Been doing a lot of behind the scenes conferencing with some webcomickers, and crunching my numbers for A Distant Soil. The news is all very good, and while I don’t have as much time to do deeper analysis as I’d like, my bottom line is up significantly, and my online audience is ten times higher than when I started the five day a week online serialization of A Distant Soil 2.5 years ago.

Here’s a look at an earlier post with graphs of my traffic.

Most of the advice I got about making webcomics pay has not only not worked for me, but seems to stem from what I call “snapshot thinking”. For example, one blogger scolded me for not doing things like social networking and posting info about my Facebook page and whatnot on my site. Absurd. Not only have I been ubiquitous on blogs, message boards and the like for years, but the social networking buttons are right there on my home page almost every single day to the point of spamminess. Sometimes I remove them for a day or two because readers tend to gloss over things they see every day. I know I do. Moving things about or removing them periodically makes people notice changes. I can move the widgets around any time I like.

Another example: a blogger scolded me for not monetizing my work, what with my not having a working bookshop and all. But…we’ve almost always had a working bookshop. If I’m on tour, we take it down. If we have problems with the shopping cart, we take it down. I’m in Australia, we take it down. But he didn’t see a working bookshop that day he popped in! I’ve had bookshop sales on this site since somewhere around 2003.

Snapshot thinking: what he sees that day is all there is.

Of course, what a new reader sees that day is all there is too, and you want to grab the new reader. But I also need to balance that with holding on to my old readers and making the experience good for them. So sometimes things will go up, get changed, come down.

Another suggestion was to watermark all the online pages or to put the website address on them to curb pirating. Oddly, I got this suggestion from someone who said they could not find any pirated files of my work online. If he can’t find any pirated files, what good is his advice to curb pirating?

It took me about 3 minutes to find one popular website with my stuff, and as of right now, there are 23 seeders and 2 leechers. Over the last week, I believed they’ve had about 60 leechers in total. Maybe these people will never buy my books, some of them did, but want digital copies. Regardless, it bums me out when I don’t get the traffic here, but what can you do? Currently, I’m working with Image Comics to do digital restoration on ALL the A Distant Soil art and to create new covers for legal digital books. The official release will be significant improvement over what you get online from unofficial sources. Since I have well over 1000 pages of art to archive, as you may imagine, this is a time consuming task.

I repeat: the work is decades old, and there were no scanning services available. All the tones are BY HAND. These need to be cleaned up and restored. We’re not just dragging our feet to frustrate the anxious digital reader. We want to give you a good book that will last, in a package we can be proud of.

Also, pirating isn’t coming from the daily postings, it comes from the scanned books. Every single page posted on this website has already appeared in print first. I have had many conversations with people who have absolutely no idea that all this work wasn’t drawn yesterday.

No one’s not going to pirate my work because of an online watermark.

But thanks for the attempt to help.

I think the problem I have dealing with some of the You Should Just People is that they are all coming at it from a webcomics perspective as if that is the only perspective. It isn’t. Much of their advice not only doesn’t apply to me, when I’ve tried to implement it, it did not work for me at all.

One extremely strident critic of print cartoonists went on and on about how our print work is just soooo boring and not art and yadda yadda, and how we need to do short gag strips to make it big online. One wonders about people who sob about the artistic merit of print comics pushing the idea that it’s gag strips that make the world go round. I want a webcomic market in which success isn’t limited to stick figures and geek jokes. (EDIT: Yes, we know webcomics are about more than geek jokes, but the most financially successful do tend to be gag strips, just like the most successful print comics tend to be superheroes. And the advice I’ve gotten about web success has been “Do a gag strip!” which is on par with print comic advice along the lines of “Learn to draw superheroes.”)

Since I don’t do geek jokes, people like me need to find an audience that not only enjoys what we do, but is willing to pay. Since it is unlikely we’ll go for the low hanging geek joke fruit, we need to be able to make more money with a smaller audience.

My audience is now ten times higher than it was when I started online. (see linked graph above)

More precisely, I’ve been online since 1999, but my earlier efforts tanked. I hired DC McQueen as a consultant and designer in 2009. It took about a year for traffic to rise, and it took another year for a significant increase in income. If I were starting from scratch, this would have been misery, but I’ve got a huge inventory of pages, which is an advantage most people simply don’t have. This is a MASSIVE advantage, print people (consider doing as I did: breaking whole print pages into pieces. They’re easier to read online.) We need to realize and exploit our innate advantages, and praise the creator rights that allow us to pick up something we did 20 years ago and find a whole new market for it.

Don’t worry about being dated. I get people coming to this site all the time who have no idea when this art was done. It’s always new to somebody.

