In his book Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud made bold predictions about the future of comics, both as an artistic medium and as a business. One of his predictions was that webcomics, free from the restrictions of print sizes, would result in comics that go in various directions and the webpage would be an “infinite canvass.” The other prediction was that webcomics would pursue microtransactions, charging a small fee per page view charged to a credit card. But as the years went on, neither prediction really panned out. With the exception of some experimental comics, most comics stuck to tried and true strips and page layouts because they wanted to eventually put them into a book. Not to mention how tedious it is to scroll all over the page just to read one comic. And since everyone is used to free online content, majority of authors chose to offer their comics online for free and support themselves through a combination of ad revenue, donations, and merchandising. In fact, in How to Make Webcomics Brad Guigar and Dave Kellett advised against subscription models since it keeps new readers from joining and replacing subscribers who don't renew.
But the internet is changing, and the business models that worked in the past aren't working as well as they used to. Zach Weinersmith, author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal expressed his frustration with online ads in an interview with Ars Technica, saying that online ads had to be managed to keep questionable ads from showing up on his page, and the revenue it brought in could vary wildly from month to month. Statisticson online ads show that barely anyone clicks on them (and half of the clicks were on accident), and more and more people are using adblockers to avoid even seeing them. Merchandising comes with the risk that the author loses money because no one wants to buy the products. And the internet is littered with tip jar services that never took off because few want to voluntarily pay for something they already get for free.
As the old ways become less and less viable, authors are willing to consider new models like Patreon, which could possibly be McCloud's vision of subscription based monetization a reality. Patreon is a voluntary subscription service in which “Patrons” can sign up to pay “Creators” a regular fee with their credit card every time that the Creator produces content. Creators can offer incentives for individual Patrons who donate a certain amount each month, like content in advance, sketches, private Google hangout sessions, etc. and can offer aggregate incentives if they receive a certain amount each month. It's like Kickstarter, but instead of funding big projects Patreon offers funding for regularly produced content, making it a perfect fit for webcomics. And some webcomic authors have already started moving towards the Patreon model, like Weinersmith, Ryan Sohmer, and Paul Taylor.
So is this the future of the webcomic business model? I don't know. Part of it depends on the incentives the author's offer. These three seem to be good test cases to look into because of the different amount of incentives they offer. Weinersmith seems to have a good combination of aggregate incentives (free posters and eBooks, removing ads) and individual rewards (private livedraw sessions, seeing comics in advance). Taylor's aggregate rewards are more “Thank you, maybe I'll have more time to update more and post more content” and has more emphasis on individual incentives. And Sohmer offers barely any individual incentives and his aggregate reads more like he's holding extra strips ransom unless the Patrons cough up the cash.
Eventually, we'll see some best practices from the early adopters, but the other question is will viewers buy into this business model? On one hand, this is just another iteration of the tip jar but with fancy titles and some rewards. On the other hand, it's modeled after Kickstarter which has replaced making merchandise and hoping it sells or taking pre-orders. In some ways, Patreon might actually be better than Kickstarter since the Patrons don't have to make their payments until the content is delivered instead of backing the project and hoping the project creator doesn't take the money and run.
It's hard to tell right now if this will replace the traditional “free content with ads,” model, but as that model dies off, the Patreon model would keep webcomics free and allow webcomic authors to make a living off of their work. I may not be able to predict if the site will take off or not, but I hope that it does.