Open Soapbox: Comictastic: 'tastic or not so 'tastic?
I'm getting tired. It seems I've been reading discussions on the whole Comictastic thing for ... three or .. maybe 5 .. or 6 hours now. (link, link, link, link) It's silly. No, Comictastic and similar programs are not a "distribution system", they are NOT "redistributing" your comics - your web server is doing the distributing. Comictastic and similar programs don't even do "deep linking" which has been found illegal in at least one US court case. Comictastic and programs like them are simply specialized web browsers doing something that I have done manually in the past; requesting only the image of the comic from the web server because of bandwidth concerns.
Most of the people in these discussions seem to either be A) comics creators who haven't had a whiff of dial-up in years and B) people who have never created/hosted webcomics and don't know anything about what goes on behind the scenes.
Since I AM a comics creator, and I AM on dial-up, and I have just downloaded and taken a look at the Mac-based Comictastic (yes, it is a Mac program causing all this hub-bub), I feel I have more perspective than many of the people who have been commenting.
See, for me, whereas when I had high-speed internet access I read as many as 100 different web comics every time they updated, on dial-up I can't conceive of reading more than 5 or 6 with any regularity. It just takes too long. A couple of comics I've dropped from my reading list specifically because of what I refer personally to as "detritus" on their pages. Every navigation element is an image, their background is a huge image, more images in the form of "top 100" link buttons, "comic webring" buttons and ads (ads are usually not the largest of the 'detritus' files), plus clunky or bloated HTML code, and by the time my browser gets to trying to load the comic itself, it often times out and I have to try again. This is ridiculous.
This is also why every basic page on my site, Modern Evil, (save for author-modified blogs) has only 40k of HTML and images (combined) beyond whatever content that particular page is offering. The entire layout, the navigation bar at the top, the links to sections, the links forward and back through archives, the copyright notice at the bottom, the stylesheet, it's all about 40k total. So when I upload a 100k comic, you only have to dl 140k to see it. And when I upload a poem, you only have to dl 41k to read it. Which even on my dial-up modem is a second or two, and on high-speed should load in a flash. Personally, I'm not worried about people choosing something like Comictastic to download the "meat" from my site because it's too time-consuming to actually visit.
But I don't even read the "free" comics on Modern Tales sites ... it takes too long, last time I looked. I don't read some comics I very much enjoyed ... their web pages are not optimized for the 60% of internet users who are still using dial-up. It's silly.
I'll be taking a careful look over the next week or so, to see if browsing comics with Comictastic makes my comics-browsing faster... perhaps fast enough to start looking at more than a few comics every day. By not downloading the 'detritus' on the web pages, perhaps my experience can be enhanced. At the same time, with comics like Penny Arcade, I know I'll want to go to the page anyway; the 'news' posts are at least as entertaining as the comics, if not moreso. Reading that is like reading a blog I like. And I use an aggregator for most of those, too; I built it into Modern Evil.
My point on bandwidth is that for a lot of us, it's at a premium. We want to read online comics, but it takes too long. Cut your 'detritus' size down to something manageable (How about we say 100k? Your website should not take longer to load than the comic it's based around.) and we'll keep looking at your web pages. Keep your web pages unmanageably slow to load and we'll look for alternative ways to browse your comics, or stop reading them altogether.
Now, on the subject of losing the ad-revenue from readers:
I have been running Modern Evil since 1999. I have paid not less than about $300/year just for hosting and domain registration to maintain the site. Though traffic has been traditionally fairly low, I still had hosting costs to cover. I've been paying these costs out of pocket and doing everything I could to bring in revenue; offering merchandise, putting ads on the site, and now trying to sell content directly through BitPass. In four and a half years of operation I can honestly say that I have not made even $100 between all income sources, accumulated over the entire run of the site. Not inlcuding the value of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of hard work I have put into the site over the years (not to mention into all the comics I've put there), I've personally paid at least 13 times as much out as has come in. Running a website, a comic website, a blog, a community site, whatever, is not even a break-even prospect for me. Or for most, I expect.
The last time I heard a statistic on it, I heard there were around 30,000 online comics out there. I doubt more than 1% of them are break-even or better. This is reasonable, considering popularity follows a power law. But is also means that around 29,700 online comics creators out there are in my position or worse, putting their time and their money and their sweat and tears into creating and running an online comic and the website it is hosted on, and never making a buck.
I just got my biggest check ever for ad revenues from Modern Evil, from Google AdSense. It was for all the clicks for all of 2003. It was under $14. I just don't get the traffic to make ads cover bandwidth or hosting costs. Which is why you don't see ads on most Modern Evil pages; thy never worked when I had them on every page, and I don't like them. But hey, $14. Maybe I'll put some more Google Adsense ads around this year. See if I can't get to $20.
