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How a tiny sex ed web comic became a thriving business

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Oh Joy Sex Toy is showing that you don't need a huge audience to make things work online

When it comes to making money on the internet, traffic is typically king: if you want to make a living, you’ve got to bring in massive amounts of visitors. But there’s one web comic that’s figured out how to create a viable business with a relatively small number of readers.

Oh Joy Sex Toy, a weekly comic devoted to sex education and reviews of sex toys and porn sites, doesn’t have the mass appeal of its more innocent peers (sex may sell, but sex education doesn’t always garner the same rabid following as porn). Yet two years into the project, creators Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan are making enough to devote themselves full-time to the project — in spite of the fact that OJST brings in under 250,000 visitors per month (which, by Nolan’s estimation, is maybe a sixth of what fellow full-time web comic Girls With Slingshots brings in; and a minute fraction of the traffic seen by Penny Arcade).

It doesn’t have the mass appeal of its more innocent peers.

As Nolan outlined in a blog post earlier this year, the financial stability of OJST isn’t the product of one single magic bullet, but rather a combination of income streams — some traditional, some more innovative —that join together to create a viable business. Some of these revenue sources are common in the world of web comics. Patreon — the popular platform that allows "patrons" to pledge a monthly amount to support a creator — comprises a large chunk of the site’s income; Moen and Nolan have also made repeated use of Kickstarter to raise the capital to publish print collections of their comics, and banner ads and sales of OJST books bring in income as well. But paired with these revenue streams is another highly lucrative form of income that’s much more novel, at least in the world of web comics: affiliate links, a commission system that provides users with a percentage of every sale that results from traffic they drive to a retailer. "We make anywhere from $1,000-3,000 in sex toy affiliation sales a month," says Nolan. "It swings wildly each month depending on what we review and the time of the year. Sometimes it actually makes more than Patreon."

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Creating a series of sex education comics has long been a dream for the Portland, OR, based couple. "When I met Matt in 2005 I had recently done this short comic called GirlFuck, a 17-page basic intro for how cisgender lesbian sex works. It was proto-OJST; factual information paired with silly humor and graphic depictions of sex. I think basically from our first meeting he was telling me, ‘Hey, that comic you did, that was really good. You need to do more sex education comics like that!’ No exaggeration, he kept repeating that to me for the next eight years, and for eight years I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I'll do it someday.’"

During those eight years, Moen kept busy working as a freelance artist, honing her comics skills with Bucko, a murder mystery comic co-created with Jeff Parker, and diary comic DAR; while Nolan was employed as a game artist, consultant, and UX designer. But once Bucko wrapped, Moen finally felt ready to get started on a sex education project — only to find that the heavily researched, highly educational graphic novel she’d envisioned was much more taxing than she’d ever dreamed. "I worked on it every day until I completely burned myself out — and that was just at the script stage... It felt too big, too important, and I didn't feel qualified to be doing it. I never studied sex or even sociology in college... Who was I to write a book on this subject?"

"I worked on it every day until I completely burned myself out."

But fate intervened: an appearance on reality show StripSearch led to a conversation with Penny Arcade business manager Robert Khoo, who inspired Moen to go back to her web comic roots and start writing a weekly series. To pad out the site’s content and stave off burnout, she started running sex toy reviews. But once Moen and Nolan realized how much money those reviews could bring in, they moved from being a secondary form of content to part of the site’s primary strategy. OJST now partners with a number of different affiliate programs, including Amazon (which offers the lowest commission, at 7-8 percent), sex toy shops like Babeland and Good Vibrations (which tend to offer a 15-20 percent commission), and a variety of porn sites (which, with a 50 percent commission, offer the highest split for the site).

According to Nolan, "Affiliate sales was a happy coincidence for us. We didn't set out to make a sex toy selling machine... People wanted to buy what we were talking about. So we gave them more places to buy them, and now affiliation and toy reviews are serious things we think and plan for." Though Nolan acknowledges that the review-based nature of OJST makes affiliate links a more natural fit for the site than it might be for more narrative-based projects, he thinks the biggest barrier to entry is simply a lack of awareness. "Comic folk just don't know you can make a percentage on sales you send people. It’s a hard idea to wrap your head around when you’re just used to selling your books."

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These days, the comic — which updates on a weekly basis — is roughly 50 percent reviews and 50 percent education, with occasional guest strips thrown in to mix things up and give Moen a bit of time off. Recent reviews have included examinations of the Tenga Original Vaccuum Cup and gay porn site CockyBoys; with educational comics including a primer on UTIs (which Moen enlivens with an embarrassing tale of pants wetting) and an interview with sexologist Emily Nagoski, author of the recently released Come as You Are. No matter the topic, each comic is introduced and hosted by an illustrated version of Moen or Nolan (or, on occasion, both) with a diverse group of "Masturbateers" on hand to help illustrate the finer points of sex toy usage and erotic anatomy.

OJST wasn’t originally intended to be a full-time gig for both Moen and Nolan, but as the site’s revenue increased, that started to seem like a real possibility. When Nolan got laid off from his previous gig, he originally planned to look for a new day job. But a few months into his search, the couple realized they were making enough to cover expenses, allowing him to stop looking for work and focus his energies on building their business. According to Nolan, "It’s not as much money as we could be bringing in if I had my old job, but at the same time we're much happier, and I’m not over worked."

It wasn’t intended to be a full-time gig for both Moen and Nolan, but that started to seem like a real possibility

Even with two people on board, the project is still a great deal of work: scripting, drawing, and inking the comic takes the bulk of Moen’s time; leaving Nolan to handle most of the business. Though they've been able to expand beyond the web comic — a Kickstarter to fund volume two of the OJST book went live earlier this month — for now, Nolan and Moen aren't planning on launching any new sites or trying their hand at any Penny Arcade-style empires.

And they do their best to remember that their success might not last forever. "I don't want it to sound like we're rolling in the cash," says Nolan. "As with any business, the majority of our income goes back into the comic… Are we making enough for the two of us to be working on this full-time? We're still trying to figure that out… How many sex toys can we really sell to our fans?" Only time will tell — but if OJST continues to accrue more fans, it may turn out to be a surprisingly high number.