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The (brief but) complete webcomic walkthrough

Webcomics are a great way to show off your artistic talents online. You can even make money with them, with a little bit of luck, if you do it the right way.

When I started The Flowfield Unity, I had experience in handling comics in print, but had absolutely no idea how to create and manage a webcomic. This article is my attempt to collect together everything I have found out through research and trial and error.

This article is written with a small press ethos in mind, that is 'if anything can be done, it can be done for free'. Hopefully running a webcomic may make you some money (though be prepared for the amount to be 'not very much'), but it certainly should cost you little more than your time. 

 

Stage 1 – Starting Out

The first thing you will need is an idea for your webcomic. There are no hard and fast rules here, but the following tips may be worth considering:

  1. Webcomics – it's a marathon, not a sprint. If you want to have a successful comic, you are going to have to supply regular updates to keep your fans happy. Make sure that your idea is sustainable and that you can create it quickly enough to adhere to a strict schedule. When thinking about this, be realistic with your abilities, and remember that life will do its utmost to prevent you from meeting this schedule.
  2. Do your own thing – Looking at already successful webcomics and seeing what makes them work is a good idea, but copying story-lines, characters and jokes is a bad idea. Being different helps you stand out and being yourself gives you a much easier ride when it comes to creating and publishing your comic.
  3. Test your idea out – Make your friends and family read it and see what they say. Make sure they're being honest and take any criticism on the chin.

 

Stage 2 – Tools of the Trade

So, now you've got an idea for your webcomic, how do you create it? Well, this is pretty much a matter of preference – you can make it by hand and then scan it, or you can create it digitally, or you can use a mixture of the two. You might need to try a few variations before you find a method that suits you and your comic. Here are some very good tutorials on each:

Either way, you are going to need a few programs to help with manipulating the artwork and creating your website. There are plenty of commercial programs out there, such as the ubiquitous Photoshop, but unless you are willing to use illegal versions, they are going to set you back a considerable amount of cash. Fortunately, you don't have to resort to software piracy or spending money. There are some great opensource and freeware programs out there that will do everything you need for free. Here is a list of the most useful:

  • Firefox – The best web browser available
  • Notetab Lite – A great free text editor with tons of features
  • The Gimp – A free alternative to Photoshop
  • WebDwarf – A free wysiwyg webpage editor
  • Inkscape – A great vector image program

And these two, whilst not actually programs supply free things that may make your comic life a little easier:

  • Morguefile – Find reference photographs here
  • Blambot – Free downloadable fonts to help you with lettering

For what it is worth, my advice would be to create several different strips or episodes at this point, before you start thinking about your website. As well as helping you to create your website around your comic, it will also help you test many of the websites functions whilst at the same time helping your audience to get a better idea of what your comic is about.

 

Stage 3 – Getting your comic online

It's important to think about what you require from your webcomic site. This can be broken down into two parts:

  1. What your fans will want and need
  2. How easy it is for you to run and maintain the site

In general, your readers will want a clear, easy to navigate site that allows them quick and easy access to your comics. This should include: A way to see the latest strip (usually the homepage), Archives by date and title for easy navigation, and possibly a way of delivering the content to them (RSS or by email).

You however, will probably want an easily customisable system that allows you full control over the look and function of your site to allow you to give your readers what they want with the minimum amount of effort and fuss.

So, with these things in mind, we can assess the various ways in which you can present your comic online... each have their pros and cons, and like me, you may end up checking a few of these out before you find the right one for you.

