Webcomi-nomics

webcominomics

I’ll preface this article by stating this is merely an opinion piece – it’s not a socio-economic essay of any kind, since there are no concrete facts and figures. This article was inspired from discussions I’ve had with numerous comic creators over the last year. Feel free to argue in the comments below. Just don’t throw anything at me – I’m a bleeder. 🙂

I’ve been doing a lot of observing over the last few years about the habits of comic readers and creators. Initially, I was going to submit information about a social media experiment I conducted, but found that the data wasn’t telling anybody anything that they didn’t already know. The basic idea was that a focused effort on one outlet rather than a blanket approach on many would yield a larger readership. We can all figure out where the results were the most promising. The focused route, naturally.

But during the course of these observations, I noticed a number of ‘other‘ things you may or may not know.

1) There are definite tiers of webcomic creators.
2) There is a noticeable experience/time factor involved in reaching these tiers.
3) Higher tier webcomics have more readers than admirers.
4) Lower tier webcomic creators are often webcomic readers who become admirers
5) Within these tiers are cliques that emerge and ride alongside the success of larger entities.
6) The difficulty level in crossing the threshold between tiers grows exponentially.
7) The mid to lower tier suffers from saturation and homogenization

There are many more observations, but for the first part in this series, I’ll focus on these first seven.

1) There are definite tiers of webcomic creators*.

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You don’t have to look too far to find examples of the successful, noteworthy, up-and-coming and unknown comics out there. But the more you sit down and observe, you begin to see how and why they reached the plateaus they’ve reached. First, the descriptions –

  1. Tier One is comprised of entities that almost every creator aspires to become, and emulate. These entities are proper, successful businesses formed by the success of their creative projects, one of which being a webcomic. (e.g. – Penny Arcade, Blind Ferret.)
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  2. Tier Two features entities that receive considerable amounts of funding (through sales or patronage) to keep content coming on a consistent basis, and allow the creators to earn something similar to a steady, secure income. They may be involved in complementary projects outside of webcomics. They may or may not be involved in collectives or have working staff. (e.g. – SMBC, Questionable Content, PvP, The Oatmeal)
    smbc-logooatmeal brand
  3. Tier Three creators have received moderate success from their webcomic, have a loyal following and receive supplementary income from their work in the forms of merchandise and commissions. The income is enough for some operating expenses, but not enough to use as a primary salary. The majority of creators in this tier are motivated to create a business from webcomics and have elevated their standing from hobbyists or dreamers with this determination and planning. (e.g. – Zorphbert and Fred, Capes and Babes, etc)
  4. Tier Four creators are minimally experienced, but aspire to achieve higher levels of respectability. Due to the high volume of new creators trying to make a name for themselves, there is also a higher failure & abandonment rate. This tier also features most hobbyists and dreamers. There are a lot of unoriginal, stagnant and poorly executed comics here. Fortunately, those with enough drive, skill and ambition can quickly move into the second tier with ease.

*Of course, there will be grey areas in these lists – but as I mentioned in the beginning, this is a generalization and opinion piece.

Other observations:

Tier One entities tend to have the business model that most creators want to emulate. They’ve reached this rarified air through a mixture of early adoption, consistency, diversification, and exploiting their niche.

Tier Two entities have reached the culmination of their webcomic success and can only progress further by introducing newer and more ambitious creative forms of media (animation, live action, etc) which would require the addition of partners or staff. Chances are, the creator(s) have established a business for themselves at this stage, and leveraged other smaller forms of media to get to this position.

Tier Three entities have established a brand for their comic, a loyal following and have networked to make friendships with other creators and industry folk to help promote their standing. They are still largely unknown, but are gaining popularity and receiving some sales to offset operating costs. They’ve invested time and money into the future development of a business (a studio etc) and have separated themselves from hobbyists and dreamers.

Tier Four is everyone else with big dreams and nothing concrete to show for it. It is very easy to move out of this tier with hard work and determination. There is nowhere to go but up for those serious enough to try.

