Monday, November 17, 2008

Limits to Webcomic Success

Which poses the bigger competitive risk to succeeding in webcomics: the size of the webcomics field, or deficiencies in your skill set?

I have a hunch serious thinkers about webcomics will find something interesting in this post. But for everyone to follow easily, I'll review the meaning of one term: the limiting factor.

It sounds complicated, but all it means is that of all factors limiting something, the one that kicks in first is the limiting factor.

Consider a bathtub, with the water turned on full. As the level rises, some water will reach the overflow drain under the faucet and be removed. But the limiting factor to how high the water can rise before overflowing is the height of the tub.

Solar panels have limits, like internal efficiency, that cap their performance. But their real limiting factor is how much sunlight hits them. 

Limiting factors are useful for making predictions about webcomics. We appear to have about 9-10,000 webcomics if you total the three big communities (like Drunk Duck) and the free rangers. That's a count of comics active in the last quarter, not a historical count, and includes some guesswork. 

There also seem to be new webcomics launching at a growing rate. I am constantly adding to my comic list, and other comic lists seem to be doing the same. (My comic list is not a commercial venture, but is a census that attempts to capture all the free range comics plus titles that wander out of the big communities to interact with at-large comicdom.)
Sooner or later, the growth of webcomics should start to exert more competitive pressure with the addition of each new comic. 

Signs of this might include a reduction in the growth of readers among large comics, fewer comics passing the 10,000 or 20,000 visitor/month mark, and a higher failure rate for new comics. This may be happening, but I have not detected it, and I see evidence that growth is still open to all. Audience growth, increased use of high speed internet access and a decline in competition from newspaper comics may be credited. 

Allow me to explain why I introduced the limiting factor concept. 

I cannot offer the limiting factor to webcomic growth, though it's most probably audience size. I think I can offer the limiting factor to webcomics success. 

Webcomics success is hard. It requires a comic with many exceptional qualities, a financial survival plan for what R. Crumb called "the early years of bitter struggle," significant computer skills, graphic design sense,  determination, a talent for business and understanding of business concepts, merchandise development, and public relations skill.

Generally, all these talents have to come from one person. Sometimes they are split, in various ways, between two people: collaborating friends, or a couple. Sometimes a person with a good skill set knows their weaknesses and finds help from an expert to help them through their needy areas. Some of us hate depending on others and work constantly to improve our skill set.
Psychedelic Treehouse is gradually taking shape as a warehouse of information on how to make a successful webcomic. It would be a mistake to think that the site, when it is more complete, will provide instructions that allow almost anyone to become a successful webcomicker. More accurately, it is a centralized location meant to save time for those with good skills who want to get better. It may expedite the process for those with the right skill set, and it may push a few titles over the wall from failure to success, but it will never be like an assembly plant, stamping out successful webcomickers. 

You may have already guessed my point: the limiting factor for success in webcomics is the ability to master or successfully delegate a diverse batch of challenging skills. No amount of instruction is likely to increase the number of people going from low skills to high skills, but instruction is likely to broaden the skill set of people who already possess some of the required talents. Tools like Psychedelic Treehouse and various books about making webcomics are certain to push to some fence-sitters into the arena, adding to the total number of webcomics. They are unlikely to substantially increase the success rate of webcomics generally. I'd say a 5% increase would be surprisingly high.

Here's the reason. At this moment, there are less than 100 professional webcomics supporting their creators with a full time living. (Depending on who you ask, the actual number is somewhere between zero and fifty, but we'll use 100 for now.) That's .01% of all webcomics -- very low*.

This indicates strongly that the number of people able to muster the required skills is low. The way human skill sets tend to work is that if the number possessing a full skill set is tiny, the number who almost possess it is also tiny, and as you go further along the graph you find that half the people don't even possess half the skill set. A rule of thumb emerges: the average person, and the average person with a webcomic, do not possess or have the ability to obtain the skill set needed to break into the .01% who become successful professionals. 

Why? The reason is probably the same one that stops super-focused, resource rich learning programs from elevating remedial students for a sustained period. Many people simply lack the mental capacity for certain skill sets, or are encumbered by disabling conditions that impair their learning. These might include profound impairments to cognitive function, such as mental illness, or more subtle biases and deficiencies in perception and self-awareness. Addictions also play a role.

There are exceptions: early arrivals might find an audience despite skill deficiencies, when there is little competition. An artist might find a work-around for limited drawing skills. Someone might build their comic's theme around something that has captured the popular imagination, and develop a following so large that they can throw money at their weak areas by hiring help. Talent scouts in fields from athletics to literature look for the right skill sets, and sometimes judge wrong. So might a comics reviewer, voters in an awards contest or a veteran comicker giving a plug.

Nonetheless, the limited number of people able to master the webcomics skill set is the current limiting factor to competition and not the size of the competitive field, because the number of comics doesn't matter nearly as much as whether a comic is backed by the skills it needs to reach the top.

As the webcomic population grows, it contains a growing sub-population of people who aspire to professional status, or semi-professional. Your first reaction might be to say, Ah! That's where the competition is. That's where new webcomics hurt existing ones!

This is where the skill set limiting factor kicks in. Only a small percentage of those comics are backed by that skill set, and the ones lacking it are at a disadvantage from the start. Fighting one's way out of the swarm is more difficult when the swarm is large, and some competitors might attract regular readers despite their weaknesses, but it will be difficult to rise without the skills. Partial skill sets are also more challenging in competitors in the early scramble to be seen, because skill sets that include, say, an attractive art style and a good web site design will convince some readers that a good comic has arrived.

At some point, the size of the swarm may begin to discourage new entries, and the situation will stabilize. There is probably a finite number of competitors one must pass, and any comic possessing the skill set and the qualities of a successful webcomic (See "What Makes a Comic Successful?") will gradually rise. As prominence increases, the rate of growth often accelerates until the comic has captured a fairly steady share of its potential readership. Comics differ in the size of their potential readership and some won't draw an audience large enough for professional status even though they possess the skill set and the comic qualities. Their creators may have to settle for semi-professional status.

Why is all this important? Unless you do webcomics as a hobby, it is essential to understand the business landscape as part of understanding the business basics. Offering instruction in business plans and t-shirt marketing is useless if people cannot understand the dynamics of the market they are entering. 

One can almost use a post like this as a measurement tool for success potential. If you are an ambitious webcomic creator and you glommed onto this post with hungry eyes, you've got a lot more chance of making it than someone who finds it boring. Or, you are part of a team in which the other member is the interested reader.
*Observation suggests this group includes people lacking skill set fundamentals. In some cases early arrival seems to have been the reason for success, but for the majority, pre-launch connections with successful webcomics is usually the common thread. The "Who you know, not what you know" saying is as applicable in webcomics as it is in other fields, and has inflicted some unfortunate choices on our readers. It has also stigmatized some worthy creators who would have risen on their own merit, but who were content to slide ahead with celebrity endorsements from friends, only to discover that readers don't like to be manipulated.
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