Self-Publishing and Webcomics, or “Haven’t We Been Here Before?”

Sometimes you sit with your fingers over the keyboard, and you KNOW somebody’s gonna get mad at you.

Ideas are like potatoes. No matter how many ways you turn your idea around, looking for the best possible angle, it’s got lumps and somebody out there wanted cauliflower.

I’m gonna talk about self-publishing for a bit. And webcomics. Because, as my dear buddy Otter wrote yesterday, the parallels are so damn obvious that I feel like an idiot for not having seen it a mile off.

There are a lot of rational people on the internet. There are also a lot of zealots. And if you say anything about self-publishing that is not “Oh my god you guys, this is totally the way to fame and success!” there is a tendency for those rational voices to be drowned out in the howling for blood.

(Chuck Wendig did a post a week or so back about this, where he said, in essence, “There is no one true way. Research and make the choice that’s best for you.” Only on the internet would this be a controversial statement that people would argue with. If he’d managed to tie in breastfeeding somehow, the servers would have actually caught fire.)

Nevertheless, here I go.

Y’all remember webcomics?

Sure you do. They were comics! On the web! Usually free! People invented all kinds of ways to try to make money off them, some of which worked (merchandising) some of which didn’t work so well (pay walls) some of which worked in certain specific circumstances (ads.)

I’m sure you remember it. Every major news outlet in the world ran an article at some point saying “Oh my god, they have comics on the web now!” usually in tandem with “Oh my god, did you people know that they have comics that AREN’T FOR KIDS!?” and then people’s heads exploded. (My comic was actually mentioned in one of those articles, which happened to be in the New York Times. My mother wanted me to get their quote tattooed on my forehead.)

If you happened to be involved in the webcomic world around six or seven years ago (as I was) you saw great optimism. We cherished our great success stories—PA, Kurtz, all the people who quit their jobs. “Hey, the S*P guy said “If you want the comic on time, pay me enough to quit my job, and his fans DID!” We sneered at Marvel as a dinosaur that would die under its own crushing lack of innovation (and then cheered whenever a webcomic got a big publishing deal, because…um…people are complicated.) We told ourselves that traditional comics were scared of us. We relished the fact that newspaper comic pages were going under (even as we felt very very bad for the very nice people who had their comics in newspapers) because WE weren’t with them, and WE were the wave of the future and soon everyone would realize that it was a BOLD NEW WORLD and any webcomic could succeed and it didn’t have to be about superheroes, and we found our niches and our fans.

We told people who wanted to do comics for a living, professionally, that the best thing they could do would be to do a webcomic. That it would be advertising for their talents. That it would get their stuff out there.

About once a nanosecond, somebody showed up on a webcomics board and said “My comic’s been up for six weeks, I’m not making any money, what gives?”

And then someone would have The Talk about fan bases and advertising and taking time and quality products and getting yourself out there. And that person would either quit in disgust or they would knuckle down and do the work. We would discuss guest comics on other comics as method of advertising. We would talk about whether it was worth it to buy ads. (We would talk about whether it was worth it to sell ads, for that matter.)

We had review bloggers. They were, briefly, rock-stars, and then people rebelled about who-died-and-gave-you-the-right-to-gatekeep and fans engaged in character assassination because of What They Said About Our Charlene’s Comic What Is On The Internet and it all eventually found its own equilibrium.

We had flame wars. Oh, the memory of those flame wars is glorious. I could toast marshmallows over the embers of replies to anything Scott Kurtz ever said.

And every forum was full of signatures with big, hopeful .gifs and people ended every sentence with “CHECK OUT MY WEBCOMIC!”  And we had to have The Talk about how we do not make forum posts just to plug ourselves because that is cheap.

Is this starting to sound familiar to anybody? Maybe just a tad?

It was a smaller scale. There have never been as many comics as books—probably because throughout history, fewer people have believed they could draw. But it was the same world.

