Shop talk: What makes a webcomic work?

I was asked the other day on why I offer “the Bean” as both a webcomic and a printed piece. In fact the question was if I thought I was sinking my own ship by offering it up for free.

Yet in a time when Indy comics are getting harder and harder to produce and get out there. Mind you that diamond is no longer really friendly to the small guys, there must still be an outlet for those of us that have  fantastic tales to tell.

Yet too often too many incredibly good webcomics fall by the wayside, because their creators cannot keep up with the pace or demands that they set up for themselves. Which is a shame. You see more webcomics are truly a labor of love.

The other problem one faces is having to weed through all the crap to find the really strong ones. With the power of the web, a story can reach a huge audience, but we forget that we are competing with many other artists trying to do the same thing. So how can you make your webcomic survive and how can you as a struggling illustrator manage to make a little income at the same time? Well let’s break it down….

1. DEADLINES AND RELIABILITY- I cannot stress this one enough. Set realistic deadlines. Bean updates once a week, every monday and then two color updates tuesday and thursday (I have embarked on the biggest project of my life coloring Bean from page 1). My readers know that there will be a new part of the story on those days, they expect it and so I must honor that. If I kept changing the days without telling people… people loose interest. IF I MISS DAYS WITHOUT AND EXPLANATION PEOPLE STOP READING! See too many comic artist start missing deadlines for what ever reason and push the updates further back. You want to upset your readers, don’t be reliable. If you want your readership to grow, update when you say you will. There are many programs out there that will let you automate this process so you can be several weeks in advance.

2. WORK WITHIN YOUR LIMITS. Honestly, if you can produce 5 colored pages a week and that’s all you had to do, then updating 5 days a week is fine. Yet most artists are pretty slammed so 5 colored pages a week can be quite overwhelming. Work within what is realistic. My main goal is to finish my tale in b/w first and then go back and color it (or find someone else to color it for me so I can do another tale). I realized I can produce several pages a week- between 8 to 10 at times in b/w, yet I cannot do this consistently. I have other obligations and I LOVE being married and I LOVE being a dad. So I must juggle a bit. So I found that making sure I update twice a week was very workable and now I have an 80 page buffer just ready to be uploaded. Which brings me to the next point.

3.CREATE A BUFFER! They(newspapers comics) say you should have 6 weeks of strips in the hopper. I am a strong believer of that. Do not try to update the same week you do that perfect page you are working on, you will only set you up for failure.

comic-2009-11-24-the-bean.jpg4.QUALITY OVER QUANTITY! There are no print deadlines with webcomics except the ones you make for yourself, yet keep them! So take your time, make it look good. If we can prove that there are incredibly well written and drawn stories out there, more and more will flock to find them. Yet that takes a little faith in an industry that pay artist very little. That’s why I like a twice a week update. It allows me to take time to create a good story with out feeling rushed as well as lets me cover my other freelance jobs at the same time.

Other updates though are important- I love having a separate art gallery to let my imagination go wild. It gives people something to enjoy why they wait.

5.KEEP YOUR STORY FOCUSED- I recommend to start with an ending and then work your way to that point. It’s all about direction. Epics are fine when they have a focus to get to. Side stories are fine as well but be careful that you do not loose focus. Webcomics that loose focus, loose readers. (more on story creation in another posts).

6.WHY PAY SITES DON’T WORK AND THE POWER OF THE HARD COPY (for the reader): By posting our webcomics online for free, it allows a fan base to built. People from all over the world can enjoy your stuff… and yes they get it for free, so where is the money aspect of it. If you use a site that charges admission for your work, it drives fans away and you end up making very little and risk a much smaller fan base (I have a few friends, who are very talented that ran into this trap). I say utilize the hard copy. Small print run, keep it clean and professional and sell it online and at conventions. If your fans love your story, they will love the hard copy even more.

You still need to eat and 95% webcomics are done in the evenings late at night as a labor of love. People do not realize how much time is put into a dream to make it a reality, and how many of us struggle to make ends meet and still produce an incredible story.

