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Self-Publishing and Webcomics, or “Haven’t We Been Here Before?”

Sometimes you sit with your fingers over the keyboard, and you KNOW somebody’s gonna get mad at you.

Ideas are like potatoes. No matter how many ways you turn your idea around, looking for the best possible angle, it’s got lumps and somebody out there wanted cauliflower.

I’m gonna talk about self-publishing for a bit. And webcomics. Because, as my dear buddy Otter wrote yesterday, the parallels are so damn obvious that I feel like an idiot for not having seen it a mile off.

There are a lot of rational people on the internet. There are also a lot of zealots. And if you say anything about self-publishing that is not “Oh my god you guys, this is totally the way to fame and success!” there is a tendency for those rational voices to be drowned out in the howling for blood.

(Chuck Wendig did a post a week or so back about this, where he said, in essence, “There is no one true way. Research and make the choice that’s best for you.” Only on the internet would this be a controversial statement that people would argue with. If he’d managed to tie in breastfeeding somehow, the servers would have actually caught fire.)

Nevertheless, here I go.

Y’all remember webcomics?

Sure you do. They were comics! On the web! Usually free! People invented all kinds of ways to try to make money off them, some of which worked (merchandising) some of which didn’t work so well (pay walls) some of which worked in certain specific circumstances (ads.)

I’m sure you remember it. Every major news outlet in the world ran an article at some point saying “Oh my god, they have comics on the web now!” usually in tandem with “Oh my god, did you people know that they have comics that AREN’T FOR KIDS!?” and then people’s heads exploded. (My comic was actually mentioned in one of those articles, which happened to be in the New York Times. My mother wanted me to get their quote tattooed on my forehead.)

If you happened to be involved in the webcomic world around six or seven years ago (as I was) you saw great optimism. We cherished our great success stories—PA, Kurtz, all the people who quit their jobs. “Hey, the S*P guy said “If you want the comic on time, pay me enough to quit my job, and his fans DID!” We sneered at Marvel as a dinosaur that would die under its own crushing lack of innovation (and then cheered whenever a webcomic got a big publishing deal, because…um…people are complicated.) We told ourselves that traditional comics were scared of us. We relished the fact that newspaper comic pages were going under* (even as we felt very very bad for the very nice people who had their comics in newspapers) because WE weren’t with them, and WE were the wave of the future and soon everyone would realize that it was a BOLD NEW WORLD and any webcomic could succeed and it didn’t have to be about superheroes, and we found our niches and our fans.

We told people who wanted to do comics for a living, professionally, that the best thing they could do would be to do a webcomic. That it would be advertising for their talents. That it would get their stuff out there.

About once a nanosecond, somebody showed up on a webcomics board and said “My comic’s been up for six weeks, I’m not making any money, what gives?”

And then someone would have The Talk about fan bases and advertising and taking time and quality products and getting yourself out there. And that person would either quit in disgust or they would knuckle down and do the work. We would discuss guest comics on other comics as method of advertising. We would talk about whether it was worth it to buy ads. (We would talk about whether it was worth it to sell ads, for that matter.)

We had review bloggers. They were, briefly, rock-stars, and then people rebelled about who-died-and-gave-you-the-right-to-gatekeep and fans engaged in character assassination because of What They Said About Our Charlene’s Comic What Is On The Internet and it all eventually found its own equilibrium.

We had flame wars. Oh, the memory of those flame wars is glorious. I could toast marshmallows over the embers of replies to anything Scott Kurtz ever said.

And every forum was full of signatures with big, hopeful .gifs and people ended every sentence with “CHECK OUT MY WEBCOMIC!”  And we had to have The Talk about how we do not make forum posts just to plug ourselves because that is cheap.

Is this starting to sound familiar to anybody? Maybe just a tad?

It was a smaller scale. There have never been as many comics as books—probably because throughout history, fewer people have believed they could draw. But it was the same world.

This is not me slamming self-publishing. Are you kidding? I was one of those webcomics people! I have a rocket ship on my mantlepiece and an Eisner nomination and a nonexistent tattoo of the New York Times quote because of my webcomic, which quite frankly makes me one of the teeny tiny upper percentage in terms of critical recognition in a webcomic. (Seriously, I think I’m behind Girl Genius and…uh…apologizing to Howard Taylor a lot…) I am a huge raving success story about the power of putting a comic on the web with no gatekeeper and no editor and a complete inability to spell the word “separate” correctly on the first try. The day may come, if I can hack the work (and it won’t be for a long time, so don’t get excited) when I may do another webcomic, because webcomics are glorious.