  • HTML – Whilst I would advise reading up on it a bit (whichever method you choose, a knowledge of HTML will be useful), I would not recommend trying to run a webcomic purely by editing text files by hand. It can be done, but there are much easier ways that will leave you with more time to spend on your comic. There are plenty of sites out there that will help you, e.g. webmonkey.
  • Webcomic Hosts – Arguably the quickest way to get your work online is to use a webcomic host. These sites provide you with an easy way to display your work and provide a lot of features to help you on your way: Automatic RSS feeds, comments and rating systems, customisable templates and ready made communities for advice and criticism. So why doesn't everyone use them for their webcomics? As with most things, there are a few drawbacks; they may enforce advertising, or prevent you from showing your own. They may also have content guidelines that impinge on your artistic creativity. There is also a slight stigma with hosting your comics on these sites, possibly because a lot of webcomics hosted in this way are not very good. I still stand by the opinion that if you are just starting out, these are the easiest and quickest way to get your comic out there and they don't cost you a penny. Check out the following hosts, they're all fairly similar; always read the fine print and have a look around at the comics hosted on these sites.
  • Blog your comic – Blogs (short for weblogs) are seemingly custom made for webcomic hosting. They share many features with the webcomic hosts without being quite so tailor made. They enable you to post your comics as a single entry with it's own title and associated text. There is also a large blogging community that may be able to give you feedback and help. However, some free blogging tools are better than others for webcomics. Blogger.com for example, isn't bad. You can customise the templates fairly easy and manage the blog with a minimum of fuss. They often generate RSS feeds for you too. Aside from blogger, there is LiveJournal which comes with a very community orientated approach, useful for finding fans. Wordpress is also free and for my money even better. The only drawback is that a lot of the free accounts have limited storage space for your pictures, though this can easily be circumnavigated with the use of a free image host – a site that lets you upload your pictures and then supplies you with a link to it to insert into your post. Imageshack does this with little fuss and is even better if you sign up for a free account.
  • Collectives – If you are feeling brave enough, and you think your comic is good enough, you might want to apply to an established webcomic collective. They often offer hosting as part of their membership. A collective is usually formed from comics with a similar theme or outlook and creators that generally enjoy helping each other out. There is power in numbers and collectives capitalise on this. That said, joining a collective is a bit like a contract, be prepared to join in with discussions, marketing ideas and promoting the collective as a whole. A general rule you should follow is to try and give more than you take... and you'll probably end up getting a lot more out of it. Take the time to find a collective that suits you and your comic before you apply, and don't take it too hard if you are not accepted. A few collectives will give you in-depth feedback as to why you were not accepted, take this criticism graciously and use it to improve what you do. New collectives spring up every week, but here are a few that might give you an idea:
  • Do it yourself – By far the more intimidating path, but perhaps the most flexible and rewarding is to host your comic yourself. You'll need a good understanding of how the Internet works and you'll have to be prepared for a bit of anguish during the initial setup of your site, but once it is up and running you will be able to claim, 'I made this'. There are plenty of free tools and software to help though, just remember to read the instructions and don't be afraid to ask questions:
    • Wordpress – as well as being available set up and for free, you can also download the software that makes Wordpress run for free and install it on your own server. This gets round the limited upload space so that you can keep your site and comics all in one place. You can even download the comicpress theme that makes publishing your comic on the web much easier. This is what I use now and I find it to be by far the most flexible approach as well as providing every feature I could ever need.
    • I-strip – A flat file system for hosting webcomics. This is useful if you do not have access to Php/mysql on your server, though I found it a little tricky to get up and running, the support is there and it does a fine job
    • CUSP – A comic update script for php. I t seems that this one is getting on a bit and support seems limited. That said, I stuck with it for a few months and it was fairly reasonable. I would recommend Wordpress/comicpress over this though due to the lack of automated functions and the ability for your readers to comment on your site.
    • Walrus – a small automated system that you can install on your server. Similar to CUSP and entirely customisable. I didn't get on with this one though, but that shouldn't stop you having a look.

So now you have a comic and a way to show it to the world. Sit back and enjoy it for a moment, look at your site and bond with it.

 

Stage 4 – Promoting your comic

You can only admire your own comic for long before you start wondering, 'would other people like this?'. The only way to find out is to get some traffic for your site and see if you can gain a few readers. With forums and communities, my general advice is read up on the existing posts and watch any forum activity for at least a week so that you can get a feel for the place and always check before you post that it is appropriate to do so. This advice is also true for communities in general.A word about communities – Communities are not advertising boards. Sure, they can be a great source of readers and you will advertise your site by taking part in community discussions, but please, please, do not start spamming every community you come across with a 'look at my comic' post. Try to live by the rule of 'give more than you take', that is participate in discussions, offer advice where you can, be funny and helpful – this is a much easier way to make friends and find readers that the tirades that often follow a spamming.Remember, a happy visitor is a returning visitor.

  • Forums – A great source for readers, not only do forums give you a place to post information about your site, but you can also include some information and usually a banner in your forum signature. Make sure this links to your website so that if someone finds something you've said interesting or funny, they can visit your comic. Do remember to stay on topic and avoid spamming them. There is usually a thread for shameless promotion and such – use it.
  • Chat Rooms – I've had limited success with chat rooms. They are quite time intensive, but you might fancy a try. Search for comics or webcomics in Yahoo!chat.
  • Communities – Try joining some of the Livejournal communities related to webcomics. Many actively encourage you to show people your comic and they will generally give you plenty of feedback.

There are also some social networking sites you might want to try. Stumbleupon, Del.icio.us, Mirthcanal, Digg, kungfugrip and a few others. Most of these sites require you to tag your content. Keep your tags appropriate, but be a little more creative than just 'webcomic' – reflect the content of your strips.

You can also try interacting with other webcomics and blogs. Many of them allow you to leave a link to your site along with your comments. Just remember, as always, avoid spamming and try to say something interesting and or useful.