SO HERE IS THcoversvol1E REALITY CHECK! A lot of people will just read the story online. You will also notice that many people promise to buy your books, family and friends etc… but when it comes down to it those numbers are really small. Yet the person that finds your webcomic and takes the time to comment, return daily, etc will be the one that will buy the hard copy. It is the truth.  Yet you can still create income as indy… It’s just learning what options are out there.

The bean was written to be a printed story. It fits this pattern to the letter. I dedicate each book to be 152 pages of the story that is online, plus extras – maps, notes etc….. I have 3 books done and I am now in the process of finishing book 4. I make sure the cover is nice and strong and that it is something my fans would want and enjoy. It is a tribute to them, because the Bean will not always be up here.  Each book has been funded by Kickstarter- and now the coloring is being funded through patreon. These sites and are personal stores allow people to help keep our webcomic stories up and free to the masses.

As when search comics I am the same way, if I find a web comic that I really enjoy, I will pick up the hard cover.

7. MAKE YOUR SITE FUNCTIONAL-and use a good tracking software to see hits etc. Unique hits are more important that regular hits. A unique hit number is a more accurate representation of how many people are reading your comic. So if your website gets 500000 hits and has only 12 unique hit, that means only about 12 people and one might be your mom, are reading your comic. So focus on getting the unique hits up.

8. GETTING YOUR NAME OUT THERE- This is a weird one. Trends change all the time. You will find, even if your story is picked up for print, that you still have to push the advertising yourself. You will have to make contacts, you will have to come out of your shell and start meeting people. Start submitting your links, make deals with other webcomics you like (mind you some creators are really picky what they will showcase, for me it is quality and age appropriate material) to host one another links. Find time to promote someone else, you might be surprised to see the favor returned. This game though is always changing… Social media is changing and Facebook is not as creator friendly as it used to be.

you can link to the bean with this image

9. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE- I am a dad, I know what I want my kids to see online, so I make sure my work follows in that vein. I also know my audience loves reading fantasy and likes certain things, so I make sure I please my audience, while not loosing the integrity of my original vision. Basically do not sell your dream short for a few hits. If you keep true to your vision your audience will find you.

10. HOW BAD DO YOU WANT IT? This is my biggest thing. Do not tell me how bad you want it. Show me. Put the time in to your work.  What are you willing to sacrifice to make that dream work. I love video games, I rarely play them because I would rather tell my story. Family is first, my dream is second, because my dream would be nothing if I destroyed my family in the process.  Yet I still sacrifice to make the dream happen, I love entertaining and when they go to bed, I sit up and draw. When it fails (which bean did 3 times before now) do you get back up and rework to make it work? Only you know  SO honestly how bad do you want it?

These are just 10 simple things that have made my world a reality. I have had so much fun creating this and I know if others are inspired to do the same, the world of webcomics would be as strong as print. Fans would come and that labor love would pay off.

So keep creating, keep dreaming and keep drawing.

trav

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15 Comments

ExecutiveIce.com » 6 Nov 2014 » Reply

I'd tend to agree that you don't necessarily need a strict schedule of release to be a successful comic (or any other media for that matter – look at TV and movies). But I think if you want distribution through a company like Diamond you may need to adhere more to a schedule of release. Either way, its really the content that will make it successful.

Just my two cents at ExecutiveIce

Tom » 27 Apr 2011 » Reply

Interesting stuff, Trav. First, you are mixing up the words "lose" and "loose." Loose is likened to untying something, or setting free. Lose is to have something get lost 🙂 Sorry, that drives me nuts.

I've been doing this for three years now, and what you've written above is pretty much the "standard line" in though regarding comics online. I think the problem is there are a lot of exceptions, and a lot of questions about those items.

I certainly agree you have to be diligent in posting on time. And yet, I can give you a list of successful comics that do not follow any specific posting schedule, or ones that take long breaks. A good example is Kukuburi.com. XKCD doesn't appear to follow any specific schedule either, yet it's one of the top comics out there.

