In my last entry, I discussed a number of the ways that webcomics make money and mentioned that only a few of the thousands of webcomic artists are able to actually do so. There are a number of factors that play into which comics make money (and for that matter, which attract the most readers, and which work best with each type of business plan), but I think a critical one is what economists know as “Superstar Theory”.
Aside: I am an economist by schooling, and years ago, this was a major point in my undergraduate thesis paper. I didn’t invent the phrase—that honor goes to actual economists like Sherwin Rosen—but I suspect I was the first person to use it in reference to webcomics. I’m going to assume you have a basic idea of how economic supply and demand works, here: As people demand more of a good, the price goes up; as producers make more of it, price goes down, and everything else pretty much flows from that.
The classic model would be a baker: If more people want cupcakes, and start lining up at his door to buy them, then he can raise the price and make more money. If a second bakery opens up down the street, people can buy cupcakes from either of them, and the first baker will need to lower his prices or he’ll see his business go to the competition.
In most modern artistic fields, there are a small number of artists that grow huge followings and tend to get the majority of the word-of-mouth “buzz.” This concept is known as the Superstar phenomenon, in which a relatively small group of people earn significantly more money than most in their field, and, in fact, dominate that field in general. Performers, writers, and sports players of the first rank command huge incomes, and there is a large gap between their salaries and those of people of the second rank—though the difference in skill between first and second rank may be minute. (Think of what Harrison Ford makes versus what his “unknown” female co-star makes.) For an economist, this can be complicated to examine with your classic supply-demand model, because that model assumes that products are undifferentiated—one is as good as any other. What’s missing is an account of “box office appeal,” or the ability of a single person to attract a large following.