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On Demand, meet On Supply (RSS)

Update or die?

When I first looked into making a webcomic, back in 2002, the one thing I heard most often was, 'Update regularly or don't bother at all.' The one canon rule I could suss out in webcomics was that you must update often, and you must hit your schedule every chance you could.

These days RSS (Really Simple Syndication) (picked the least ugly page with an explanation) has taken the thunder out of that sole commandment. In the process, it may have opened the field in a way unique to webcomics, allowing us to do more with serialization than we ever could in traditional media. On-demand was the first real revolution in online thinking-- On-supply is the next, and in terms of theoretical discussion, we're missing out on the potential. Blogs have gotten there, so have news services, but many webcomics are still stuck with outdated thinking that's inhibiting their true potential.

The changing face of webcomics

The logic behind 'Update regularly or die' was sound. People don't like browsing a comic only to find their time wasted. It was, however, sound logic for days gone by-- when readers were likely to attach to a very small group of comics and visit those pages as a part of their daily routine. Visiting a page repeatedly with no update under those circumstances is certainly frustrating. There was a time when regularity was a symbol of professionalism that stood out-- now there are plenty of daily offerings which hardly stand out at all.

Nowadays, it's not uncommon for a comic reader's bookmarks to include 40 or more comics, and it's nowhere near a sure thing that they'll make their way down that list every time they browse. It's not uncommon for people to catch up on their favourite comics 3-5 pages at a time. Readers are inundated with new offerings and new options, and their browsing habits change drastically with the amount of time consumed by juggling bookmarks.

We shouldn't fear the profound increase in webcomic titles per reader-- in fact we might do well to encourage it. The competitive/territorial ideas that seem pervasive in some webcomic creator cultures are baffling, and stems from outdated thinking from traditional media. We do not compete for print space, we do not sell issues. We have the same number of pages on our own sites regardless of whether the reader hits them as they go up or at their own convenience. The purely traffic-driven business model is collapsing, and our thinking has to change with it. Whether we're running by donations or by merchandise, or even asking them to bitpass our work, what we're really after is not JUST their clicks, but their willingness to back us with their own money. Our readers' emotional attachment is what we're competing for. A world full of massively multi-title readers enriches the pool of readers available to us all and lessens the effectiveness of efforts to be territorial about their time. It may even give us the freedom to hunt our own goals as creators-- which is much more likely to win their hearts than hitting a timecode every time.

The fight to be memorable is more important than the fight to be seen.

Exposure used to be enough. Getting mentioned, getting noticed, the drama queens ruled the day like the dinosaurs ruled the earth. Throw enough readers at a comic, you might say, and a good portion would usually stick. This worked when readers' attention spans were far less saturated than they are today.

When readers are expected to browse through a long list of favourites, however, and add them to a routine, spike traffic becomes less of a benefit and more of a detriment to any given title. Flashing through one extra offering on a tour of dozens, the reader hardly has time to give any given title consideration. Snap judgements are made based on familiarity. From fast food to webcomics the observation is the same: people in a hurry don't spare a lot of time for taste. The more we push readers towards the idea of a browsing routine, the more we push webcomics toward the fast-food model of success-- figure out how to do something quick cheap and consistant, and people will get used to coming back to you when it's time to eat. The available options get winnowed down to narrow categories, and guess what? There are already big names who are much more experienced in those categories than any newcomer will ever be. A new title has as much chance of becoming a Penny Arcade as Roy Cohn would have starting a franchise with a burger stand in California today. Some will do it, too, if they truly have managed to improve on what's around. Most of us will not.

In this environment, gimmick comics and clique comics will naturally rule the day, with a few outstanding exceptions. The alternative is to encourage a more discerning reader, and give that reader something they can really sink their teeth into. Happier artists and happier readers will hit the gourmet circuit-- and RSS makes that not only possible, but pleasurable.

RSS is a 100 percent guarantee to your readers, and an instant free advertisement.

With RSS, your readers never need hit your page and be disappointed. They can choose to visit ONLY when you have something to offer them. This takes some degree of the detriment out of taking your time.

RSS will also remind them of your existance. Even if you have worked hard to be memorable, you must take into account the fact that there are literally millions of other webpages out there, webcomic or not, competing for the reader's memory. Even tried and true titles fall through those cracks. I've heard many readers speak of drifting away from favourite titles, revisiting them only when an advertisement or a mention in the course of webdrama/critical review/conversation brings the titles back to the forefront of a reader's mind.

As bookmark files get longer and browsing gets more time-consuming, it benefits us to give the reader more at each visit. It might even benefit some of us to take the sense of routine OUT of what we do, and identify ourselves as a special treat outside the daily grind.

