeff Jaques did steal from me – that’s as plain as you can put it. He did take money from me, and did not deliver what he promised. This was aggravated by the fact that he is a professional, and he literally eats if people like me support his work by purchasing his merchandise. I emailed his customer service address, and didn’t receive a single reply (he only replied to the ‘fan’ address) – in that time, I can’t have been the only one. It’s unprofessional, and disrespectful to the people that put a roof over his head.

I am irritated, but I am going to let it go. It’s pointless to start a crusade against him, but I did feel it was necessary to share my experience – not only so his readers could know what happened, but also in the hopes that other potential consumers out there would be more cautious when spending money to support their favorite webcomic artists.

Though I wouldn’t mind it if, next time you see him at a con, you told him to “Send Craig his damned money back.”

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