Monday, March 04, 2013

Post webcomics

Occasionally I become concerned for the future. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I break a sweat, and my face twists into an appalling rictus. Tearing up floorboards, earth and finally the living rock itself, I attempt to bore into the earth's molten core until the local council or a concerned family member intervenes.

For the last ten years, I've made my living through a bizarre system. I put my work up for free, and through a combination of merchandise sales, advertising, freelance work (that I only get because I'm known through my free work), I've been able to sustain myself at a modest level. Through my own hard work and the efforts of a few others before and after me, I've existed within an ecosystem which can support someone with a decent readership.

In the last few years, the Internet has begun to change fundamentally. For a lot of people, social media ARE the internet. Comics like mine used to build followings through a system of patronage and word of mouth via links from other comics, popular blogs - in essence, journalistic models. The barrier to entry, pathetically low compared to the agonies of making one's niche work known pre-Internet, still required a certain amount of negotiation. You had to be able to make a website. You had to do a bit of networking. You had to be able to FTP something. You had to put in a modest amount of effort.

A few years later, we have Tumblr. There are people who put all their work up on Tumblr, and don't put it anywhere else. It's so easy! Drag and drop! Their comics exist, contextless, in a stream of other people's work. They're measured by a meritocracy of Notes, Re-blogs and hearts. They have little control over the environment in which their work is displayed. Pageviews on a website are how you make money. A website is a venue to curate your work. It's how you get someone to PAY ATTENTION TO YOU AND ONLY YOU.

Art isn't democratic. It doesn't take place in a caring, sharing environment. It is a huge "look at me". We are the pre-schoolers who can still point at what we've done and get a sticker, and we want to keep getting those stickers forever.

I would never decry any service as worthless. There are people who have caught mass attention via Tumblr, and sold great piles of things as a result. There's a use for everything, and an exception to every rule. The exceptions are the reasons that others try. But Tumblr sets the bar of success incredibly low. The payout will almost always be zero. Not beer money, nothing.

When I exhibited at San Diego Comicon, the main sellers were t-shirts. Most of the people at SDCC don't really care about your comic. They're there for some fun, they couldn't give two toots about your comic. A fun tshirt hit the spot in the way that a 200-page book you spent a year working on wouldn't. And fair enough. But the pattern of the day was exhausting. Every two minutes or so, someone would walk past your table, point at something you'd made and say "that's funny," before walking on.

Funny... but not funny enough to buy. Which is fair enough!

Tumblr is the "that's funny" archetype writ large. A million bells and whistles going off at once. To attempt to "win" on Tumblr, you have to drive your work down to the lowest common denominator, collect your "that's funny", and then, that's it! It's the equivalent of pasting your work up on bus shelter glass in a rainstorm. The sun comes out, your work is gone, no matter how many people laughed at it.

The arguments for loss of "ownership" of intellectual property when people reblog your work are something else altogether. In the end, once you put something where you can get it, someone will have their fun with it if they want to. My great fear is that, in throwing work up into the air with a thousand other things, rather than nailing it down, what makes something special is gone.

Maybe Tumblr isn't the issue, maybe the world is changing. Why should it stop now? But I know that the reason I have a living at all is because I was able to build a relationship with my readers through my work. The less tangible that relationship is, the less special what you are doing seems, the less likely you are to be able to go from a hobbyist to a professional. My job is one of my greatest joys and there should be room for plenty of others to feel that way. I could never have got into the industry pre-webcomics. I don't want there to be a post-webcomics.


Hannah M. said...

I selfishly hope web-comics never die so that you keep making them. Seven years of following SGR and it is still my favorite. I don't know that I would've gotten into comics (in general) if it hadn't been for them.

Also, Tumblr confuses me, I much prefer the clean cut, well archived webpage. Obviously Tumblr is a good tool, but as you say, it isn't really where the magic happens.

Pete Hindle said...

John, I find your views on these things as fascinating as your long-form comics. You are probably one of the people most qualified to talk about the ongoing changes in online publishing owing to the fact that you have been doing it successful for that period of time, as an individual.

I particularly liked the point about how the social media sites had become the web for a lot of people. Tumblr, for example, externally looks like a way of hosting a site, but when logged in reveals itself as an image-sharing network. Tumblr also allows anonymity, which other social media sites don't seem to care for. But it seems to be impossible to add attribution to images on Tumblr...

We are exceedingly careless with (as you put it John) "the funny", at the minute, creating a sort of instant punchline culture online, because there are no ideas like 'fair trade' online. Things sort of exist in a broiling sea of 'fair use because it's there' when online, but this isn't a state that can last forever. Perhaps it is a reaction against the massive amounts of information that has become available in the past few decades.

Rachel Keslensky said...

