Saturday, September 27, 2008

Are More Webcomics Better?

Do more webcomics hurt or help existing webcomics?
Webcomics are growing:
  • The number of active webcomics appears to be growing;
  • A precise head count is not yet available (though we're working on it);
  • Preliminary indications are that the number of active comics, which do more than squat in a dusty site with only chance interactions with others, is at least 1400 and perhaps 2500;
  • The Webcomic List maintains the highest head count, around 11,000, but preliminary examination suggests that number would come down with scrutiny;
  • Theories exist as to why The Webcomic List count might be valid and yet also an over count: for example, it may include many titles that exist on backwaters such as SmackJeeves that otherwise get near zero outside exposure, and which for our analysis are of low consequence;
  • More major titles have experienced circulation gains over the past year than declines;
  • While statistics for comic hosting sites show a broad decline, this may indicate greater creator faith in the investment required to build and launch one's own site.
The potential audience is much bigger than the current audience:
  • People who would read a comic are already skilled at surfing, including spotting, assessing and judging a new webcomic in minimal time;
  • Print comics are showing a bit of circulation slippage this year;
  • Newspapers are contracting at a rapid pace, cutting comics pages and editorial cartoonists, as they lose readers to the web.
Successful webcomics tend to be either distinctive or first:
  • Top title lists are dominated by the foremost title in a niche and by comics that stand out from their peers through a combination of quality, uniqueness and/or improvisational ingenuity;
  • Merely being excellent or even outstanding, seems only to guarantee access to the perimeter, not necessarily the inner circle, of success;
  • Some top titles combine these qualities with broad accessibility to build an audience, most often by trading quality of art for frequency of appearance, but sometimes by pandering to the baser instincts of the audience.
A skilled reader can usually forecast the market potential of the less successful titles:
  • Many titles plateau and never recover, with only a small percentage (e.g. Achewood) getting a second chance and breaking out. Steady growth seems to be a better marker of health than a rapid rise and stall-out;
  • Word of a particularly promising new comic often spreads quickly, though less orthodox styles are often overlooked;
  • Widespread participation in scan-and-click sites like Stumble Upon and Hot or Not, and an innate sense of what makes a webcomic appealing promote efficient decision-making when evaluating a comic;
  • Links sites, possibly fueled by increasing familiarity with tabbed pages in browsers, seem to have become the portal of choice for locating and reviewing previously unseen comics.
Title growth increases the odds that a web user will become exposed to web comics:
  • Title growth appears more significant than audience growth as high speed connections pass the 80% threshold and growth in net traffic shifts to foreign countries;
  • Publication of "graphic novels," or non-mainstream comics by The New York Times Magazine, suggest an expansion of appreciation for alternative comics;
  • Blockbuster films based on mainstream comics and niche films based on alternative comics ("Art School Confidential," "Ghost World") legitimize comics as an important entertainment form.
New revenue sources can only draw more talent:
  • These include pay-per-view downloads of comics to phones and handheld devices;
  • DC Comics' Zuda site, while truly just a hybrid of webcomics and print comics, has attracted talent and attention.
Top titles often do not share readers:
  • Genre and theme differences demarcate sharp divides among readers, suggesting that a likely audience doubling or tripling would absorb a like amount of readers.
Broad audience expansion could have negative affects:
  • The tendency of mass audiences to birth superstars could have a negative affect by concentrating the audience and defining fads and fashions that will rub off on some titles as luck and curse others;
  • "Big Media" entrance into the field could destroy the fertile and free atmosphere now enjoyed within the webcomics community;
  • "IP Farms," which attract with benefits in exchange for rights, could snare unwary titles.
The future of webcomics may come to resemble cable television, with perhaps 5% of titles dominating the market that others would like to, but realistically can't easily enter.
As the web gets better at showing people what they want to see, comics will have to keep up in their ability to present it -- something that has been done poorly to date, with numerous competing portals following a variety of technical, nomenclature and design paths
One significant webcomic, "We the Robots," does no promotion and gets almost all its traffic from Stumble Upon and Reddit. His readers frequently submit his work, and his episode size and readability fit the Stumble Upon model ideally. His comic is also distinctive, as discussed earlier -- a key requisite for success.
For many, drawing a comic will never be more than a hobby, though an enjoyable one. Sneers by professionals have predictably resulted in tighter bonding among amateurs.
I can't see a limit to growth for webcomics, because every time the population gets too big to manage, someone will invent a better way to parse it, forcing over-optimistic participants toward a day of reckoning. Besides, we're not running low on pixels, and there are no arbiters saying who can and cannot participate.
The biggest drivers of boom and bust cycles are probably bandwidth cost and online advertising expense, not other comics.