And don’t forget the real world. Write a press release and send it to local newspapers, television channels and anyone else you can think of that might be interesting. Try to keep it short, snappy and interesting and who knows, you could get featured. Just remember to include your website address too.

Tell everyone you know, and send them emails, family and friends might not be that good at giving criticism, but they make up for that in support. They can help you make your site look busy, especially if they can comment on your comics, plus if they tell everyone they know, and they tell everyone they know you could end up with a lot of readers.

 

Stage 5 – Merchandise.

So, you’ve got your webcomic up and running, you have yourself an audience and even some regular readers. It’s now time to think about how you can make a bit of money from this hobby.

The first and easiest way to do this is to create some merchandise. There are plenty of online services that allow you to create custom products like mugs, calendars, stickers and T-shirts though perhaps Café Press is the best known of these.

These services operate a ‘make on demand’ setup which means that they only create the product when someone buys them. They don’t charge you anything; rather they just take a cut of your profit. This is ideal for small start-ups like webcomics because you never know if you are going to sell anything or not and this lets you find out without loosing any money.

I would suggest that to start with, you pick your most iconic slogan, or picture and add it to a couple of items. Mugs, badges and mouse-mats are a good idea. Small items that cost little to buy are likely to sell far more than the expensive ones and because of the way that stores like Café Press work, you’re just as likely to make a similar profit on them compared to higher price items like T-shirts.

Add a link from your site to the products and remember to tell your readers about them. A good way to get them involved in the merchandise is to ask them what they want and then make it.

Don’t expect to become a mouse-mat magnate overnight. This may be a source of revenue, but it will probably only cover the cost of your pens and paper to begin with… every bit helps though, right?

You might also want to consider using some of the more specialist sites for individual items. Spreadshirt are particularly good with T-shirts, and in my opinion better than Café Press. You can also find independent badge and sticker makers on the Internet that can produce their products to a better standard. You might have to pay up front for some of these though but you stand to make a higher profit too.

There is also the opportunity of creating merchandise with your own hands. Anything from sketches to postcards, fimo models and home-made badges – be creative, make stuff... you're a webcomic artist, it's what you do.

 

Stage 6 – How to get ahead with advertising

Another way to acquire some pocket money is to offer advertising space on your website. There are a number of services that offer to help you do this, but in truth I have only ever found two that work without causing hassle and deliver in terms of payments. They are:

Google Adsense

Project Wonderful

I use Project Wonderful on my site. Advertisers bid on the advertising space I offer and the highest bid gets displayed and I get payed. It can be fully automatic if you wish or you can select which adverts get shown by hand. In general, most of the advertisers are other webcomics and niche sites.

Bidders can see how many times your website gets viewed by readers and so the money you get tends to be linked to the traffic you receive. You probably won't make enough to retire, but you will make enough to re-invest in some advertising of your own.

To install Project Wonderful on your site you need to create an account and they will give you some code to put on your site. It's not that tricky, especially if you created your site yourself. Some hosted services may not allow this though. There are comprehensive tutorials on their site.

Similarly, Google Adsense requires you to add some code to display adverts. However, these are text-based and image-based adverts that are chosen to match the content of your website by Google. You have less control over them.

Another difference is that Google pays in terms of cost-per-click, that is you get paid when your readers actually click on the adverts, rather than the number of times it is displayed.

Whilst I think Project Wonderful has the edge in that it is more specific to webcomics, slightly more flexible in terms of site layout and allows you greater control over the content of the adverts, Google is a good bet too.

Technically, there's nothing stopping you using both. But do remember, your readers come to look at your comic, not at the adverts. Cluttered pages full of advertising are a real put-off, so use them sparingly and incorporate them in terms of sensible design.

It might be also be worth while sorting out a paypal account if you don't already have one as this is how you get paid and can pay money in if you wish to advertise yourself.

 

Stage 7 – Print

Whilst we could technically include this under the merchandise section, you are making a comic afterall, and print is its spiritual home.

No matter how used people get to the idea of a webcomic, there's always going to be something to be said for holding a print copy in your hands. The good news is that this too can be done without costing you anything.

There are now several Print On Demand publishers out there that work in a similar fashion to Cafe Press. They enable you to create a book but as they only print a copy when someone pays for it, they just take a cut of the profits and pass the rest on to you.

I could (and may) write an entire walkthrough on getting your comic ready for print, but since the sites that offer this service tend to have very good tutorials and forum support, I'm just going to compare the different services.

