Getting Started with the Right Attitude
If you’re thinking about launching a comic, I have ten tips to help you get off on the right foot. (And if you’ve already started, double-check this list to catch some mistakes you may have made early on!)
Start with the right attitude
Starting with the right attitude is key. Unrealistic expectations are not only demoralizing, but they start a chain reaction of bad decision-making that can derail you for months — or years.
Here’s the hard truth: If you’re just starting your webcomic, you’re not going to find an audience for a while. Most Overnight Success stories have one thing in common — they all toil in obscurity for about ten years before they hit. It’s not gonna happen for you right away, and that’s and that’s okay. In fact, it’s probably a little bit better that it doesn’t happen. I think there’s a lot of problems with being a true overnight success, but the fact of the matter is, you’re not good — not yet — and you’re definitely not as good as you’re going to be in a few years.
Being a cartoonist these days is more than just making a comic and waiting for money to fall from the sky. You might be very good at at the basic components of being a comics artist, but there’s so much more to comics than that! You’re gonna have to pick up some skills along the way. You’ll need to learn social media strategy, for example. You’ll need to acquire the skills to run a website. You’ll need to learn how to do crowdfunding properly. And, eventually, you’re going to need to learn how to self-publish.
Also there’s this. You’re probably just not really good, period. There are hundreds of cartoonists working at the amateur and pro-am. I’d estimate that about 80% of the them are not doing very well in comics — or not doing as well as they clearly think they should be doing. (As a general rule, these folks tend to be good artists and inadequate writers — especially if they’re trying to do a humor comic.) They’re just not getting where they want to go.
Here’s the danger — and it’s deadly. I see cartoonists who have been doing this for upwards of ten years, and they still don’t get it. They still haven’t got to where they figure they should be. They look at other people who have surpassed them and because they don’t understand how this all works. They come up with all kinds of excuses. Maybe they just haven’t found the right social media strategy yet. They haven’t found that magic hashtag. They haven’t found the right SEO methodology. They haven’t found the right merchandise. The list is endless. But do you know what never ends up on the list? The fact that their work just isn’t very good.
And until they address that, all of the SEO and magic hashtags in the world isn’t going to help them.
(And they’ll never find that answer because they aren’t looking for it.)
I want you to be different. You need to look in the mirror and say, “The reason I’m not doing as well as I think I should be doing is because of me. Because I need to get better.” If you keep looking outward, you’re never looking inward. And it’s all about the comic that you create. And if you do a good comic, all of that other stuff will follow.
Just do it
There is no right time. There is no perfect concept. There is no perfect theme. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to write the comic that you think is gonna be popular. Do the comic that you wish existed in the world. Don’t don’t try to hit a demographic or a trend. Do your comic even if you think it’s really, really dumb. Even if you think it’s so obscure that no one else could possibly like it. That’s the comic I want to see you do, because I guarantee you it’s not as obscure as you think it is. There’s gonna be more people who want to see it.
“How often should I update?”
Should you update daily? Should you do a weekly comic? Here’s the ironclad answer to that question: Your update schedule should be frequent, consistent and significant. You should update as frequently as you can, while maintaining a consistency of quality, as long as each one of those updates is significant. In other words, the updates have to mean something. They have to matter. An update in which nothing happens is not an update.
That’s a crucial point for people doing longford storytelling with comics. Posting a page in which a character simply walks across a room is a nothing update. Nothing happened! And when nothing happens, you lose readers (and, worse yet, you fail to gain new readers).
This is key: Every day someone is discovering your comic for the very first time — looking at the comic (or the page) you just posted. There has to be something there for them — even though they don’t know any characters or storylines. And if there’s nothing there for them, they’re going to click away — in a heartbeat. And you will have lost your opportunity to convert that person into a reader. That’s why that update has to be significant. I speak about this topic in greater detail in my Magic Wand rant.
Social media is a place for you to publish your work, and interact with people who like it. It’s also a place to network with other cartoonists. But don’t get carried away. Social media can also be a time sink — it can draw you away from creating comics.