There are comics that have supporters or membership groups set up for premium content and are profiting thereby. It is essentially a type of paywall. Conventional wisdom says it can't work, but in some cases, it works very well. They still have some content online, but it's often way behind the front end of the story, or not colored, stuff like that.

There's been a lot of talk in the last year about how working the Con scene may do nothing for you other than empty your pockets. (So far, my one Con experience was a total disaster, so at this point, I concur.) You have to be very smart and plan to the last detail to really make it work, because it can be extremely expensive and wear you out.

And if you do that great story and post on time and be nice, tell people about yourself – there are still no guarantees you'll gain a readership. Because comic promotion is the most painful, rewardless, time consuming task in the world. And it has to be done constantly when you first start out. It seems the only exceptions are comics that go viral (Think "Axe Cop") or are just so supremely amazing in some way (artwork, story, groundbreaking idea) that it cannot help but be noticed. Most of us will not fall into those categories.

Sooner or later you will hit that plateau of readers, and then it gets tough. Do you continue on? Is the story your telling not good enough? It takes a few years to hit that point of where you start finding out if the rubber is meeting the road, as it were.

Because you bring up one of the best points – it's very hard to get noticed above the crowd. And the crowd is getting bigger and more and more, very talented and well-known artists are joining the game (Doug TenNapel is a good example with Ratfist). This is the big challenge. Yes, you can get online and begin to grow an audience – but after that initial "bump" happens, then the REAL work begins.

Things are definitely changing in online comics. It's a bigger and tougher playing field than ever before. For us who do longform comics, it's even harder. A good portion of the real success stories are gag-related strips. Very few seem to be longform. I do think it's time to start innovating and thinking about new ways to do things. It's going to be interesting to see what people come up with.

Not sure I contributed much here, other than to say yeah – it's tough, and getting tougher! Bean is a great example of what can be accomplished with perseverance. Keep up the great work!

Mike Cole » 6 Sep 2010 » Reply

Hello,
I noticed you said you failed 3 times before in your post. I think knowing what happened to you might help me avoid the same pitfalls if I can ever get my webcomic going.

Thanks,
Mike

@amy_geek » 24 May 2010 » Reply

If I enjoy the webcomic, I will always buy a print copy (well, as long as I'm gainfully employed). When I go back to reread, which I love to do, I would much rather flip through tangible pages than look at a computer screen. But I also definitely understand that hard copies are not always feasible for the artists because of the cost.

Patrick » 20 May 2010 » Reply

From a fan side, and from someone interested in a similar line of creation, this is basically all the advice available boiled down to a single essay.

And remarkably, questions I've had to answer recently as I work on designing a role playing game I intend to release for free in digital. I keep getting told that I'm killing my chance to make money, but I can point to a number of great people in games, web comics, and even fiction, who make money by giving away digital versions of their product.

The other thing is your first point, which I've commented on before: Your reliability is amazing, and it really does help to know that if all my other comics don't update for whatever reason, bean will be there on Monday and Thursday.

Jason » 20 May 2010 » Reply

Hey Travis, It's great to see other webcomic artists making helpful posts like this. You have a great list here. I'd add that many no-name artists (like myself) would be shooting themselves in the foot if they went to print FIRST. Mainly because you have no audience to sell your books too. It's one thing if you already have a fan base but when trying to get people interested in a new story and new artist, a webcomic is the smartest method of achieving your goals in this day and age.

Good luck on the books. I've subscribed to your site and I'll be reading from now one!

kybarsfang » 20 May 2010 » Reply

That is some amazing insight, Trav. I totally fit under #6, too. I don't have a huge amount of money to be flinging around on anything I want, but I do support what I love, and am even more likely to do so if the price is reasonable.

I'd never heard of your comic until about a week or so ago, and now I'm a fan and plan on buying a couple issues when I see you at Phoenix Comicon. See, it works! 🙂

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