Starting out, I hit every bloody con in my area that had an artist's alley -- which included a couple of anime conventions. The first time didn't go so well, but I was naive, I only had a certain number of items, and hell, I picked up a big fan from that go-round so I can't argue that it went THAT poorly.

... after that, though, the patterns became clearer. If you weren't a fanartist, people just didn't CARE. They'd see your art as a template for what THEY wanted, they'd ask you if you had Batman or Sailor Moon or whatever, and once you said no, they were lost again.

More of the effort is needed in getting through to begin with. You might -- MIGHT -- pick up some new readers from a con, but more and more it's becoming where you have to get through online first and seal the deal at the cons, vs. the other way around.

marcintouch said...

I buy your books and your t-shirts, and bought a modest site sponsorship... I'll keep it up if you do! Thanks!

Claire said...

I hope webcomics never die too. I hate Tumblr with a passion. It's not designed for leisurely reading or browsing, and trying to work back through the archives of a comic hosted on Tumblr is actually painful. You hit the nail on the head when you say it's for the "That's Funny" crowd. It's quick-and-easy internet presence - updates can be done with minimal thought and effort.

But as you rightly observed, because they're so easy and no thought it present in the updates, connections are never really built between the reader and the author. It's a quick hit of internet before moving on to the next thing.

I'm very glad you have your own website, and have taken the time to create something more substantial than 'That's funny'.

Avi said...

I follow a whole bunch of comics and artists and I can only think of one that's hosted on Tumblr.
Most of the artists I follow on Tumblr post doodles, WIPs, and small illustrations, and they use Tumblr to chat with people and to promote their own portfolio or webcomic website.

Anonymous said...

As somebody who loves social media, AND online comics, I think that there's a balance to be struck between using Tumblr and visiting blogs and websites. I agree Tumblr is more of a 'quick hit' but I have found webcomics/artists through Tumblr whose work I now follow outside the site: specifically I'm thinking of Noelle Stevenson/Nimona. I use Tumblr almost every day but I can't imagine having it as my only window onto the internet.

NA said...

This struck a chord. When I was actively posting my photography on Tumblr (a lot mediocre, some worth being proud of), even when it got tumblr attention in the form of reblogs, it was very difficult to get viewers to connect it with me.

Most strikingly, someone reblogged by photo with the comment "I'd like to find the photographer, and have them photograph me there". I was right there as the OP, with email and anonymous ask box, and everything!

Unknown said...

This i a huge problem I have with tumblr distribution as well. I do use Tumblr and post update notifications but I would never post my full comic there.

crivelliman said...

I really wonder if there is a "future of webcomics," or if webcomics will simply be "comics" when and if the print medium is a secondary market.

I talked with a webcomics bigwig once about why USA Today doesn't have a digital comics page that's populated by consistent, user-friendly, independent webcomics. His issue wasn't the logistics of that, but rather, with a cartoonist's desire to "share the wealth," as it were. If a cartoonist is capable of bringing in traffic, why settle for sharing said traffic with someone like USA Today?

My question of course is, for those who produce their work, for considerable time and cost, literally for free, and barely break a hundred views a day, is this preferable? How does one build an audience if nobody's reading?

I just feel like the model (if one can call it that) of producing work for free and subsisting on advertising alone is not a self-sustaining one.

null said...

as a 23 year old I have to say tumblr works fine for me. It gets my stuff out there, it redirects traffic to my own webcomic site and has brought in more readers than I could've ever imagined if I was doing this all about 5 years earlier.

Twitter and tumblr allow me to connect with people the same way livejournal did way back when. And the size of my audience proportionate to the time and money I spent is incredible. I don't have to lug my stuff around to cons monthly and xerox off flyers in hope that someone somewhere likes my stuff to make the effort to read it.

Someone who doesn't use the site regularly enough to participate in it's community might think tumblr is a quick fix, a "see a post, like it, never come back" deal but it's honestly not. It's pretty much interactive advertisement, rather than the kudos game that tumblr is often made out to be. If I were to speak from a personal level, every one of my comic peers I have now, I met through tumblr and I'm not sure I would've otherwise.

I also find, in general, people who like your stuff will go on to purchase things you make, no matter where they heard about you first. Take for example the success of Kickstarters and pay-what-you-want digital services like gumroad. A lot of that, I believe, is due to how fast information can travel on tumblr.

I think tumblr is merely another platform to showcase your work. If you make good work, and what you use to show it around won't matter.

@Chris_DFS said...

I definitely agree on the shift at cons. Although it seems to be "That's sick!" that I hear. Way more purchasing of posters featuring someone else's characters and unlicensed buttons/crafts/etc than actual comics.

Ian Aleksander Adams said...