It was a brave new world. It was the Wild West. It was awesome.

I should also mention that I have made, in total, probably around $20K from Digger. Spread over nine years. And for a webcomic, that’s considered pretty damn fine commercial success (and it’s worth noting that probably 90% of that is because a rockin’ little small press named Sofawolf did print versions. They did all the work, and I love them for it forever. I am frankly sort of amused that people are making a big deal out of the fact that there’s a self-published thing on this year’s Hugo ballot, because they were nominating Digger as a self-published work. I had to ask specifically that Sofawolf’s name go on the ballot with mine, because they do a damn fine job and they deserved to be there too.)

Once we settled the Wild West and put in railroads and people stopped dying of dysentery, it turned out that webcomics looked pretty much like everything else.

A couple of people made a LOT of money.

A lot of people made a little money.

Most people made almost no money.

I repeat, is this starting to sound familiar to anybody?

This is not me slamming on self-publishing. I would have self-published Digger if Sofawolf hadn’t stepped up. I have many friends who self-publish comic collections, books, all kinds of things. Many of them do very good work.

None of them are rich from it.

If the day comes when I have a book I love (and it will come) and my agent cannot sell it (too weird, wrong brand, whatever) then I will self-publish it. And I will try very hard to do good work.

And I will not get rich from it.

And that’s okay.

There are fewer webcomics now. The hyperbole has died down. People still try, and fail, and get grumpy and quit. The big names are mostly still big. It is still possible to get a decently good following and, if you work your ass off, either make a living from it or make enough to supplement your day job pretty nicely.

Is this starting to sound…oh, never mind. You get the point by now or you don’t, and you agree with me or you don’t.

But it wasn’t the road to glory and free money for everyone who could put a word bubble over a stick-figure And the secret to success WAS putting stuff out there, as it turns out—but it was also putting GOOD stuff out there, not firing a shotgun of crap at the wall and hoping something stuck. And you had to be consistent and reliable and do something special and not just try to be the next Penny Arcade/Kurtz/whatever.

And your art had to not suck and your writing REALLY had to not suck, or people ignored you. You couldn’t say “Real fans will read it and not care about your super-Nazi grammar and format issues!” because as it turned out, they wouldn’t. (I stopped reading multiple things because the comic artist would cram words right up to the edge of the word balloon and it made my eyes hurt.)

Anyone who tells you that they know the future is lying. But I’ll give you my best guess, if you want it, and it’s worth exactly what you’re paying for it. If you don’t like it, ignore it. It doesn’t actually make a difference to me, or frankly, to the future.

In a couple of years, the self-publishing hyperbole will die down. People who got excited and then disappointed by their lack of instant success will go on to the next thing. Some people will knuckle down and do the work. Some people will figure out how to make a living or to supplement their day job pretty nicely.

And a couple of people will make a LOT of money.

And a lot of people will make a little money.

And most people will make almost no money.

And the song will remain the same.

*Okay, only some of us. We weren't all total dicks.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

Pretty much. I'm also seeing a lot of evidence that self-publishing is being used as a sort of farm team for small, more traditional indie publishers; I've known people whose self-published e-books got them that kind of attention. Not that I'm saying "do it for the exposure" is any less crappy advice than it ever was, but in both comics and writing there's definitely a benefit to having proven you can do something and hold the attention of a fanbase. In either case you'd better be good at self-promotion or no one will notice you, of course. Not the best game for shy introverts.

And of course writing has ALWAYS been a game where most people make less than epsilon, a small number of people make a living, and a tiny proportion of people get rich. It's just that now, there's no gatekeeper to blame if you're not one of the chosen few.

Edited at 2013-04-17 04:50 pm (UTC)

" there's no gatekeeper to blame if you're not one of the chosen few."

And isn't it going to be interesting to watch once people start realizing this?

Bravo. Bravissimo.

The timing of this amuses me, as I'm about to wrap up my four-year webcomic run and follow it up with a writing project. My comic's readership remains at the same, steady, two-dozen-human-beings-worldwide that it started with, and I guess I'm most happy that I didn't lose them along the way. (Rubber ducks. Talk about a niche.) I didn't get into it to make money since I can't really monetize photographs of rubber ducks anyway. So there's that.