 

 2) There is a noticeable experience/time factor involved in reaching these tiers.

• Tier One entities have over 10 years of experience. (Penny Arcade has over 15 years)
• Tier  Two entities have over 8-9 years of experience.
• Tier Three webcomics have anywhere from 3-8 years of experience
• Tier Four webcomics are 0-3 years or hobbyist creators, a high number of which fail before year 1 has been reached.

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There are some exceptions. Blind Ferret is a Tier One entity, but has been active since 2003. PvP is a Tier Two entity, but has been around as long as Penny Arcade. Overall, 10+ years of experience tends to be the benchmark for reaching a sustainable full-time endeavor in webcomics. This includes a lot of mistakes and personal growth, as there is no true formula to achieving great success other than through hard work and perseverance – otherwise known as the experience factor.

* NOTE: There are MANY webcomics that may have been around for 10 years, but are not the creators sole means of generating income, or are simply a hobby project. I didn’t include these variations in the list, as the viewpoint is meant to be taken from someone seriously looking at doing this full time.

 

3) Higher tier webcomics have more readers than admirers.

This may seem like an obvious statement, but when you break readership numbers down into sets you’ll notice the percentage of general readers of Tier One comics are much higher than readers of Tier One comics who create their own webcomic. For the sake of differentiation, we’ll call these people admirers. Tier One webcomics have the perfect blend of admirers and readers as fans; those who are willing to spend money on their work because of the value it possesses. For the reader, the enjoyment of the work. For the admirer, the inspiration and framework of success.

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Tier Two comic readers have amassed a healthy number of readers and admirers and can live off of the revenues generated from merch sales, etc. But they’ve gone beyond the tipping point of more paying readers than admirers. This takes years of experience, networking and building trust amongst readership to act as evangelists for their work. As we follow down the tiers, you’ll notice more creators appearing on the ‘reader’ list. These actions could be a show of solidarity amongst creators or being true fans of a creator’s comics, but the major gripe most Tier Three and Four creators have is the lack of new and true fans of their comics.

 

4) Lower tier webcomic creators are often webcomic readers who become admirers

At lower tiers, the comic readership appears to be extremely cannibalistic, as other creators are the primary followers of a creator’s work. For creators at the higher tiers, with more exposure to different social circles outside of webcomic creators comes more readers.

It’s a problem most Tier Three comics continually face – getting beyond the social circles of creator/readers and into newer circles of readers/true fans. There’s no exact formula to achieve success in readership, therefore, a moderate amount of experimentation in different markets is needed to extend your newly developing brand.

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Tier Three comics slowly develop readers, who spread the word to other potential readers. Unfortunately, they have a hard time generating sales since the majority of their fans are admirers, looking to generate their own sales – and any expenditures on webcomics would be passing around the same money from one creators hand to another creators hand. It isn’t a sustainable model, by any means.

 

5) Within these tiers are cliques that emerge and ride alongside the success of larger entities.

I won’t go on a diatribe about cronyism or clique mentality, but we’ve all seen how the system works and how creators benefit from it. The best example of this comes from Penny Arcade’s reality TV show Strip Search. Other than Erika Moen, who was by far the most experienced of the group, none of the other contestants had any clout to stretch beyond Tier Three.

Image from http://www.penny-arcade.com/strip-search

Image from http://www.penny-arcade.com/strip-search

After the show, almost every creator that had a Kickstarter campaign for their work was overfunded by a wide margin. Their visibility on Strip Search vaulted them into Tier Two status as creators. But without that show, they would have been fighting for the same eyeballs as everyone else. This endorsement by a Tier One comic helped form a clique of creators in a sub-pocket of Tier Two. Call it luck, good fortune or bravery to put oneself out there, the contestants of the show were given instant leverage in the form of visibility from a Tier One comic project. A win-win for both sides.

I’m not begrudging anyone who uses endorsements or contests as leverage for elevating their status. In fact, I believe it’s absolutely necessary to break the barriers between tiers. Without that push from a credible source, your work may float on in mediocrity. This is why networking is just as important as creating good comics. Which leads me to my next observation…

 

6) The difficulty level in crossing the threshold between tiers grows exponentially.

