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SDCC Recap: Webcomics 102 Class Notes

This is the report of the second “Webcomics School” panel session at SDCC; look for the third tomorrow-ish. After everything is vaguely back to normal around here, we’ll consult with the session moderator and panelists, expand these recaps, and keep ‘em conspicuously posted as a resource for webcomics creators. Please note that these writeups are lengthy, and continue behind the cut for a good long ways.

As an aid to readability, these recaps are presented not as a transcript of a Q&A (a shame, really, as a transcript of what quickly became The Scott & R Show would be really, really funny), but as a heavily edited narrative, with “takeaway” lessons that summarize the mood of the panel in response to each topic of discussion. Fleen welcomes corrections or clarifications from the participants.

Webcomics 102: Finding Your Audience
At the podium, Bill Barnes (Unshelved)
On the panel, R Stevens (Diesel Sweeties), Kristofer Straub (Starslip Crisis), Scott Kurtz (PvP), and Jerry “Tycho” Holkins & Mike “Gabe” Krahulik (Penny Arcade). More than 200 people can fit in the room, if 50 of them stand around the perimeter; Krahulik suggested the audience ask for a larger room next year, and to let the con organizers know that “webcomics are kind of a big deal now.” Moderator Bill Barnes started by asking the audience how many of them were there specifically to hear a creator speak, and how many to learn how to make webcomics; it comes down about 200 to 30, in favor of learning webcomics. Given the sheer number in the audience, Barnes opted to immediately open the session to questions from the floor.

Giving The People What They Want
Asked how often they pander to the audience in an attempt to boost readership, Holkins and Krahulik commented that Penny Arcade has a history of being “self-indulgent” (Holkins) and sometimes irritating people who just want a videogame gag. Put another way, “I got a lot of angry mail after Kenny Rogers saved Gabe from hobos” (Krahulik). But, Kurtz said, while you don’t want to pander, you do want to keep the audience engaged by providing something accessible.
Takeaway — If you want to do hobos, do hobos — but your audience needs to be hooked if hobos aren’t their thing.

It Takes An Army Of Millions
Asked how to build an audience for your webcomic, Straub pointed out the value of attracting readers from other webcomics — they’re already used to getting comics on the web, and may be enticed to expand their reading. A good way to do so is to communicate through webcomics forums, but this is likely to provoke a backlash unless you’re already a part of that community; showing up and shouting and people to read your comic or spamming forums with launch announcements isn’t likely to work these days. Kurtz mentioned the value of “having somebody to kick your ass”, noting that he started by doing strips that somebody else asked him to do. It took time and effort to figure out what he wanted to do, and that marked the beginnings of real success.
Takeaway — The best way to attract an audience is by building up a body of solid work.

Whoopsy
A creator with a comic that had been associated with a subscription portal wondered what mistakes will prevent an audience from building. Krahulik pointed out that sitting behind a subscription wall is a mistake if you want to build an audience; if they can only read the strip a day at a time (or only selected samples) until paying up, it’s unlikely that the reader will become interested enough to love the strip. Stevens suggested not putting a panda in the strip.

Kurtz asked if being part of a subscription site had kept people from the site, and it turned out that yes, it had — leaving the portal had resulted in a significant jump in daily readers. It’s of critical importance here to understand the chicken and egg problem at play here: readers may want to give you money in exchange for the strip (or for additional content), but only once they like it and are invested in it. But they won’t reach that point unless they can read it. And they can’t read it if you first require payment up front. An accessible strip, not locked away, with open archives, is the key to developing readers.

Following up the subscription question, Kurtz wondered if being part of a portal that promises a certain type of comic would limit readers — for example, do readers only go to Girlamatic if they are a) female, or b) interested specifically in female creators? He cited Dumbrella as an example of not categorizing creators or only having a specific type of comic, and thus being able to attract a wider variety of readers.
Takeaway — They won’t read it if they don’t like it, and they can’t like it if they can’t see it.

What Else Can Go Wrong?
Continuing the “mistakes to avoid” theme, Holkins stressed the importance of keeping a regular schedule — “You’re making a deal with the audience,” he said, and they will respond to that. Adding, “I know it’s insane, but try to respond to everybody that writes you about the comic.” Stevens concurred, noting, “I’m only here at this table because he [Holkins] wrote back to me when I was starting out.”
Takeaway — Show the audience you’re committed to them, and they’ll respond.

