Proverb: He who fails to plan, plans to fail. Period.
There’s more to independent comic creation then learning how to draw hands and feet, it also is about running it as a business and that requires… wait for it… a Plan! Becoming an entrepreneur is not an easy task and is not for the faint of heart. I have been self-employed for over 25 years and it has had some great moments and some great pains. It is extremely tough, but if you set your mind to it, success will come with some simple planning and answering a few questions. So, let’s see what you’re up against in starting up your webcomic (or growing an existing one).
Hobbyist or professional? This article is not for the hobbyist, so go off and listen to a podcast, you’ll get more out of it. If you intend on making money with your webcomic, then you, by definition, will be a professional. Learn to act and think like one. Don’t shy away from “I do a comic” in conversations. Always be thinking of how to grow your business.
Evaluate your market. From the sheer numbers, you must realize that very few make a living solely from their independent webcomics. Yes, their webcomic may have been the catalyst for a bigger business today (like Penny Arcade) but those larger webcomics are mostly composed of other revenue streams not centered on their comics anymore. Blind Ferret is another example. They provide a lot of services today and they got their start from their webcomics, but they are so much more than just a daily strip. So look at the market and evaluate how YOU are going to make money in the long run. More than likely, it will be from other sources other than your webcomic, but your comic will be the lead generator to these other off-shoots of your comic (more on this in a moment).
How many similar businesses are there? Tens of thousands now. How will you set yourself apart from the others? What’s your “hook”? What will not only bring readers in, but bring them back. This has to be more than just a good comic, it has to be a good site design too. Don’t just put up a stock Comic Press site and expect people to be overwhelmed by your presence. Your website is your store front, so dress it up and get some good “signage” to attract your customers (readers).
HOW will yours be different? What will set you apart? Branding is key (see Ken’s articles). Marketing: It’s not just about Twitter and Facebook. Create effective banner ads and run them on other sites (again, see Ken’s articles on banner creation). One of the ways I eventually set my comic apart from others was to include a classic rock song with each comic and match it to the title of that day’s comic. This started up a lot of interaction amongst my readers, and many came just to see what song I had picked and give their reactions and/or memories to the song. It got them reading the comic, so I didn’t care if most of the talk was about music. The comic based on rock and roll, so it fit perfectly. Find your angle and exploit it.
Creating a NEED and fulfilling it with your comic and products. Any successful business is based on creating a need and then selling a great solution to that need. Just by doing a webcomic, we are not creating a need outside of the fact that people like to read comics. What do your readers want? Ask them. Research what’s been done before and come up with an angle to make it your own. Nothing is new, so don’t sweat it if it’s been done. Make your offering unique to your readers/customers and you’ll be fine.
Readers are LEADS… take advantage of this resource. Use an Opt-In plug-in and create a mailing list. Make a monthly newsletter with information (how you create the comic or convention appearances) and an exclusive comic. Obtaining a good sized list leads to advertising revenue from the newsletter itself. The newsletter is NOT Facebook stuff, it must be of VALUE to your list subscribers or they’ll unsubscribe. Value is the number one thing you must look at. If no one sees value in what you offer, then they will not buy.
What other revenue streams are you including? For 1977 the Comic I have consider coasters for drinks, match books, bottle cap magnets and even private labeling of a local micro-brew beer. Besides the usual items like print collections of the comics, t-shirts and commissions, I have also had success with a Subscriber’s Only section with the comic at one point. I am currently looking at doing some form of animation based on the comic as well as pitching a live version of the comic for a TV series. Spinning off your ideas into other mediums will increase your revenue streams as well.
Now how are you going to do all of this? Goals. Set several smaller goals then list items to accomplish those goals. This is your biggest road block. An example for me was “Attend a major convention” This was accomplished by researching conventions that were webcomic friendly, raising money to attend the convention and for items to sell, and finally networking with fellow webcomic creators to pool our resources and make a bigger splash. Power in numbers. Goals do not have to be significant, but they must build to something, so think about your goals and just write them down, no matter how trivial you may think they are. Then when you’re done, go back and look them over and refine them and eliminate others. You’ll come up with a good set in no time.
Know the basic rule of thumb in business: Is it takes two years before a business starts to turn a profit. Even longer in these tough times. How are you going to eat for two years? Day job? Rob banks? (not advisable) Mooch off parents? Be realistic. Me? I married a woman with money. That helps. (I’m kidding)
And the final tip is both simple and hard: It takes money to make money. The day I decided to draw 1977 I immediately bought a WACOM tablet and Manga Studio software as I determined these were the tools I needed to be in the digital comic arena. It was over $800 but I’ve been drawing 1977 for three years now and it was money well spent. To drive this point home even further: I hadn’t drawn in 30 years and was more than rusty (actually I was terrible) so taking this step was a huge leap of faith. But, it drives home the point: you gotta invest in your business to be taken seriously.