It’s fairly easy to get out of the swamp that is Tier Four. Consistent updates, improving your art, a willingness to learn, a drive to create and motivation to make a business from your talents is often enough to separate you from the creators or wannabe creators at the bottom of the ladder.

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Moving from Tier Three to Tier Two requires a lot more blood, sweat and tears. This is the career stage that is most frustrating, as it becomes a waiting game for success to hit. Overall success may mean something different to each individual creator, but it is definitely reliant on a few factors.

– Popularity of Subject Matter
– Visibility in Media
– Quality of Story/Writing/Art
– Frequency of Update
– Easy Acceptance and Proliferation by Mass Audience

If all five of these factors are achieved, a creator’s work is well on the way to developing a fanbase with enough readers and admirers to sustain them financially.

More often than not, one or more of these factors are not achieved. In this case, the creator experiences the feeling of being in a holding pattern, wondering if their efforts will ever give them enough of a push into the next tier. Despite their motivation and work ethic, continuing to follow the conventional path other successful webcomic creators have taken to success seems to bear little return.

After speaking with a number of creators, the common complaint has always been…

 

7) The mid to lower tier suffers from saturation and homogenization

With a low entry barrier to webcomics, it’s very easy to assume there are more creators than readers. Personally, I don’t believe that to be the case – it’s a statement about our lack of motivation to find opportunities for exposure with low competition and high interest.

Let’s face it – comics are a saturated market. From the hundreds of titles pushed by the Big Two each month to the thousands of webcomics available online, there are so many choices for a reader and so much competition for creators.

The majority of creators understand that it takes something very special to rise to the top and be noticed. Yet many creators continue to emulate the methods other successful webcomics have used in years past. Without any innovation in presentation or product, that well runs dry very quickly.

Very few creators attempt to distance themselves (presentation-wise) from the other comic creators sitting beside them at a convention. To be noticed, there has to be something that will attract attention in a positive manner and make a lasting first impression. Otherwise, one indie comic is no different than the next one sitting beside it.

From Shawn Scott Smith - con-news.com.

From Shawn Scott Smith – con-news.com.

Easier said than done – the general consensus is that a popular webcomic will always draw more casual readers due to the sheer volume of shared links. But there is the additional benefit of people from outside markets who vouch for a comic’s quality. How many times have we seen a topical or subject specific strip go viral after a prominent person in a field related to the strip’s subject boosts the signal. Or a celebrity endorsement? The potential for exponential growth is much larger.

An unknown webcomic has to work to build a network that can boost the signal to reach higher profile figures from the ground up. Many times, a creator relies on the followers within their own peer group, but they are also looking for that same boost in popularity. The result is the perception of cannibalism amongst Tier Three and Tier Four webcomics. When creators take the easy road for promotion rather than experimentation or putting themselves out there, their complacency leads to homogenization. Especially since a large number of creators do this.

It could be that a number of creators are introverts by nature, but that shouldn’t be used as a crutch. It ends up being more of a barrier to progress.

 

The Takeaway

I know there’s a lot of crazy opinions on the table – but there has been little discourse, save for the few comments on a scattering of websites. The Webcomic Alliance would like to hear YOUR take on the state of webcomics, creators and readers, and whether or not my opinions are truthful or complete garbage. So let’s have at it – give us your thoughts!
Andrés ‘ Drezz ‘ Rodriguez is an illustrator, author, and podcast personality. In addition to creating the comic book series ‘El Cuervo – the Latin Assassin,’ he provides WA readers with periodic articles (like this one) to help improve their comic process and their production.

Feel free to follow him on Twitter, on Facebook or his blog, drezzworks.

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Posted in Business, Debate, Featured News and tagged , , , .

20 Comments

  1. I think this is spot on, from what I’ve observed at least!

    Disclaimer: Of course, this is coming from a Tier 4 comic creator simply trying to transition into Tier 3.