Zot!
The panelists were asked their opinions of Scott McCloud; Stevens jumped in, declaring, “He’s awesome, but he’s not always right.” Kurtz added that since the latest interview in The Webcomics Examiner, and the discussion of McCloud’s definition of the different schools of comics, he understands McCloud’s motivation and interests in a way that he didn’t previously. Stevens theorized that McCloud concentrates more on the art of comics more than the marketing of them.
Takeway — Love him or hate him, you still need a copy of Making Comics.

Yeah, Yeah, Patience — How Long Does That Take?
The panelists were asked how long it takes to achieve a steady, strong audience. Kurtz acknowledged some difficulty in answering, in that he’d started his strip hosted on a then-popular site (loonygames), which allowed him a built-in audience. Straub guessed it had taken him six months, as did Barnes, who cited a single lucky link from a member of his core demographic.

Holkins felt that there isn’t a single answer to the question, that the process of building an audience is organic, and likely to vary widely from instance to instance. Stevens agreed that there are no set steps to follow, and Kurtz stressed the importance of viewing audience-building as an endurance race. It’s worth noting that this question, and others in both this session and Webcomics 103, prompted Kurtz to view success as a matter of “right place/right time” and having the confidence to judge which opportunities to follow.
Takeaway — It takes as long as it takes.

Fight! Fight!
Given the nature of the internet, conflict is inevitable … things get said, interpreted one way or another, sometimes taken out of context, and then it’s cracklin’ flames all around. But sometimes, creators seem to “step in landmines”, and is it possible that this can either offend/drive away an audience, or that it could be a planned technique to draw attention and possibly eyeballs? Barnes took the somewhat philosophical line that readers come and readers go, and it’s not practical to measure every blogpost, punchline, and aside to make sure that it offends nobody (after all, these are webcomics, not The Family Circus).

Kurtz agreed, and pointed out that readers will change their tastes and grow over time; your strip may still be a part of their required reading, or it may not. Expanding on his answer somewhat, he told of receiving emails from readers who claimed to be direly offended by something he’d said and “swore to never read PvP again! These emails go into a special folder, and when I get one, I just scan up and down and hey! Whaddaya know! It’s the same guy who told me last week he was never going to read me again!” Kurtz finished up with a point so critical that we’ll quote him verbatim:
Takeaway — You don’t lose people you offend. You lose the readers that you bore.

Madison Avenue
Asked whether paid ads on other sites can help to build an audience, Stevens gave a qualified “yes”; the response will depend on where the ad is placed. Taking Diesel Sweeties as an example, Stevens is far more likely to get a response from a website catering to hip, college or post-college Mac users than, say, a website devoted to NASCAR. Kurtz disagreed somewhat on the need to advertise, figuring that attracting readers isn’t the hard part, keeping them is; to that end, he announced that the test phase of a PvP site redesign is going live in a few weeks, addressing current weaknesses that make it inconvenient for readers.
Takeaway — It’s easier to get somebody to look once than it is to get them to come back.

The Merch
The next question dealt with merchandise — how early can it be introduced? Stevens described two schools of thought: First, a premptive model, typified by Jon Rosenberg selling stickers for a strip that hasn’t yet launched (but which may pique interest in potential readers). Second, an affinity model, in which Stevens believes that merchandise won’t sell unless the audience has a connection to the strip and the creator.

Kurtz feels that what gets sold is as important when; his character shirts don’t sell at all, but his Joss Whedon shirt is popular enough to have people wearing knockoffs down on the show floor. He noted the success of Dumbrella in creating shirts and merchandise that do not directly reference strips or characters, allowing a general audience to get in on the joke.
Takeaway — 100 people have heard of your strip; 1000000 have heard of Star Wars; which group can buy more stuff from you?

Lightning Round!
Q: If you’re just starting out, should you join a group or do the webcomic on your own?
Krahulik: Never work with someone else. Always work solo.
Holkins: …
Krahulik: Oh, shit.
Stevens: Don’t join a group just to join a group; join it because it’s a good fit for you.
Kurtz: And don’t think that joining a group will automatically make you a success.

Q: What about working in other media?
Straub: It stretches a lot of creative muscles, it’s a lot of fun — and it may bring others in that aren’t reading now.

Q: Without subscriptions, how do you get money?
Krahulik: Sell t-shirts and sell books.
Kurtz: Lesbians. Have two women kissing in the strip, it’s like money in the bank.

Q: Are crossovers a good idea?
Stevens: It’s a good idea if the strips and characters are compatible.
Krahulik: It’s important that the comic makes sense for your character to appear there.

Q: What’s important with website design?
Stevens: Professional look and feel that suits your material.
Holkins: The quality and authenticity of the work is more important than the design.

Q: What kind of extra content is best to get people to stay as readers?
Stevens: Anything that keeps them on the page; it can’t ever hurt to have them stick around longer.
Kurtz: Having a genuine experience is important. If you put something up just to pull in people, the audience will see through it.

Q: What kind of conflicts can you run into with advertisers?
Kurtz: Probably not serious ones; they want the ads to work, and will want to work with you to make them work. If they try to get you to change the strip or exploit your readers, be ready to walk away.

Q: What about IP and legal challenges?
Barnes: Is that about people ripping you off, or you getting in trouble for stepping on other people?
Kurtz: Hire a lawyer. Hire a lawyer. Hire a lawyer.
Barnes: Because the laws on parody and satire are pretty much in your favor.
Kurtz: Hire a lawyer. Hire a lawyer. Hire a lawyer.
Stevens: As for your stuff, in America, unless you specifically give away your copyright, you own it.
Kurtz: Hire a lawyer. Hire a lawyer. Hire a Jewish lawyer.
Stevens: A hot lawyer.
Kurtz: Hire a hot, Jewish lawyer.

Q: Can you do multiple comics at a time, or is it better to stick to just one?
Straub: I get a lot of ideas, start a lot, don’t always finish them.

Barnes: Any last words?
Stevens: Keep to a schedule, and be honest with your audience.
Straub: Do what you feel.
Kurtz: Lesbians!

Final Takeaway — Show up every day and give your audience the best that you can.

Holkins: …

Was this poignant silence punctuated with an appropriate gesture, Gary?

“Takeway: Love him or hate him, you still need a copy of Making Comics.”

thank you for not misconstruing what i meant there. i regretted not being 100% pro-scott mccloud the moment i opened my mouth. i’m about 80% pro-scott in reality.

I used to be about 40% pro-McCloud, but having been exposed to more formalist stuff outside of webcomics, I’m now 100% pro-McCloud in general, but maybe only 70% webcomics-specific pro-McCloud.

Maybe someone should make up a little “Feelings On Scott McCloud” pie chart that updates weekly.

Man, these articles are fantastic, Gary. They are a great resource, and I definitely think having them obviously linked after the fact to be a good idea. Keep it up!

Thanks for another great recap.

I know the panel mentions return readership as being more important than getting eyeballs on the strip, but how they get a big readership is still a bit foggy. Posting on other webcomics forums seems like a recipe for disaster.

The people who come and read your comic every time you update are the same people who are going to tell their friends.

Word of mouth only really comes from repeat readers.

[...] What drives the equation is that first term: audience size. With a few hundred readers, even a near-100% conversion rate is going to require enormous margins in order to make this month’s rent. With a mass audience, a more modest profit margin per item/event can provide a higher total income. The conversion rate will depend on how much the audience likes the comic, and the accessibility of the item (c.f.: Webcomics 102 Class Notes, characters on t-shirts vs. non-strip-specific designs). Takeaway — The readers will take care of you given a reason; that reason could be altruistic or consumerist, but the readers have to be there first. [...]

[...] First, you can find great write-ups on some of the panels I sat on at fleen.com. Gary Tyrell practically transcribed Webcomics 103: Making Money. Here’s Part One and Part Two. Other Blank Label Comic cartoonists can be heard from in the transcriptions of Webcomics 102, and Webcomics 101. Oh, and the Blank Label Comics panel got mentioned in his Friday Recap. [...]

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