The writing project is trickier, though. Nobody knows me from a hole in the ground, and I have precisely zero dollars to put toward trying to actually "publish," so it's probably going to end up a serialized blog project sort of thing. C'est la vie. I'm not doing it for fame or money, I'm doing it because if I don't have some sort of creative outlet I will lose my everloving marbles.

At any rate: Well put, and hopefully all of this self-pub wankery dies down a bit soon...

(Deleted comment)
I learned how to spell "separate" after a teacher told me there was a rat in "separate."

Knowing how to spell it doesn't stop me from constantly mistyping it, though: it took me 3 tries to type it properly in the above sentence.

Edited at 2013-04-17 06:08 pm (UTC)

(Deleted comment)
As a tangent -- because I totally agree with most of the post -- I found it interesting how much the "your art had to not suck and your writing REALLY had to not suck" equation favored writing. You've seen the art in the first six months of Schlock Mercenary, right?

On the other hand, I think the key there is that Howard got better, and as the strip started getting a real following -- and, for that matter, as there started to be more competition; he was in the game really early -- the art started getting passably good, and then it kept getting better.

It is also interesting what shapes "your art has to not suck" takes. XKCD actually does remarkably good stick figures, if you pay attention. Real Life in the earlier days was basically the same Illustrator shape repeated over and over. Basic Instructions is traced photographs -- often the same traced photographs. And so on. But the thing is, they have all gotten good at doing what they do, and they are also all good at laying out a readable comic.

Put it simply, people can recognize when you do good work with a (possibly intentionally) limited toolset vs. when you're just being lazy. And the general webcomic-reading public's tolerance for laziness has dropped off steadily with time. As a reader, if I'm not enjoying myself then there's plenty of quality content out there (for free!) that I can read instead; it's up to the author/artist to make me care, to get me to notice, to get me to be invested. And that takes a lot of effort!

(On a similar note, if I'm 50 pages into a book and don't really care about what's going on, I feel perfectly free to put the book down and walk away. There will always be more books to read)

That connection makes a great deal of sense, and thank you for laying it out so clearly (and making me giggle in work while so doing).

As an aspiring writer of prose with a strong focus on traditional publishing, the current trend for both self-publication, and lots of self-managed publicity even for some traditionally-published author, is one I look at somewhat askance, because I'm a shy introvert who would really rather that my job consisted of just telling the blasted story and leaving any marketing to people whose job that is and who can plausibly be presumed to know what they are doing better than I would.

I hear you. I'm also a shy introvert, and it genuinely concerns me that there are fewer and fewer jobs available to people like us. Even the traditional refuge of introverts, computer programming, is now often done in "teams." Heck, the process of FINDING a job increasingly hinges on "networking," basically having enough friends who know people in the industry that they can recommend you for a position...

It's an extrovert's world out there. I'm trying to learn how to at least fake it.

Fantastic post. And while, as you said, no one can tell the future, this sounds about right.

That pretty much describes my years in webcomics.

...now my webcomic is a zombie on comicgenesis, along with thousands of others.

( Psychic Dyslexia Institute in case anyone's curious. I don't have access to the account, couldn't update it if I wanted to. But it was a fun run, and I got to meet lots of great people, one of whom became my love, and sometimes I run into people that remember us.)

Edited at 2013-04-17 07:23 pm (UTC)

"Your comment has been added. According to this journal's settings, it was marked as spam. "

uh. Feel free to take out the link, I suppose.

Edited at 2013-04-17 06:42 pm (UTC)

Don't worry about it, I unspam all the good ones. It's LJ and the lunatic spammers hitting recently.

One of the things I've noticed about going indie is that there seems to be a need for a critical mass of content from the artist before people pay enough attention to start buying. So the money comes in with the later volumes. A traditional publishing deal cuts a check for the first book.

So my plan to become an SF writer has the following steps:
1. Finish novel.
2. Submit to publisher.
3. Write next novel. Possibly two.
4. Receive rejection.*
5. Start putting indie books up on web.

* Yes, it could go the other way, but the odds seem slim in the current market.

I know folks who've done this - even established authors who have books that don't sell to traditional markets. You just need a way for people to find you first, then they'll get your self-pubbed stuff.

