The Theory of Webcomics: The Daily Grind
The Daily Grind Iron Man Challenge is a competition between online comic artists to see who can maintain the longest Monday to Friday update schedule, following a strict set of rules. Each artist lays $20 USD on the line. The last man left standing takes the entire pot. The competition started on Monday, February 28, 2005, and is still going with ten contestants remaining.
Webcomics giants like Scott Kurtz, Chris Crosby, Steve Troop, and Jennie Breeden have all missed updates and been beaten out for the top spot. Conversely, none of the remaining contenders feature on Wikipedia’s list of Self-Sufficient Webcomics. Does this seem counter-intuitive?
Any successful webcomic creator will tell you that regular updates are important — in order to build an audience, you need to provide regular content to keep people coming back to the site. And very few comics have come into success with only one comic a week — you could pretty much count them on one hand — so you’d need at least two or three updates each week. If you can stretch it, five is optimal, because it gets the working world checking your site as part of their daily routine.
If your readers have the right sort of personalities, an irregular update schedule could work in your site traffic’s favor. Studies of gamblers has shown that irregular rewards — that is, receiving a reward only sometimes, and seemingly at random, for the same action — play all sorts of fun games with human brain chemistry. This is pointed to as the cause of the Las Vegas zombies who sit at slot machines for days. Is that any different from checking Order of the Stickevery day hoping that one of the three weekly updates will be there?
(Well, how different it is depends on how much of a reward you consider a new OotS comic to be. Money is a pretty universal reward. The comic needs to be good enough to trigger a “reward” response, because a sporadic, unfunny comic quickly gets dropped, rather than obsessively watched.)
And of course, it’s also likely that a better author will skip and update to produce a better comic later; or that the author of a self-sufficient comic will be putting more of his time and effort into designing and mailing books and shirts, courting advertisers, and the like. Which is really the more important lesson here: Regular updates are important, but they’re only one part of a successful webcomic business.
Running a webcomic business is essentially being a one-man (occasionally two-man) band. You’re writing, editing, penciling, inking, lettering and coloring a comic strip (a process that if often split between six people in the print comics world). You’re doing web design. You’re marketing the comic to the public. You’re courting advertisers and managing advertising revenue on the site. You’re designing shirts/posters/tote bags, dealing with production and either negotiating with distributors or doing it yourself. You’re doing all of the layout and editing for your printed compilations. You’re even being your own public relations department, managing your forums and responding to the floods of email that come in. This is not a single skill set — this is an entire company’s skill set.
The successful webcomic creator isn’t just a good artist or a good writer. He’s also a good businessman — he might even be a good businessman first. Say what you will about Jim Davis, but despite all of the complaining that Garfield isn’t funny, Davis has built an empire out of it. His empire of books, calendars, mugs, toys, cartoons, and feature films is merchandising that thousands of comics could be used for, but it takes a brilliant businessman to actually achieve.
In the end, there are a lot of amazing webcomics that will never make significant money for their creators, because while the creators have an amazing talent and have managed to put it out for public consumption, they don’t have the acumen necessary to monetize it.