Very often I’ll see a person that has literally hundreds of thousands of tweets. Most of them are say, “Why am I not famous yet? Why does nobody like my comic yet? I’m I’m doing all this stuff!” And then I look at the comic and the comic is… not very good. They’re putting all this energy behind social media and not enough on focusing on doing a good comic — and doing another one, and another and another.
I’ve actually had conversations with some of these people, they say, “But I have to! I have to build my social media presence so that when the comic hits, I’m ready for it!”
There’s nothing that could be less true than that.
Here’s what I want. Here’s how I want you to pursue social media lightly. If you’ve got a thought to share, share it. If you’ve got some sketches you want to share or some work in progress, absolutely fine. And of course, you should be publishing your comic on social media. Use it in a very utilitarian way. If people are sharing it and commenting, then — definitely — revel in that and talk. But aside from that, one or two tweets a day is plenty.
Don’t buy ads
Putting money behind advertisement is a really bad idea. To make paid advertisement work you have to have a couple of things. Number one, you need a product to sell. The most effective uses of advertisement I’ve seen has been to sell a product not necessarily to advertise a comic. Number two, you need to know all kinds of things about the advertising market and the advertising process that you just don’t know. (And I don’t know, either.) This kind of advertising takes an advertising team behind you. You need people who are trained to do this, and make it effective, mold the message, make sure that message shows up in the right place, and ensure the right people see it. That takes a couple thousand bucks. If you don’t have that kind of cash on hand, you’re going piss your money away ten dollars at a time.
Think I’m wrong? Without scrolling down, answer this question:
Think about it.
Where would you place that ad to maximize its effectiveness.
And yes, I’m purposely making it harder for you to scan ahead for the answer.
If your answer was to find groups of people who like comics, you’re the type of person who should NOT be buying advertising. That’s like McDonald’s restaurant saying, “To sell Big Macs, we need to find people who like food.”
Keep your money in your pocket. Please. I’m begging you.
(And if you’re “promoting” your work on Facebook groups for webcomics creators, I’m give you the side-eye, too.)
When I was co-writing “How to Make Webcomics,” the first question I always got at comic conventions was: “How many T-shirts should I print?”
My advice on merchandizing goes as follows: Wait six months.
And then wait another six months.
And then take a careful look at your readership.
And think about waiting some more.
Don’t get too ecstatic when a reader says: “I would totally buy that on a T-shirt!” Or “I’d buy a book full of these comics!” Remember Guigar’s Law of Merchandise: “The first person to say they’d buy the merchandise is the first person to disappear when the merchandise is offered.”
I get it. You’re excited. You wanna have the website that has the store. You wanna have a Wikipedia entry on your comic. You wanna be able to go to comic cons. You wanna I get all that — I under I understand. As someone who wanted to be a cartoonist since the third grade, I understand what this desire is.
You need a big, big crowd following your comic before you can offer merchandise. It needs to be so big that you can entice 10% of the crowd to even consider it — because less than 1% will actually plunk down the money for whatever the thing is that you’re gonna make. Those percentages will be a little different for every creator, based on the audience they cultivate, but you get the picture. And it is always a smaller number than your heart wants it to be.
After you’re really sure you want to pitch merchandise, use Print On Demand (POD) to test the waters. A POD vendor (Lulu, Redbubble, TeeSpring, etc.) allows you to upload your art and offer merchandise on their store. If and when someone buys it, the company makes enough to fill the order an ships it to the customer. They take a cut of the profits and send the rest to you. POD merchandizing has a horrible profit margin for the creator — you’re going to make only a few bucks. But you can use it to gauge how invested your readers are in your merchandise. Once you’ve established a demand for your merchandise, you need to move away from POD as quickly as possible. That’s when you need to start manufacturing your product in bulk to lower the unit cost — and that means it’s time to think about Kickstarter. But that is years — years — down the road.
Prepare for success
I am confident that success will come for you. If you put the work in, success is gonna come. So you need to prepare for it. For starters, that means working in high resolution (“hi res”). Your original work should be created or scanned at 300 dpi at the very least. You will decrease the resolution to post the images online (usually to about 72 dpi). But you will save a hi-res master file of each comic so you can plan for an eventual printed collection of your comics.