If you are print to web like me and don’t do geek jokes, the vast majority of the webcomics community is not going to have much to do with you. Stuart Immonen and other print artists really didn’t get much buzz when he took his work online (it’s down now.) Quality was not the issue. Immonen’s work is brilliant.

We are not going to reach the same audience as most webcomics, and many of our print readers are not into webcomics. It’s simply a different culture. While there is crossover, people who read Penny Arcade are not going to come here and decide this site is just The Best Thing Ever.

I love this: Dorothy Gambrell creator of the webcomic Cat and Girl, regularly posts updates about the financing of her project. Here is a graph of her income. So far this year, she has made $12,847.53 on her webcomic and freelance work. I believe she is a full time creator, and has been posting her comic online since 1999.

She appears to have traffic comparable to mine. Almost all of her money comes from t-shirts and donations. Almost none of mine does.

I’m not going to post my entire income here, because that’s a little more transparency than I would like. But if I limit my income entirely to online income, then last year Cat and Girl did significantly better than I did, but this year I did significantly better.

I have freelance income and royalty income that Ms Gambrell doesn’t have. So I make more money anyway based on my publishing income alone. But I wanted to see how I would do with just online income, especially since a large portion of financing A Distant Soil’s finale will depend on that income.

Between July and now, I have made more money online than Ms Gambrell has made all year. Almost all of that income is from original art sales and book sales. I had a limited edition book sale earlier this year that went very well, and will pay for two entire issue of A Distant Soil from Image Comics next year. In fact, my web sales this year were shockingly good. I had almost given up on this whole thing, and we’ve come back like a champ.

I can’t sell t-shirts or coffee mugs to save my life. Guess what? That’s not my audience. I don’t do slogans. The t-shirts and coffee mug financing of comics does NOT work for people like me. Here’s what we do have, and most of our sales are on journals and cards.

Original art and limited edition books make our money. My art sales are significantly better than they have been in years. Many webcomic artists have very little, if any, art to sell.

I can also sell and market many things from projects for other publishers here, as well as A Distant Soil. A webcomics artist does not usually have that advantage. Until this year, I saw no serious benefit from this. My mainstream work was not selling here any better than A Distant Soil was. We just weren’t getting the traffic. I’d get a bump once in awhile from a link and go “YAY! We’re SAVED!” but it didn’t last. Now our daily traffic is better than our old big bumps. But you don’t see me cheering unless I’ve been watching a trend for at least six months.

Sales of A Distant Soil books are up. Not a huge amount of money, but the difference is clear. My royalty check this period was up by a full third.

Putting my work on the web alone did not yield results, and neither did chatting on FB: money did. I spent thousands of dollars on advertising, countless hours pushing my work. More precisely, I skipped San Diego Comic Con, and invested that money in the site. San Diego regularly costs at least $8000 to attend and get a booth. Staying home and putting my work on the web has brought me a far higher return on that investment than going to San Diego. If I go to San Diego, it is highly unlikely I’ll pick up thousands of readers at one show. I picked up thousands of readers on the site and got to stay home and avoid convention crud. More importantly, I more than doubled that $8000 investment. If I go to San Diego, there’s a good chance I won’t get my $8000 back.

This doesn’t mean you should not go to conventions. I intend to go to San Diego next year. However, I think being online is a new form of convention. And it costs less. If you can manage your time, keep from getting into foolish internet dramas, then you may realize some serious benefits from your online presence. It has taken me a whopping 12 years to make it work.

Now, just because it’s worked well for a year, that does not mean it’s smooth sailing from here.

I’ve seen a number of webcomics whose traffic and income tanked over the last year. The top gets stronger, the long tail is very, very long, and there is a tiny percentage of well off and everyone else is poor.

Last year was a dismal one for us. The year before…not so much. This year…we’re recovering…but…well…let me explain.

When I first started out putting the Dreamland Chronicles online in 2006, I had already created about 150 pages of the comic for print. So it was easy to stay ahead of the 5 pages/week schedule…Almost 2 years later…we can barely get more than 13,000 uniques a day.

Has the webcomic thing crested? Did those with first mover advantage hog the spotlight? Is the market too glutted? Is there hope for a comics middle class?

Dunno.

I’ve done much better for myself this year, but I had money to invest (many people do not) and a huge inventory (many do not) and a loyal print readership, some of whom were persuaded to pursue me here (many have no pre-existing audience).

And, for the heck of it, I almost completely stopped advertising to see what would happen to my traffic. My core audience remained, though I stopped picking up as many new readers (duh). And since my core audience rose, my income went up, even without further advertising investment. (EDIT: to clarify, my core audience in 2011 remained steady from 2010, even though I cut advertising dollars to almost nothing.)

Will these happy trends continue for me and my humble book?

Dunno. Sure hope so.

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions