There's an interesting letter from cartoonist Bill Barnes (Unshelved ) on Comichron, the print comic blog that recently picked up our discussion about trends in major webcomic circulation. See: Google Trends and Webcomics: Why the Disconnect?
Hop over and read it if you can, but if not, Bill describes his comic's heavy use of alternate distribution methods, including feeds and email subscriptions, and points out that what's left for Google to count wouldn't add up to much. I recently spoke to a comicker whose readers are 40% on feeds, and I'm sure there are more in similar high ranges.
One thing about feeds is that they are counted differently than many people think. A feed subscription resides in the feed aggregator you use on your computer. When you turn on your computer, the aggregator checks for new content and is counted. Leave it off while you go out of town, and the "subscription" is not counted.
There's also a big difference between feed subscription services like Feedburner and Bloglines, which I hope to discuss another day.
In my own addition to the Comichron thread, I mention that my leading guesses for what is causing declines for titles long accustomed to growth are alternative distribution and better competition.
I don't include the notion that there is no decline, though of course the particular set of data that started the discussion could be faulty. I think many declines are real.
Some cartoonists have told me as much. Others have released a lot of evidence that adds clues without proving anything solid. Some are goofing around with unorthodox methods of boosting their prominence, which they would probably not do if they were feeling secure. There's a lot of talk and data and it's tough to sift, but until we know more, I lean toward the idea of a shift in reader habits.
Some have the habit of focusing on celebrity over the comic. I think that is dragging some creators down. Many titles in apparent decline do not just need to resume their best level work; they need to do a "Gary Trudeau*" and substantially improve the quality of their offering. It wouldn't be going too far to say that we should all attempt such strides, but titles in their 900th iteration of cut-n-paste melodrama have some thinking to do.
Many also run merchandise businesses that lack savvy. That, too, is another discussion.
Why does it matter if prominent titles are rising or falling, or if their merchandise arms are rag-tag? Because for many newcomers, they are often presented as role models, and if they are promoting faulty role models as successful, it steers people wrong.
*Doonesbury's creator took time off mid career and came back with a much more dynamic art style.
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