This is not me slamming self-publishing. Are you kidding? I was one of those webcomics people! I have a rocket ship on my mantlepiece and an Eisner nomination and a nonexistent tattoo of the New York Times quote because of my webcomic, which quite frankly makes me one of the teeny tiny upper percentage in terms of critical recognition in a webcomic. (Seriously, I think I’m behind Girl Genius and…uh…apologizing to Howard Taylor a lot…) I am a huge raving success story about the power of putting a comic on the web with no gatekeeper and no editor and a complete inability to spell the word “separate” correctly on the first try. The day may come, if I can hack the work (and it won’t be for a long time, so don’t get excited) when I may do another webcomic, because webcomics are glorious.

It was a brave new world. It was the Wild West. It was awesome.

I should also mention that I have made, in total, probably around $20K from Digger. Spread over nine years. And for a webcomic, that’s considered pretty damn fine commercial success (and it’s worth noting that probably 90% of that is because a rockin’ little small press named Sofawolf did print versions. They did all the work, and I love them for it forever. I am frankly sort of amused that people are making a big deal out of the fact that there’s a self-published thing on this year’s Hugo ballot, because they were nominating Digger as a self-published work. I had to ask specifically that Sofawolf’s name go on the ballot with mine, because they do a damn fine job and they deserved to be there too.)

Once we settled the Wild West and put in railroads and people stopped dying of dysentery, it turned out that webcomics looked pretty much like everything else.

A couple of people made a LOT of money.

A lot of people made a little money.

Most people made almost no money.

I repeat, is this starting to sound familiar to anybody?

This is not me slamming on self-publishing. I would have self-published Digger if Sofawolf hadn’t stepped up. I have many friends who self-publish comic collections, books, all kinds of things. Many of them do very good work.

None of them are rich from it.

If the day comes when I have a book I love (and it will come) and my agent cannot sell it (too weird, wrong brand, whatever) then I will self-publish it. And I will try very hard to do good work.

And I will not get rich from it.

And that’s okay.

There are fewer webcomics now. The hyperbole has died down. People still try, and fail, and get grumpy and quit. The big names are mostly still big. It is still possible to get a decently good following and, if you work your ass off, either make a living from it or make enough to supplement your day job pretty nicely.

Is this starting to sound…oh, never mind. You get the point by now or you don’t, and you agree with me or you don’t.

But it wasn’t the road to glory and free money for everyone who could put a word bubble over a stick-figure And the secret to success WAS putting stuff out there, as it turns out—but it was also putting GOOD stuff out there, not firing a shotgun of crap at the wall and hoping something stuck. And you had to be consistent and reliable and do something special and not just try to be the next Penny Arcade/Kurtz/whatever.

And your art had to not suck and your writing REALLY had to not suck, or people ignored you. You couldn’t say “Real fans will read it and not care about your super-Nazi grammar and format issues!” because as it turned out, they wouldn’t. (I stopped reading multiple things because the comic artist would cram words right up to the edge of the word balloon and it made my eyes hurt.)

Anyone who tells you that they know the future is lying. But I’ll give you my best guess, if you want it, and it’s worth exactly what you’re paying for it. If you don’t like it, ignore it. It doesn’t actually make a difference to me, or frankly, to the future.

In a couple of years, the self-publishing hyperbole will die down. People who got excited and then disappointed by their lack of instant success will go on to the next thing. Some people will knuckle down and do the work. Some people will figure out how to make a living or to supplement their day job pretty nicely.

And a couple of people will make a LOT of money.

And a lot of people will make a little money.

And most people will make almost no money.

And the song will remain the same.


12 thoughts on “Self-Publishing and Webcomics, or “Haven’t We Been Here Before?”

  1. Dave Cochran says:

    Yeah, that sounds pretty much right. Though I would say, the boundary between self-publishing and small-press is of a hazy, soritical character. My guess is that most of the self-publishers who end up actually making money are going to be the ones who behave more like small presses – putting the work in over professional-quality book design, hiring an editor, marketing, etc.

  2. Wolf Lahti says:

    I can’t quite decide whether this is inspiring or damnably depressing.

    Today is Wednesday, so I’ll go with the former. Ask me again tomorrow.

  3. kat says:

    Pretty much. (I don’t have a horse in this race because I don’t care if I make money off my comic. It is in essence a journeyman project: I work in front of an audience because I’m not Emily Dickenson but I freely recognize it’s a deeply flawed work-in-progress that deserves no more attention than it gets. Possibly less. It saves me a lot of angst.)

    The one notable difference is the marked lack of people preying on the hopes and dreams of webcomic artists. Oh, there’s some. And I’m sure there’s plenty of people who have lost money, one way or the other. But webcomics does not have Publish America, or Edit Ink, or a veritable raft of fake fee-charging literary agents circling like sharks.

    The current fad for self-publishing will make some great successes for some great people and I really do support those going for it (especially Otter, who has a Book of Awesome), especially those going into it with their eyes wide open. And fingers crossed there won’t be too many people that find themselves ripped off for a few hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand dollars. Fingers crossed the fad won’t be as blood in the water to a certain sort of parasite.

    But I wouldn’t bet on it.

  4. Alex R. says:

    I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! And I don’t even know why!

    What you said is wrong and bad and horrible! Fans will beat you with whips made of cream cheese and the dead zombies of the wrongly published will destroy you with their fanged, explosive web-thingies and oh how wrong you are and everything you say is true isn’t true and your experiences are an exception to every rule and you can just take your wombat and your elf and your sentimental yogurt and just die!

    And stuff!

  5. Al the K says:

    Now doesn’t the song remain the same in every field?

    As for money, Charles Schulz said he never made very much off his “Peanuts” syndicated strip even at its peak of distribution. It was not until he got royalties from toys, TV and the licensing of characters for advertising that he made buckets.

    But you don’t mention the ego part of self-publishing. Many a promising webcomic has died a lingering death when the artist/writer has run off to con after con with no product in hand. One maybe hopes the creator maxed out their enjoyment of his/her 15 minutes of fame.

  6. RhianimatorLGP says:

    Businesses are like living things, they are born, they reproduce, they die. And like most sorts of living things there is a natural weeding process that selects the good ones from the not so good.

    So it could be said that the free content model webcomic is a creature with a breed like mad with no parental care species survival strategy. Publishers are more like selective parents who give guidance to their young. The weeding there happens at the selection level.

    Perhaps the webcomic will evolve into something different and wonderful as time goes on. But even it it does, I’m sure 99 will die for every 1 that lives. Nature is like that.

  7. Tom West says:

    “I will try very hard to do good work.
    And I will not get rich from it.
    And that’s okay.”
    I have ‘normal’ 9-5 job that I love, and that set of statements applies to me just as much…

  8. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    Thank you for Digger. I wish you WOULD get rich off of your work, but I suspect that getting rich by doing creative work is a lot like getting struck by lightning; random chance influenced by many factors, only some of which are understood.

    Anyway; than you, again, for Digger. And Ed. And Shadowchild. And Boneclaw Mother.

    Boneclaw Mother Rules O.K.

  9. Alex R. says:

    “Anyway; than you, again, for Digger. And Ed. And Shadowchild. And Boneclaw Mother.”

    And thank you for Celadon Toadstool and Sings To Trees. And please finish their story!!

  10. Veena Gokhale says:

    My partner is a huge fan of yours BTW. I don’t follow that genre, tho. I read some Digger. Cool.

    We joke about the “7 top habits of millionaires.” A thousand people have them; say 15 are millionaires, 20 do very well, 50 do well, and the rest? Ah, there’s always the rest!

    Formula can work and can bomb and can do everything in between. Thanks for this post.

  11. jay maechtlen says:

    Ditto – thanks for Digger and the rest.
    I need to ‘dig’ up the $$ and buy some of those.
    FWIW, I plug Digger when I get the chance.
    And hope you’ll return to some of those stories sometime.
    best wishes for you, the garden, and all!

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