But even though I don't make money, even though it costs me money to run the site, I don't expect to stop running it any time soon. I don't think I'll stop putting comics up when I draw them. I don't think I'll stop posting stories and poetry and whatever else. I don't think I'll stop hosting other people's stuff, either (I host three or four other people's comics, plus a dozen people's blogs), just because I'm losing money. I may, eventually, if the costs sky-rocket out of control (say, if traffic jumps from 1k people/day to 50k or 200k people/day), put more content behind a BitPass wall, but there'll always be "free" content on Modern Evil that I pay for out of my own pocket. Like those other 29,700 independent comics creators out there, I'm doing it because I'm passionate about it and I want it out there, available for people, not because I think I'll get rich.
So here's my point on ad revenue being lost when people browse comics with Comictastic and similar products; for 99% or more of online comics we're just increasing readership (which is why we have our comics online in the first place), we're not worried about the pennies we might have received if they'd viewed our comic next to an ad. We're just glad people are reading our comics. We're glad to see someone likes what we're creating. And with the site and merchandising linking built into Comictastic, if people want to see the site or want to help out financially, they're going to anyway, even if they prefer reading our comics in a specialized browser.
Personally, I'm struggling so much with my finances this year that I can't afford to spend more than a few dollars here and there, through a BitPass account I put money in before I had so much trouble. I'm not going to be buying merchandise or paying for comics subscriptions (or even registering Comictastic) until my personal financial situation turns around. Of course, before I have enough money to try to support my favorite online comics I'll pay for satellite broadband and likely start reading a lot more online comics... so we'll see how that goes if/when it happens.
If you are a comic-creator:
Comictastic and other similar programs are NOT violating your rights any more than IE, Netscape, Opera, Mozilla, Safari and similar programs do.
They do not duplicate, reproduce, or redistribute your comics or any of your intellectual property any more than any other browser.
If you want to keep your readers from using programs like this, make browsing your web pages easier! Cut back on the 'detritus' and offer a low-bandwith page! 60% of all internet users are on dial-up! Not designing with us in mind is like trying to ignore that the male gender exists (or females, take your pick). Half or more is NOT a minority.
If you believe that the "context" in which your comic is delivered is just as important as the "content" of the comic, then you should be even more aware than other web-designers of the bandwidth requirements of your pages! If you claim that the non-comic "context" is important to you, make sure you treat it that way when you create it.
If you are a comic reader:
Be aware that no matter what comics or web sites you are visiting, every time you visit it costs the creator/host money to offer you this service.
While some creators and hosts are more than happy to go on providing you the content you enjoy at their own expense, it never hurts to help out in whatever ways you can. Whether this means purchasing merchandise (shirts, hats, books, comic-collections, &c.), donating small amounts (via Paypal or BitPass or the like), or just viewing the ads on their web-pages (which nets them fractions of a penny per view, but may make the difference for them when it comes time to pay the bandwidth bills), if you can - do your part to support the content you enjoy.
Remember that these creators are offering you their comics at no cost to you, so if a new standard is agreed upon (RSS, Comics Markup Language, whatever) and adopted widely, go with the flow - it'll be better for everyone in the long run.
Which brings me to perhaps my last point:
It has come up in (and mostly ended) conversations that the programmers behind Comictastic are going to be supporting RSS in the next version of their software. Conceivably, comics-creators could easily block Comictastic by adding a blank RSS file to their web server, or choose to put the entire content of their web page in every RSS item, or anything in between. This would allow comics-creators the freedom to control what appears in Comictastic when they load a comic - ads, links to merchandise, news posts - it could all appear in Comictastic.
Personally, I think this is a bad idea.
And for me, it's simply because of bandwidth. I can see that some creators would "be nice" and just put their comic and perhaps a banner ad into their RSS feed, but I can also see that some people wouldn't stop short of putting their entire bloated, detritus-filled web pages in every item of their feed. And since these bandwidth-offenders already have "not-the-best coding" in their HTML, I expect that I'll end up downloading ten copies of their bloated code every time I want to look at the latest comic. (A typical RSS feed displays ten or more of the most recent items for a blog, so if the entire code for a web page was in each item, the RSS file would be that many times larger than the original web page.) I like the idea of a browser like this specifically because of the limits on my bandwidth.
I wouldn't mind a 10k-15k ad alongside each comic, but I certainly don't see the point in using an app like this if it doesn't help save time/bandwidth. I'd switch to a competing app, refuse to update, or just go back to reading web pages and only read 5 or 6. Personally, I'd rather read more comics than fewer. And as a creator (even one who loses money on every viewer), I still prefer to have more readers than fewer.
So. That's just my two cents.
Teel McClanahan III is a guest columnist for the Comixpedia. You can check out where he puts his money where his mouth is here.