    • I hear you. I get some flak because my comic is still classified as Tier 4. I’m a hobbyist who is still on the fence about putting the extra hours into making this more than just a hobby. But life commitments can be difficult to juggle and family takes precedence over all.

      But – I do work for a branding and marketing company and a trade show and event management business, so I’m well versed in both areas – I feel I can give some insights into cons, branding etc.

      As for these views, they’re strictly observations on my part. Its a good discussion to have around here, because I’m sure there are many of us who have felt the same way about the webcomics ecosystem, but didn’t know how to say it. This is a good platform to jump from and explore.

      • I’m right there with you Drezz, I’m also a hobbyist that’s working on putting in extra hours to get it to be more.

        Likewise, I am a web developer who has worked in the branding and marketing departments for a variety of companies, so I too feel like I know a bit more than the average tier 4 creator when it comes to marketing, branding, etc. I have yet to jump to the other side of the tables when it comes to cons, but I am trying to make that leap perhaps by next year!

        Honestly, this site (and the group that started it) has been a great jumping off point as a newer comic creator. I’ve passed the 2 year mark on consistent publishing, but up until recently I’ve just been working away on the comic and not really looking into convention scene or doing anything other than making it a better comic and transitioning into, how can I make it profitable?

  2. Drezz,

    You know in the Peanuts Christmas special, where Lucy sits with Chuck and goes through all the phobia’s until he yells.. “THATS IT!” THAT is what this article is. Thats the yell I just heard in my head. This just might be the thing we are missing within the medium. You say tiers, I see foundations and structures and floors.

    I think you are onto something here, something that, maybe, can be built upon, something that might be able to design a basic blueprint in self publishing comics from the ground up. With so many different hats we have to wear as entrepreneurs of our work, maybe a loose fitting set of steps on which hat and when to wear it within the tiers could help someone from getting to far ahead of themselves?

    I watch so many of my peers, including myself, tripping over the various aspects of creating comics and that’s mostly due to everyone trying to find a footing, which stair are they on?!

    The issue with “cliques” is unfortunate. No person, or job is to small for someone above you, or below you, to not recognize ones efforts. One just has to be respectful, but bullish to get through that barrier. Easier said than done. Wherever I sit on the food chain today, or next year, if someone waives their hand and says “yo, over here”.. they’ll get my attention. I wasn’t built to be rude, until the rude comes to me first.

    Anyone else seeing the potential of this article as I am? Bueller? I mean c’mon… hello!

    • We’ve all had this discussion amongst our colleagues at some point – but very few have broached the subject and put it all out there for a bigger discussion and further opinions from other creators. A large number of us are still at the bottom of the bowl looking upwards.

      Like I mentioned earlier, we’re just talking and forming opinions to get a better understanding of our current place and the potential for ideas to get above our current standing. Observation is the first step.

      I hate using the word clique, but it got the point across. The creators I used as an example probably aren’t snobbish or create an environment of exclusion – it was something that happened by chance, and their collective has helped elevate their status. They’re a group, even though they do their own thing.

    • There’s absolutely nothing wrong with experimentation – as long as you’re not going into some painful debt in the hopes of an instant return, it will help build exposure and data for the future.

      There are SO many different shows out there, but we tend to stick with ones we know instead of exploring.

  3. My feelings exactly, Jynksie. I started my webcomic in 2005. I always hoped it would become something but didn’t seriously expect it. It’s primary purpose was to help me get better as a writer and artist.

    I think it did that, but boy did I make a lot of mistakes. I could never break out of Tier 4 (at one point I had about a thousand readers, but could never break that ceiling without major advertising). Ultimately even though it was getting better, my lack of experience was obvious. I made a lot of the mistakes talked about here, especially as far as advertising among other Tier 4s or trying to garner the attention of audiences of Tier 3s. It works short term but ultimately nothing came of it.