  • Lulu – One of the oldest and most established P.O.D. services, Lulu was the first company I let print my comic and well, they did OK, for a while at least. However, in my experience they cannot guarantee the quality of the books they send out. This means that no matter how much hard work you put into creating your book, and even if you get it all right, your customers can still end up with badly printed copies with pages missing (or even other peoples books included in them). The number of different problems I have had with Lulu suggest to me that they have a lot to sort out before they can really offer a reliable service, and so I cannot recommend them at all.
  • Amazon (Createspace) – A relative newcomer, Amazon's own P.O.D. service is still fresh out of the blocks. It only operates for US creators, so not everyone can use it. However, it comes with two considerable bonuses. The first is the automatic assigning of an ISBN. this enables any book store to stock a copy of your book and it also helps customers find it. The second bonus is an automatic listing on the Amazon website. this used to cost a fair amount to self publishers, now it doesn't.
  • Comixpress – The only dedicated comic P.O.D. service. Comixpress is a solid service, run by friendly and knowledgeable staff that care about comics. They might not offer the bells and whistles of Amazon, but they do offer some smart ways to keep the cost of your book down. i would highly recommend you check out comixpress before you make a decision.

The good thing about all of these services is that you get to keep the rights to your work. this means that you are free at any time to leave and set up with someone else. In the case of Amazon though, this does mean that they will take the ISBN back from you.

 

Stage 8 – Conventions

Up until this point, creating a webcomic is a bit of a solitary pursuit. Sure you might get to chat to a few people online, but what about the real world? That's where conventions come in.

I was skeptical about conventions when i first started, thinking that they would be full of dressed up fanboys and hardcore collectors. The truth is that yes, the often are, but there are a whole load of other types that you'll get a lot out of meeting – Other creators and potential new fans for a start.

I would recommend that you go to a couple of cons as a visitor or guest first just to get a handle on how they work. go and mingle, don't be shy.

And then, it's time to go as an exhibitor and show off your stuff. If you'r lucky, you might be able to flog a few copies of your print comic and a chunk of the merchandise we talked about earlier.

The cost of tables at conventions vary wildly, depending upon the convention, the location of the tables and the random nature of commerce. However, you may be able to share a table with some other like-minded comic creators or perhaps you can convince someone to sell your stuff for a small cut. Be inventive and turn on the charm.

The conventions also tend to have workshops and seminars running. These are a great opportunity not only to learn some new skills and swap tips but also to get involved in the community as a whole. You'll even get to chat to some professionals if you're lucky.

 

Stage 9 – Miscellaneous ideas

Webcomics are a plastic art-form. By that I mean that they are constantly evolving and can be moulded into many images in many ways. Really, there are no hard and fast rules about it. Do some research and look into what other people are doing and you'll notice they're all forging their own paths. However, I do have a couple of tips that didn't really fit in anywhere else that you might want to consider:

  • Guest strips – If you're already a fan of another webcomic, why not put your skills to good use and draw a guest strip? This is a great way to get a link from an established comic back to yours and frequently gives a good traffic boost.
  • Fan art – Similarly, let it be known that you like fan art. Your readers will suprise you by creating some great pieces and they'll feel good for getting involved.
  • Team-ups – try working with other artists, not just webcomics either... find local bands that need artwork for their music, look out for zines that might print one of your strips.
  • Involve yourself in the community – Once you know what you're doing, help other people out. there are no direct benefits in this, and some would say that you're even creating competition... but I don't believe in that. Webcomics are not a competition.

Well, that's it... it's not everything I know, but it should be enough to help you on your way. That said, if you have any questions, or ideas, why not drop by my website, The Flowfield Unity, and ask me yourself. I'd be happy to help.

 

Re: The (brief but) complete webcomic walkthrough

A very goo article that helped me get started with my webcomic. There are a few things that I would add though:

- Blogger is a good start to host your webcominc but it is not very confortable to use for the reader as real webcomic hosts because you can't really customize the "next post" and "previous post ", buttons and also the images displayed are limited in size you have to click on each image to see it full size). Also there are limited scheduling options unless you use blogger in draft.

- Dedicated  comic hosts such as drunkduck  or smackjeeves are easier to setup unless you want to customize your pages a lot (at which point you'll need to know HTML and CSS a bit).

I would also have  liked to know how many pages a webcomic need to have before it starts attracting users? Personnaly I find my webcomic not bad and that's the echos I got from a (very) few readers and forum members, but after 7 pages published I still don't attract more than a handfull of readers a day, is that normal? You can judge for yourself on http://www.robotworldcomic.info/ (starts on blogger but the actual pages are on drunkduck for easier navigation)

Re: The (brief but) complete webcomic walkthrough

A great post indeed, though I feel compelled to add Comic Dish to the list of free webcomic hosts :)

Re: The (brief but) complete webcomic walkthrough

Nice overview of the "need-to-knows."

 

Re: The (brief but) complete webcomic walkthrough

Good post!

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