If Steve had posted comments on the thread about how his graphic novel shouldn’t have been uploaded, or how piracy was wrong, the response would not have been pretty. But he didn’t, instead deciding to engage with users who probably wouldn’t have otherwise heard of or even seen his work.
The end result is Steve now has a few more genuine fans who may now buy his work regardless of how much it gets illegally uploaded to the . So he effectively gave away the version for free which lead to more paper-based sales. Would that actually work as a model for the industry? I doubt it. Steve won the respect of the 4chan users and that’s what spurred sales not the availability of the pages in the first place.
I think generally, people are pretty heavy handed when it comes to piracy. Digital content is a different beast of a different nature, and trying to shoehorn it into the usage models and economic models of the past often end up with people pulling out lawyers. And we all know what people think of lawyers. (!)
However, I don’t agree with the conclusion and assessment of the OP that because he gave away digital copies, that lead to more paper sales, which meant that it’d work for everyone.
It’s not that this is a one off chance occurrence, but rather, he found another way to talk about his product and get engagement from potential customers where no one else was talking. In addition, it was what Seth Godin calls the Purple Cow. It was significant for 4chan members to pay attention to because it was new, and no one else was doing it. Thus, he got the full attention of his audience. Imagine that if all graphic novelists gave away their stuff digitally for free on 4chan. Then you’re going to get a fragmentation of attention, and that peak’s not going to be that high.
Groupon actually suffered from the same problem of focused attention when it first started out as the Point. When it was the Point, the community could be concentrating on any number of causes or group actions. However, the power of group actions is in numbers, and when you can focus the attention of your community on one thing, then the power of the community is magnified and they can actually make things happen. Thus, Groupon only has one deal a day, and focuses their community on that.
I think generally, authors and musicians will slowly come to terms with giving away digital content, but they’ll find that as everyone starts doing it, the less effective it becomes with the particular audience you’re talking to.