RSS turns your competition into your allies.

One of the main challenges facing a slow-update comic is the unpleasant prospect of an impatient reader. The move towards collectives is an acknowledgement of the need to balance quality of product with a reader's need to be entertained and engaged. As any one member of the collective is remembered and visited, the reader is reminded of all of them, thus the comics support each other rather than detracting from one another.

But a collective also represents a loss of control when it comes to any given creator's identity, and association. Even the best collectives must, by definition, ask a creator to sacrifice the identity of their own franchise in favour of a group identity which chooses their associations for them. This has led to serious problems in the past, even with collectives that have only a very loose identity, and will likely lead to further drama as time goes on.

Comic-centered RSS feeds, however, allow the reader to create their OWN collective, without any of the associations being placed on the comic creators themselves. I would never associate myself with some of the titles that show up on my 'readers also read' lists. Thanks to RSS I share readers with those titles, and gain traffic from the readers checking back for other titles as well as mine, without ever having to DEAL with their creators. No drama, no muss, no fuss, and no worries that something is going to get added which will force me to part ways from a group I would have helped to build.

Building a better audience

An RSS feed full of slow but high-quality comics becomes a far more frequent satisfaction to the reader than any of the individual titles could be on their own. This enables each individual title to spend more time delivering better material. If we encourage that, we not only take the pressure off ourselves as individual creators, we raise the bar in our readers' taste. We can spoil them toward richly rendered scenes and smartly delivered stories that can be followed over longer periods of time.

There are a lot of people out there who are simply overwhelmed by the sea of cheap and easy webcomics vying for their attention. They look for alternatives, but alternatives are hard to find, because creators push themselves to simplify and streamline for deadlines. In short, we let the demand for readers shape us. This happened in traditional comics as well, when nearly all styles began to standardize around a few popular titles and storylines-- and it wasn't until a few strange ideas hit cult status that the options really began diversifying again. Graphic novels like the Sandman series and Hellblazer shaped their own audiences. We can do the same with less risk and less personal cost involved with experimentation.

Deadlines will never go away, but...

There will always be an audience for the cheap and easy laugh, or the chi-blasting superhero arena battles-- there will always be a market for fast food. People who do well at hitting deadlines will always get some benefit from fulfilling their readers' desire for regularity. There will always be people who excel under the pressure of a deadline. There will always be a detriment to waiting too long to post an update.

Some of us were simply not ever made to work quickly, however-- we have ideas that take time to render, stories that require a longer attention span, ambitions that exceed our speed.

It's one thing to trim away excess to better serve the practicalities of publishing to the web. Let's just be clear on what those practicalities actually /are/. If more of us step away from the daily grind and truly explore the potential of what we could be doing, we'll create a field in which the truly spectacular have a chance to mature. Where artists have a chance to do what they /love/, not just what they can manage.

I'd really like to see what that would generate. Wouldn't you?

Wanted: EZ Guide

Fabricari's picture

It has occured to me that it would be handy for us webcomikers to come up with an E-Z guide for users who don't know how to take advantage of RSS. I've been using Newsgator for example, and it really changes my experience as a webcomic reader immensely. I have folders for the drama, folders for lazy artists, etc.

How about you?


Fabricari - Sexy Robots and Violent Cyberpunk Comics

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

Better information on RSS

Aleph's picture

This was actually intended to be a theoretical position on the benefit of RSS and how it could take the pressure off creators, not an explanation of the workings of RSS itself. Wednesday wrote a much better, more comprehensive overview of syndication methods. Parts of it are a little dated but it's still a great primer. Clicky here!

Just thought I'd add that because of all the specifics cropping up in discussion ^^;

You can set up your RSS feed

Joey Manley's picture

You can set up your RSS feed several different ways.

1. You can have a headline-only (or headline-and-text-description) feed, that just tells people when a comic has updated. But they still have to click over to your site to read it. If you use a service -- like thewebcomiclist or ohnorobot -- that generates feeds for your comic from another server, this is the kind of feed you will have. This kind of feed will help, not hurt, your stats.

2. You can have a full-content feed, which allows people to read the actual comic in the actual feed (all you do is post the actual HTML to display the page in the feed). If you use blogging software like WordPress, this is the kind of feed you have.

3. You can actually attach your comic's image file to the feed as an "enclosure." As far as I know, there is no automated solution for this (except for WCN -- see below).

For some reason, a lot of people who read a lot of RSS feeds actually get angry with (1) type feeds. But that's just whininess.

Many popular webcomics use (2) type feeds -- including, for example, Scary-Go-Round.

(3) type feeds are only really useful if you want to make it easy for people to read your comic on handheld devices like the PSP.

My take on it: some sort of RSS feed is absolutely necessary if you want to increase your audience, and keep your audience.

If you depend mostly on advertising banners, or subscriptions, as a business model, then I'd recommend a (1) type feed. Though it is worth noting that new advertising banner services are starting to crop up for (2) type feeds.

If you depend mostly on merchandise sales for your business model, I'd recommend a (2) type feed. People who read a lot of RSS feeds love them, and it will definitely increase your actual readership (though most of this increase will not show up on your stats tracker, true).

Either way -- some sort of feed is extremely useful.

Plug: WCN lets you pick which kind of feed you'd like to provide, by giving you clicky buttons to set your preferences.

Joey
www.webcomicsnation.com

RSS decreases hits, doesn't it?

RemusShepherd's picture

I don't read comics using a RSS feed, but I read several blogs that way. And I find that if I get the content via RSS, I never actually travel to the content owners' pages.

Do RSS feeds just alert readers when there's a new comic, or do they actually serve the new comic images over the feed? If the image is served, that's great for the readers...but it hurts the business of webcomics by decreasing hits on the comic page.

It seems to me that RSS hurts business anyway, as readers don't have to load the comic page to check for new updates. Either way, although it may be a terrific tool for spreading word about your comic, I don't see it helping any comic creators make a living.

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RSS doesn't need to be hotlinked content

Aleph's picture

I wouldn't recommend putting the comic image itself in the RSS feed-- JM described it better than I could, how it's done. Services like oc.net and comicalert do not provide the comic image itself, but provide the user with a list of comics updated recently or since their last visit. If you're doing your own RSS, I would provide a notification that the content is ready, not the content itself :)

Sorry I didn't realize that would be confusing-- I simply forgot that the news/blog items I referenced actually provide the entire content in the RSS itself. I like my RSS feeds polite, asking me 'Do you want to view this now?' rather than dumping a ton of info on me, so that's how I use RSS routinely :)

On a side note: I do think we'll see a huge shift away from click-counting as a business model, especially as ad rates wither. Like I said, I think our battle here is for hearts and minds, merchandise and branding, so a feed like #2 might be a better and better idea... as long as you control it. If you can send your content along with notification about products/appearances/news, the convenience of having it show upon their personal content streams will endear you to some readers. Making yourself a part of their morning desktop could make you more a part of their world.

Of course, the downside of

The William G's picture

Of course, the downside of RSS is the inevitable habit of gaining your information in a context vacuum. Or at least in a context filtered towards your own biases.

But hey, Fox News survives on it, why not webcomics? A lot of our peers already tell their readers what to think. This makes it easier.
_____

The William G - Romantic Drama, Post-Apocalyptic Monsters, and More Comic Experimentation


I only put a link in the

Greg Carter's picture

I only put a link in the feed instead of the comic graphic, like some do, so people will still go to the site. (I think, better check.) My news posts are in the feed too but I still like for people to get my context. My ego demands it! I don't have advertising on the site so I guess it's not really that important they go to the actual site. I'll have to think about this.

I guess it's like supplying a picture already in a frame. Except they're super-glued together.

Greg Carter
UpDown Studio

Greg Carter - Abandon: First Vampire - Online Graphic Novel

Christ, now another thing I

The William G's picture

Christ, now another thing I gotta learn how to do and remember TO do every update.

Thanks a freakin' lot, internet.
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The William G - Romantic Drama, Post-Apocalyptic Monsters, and More Comic Experimentation


Actually

Aleph's picture

That's the reason I mention in these comments services like oc.net and comicalert, since they manage the RSS feed for you. Not everybody wants to learn how to deal with the code for themselves-- though I gotta admit, most of our readers still come in from their own customized pages or through their own feeds.

I didn't mention them in the primary article because they're not necessary to the theoretical side of the discussion.

But, if you just want to fire and forget, and make the option open to people, you could include a link to comicalert or oc.net and tell people they can use RSS feeds there.

I demand control!

The William G's picture

I demand control!

I demand a minimum of work!

I also demand people be more attractive!

But what is my best bet for my first two demands? If you can toss in the third, that'd be great.

Is there some code I can just drop on my page and let it take care of things for me?
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The William G - Romantic Drama, Post-Apocalyptic Monsters, and More Comic Experimentation


#2 is doable, #3 requires Guinness.

Aleph's picture

I can give you #2, and since it's St. Patty's, I could also give you #3 if you were in the states. They're handing out green beer goggles today. Alas.

http://www.comicalert.com/faq-owners.php

That's about as low-effort as it can possibly get, unless you wanna join WCN :)

They already have an entry pending for IAG but not BB.

Of course, the drawback to doing it this way versus others is that you only cater to people who use this service, but, it's the lowest effort way.

Jay handles all the code end of our feeds and such, so I'll leave the technical side to people here who know more ^^;

Ha! I knew that page looked

The William G's picture

Ha!

I knew that page looked familiar. I sent up IAG there a couple of years ago now. That's not even my URL anymore.

I've decided to take the plunge anyway. I'll be working on it over the next few weeks....months... years. Ehn, it's on the schedule.

And Guinness is nasty. Give me a good microbrew any day.

_____

The William G - Romantic Drama, Post-Apocalyptic Monsters, and More Comic Experimentation


I was going to make an RSS

I was going to make an RSS feed for my new website when I started it a month ago.

But I forgot. Then I remembered but was too lazy to do anything about it.

Maybe this weekend

<a xhref="http://www.kiwisbybeat.com" target=blank>Kiwis by beat!</a>

RSS or Die

Joey Manley's picture

RSS or die is right!

At present, more inbound traffic on WCN comes from the RSS feeds than from *all the other sources combined*. And WCN is in the top 50,000 of all websites, per Alexa, so that's a lot of traffic. We wouldn't be anywhere near the top 50,000 if we didn't have those RSS feeds for every comic -- I'm sure of it.

Joey
www.webcomicsnation.com

So, in a way...You help your

So, in a way...You help your customers?

The RSS feeds are generated

Joey Manley's picture

The RSS feeds are generated automatically if that's what you mean ... not sure what you're asking.

Yes, generally, the whole idea behind WCN is to make the lives of cartoonists (my customers) easier -- not just on technical issues, but also on promotional and marketing stuff (which is where I'd put the RSS functionality).

Joey
www.webcomicsnation.com

Excellent article!

Greg Carter's picture

Excellent article!

RSS feeds can be followed from many web sites and browsers as well as the standard newsreaders. I have a feed generated by my update software (iStrip) and the hits come from all over. I've noticed Bloglines, Yahoo, and similar services showing up in the referrer section of the stats. Plus newsreaders in the browsers section. It's a great tool. Having feeds at Comic Alert, Online Comics, The Web Comic List and other places are a huge help. My update schedule now is more for my benefit, to stay in the habit of updating. I don't worry about being a day late now if I need to polish up a page. I usually do several pages at one time, but still like releasing them twice a week. But it's great having that freedom of not being nailed to those days.

My feeds:
http://www.abandoncomic.com/index.php?view=rss
http://www.nofrailty.com/index.php?view=rss

Greg Carter
UpDown Studio

Greg Carter - Abandon: First Vampire - Online Graphic Novel

Thanks! :)

Aleph's picture

Personally I think a comic benefits most from allowing as many feed options as possible, and I think sites that manage feeds for a massive number of artists may get more and more popular. There's some great things to be said for a comic-themed RSS collection service, especially since it has a better chance of exposing people to newer artists as a side effect of having a catalogue to choose from.

But in the end I think automating one's RSS is going to become a pretty standard concern to people, similar to automating updates and page navigation. Some people will do it, others won't, and it's going to turn into an influence on the longevity of a project. My off-the-cuff speculation, anyhow.

I simply use my firefox

I simply use my firefox browser for rss feed stuff and Sage
firefox extension to enhance my RSS experience. What we need more is RSS in webcomics!

RSS or Die

Fabricari's picture

Good article. RSS is changing the way I read comics. I have recently started using Newsgator, and it means I can keep track of more comics. I think the new mantra will be "RSS or Die." And instead of dropping links to urls in our footers, we'll be dropping rss feeds:

http://www.fabricari.com/blog/atom.xml

Oh, come on people. You KNEW I wasn't gonna post a comment without trying to relate this to MY comic, did you?


Fabricari - Sexy Robots and Violent Cyberpunk Comics

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

Actually

Aleph's picture

I kind of had your comic in mind (as well as a couple of others) while writing this. I love your work in colour-- the lineart is good on its own but Will's right, your colour work, especially some of the wallpaper/ad type things you spit out (like the Ipod parody) really catches the eye. I have a feeling if you and a couple of artists really relaxed and did your best work the results would be pretty eye-popping. In a good way.

I'm really happy with Comic Alert for RSS, but it hasn't really caught on with my readers yet-- compared to the 400+ readers I have coming in from onlinecomics.net's RSS feed the 20 I have at CA is pretty sad :)

Still worth updating your entry though :-p