The generally accepted model for webcomics these days is to put the comic online for free, and then try to make money selling ancillary material and/or advertising. Whether that’s the only viable model and how long it might last are up for debate, certainly, but the idea of actually paying for webcomics hasn’t really panned out.
In Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud talked about the notion of micropayments. Basically, the idea that a creator could, theoretically, charge a very small amount (upwards of perhaps a quarter) for a nugget of information. In this case, a single installment of a webcomic.
Interestingly, the reason this doesn’t work in practice is the same reason why selling those candy bars in the checkout line does. When a person is in the checkout line, they have already gone throughout the store, selected some item(s) that they have decided to purchase and have committed themselves to a process which involves paying for their purchase. By the time the customer is in line, they have already made a mental commitment to making a financial transaction, and the addition of a candy bar has almost no impact on that transaction. The cashier might take an extra second to scan the treat, but the customer still has to go through the motions of making a payment whether the grand total is fifty cents, fifty dollars, or five hundred dollars.
Think about the purchase of the same candy bar if there were no other purchases involved. Would it be worth it to get out of traffic (pedestrian or auto), walk into the store, find the bar you wanted, wait in the checkout line, have the cashier ring the bar, pay for it and wait for the cashier to hand you your change or card back? Is it really worth all that trouble for an 89¢ Snickers? I’m sure the marketing folks at Mars, Inc. would disagree, but I think the answer is probably “no” for most people most of the time.
But if you’re stocking up with a week’s worth of groceries, you have to go through nearly all of that process anyway. The addition of one chocolate bar, especially one that doesn’t have to be sought out since there’s a candy selection right there while you’re waiting for that old woman in front of you to write a check, doesn’t change what you have to do in order to pay.
There’s no additional transaction cost.
A transaction cost is any cost someone has to make in addition to the actual purchase price in order to complete the transaction. In the candy bar examples, the transaction costs are primarily time. Getting into the store, waiting in line, etc. While it’s not (necessarily) a monetary value, people do weight their purchases in terms of these transaction costs. Is it worth it to drive to the next county to save 2¢ per gallon of gas? Does the online discount at least counter the additional shipping costs? Does camping in front of the store the day before in order to be the first one to get a new release outweigh getting the item a day or two later than the devotees?
So the idea to “closing a sale” is to minimize the number of transaction costs a person has to make. Webcomics are like candy bars. People aren’t going to jump through too many hoops for your 89¢ Snickers. If you’ve got a high-end gourmet bar served on a gold platter by wood nymphs, you might be able to get them to go through a couple more hoops but, in the end, it’s still just a chocolate bar.
Getting readers’ attention is the biggest problem a creator has. A hundred years ago, just standing on the street corner yelling “Extra!” was enough to warrant people’s notice. With the din of marketing that people are flooded with from a host of different outlets on a near-constant basis, the hurdle to overcome is simply standing out. Getting readers to see a webcomic instead of spending another hour on Skyrim.
So throwing an immediate barrier to their attention -- like a paywall -- is going be an additional transaction cost that most people aren’t going to make. It’s great to throw out teaser material, but people have learned to be skeptical. Especially with shorter-form pieces like webcomics often are. So to catch readers’s attention, and hold it long enough for them to remember it, the webcomics are given away for free.
That’s biggest transaction cost for readers: caring enough to look at a webcomic. Once that’s accomplished, the next hurdle of getting someone to buy a book or t-shirt, or donate money is considerably lowered. The reader, by that point, has already made the mental transaction cost of spending time with the comic without having the additional transaction cost of making a purchase at the same time.
That transaction cost still remains something of a barrier -- after all, the goal is generally for a webcomic to at least earn enough money to support its creator(s) -- but the difficult work of breaking into people’s headspace is not additionally hindered by forcing them to make a purchase. This means that everyone is potentially able to see a webcomic with minimal transaction costs, and creators are then able to focus more on those fans who are more likely to make that additional purchase.
As I stated at the top, that’s not to say other models are invalid or that something else might supplant or surpass this idea, but it helps, I think, to explain why the ‘default’ webcomics model works and why so many creators are trying to work with it.