On Friday evening, Cunniff Hall was filled with students, faculty, staff, and community members eager to meet webcomics authors Shaenon Garrity of Narbonic, Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary, Rich Burlew of Order of the Stick, and commentary bloggers Eric Burns and Wednesday White of Websnark. The event was sponsored by Free Culture.
The evening opened with a brief introduction from each panelist, many of whom are involved with the webcomics world in multiple ways. Tayler got a laugh when he introduced himself by stating, “I’ve been creating Schlock Mercenary since March of 2000, and I’ve also been drawing since March of 2000.” It was funny, but also true– as Burns later explained, the Internet has completely changed the way media is distributed. “You can just decide to start drawing… and the next thing you know you’ve got an audience. There’s so little barrier to jumping into it, it’s trivial at this point to start.”
Unlike Tayler, Garrity had drawn comics for her local paper, and later her college paper, for eight years before starting webcomics. When she graduated from college, she saw webcomics as a way she could continue her passion. Many of the panelists were attracted to webcomics because they can be relatively simply drawn but have a very complex story, something that is becoming rare in today’s newspaper comics. While most of the panelists had other jobs besides creating webcomics, Tayler makes his entire living off of giving his content away for free.
Burns gave the audience a brief summary of the different kinds of business models webcomics can use. The idea of “micropayments,” where users pay about a penny for every time they view a webcomic, was popularized by Scott McCloud, but never worked out in practice. “If you charged your audience a nickel,” explained Burns, “no matter how good it was, they would go read comics without nickels.”
A select few webcomics have been financially successful through using their comic as a hook to make money off of unrelated things, such as t-shirt sales. There is also the “public radio approach” where an artist simply solicits money through PayPal once or twice a year, hoping to get generous donations from those who appreciate their comic. This approach can only work for the most popular webcomics, since most people are not willing to outright donate money to more than one.
More common, and generally more successful, strategies include Google ads, which have recently become more profitable, and placing your comic archives in a subscription services, such as Modern Tales, which charges ten dollars a month for access to its archives. Many comics, including all of those represented on the panel, made money off of books and related merchandise. If ten percent of your readers are willing to buy your books, as Tayler’s were, you can make a respectable profit.
Between Google ads and book sales, Tayler explained, he makes enough to provide for his family, and he loves his job because while it won’t make him rich, it allows him to spend more time with them than he could otherwise. All of the panelists stressed that you had to be flexible to survive on the web, and that it by no means freed you of making tough business decisions.
All of the panelists agreed that word of mouth was the best marketing tool for their comics. Burlew explained that it’s a matter of “getting people to my comic once, and then holding onto their eyeballs.” Tayler once did a survey to see where his regular readers came from, and concluded that sixty percent had gotten there through word of mouth.
Professor Tim Burke, who moderated the panel, asked what webcomics were good for newcomers to the genre who didn’t have any geeky niche interests. Eric Burns recommended Narbonic by Garrity, which he called “the best four-panel comic on the web today,” but the general consensus is that webcomics are still a geeky domain. Order of the Stick, by Burlew, is a popular comic, but most of the humor is based on role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Because it appeals to a niche interest, Burlew said, he suspects that for many of his readers, his comic is the only one they read. “Unlike newspaper comics,” said Burns, “webcomics are not trying to please everyone… for all that we talk about the webcomics community, I’m not entirely certain that it exists.”
Whether or not the webcomics community exists, the webcomics experts who graced the campus on Friday all had a few things in common–they were all interesting, they were all smart, and they were all very, very funny.