    Real life issues made me start missing updates after three years of consistency, and it has taken me a while to get back into. While I’m finishing up my first comic (I always swore I would finish it) I plan on launching a new one in August that will be much better thanks to the experience I gained from the first. This article is just what I needed to make me think smarter and outside of the box when it comes to promoting this next comic. I do hope to break into that Tier 3 some day.

    I’m looking forward to the future installments of this.

    • Everybody makes mistakes – it’s what allows you to be smarter and more flexible later on. You need those errors in order to tighten up your process (business and schedule).

      The key is to be serious about making a go of it as a business and put in a lot of work. Otherwise, you’re just fulfilling your own personal wants and enjoyment when you feel like – that’s a hobby.

  4. I think a lot of your observations are fairly accurate. But the trick is to not leave it at observation, but to push past looking and act. So you know these things, what do you do then?

    In terms of ascending tiers, I think it literally comes down to time, quality and relatability. If you’re producing good work that people can relate to, then over time you will get more followers. Of course, you need active management of that. You can’t just post comics in obscurity and cross your fingers. You can’t just be a comic creator. That’s not how the internet works. You have to be active on social media, you have to market your comic and skills, you have to blog about stuff as well as posting your comic. If you don’t do those things, nobody ever finds you.

    With regards to the cliques, that’s a human nature thing. Using the strip search guys as an example, they met. They worked together for a week. They bonded over a shared enthusiasm for making comics. In that time they became friends. They made the effort to stay in touch.
    Why aren’t I a part of that clique? Because none of them know me from any of their other fans. Using Lexy as a more specific example. I’m one of nearly 10 thousand people following Lexy on twitter. We’re not in the same clique because she doesn’t know me.
    So, when it comes to cliques, I think you need to actively reach out to other creators. Cliques form when like minded people interact with each other regularly. So, force yourself to interact. Just be wary of looking stalkerish.

    Also, not to single Lexy out or anything, but I’d not put her on your Tier 2. I honestly feel like 7 pages of comic is a failed Tier 4. Lexy’s more known for her other stuff than being a comic creator. Erica on the other hand made damned good use of her time on Strip Search and continues to make comics, which is what she’s known for.

    The cannibalism that you talk about among tier 4 is I think the most important aspect of this whole article. And I think it’s a part of being a tier 4 creator. If you can’t extend your marketing beyond other comics online, you’re NEVER going to grow big enough to hit Tier 3. Ever. Domino’s Pizza doesn’t advertise on Pizza Hut’s web page. Why? People are already at the Pizza Hut page, they already know about and want Pizza Hut pizza. Comic creators need to do the same sort of thinking. Granted, there’s less direct competition, just because someone reads PA, doesn’t mean they won’t read My comic, however, you need to market to your audience, and the webcomic reading audience is a small one.

    I’ll be interested in seeing a series of articles addressing each of these points and how to combat them. I think it’s stuff we should all be thinking about.

    • Thanks for the response Scott, and you’re absolutely right on all your comments.

      I thought about doing a follow up post about taking action, but I have to question how that would be received, given my own status as a hobbyist. I’ll see about interviewing someone with more authority on the subject for credibility sake. I’d hate to come off looking like a know-it-all – most folks will take the word of someone who’s elbow deep in it, rather than someone watching those toiling in the muck.

      As for the cliques – its a word with negative connotation attached to it (snobbery, elitism, etc) and I didn’t want it to come off that way. The SS contestants are a formed collective with a shared experience and common goal.

      I’d still place Lexxy in that Tier 2 based on the sheer pull of popularity. She’s appeared twice on PATV shows, has a successful concept art career and is dabbling in comics. But I get what you mean about the appearance of failure. I think she got in too far over her head with an ambitious Kickstarter and is treading water right now to try and fulfill orders and keep backers happy.

      Her heart was in the right place – she’s trying to introduce folks into her world, and a Volume 0 was supposed to be her ‘grand opening.’ I think with some better planning, she could have been ready to go and have the comic being posted simultaneously – but sometimes excitement and passion over a project can cloud the sensible, planned approach.