If you’re working in color, you want to prepare those originals in CMYK. That means working in CMYK mode (as opposed to RGB) — or at the very least working with a CMYK preview. CMYK is used in printing, and it builds color using four different inks — cyan, magenta, yellow and black. RGB is used for monitors and it builds color using three types of light — red, green and blue. RGB is capable of producing millions of colors while CMYK can produce only thousands. That means some of the colors you’re producing in RGB mode are impossible to print through a CMYK process.
Go back and think about what I just said about merchandizing. Now imagine spending years — and years — building your audience to the point that they’re ready to support a book. But before you can get the book to market, you’ve got to re-do hundred of images because you either don’t have the hi-res files or you worked in RGB.
It happens way more often than you’d think, and it has all-but-sunk a few promising cartoonists. Don’t let it be you.
While you’re at it, start backing up copies of your files to a cloud-based server. And then back up the back-ups. Trust me.
It’s perfectly good — maybe even a bit preferable — to start out just posting your work on social media. But eventually you are gonna wanna look for Web hosting. You’re gonna want a home base on the Web where you can always control things. This will be a place you can promote your Kickstarter, someplace to direct people who want to read the complete archive, and so forth.
I’m also a big fan of using WordPress, and I strongly endorse using the Toocheke content management system (CMS). For the hosting itself, I endorse Dreamhost. For domain registration, I think the best deal is with Google Domains.
Stop looking at your stats
When I started doing webcomics, I had my site analytics open every day. I was slavishly tracking page views, new users, bounce rate — you name it. Some days I saw spikes in traffic and other days I saw plateaus. Today, it’s the same thing, only you’re probably charting followers, likes, shares, and comments.
While it’s good to check in on your stats from time to time, they can be a serious distraction. And they can be infuriatingly misleading. A comic that absolutely lights up Twitter can languish on Instagram. The same comic that went viral last year could sink to the bottom of the tank if you posted it tomorrow. If you try to gauge your success — your worth as a cartoonist — by those metrics, you will drive yourself insane. Worse — you’ll get so much false feedback that you could seriously damage your progress as a creative professional.
It’s nearly impossible to hide good work on the Web. As you get better, you’re gonna get more users, more followers, more people who want to talk about your comic and share it. It’s going to happen — as you improve.
But if your eyes are on the stats — instead of the comics — you’re going to have a hard time improving.
Guigar’s Law of Lettering: Nobody’s gonna read your comic if they can’t read your comic.
For the love of god, learn lettering. If you can’t master hand-lettering, then purchase a quality hand-lettering font (not Comic Sans, for Pete’s sake) from either Blambot or Comicraft. Do not attempt to create your own font using a site/software that purports to tell you how easy it is to do so. Unless you’ve invested several years learning the intricacies of typography — kerning, leading, x-heights, etc. — you simply don’t have what it takes to do this job properly. Also:
- Learn how to compose legible word balloons.
- Learn the crossbar-I rule.
- Don’t mimic vertical manga balloons.
- Don’t use numerals.
- For hand-lettering, learn to use an Ames Guide.
- Never — ever — cross balloon tails.
- More than three word balloons in a panel is pushing it.
- The tail with, where it meets the balloon, should be the same as the height of any capital letters inside the balloon.
- Letters should never touch the lines of a word balloon — there should always be a comfortable interior margin.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’ve got to look forward to as a comics artist. It’s going to be a slow build. You’re going to feel like nobody’s looking at your work — like it’s impossible to break through the noise on social media. Your dreams of overnight success will be quickly quashed, and you’ve got years — years — of quiet work ahead of you.
If you don’t love comics — if you’re not truly infatuated with this medium — you’re not going to make it. You’ve got to love it so much that you’re not discouraged by the immediate social-media death of a comic you were really proud of. You have to love it so much that the virtual cobwebs growing on your POD site don’t become distracting.
And you have to love it enough to take a cold, hard look at your work and be honest with yourself about where it’s failing — and what you need to do to improve that.
If you don’t love it, you’re doomed. Because for the next several years, your love will be the only things keeping it alive.