Since people take comics and put them on tumblr all the time, I went ahead and reposted this whole essay without permission over on tumblr:

I met you a couple times back in the old convention days, maybe in new york, maybe in northampton, I've got no idea. But those were good old days, everything seemed insane, everything seemed more than possible.

I remember some of the attitude from the people we say as old hat being similar, scared, not really understanding the new technology. I hope it's the same with tumblr, to an extent. I feel that we've seen the success of those in 'our generation', internet but before social internet got into full swing. There will be a generation of tumblr success stories. Then a generation of whatever is next.

It seems that there will be a place to archive and appreciate those success stories. I hope that when people get successful on tumblr they also remember to get their own domain, to ftp all their stuff. Even if they distribute weekly through tumblr, they have a place to keep the content for when tumblr inevitably turns off the lights.

Jamie Roberts said...

Ugh, so relevant.

I have a webcomic starting Friday which is hosted on Tumblr. Having seen an increase in occasions when I've gone to what I thought was an artist's own site only to see the Tumblr icons in the top right hand corner, it seemed that that's the way the internet is heading right now.

It'll change, of course. Tumblr won't last ten years. Facebook will one day (maybe, fingers crossed) lose its worth, too, as will Twitter. But new platforms will take their place. So in addition to this partial loss of control over your setting and therefore your audience, you find yourself running from site to site, trying to keep up with what's going to get you the most views (regardless of the financial rewards or lack thereof).

It hadn't occurred to me until this post the advantages of having your own dedicated site. Because it's the long view. It requires more word-of-mouth and that means a slow start for most people.

Your words are making me reconsider the choice I made with my comic on Tumblr. Maybe I'll experiment with it and see if a readership would travel when I move it to my own space.

Anonymous said...

I find the audience has become increasingly fickle, treating all media like disposable entertainment. It's nearly impossible to strike a chord with most people, they just can't appreciate what goes into your work. I feel terrible walking along Artist's Alley, looking for familiar works, while walking past dozens of talented artists who are just trying to pay for the con. I'd love to be a philanthropist, but like everyone else I've only got so much cash for the weekend. Online, you're dealing with a culture with no concept of ownership. Sites will cheerfully take your work, strip all tags, and replace it with their own. It's enraging to see my favorite artists work celebrated without attribution. I always mention who's made it in the comments, but no one reads them, people only read comments replying to their own comments.

Bottom line, people suck. Except you, John.

A. Furuichi said...

This, albeit to a smaller degree, resonates with me in such a big way.

The shift to "meeting the people where they are" feels like a gamble to me. Work, no matter how well thought out, well drawn or well plotted, out of context gets next to no appreciation and sometimes I contemplate shifting my work to fit that model out of desperation to keep this alive.

It's become increasingly clear to me over the past 3 years that events are less about books and more about -stuff- that satisfies an immediate need. Books are an investment.

I'm not sure what to tell people about how to get into this webcomics "business". They need to get their work out there, but as you say but the challenge is to get people to endorse you, to share you, and then ultimately to financially support you. It's a much harder road to take if you're just a blip on their feed.

spasticfreakshow said...

I feel great loyalty to you, John, but I have never been to a webcomic convention. Having been a webcomic reader for well over 10 years, and purchased things from you and from many of your peers (shirts prior to that blasted shift to American Apparel), have supported many a kickstarter and as someone who subscribes to print comics, I feel I am a real comic-geek, but I am a grown up (hee hee!) with multiple jobs. I don't have time or I haven't been in the right place at the right time, to attend such an event. I also have only visited Tumblr a couple of times due to comic creators like Megan Rose Gedris linking to their Tumblr pages. You make me realize I am not missing out. And I don't think you're being a stubborn Luddite in this case. When the times call for a change, you are slow to the bit but ready to change...but you consider each new thing carefully. That's called intelligent independent thinking. Thank G-d someone still has possession of it. Sometimes I worry if the Hive Mind is taking us to the brink of Wall-E stupidity.

p.s. regarding the molten core future, seriously man. we have passed the point of no return on fixing climate change. we have murdered our own great grandchildren. worry now is like the serial killer in prison, considering the kids he's buried. the deed is DONE.

Anonymous said...

I only hope that we're heading towards viable business/interaction models that make it easier for people to express their appreciation for your work casually but in a way that somehow helps you pay the bills. It's great that you've been able to make a living this way these last few years, and I'd consider it a major failing of the economy and the internet if someone with your talent and commitment can't do that in the future - in fact, if it doesn't get a good deal easier than it has been over the next few years, we will know that we are doing it wrong...

Martin Jackson said...

I'm sure people will still find away to build a following on sites like tumblr.

actually since you follow a creator it may make it easier to follow comics you like.