Over last year's Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I had some old college friends over to our apartment house. I happened to have a proof copy of a comic I was planning to print with the print-on-demand site Lulu and several of our guests thumbed through it that evening. As a result of this exposure to my work, several of them have checked out my site and my webcomics.
For those of you looking for ways to expand your audience and bring more people into webcomics, printing up your work is a good way to do so. The people who read my book that night are friends, but it's doubtful I could have gotten them excited about looking through my sketches or dragged them over to the computer to look at my comics online. I think it was impressive to them that I had worked hard enough to complete a body of work large enough to fill a book.
I like to think of webcomics as one of many ways to get eye-balls on my work. To me it really is about the work and not the method that it is transmitted to the reader. Sure there are a lot of things you can do with a webcomic that can't happen in print. But for the kind of comics I make, and frankly for many, many webcomics, they work equally well both on the Internet and in print.
For webcomics, the most successful approach to date seems to be free content. People are most willing to check out new comics when they're free, and immediately accessible. We've just hit upon how putting your webcomic into paper can expand the potential audience for your comic. Well apply the principle of free to print. That means giving away (or at least having on hand for sale) copies of your work in print wherever you might find potential readers: conventions, comic book stores, and other locations you can come up with.
You can't quite pull of that approach with sites like Lulu. Yes it's easy and risk-free to print a book with Lulu, because if no one buys a book, you're not stuck holding the leftovers. (Don't get me wrong, Lulu is all well and good. I mean, they cover your distribution and the website and such.) But it costs enough to make a comic with them (and other print-on-demand sites) that it becomes cost-prohibitive not to sell them for enough to break even.
For instance, my Lulu book costs about $5 to make each time you print it. But it's smart to order one for yourself for proofing purposes before putting it out there. So last December I did. This took about nine days to come in the mail. Lucky I did as I indeed found things to fix. Book properly fixed, I ordered fifteen for my family as Christmas presents, for which I paid about $18 for shipping (and I had to pay shipping again to send them to various relatives after wrapping them up myself). So I've quickly racked up a bill of $85.07 for 15 books and one editor's proof which averages out to $5.32 a piece! My book is only 22 pages and I didn't feel like I could jack the price up too much, so I priced it at $6. That doesn't turn too much profit, now does it?
Even if I had done my book as a completely black and white "digest size" comic, each book would have cost me $2.30 each. (13 double sided black and white copies at $0.10 a piece.) My total bill for 15 books plus an editor's proof would have been $36.80 and shipping costs would have been about the same (With a color cover, the cost would have been about $38 total before shipping costs).
Before print-on-demand, however, comic artists made mini-comics to send to publishers or sell at conventions. This is where mini-comics come into play. I use them to promote my webcomic and vice-versa. If you leave free mini-comics in places where people will pick them up, you just might gain a new reader (be sure to put the URL for your comic on your book).
I remember when I started Wax Intellectual (a blog about webcomics) people would send me emails like, "Check out my really awesome comic here: www.Fakeurl.com. I think you'll really dig it". Even if I was given a more descriptive email that sounded appealing, after a day or two the link was lost in my in-box underneath the next day's messages. On the other hand, Dean Rankine sent me two copies of his comic all the way from Australia. I instantly became a fan. You'd better believe that any time Dean posts something about new content on his site; I'm clicking over to his site as soon as I finish reading the post.
So although print-on-demand is a good option in some circumstances, mini-comics are often a better option when you're focused on getting new readers and promoting your comics. For example, mini-comics can cost less than $3 a piece as opposed to print-on-demand which can be upwards of $6 a piece. As far is time is concerned you can print out fifty copies of your book in one weekend. Get some friends to help you staple them or sew them if you're really artsy. A saddle stapler will cost you about $30 and will more than pay for its self or you can usually use one for free at the copy shop.
And getting out and about in the copy shop can be good for business, too. People start to look over their shoulder with curiosity. What's this guy doing? When I went to pick up my order, the clerk at Kinkos was so intrigued by my mouse cheese cat mini-comic, that she gave me her email to tell her when they'd be put together and she could buy one.
Next I went to a few stores downtown. The local comic show was very charitable and bought two from me on the spot for half price and gave me a website where I should send a copy. The owner was sure it would be a hit. I also went into a little art gallery. This wasn't a real high-end gallery — mostly framed art prints — but they did sell handmade journals and altered books, so I gave them a try. They absolutely loved them, took 10 copies on consignment and even asked me if I would be interested in teaching a workshop on hand binding books.
It took a bit more effort to get up and print the book, bind it and then peddle it, but I gained three fans by doing so and picked up a great website to check out. There's a little more risk in printing up your own mini-comic and having to distribute it yourself. Obviously, if they're not selling, you're stuck with them sitting around in your house. But I've found that even if they're just sitting around I still manage to make a sale or two. People come over and thumb through my comics and most end up taking one home because I have them right there on hand. If I had to tell them to go look me up on Lulu when they get home, there's a good chance that they'll forget and never follow up.
That's my case for printing your own mini-comic. You can see it's actually cheaper to make your own and gives you greater exposure to non-webcomic fans. They make great promotional tools and help build respect for your work.