Monday, January 19, 2009

Downsized Cartoonists Flooding into Webcomics?

There's a lot of predicting this time of year, but not here. Anyone who has worked in the recycling industry has seen enough year-old newspapers to know that most public prognostications are wrong. If more people scoured old newspapers, the pundits would be out of work.

A prediction that's getting attention, because it seems so obvious, is that there will be a stampede of orphaned newspaper cartoonists entering webcomics. Among the oracles: The New York Times and copy, paste and comment blog The Beat.

I don't know if it's a prediction that is likely to happen. Webcomics economics are simply too dang hard for people accustomed to paychecks, benefits, offices, titles and letting someone else worry about the business model.
A lot of people being laid off seem to be in the mortgage/ car loan/ college tuition demographic, and their retirement plans just got walloped by the stock market down bubble, reducing equity for starting a business (meaning covering their family's living expenses for the years it takes to become profitable).
There's no less money in the world, but there is less credit and less equity, and people are going to have to deploy real money where credit once sufficed.
After 6 - 12 months of unemployment, many people find something to do. Cartoonists who can't find work may start dabbling on the web, but they could reach 2000 readers a day and most will still defect to the first traditional position offered them.
People tend to be either self-employed or employees. That's human nature, and only a level of desperation and versatility uncommon among established members of the middle class alters that much.
"I enjoy making comics + it beats anything else I could be doing" is not a recipe for success in webcomics. Webcomics require entrepreneurial attitudes like willingness to fail, massive time commitment, frequent experimentation, imagination and an intense dislike of neckties. They also benefit immensely from a passionate love of comics, not merely as an entertaining escape, but as an art form worthy of serious study and analysis.
Market expansion seems to be following the curve of the internet, only with a time lag, and it's only when the trend stops that people will really bare their fangs. Expansions like comics on phones are most likely to benefit people who are entrepreneurial providers of comics on phones, rather than adapting webcomics people. Most of us seem to view phones as a nuisance responsibility with poor profit potential: we're already busy with our comics, our sites, our merchandise, our programming skills, our mail and our Twittering/Stumbling/Digging. Phones bring a new format, a new distribution, a new business model, contracts (which we are reckless to sign) and plenty of middlemen to skim a cut.
Considering the number of active webcomics, the growth in titles where the author is openly hoping to carve a living is slow, even if you count the many who are fantasizing about making a living instead of making it happen. Webcomics people who have been defensive about outsiders criticizing the viability of a professional income may be as confused about the charges as those making them. What they are really criticizing is the degree of challenge above and beyond making a good webcomic. They find the returns insufficient.
For people who have long drawn a salary and prestige from cartooning, the most promising webcomic case studies are still far from what they feel is acceptable. I agree that the existing data is absurdly hard to document. That's why I took the plunge, and started generating my own. This is an entrepreneurial business, and to succeed, one must have the talents of a good entrepreneur, including not just determination but also a high comfort level with the possibility of failure.

I love being an entrepreneur and I love making comics. That doesn't assure me of success, but anyone lacking those attributes should probably think twice.