I'm wondering how a bunch of traditionally published short stories --> self-pub novel might go since you do have your name out there. I've got a short story that went up this month and the #1 thing I hear about it is "where's the novel!?" Folks I have no idea, but if I did I still think "internet dating for spaceships" is probably not a big seller in trad publishing right now....

Yeah.. the Webcomics Surge was a lot like the Internet Bubble in microcosm. Lots of hoopla, various exciting things... then folks realize that it's good for certain things, but not others, and isn't freaking magic... and a lot of folks lose their shirts while a handful of others became household names.

If you told me fifteen years ago I would 'google' something every day, I'd smack you with a trout. But by the same token, I was genuinely surprised when ordering groceries online didn't work out.

But by the same token, I was genuinely surprised when ordering groceries online didn't work out.

... it didn't? Grocery shopping online is very popular over here (UK). Advantage of being a small island I guess.

The one thing I disagree with is the idea that there are fewer web comics these days. I think there are more than ever, but that the hype is gone.

I don't have exact figures, and it'd require database diving to do so, but I do think we're down on new submissions to the Belfry Index since a peak sometime between 2005-2008.

Webcomics have actually gone about re-inventing publishers/studios/collectives. Keenspot was there pretty much from the start. (Not to start a debate over their idea of how a publisher works...) Of course, the life span of the average webcomics publisher has been quite short, because to be frank they haven't generally been run by people who understood running a buisness.

The likes of Robert Khoo and Steven Dengler are still pretty rare in the webcomics world. On the other hand, just Robert Khoo and Steven Dengler alone have had a pretty big impact as publishers and backers. It's somewhat telling how a lot of self-published webcomics actually had financial backing to keep the bills paid while they transitioned.

Webcomics are somewhat odd in that you can self-publish pretty easily, so long as you're *not* successful. But if you do get seriously successful, then you have to start paying much bigger hosting fees from the bandwidth your fans use. And that's when the pressure starts to either get your act together as a business, or find a publisher/collective/studio that will take you on.

In the past small collectives/publishers have acted as pretty good incubators for people who have then gone on to self-publish their already successful comic once they've figured out how to monetize their particular subset of fans. It remains to be seen if the likes of Mepsu, Act-I-Vate and Interobang will become a publishing model in their own right, rather than just the adolescent stage of the life-cycle of webcomics.

One thing that Webcomics in general lack, are editors. Because the 'establishment' is so small, and it just hasn't generally occurred that they're needed. But really, I think they could, and probably should, come into webcomics. It would probably help with things like preventing creators trying to meet schedules they can't possibly meet if there's an editor to tell them they're not going to.

Edited at 2013-04-17 08:11 pm (UTC)

In a way the two worlds have merged -- Universal Press Syndicate now often incubates new comic material on gocomics.com before deciding on a newspaper release. They also run some back catalog stuff there.

The problem Keenspot had is they thought they could make money off ads. No one makes money off ads. Not even the New York Times could turn a profit on their website with ad revenue. Operating a website, no matter how popular, isn't a business model; the website has to be a loss leader for something else.

Scott McCloud thought micropayments would fix all that. He underestimated both the difficulty of efficiently collecting small payments, and the intense resistance people have to paying for anything on the Internet. I think perhaps he didn't realize the power of the "information wants to be free" crowd to create a culture where charging for intellectual property is seen as immoral.

Unrelated, but I read on CraftyPod a review for the upcoming book " Stuffed Animals: From Concept to Construction" and I thought you might find that book interesting

I would like to choose option a) make a LOT of money. Thank you.

I am relieved that someone else has this same sense of How The Future Will Unfold as I do!

I would say I am sick of self-publishing, but that's not true. I am mostly just sick of the conversation where I say "I am trying to sell a book to a publisher!" and people ask me "Have you looked into SELF-PUBLISHING?!" Then I have to say that yes, dammit, everyone asks me that exact same thing, and my answer to them is "Not for me," and nobody believes me. Self-publishing is fine. It's the insistence from everybody that IT IS A GOLD MINE that makes me want to slam my head against my laptop.

This isn't actually made any easier by being successfully traditionally published, I note. Nearly any project I mention in passing, *somebody* has to say "Oooh, self-pub it!", even the ones who oughta know better. :)