      Cannibalism is something the Webcomics Weekly gang have talked about in the past – it isnt anything new, and it has been happening for years, and I don’t understand why it still happens, other than being the easiest method with least work and resistance for an artist.

      This is probably going to be an ongoing series, so I could look at possible methods for addressing the issues we face as a way of creating a more open discussion – rather than me telling you what to do.

  5. I agree with you for the most part, although you’ve classified Tiers 1 and 2 incorrectly.

    The difference between Tiers 1 and 2 is not “success.” The comics you’ve listed in Tier 2 are arguably just as successful as Tier 1. It was reported in 2012 by the creator that The Oatmeal makes $400,000 a year from merchandise alone. Jeph Jaques’ Patreon campaign is pulling over $ 8.2K a month. That’s over $98,000 a year, on top of whatever his strip is making. (The strip which, mind you, was pulling enough revenue for Jeph Jaques to quit his job after one year.) You cannot call that “moderately successful.”

    Tiers 1 and 2 are different not in their level of success, at least as far as the strips themselves go, but in what the creators have done with that success. Penny Arcade and the guy behind Blind Ferret took their success and used that to expand their brand beyond their comic.

    Tier 1 is corporate expansion. Tier 2 is a successful webcomic.

    • Heh – I was waiting for someone to criticize my use of Tiers and their explanations. I believe your description is much more precise, and I thank you for making it clearer. You’re completely spot on with what I ‘tried’ to explain. Success is a poor term – I should say ‘diversity in business’ instead.

      I absolutely agree that PA, Blind Ferret etc are corporate level. They have multiple properties that extend beyond comics.

      The Oatmeal brings in a lot of money from merch, but that model is the same one used by every other successful cartoonist. Same with QC. PvP on the other hand is an odd duck – its a successful webcomic, but Kurtz has had a hand in creating a number of other properties that are successful as well. I would have included him in Tier 1, but beyond comics and media, he hasn’t reached a full corporate structure yet – perhaps that is in the works, or he may just enjoy creating content and is fine with that, who knows.

      They’re all successful. Success is also a relative term.

      Thanks for making the upper tier distinction clearer. I’ll make a note of that and do a follow-up in the next article in the series. 🙂

      • Sorry, I probably could have and should have adopted a nicer tone in writing that. I really did like your analysis.

        But I’m happy you agreed with my re-categorization of Term 1. Although rereading my initial post, I really should have clarified that I was defining “success” as a comic’s ability to fully support it’s creator financially. That’s probably the biggest difference between Tiers 2 & 3.

        • I’m confused – your tone was fine. 🙂 Not accusatory or inflammatory by any stretch. It’s a discussion – no need to be apologetic!

          It will help me improve the next article followup to this. Thanks for your input.

          • When I reread the initial post it sounded a little overly-critical & blunt. But I guess maybe that was a good thing?

            Anyway, I look forward to the next article!

        • I would agree to the three tiers of Pro, Semi-Pro and Hobbyist. Corporate Pro is just a evolved form of Pro.

          I would be careful about attempting to rank levels of success. Even legendary Jack Kirby had to give up comics and draw storyboards to make ends meet. Some folks would argue that selling t-shirts isn’t a testament to a successful cartoonist but the mark of a great fashion designer. Does teaching art on the side mean that you are no longer a self-sufficient cartoonist or does it mean that you’re diversifying your artistic portfolio?

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  7. Greetings Mr. Andres,

    I am a tier four newcomer looking to attempt sustainability for my comic, linked in the reply. I have a newcomers paradigm of the market and I desperately need to assess a survival strategy before the expense of my comics development runs it into the ground.

    As the saying goes, time is money, and if my ‘production time’ produces no money, my time will run out. I have many novel (or naievely novel) ideas that I wish to express, but being in a day job makes my time desperately short.

    May I request a moment of your time to discuss and review my current setup, how to improve it, and how to generate enough income to simply survive? Or anyone reading this, for that matter. All I ask is for a reply from someone willing to help.

    I thank you for your time in reading this, and look forward to hearing from you soon.

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