I want you to take your mind back for a moment to the heady days of the early to mid, and heck even the later, aughts. It was before the recession that seems to go on forever, or is already done, depending who you talk to. There was also a shift going on in the world of comics.
During this time the people at Half Pixel (Scott Kurtz, Dave Kellet, Kristopher Straub, and Brad Guigar) were hosting a podcast where they talked about webcomics and this “fancy new thing” of publishing direct to the web. They talked about not being recognized at the major awards, publishers and others being unable to understand their business model, and how you could publish things on the web that you’d never get past any of the traditional gatekeepers. Sound familiar?
We can learn from the fact that this has all happened before. They had to figure out new business models, build platforms from the ground up, and they fought their way to relevance and recognition. There are articles, podcasts, books, and more all about creating things on the web and releasing them. There’s the freemium model, the discount model, and so many other things that we’re standing around debating like it hasn’t already happened.
Giving it away (for cheap or free)
This was this big one for webcomics; you gave away what you did for free, and people would eventually pay you for it in other ways. This could be related swag in the form of t-shirts and posters, it could be buying the collected books when they come out, or it could be any number of other things. With Patreon and Kickstarter out there, it is entirely possible that with the right group of fans, you don’t even need to handle that. We’ve already seen writers have success with this whether it be Chuck Wendig running his mammoth of a blog that he gives away free advice and occasionally short stories on, or a number of other authors that I’ve met who give away short stories and novellas for free, then are able to sell them in a package.
Don’t Trust Them if you Don’t Understand
Just like right now, there were a number of odd services that popped up that claimed to give you exposure or something that you didn’t understand in exchange for your money. This includes the “marketing” services that charge you a listing fee without ever actually giving you numbers about what you get from it, or doing anything other than adding you to yet another list. It happened then and it’s happening again. If you can’t understand what people are trying to sell you, you have to make the decision to just walk away.
The Flood and Afterwards
When webcomics became “a thing” with a few big successes, sort of like the recent madness with a couple of ebooks/self-published bits becoming big hits, thousands of people tried to jump in on the game. There was a flood of content out there, all fighting for your attention. We’re seeing the same thing right now; Amazon is practically busting at the seams from the sheer volume of ebooks that are being published now. After this major flood, however, lots of people lost interest. Many of the comics that were created in this period didn’t last for one reason or another. After the flood, people who were able to attract a following started to switch things up: some went back to print, realizing that their audience and profits were better there. Everyone who did well was forced to build a business that fit their talents and their style of creativity.
It sounds like a terrible piece of advice, but you have to try things and figure out what works for you. This means taking responsibility of your style and skills, making appropriate decisions about what you can and can’t do.
Going back to the webcomics example, Kristopher Straub realized that he had a specific style of being funny and built a system around that. Then he realized that he could simultaneously do a horror strip. Sometimes, owning a small market is better than fighting for a tiny share of a gigantic market. Look realistically at your marketing, and make sure you aren’t just throwing money away.
This is another major lesson from webcomics: don’t be afraid to be a special interest thing. Many webcomic people learned pretty quickly that getting $10 a year from each of your 10,000 fans makes you the same amount of money as $1 a year from 100,000 fans. It is also easier to make a smaller group of fans with specialized interests the kind of people that will share your work and try to shove it down their friend’s throats.
It’s also easier for you to work on two projects that you’re excited and passionate about, rather than one that you hate. So there’s that.
Remember, a lot of these things have happened before. You can learn from what has already happened, and knowing history is a way to ensure that you don’t repeat it. Everything from the shake-up in how awards are handled, the changing of the guard with professional societies learning to let in new members, and even how different business models are rising up is almost a direct parallel to what has come before. The advent of the internet and disintermediation (the process of making fewer people between you and your readers) has been going on for awhile and writing is just the latest industry to be hit by it.
Tyler Omichinski is a writer, game designer and freelance writer from the Great White North of Canada. He writes for a number of review websites, has a number of short story publications, and is about to self-publish a novella. He has an inexplicable fascination with survivalism, fitness, travel, and painting. His work has been published in the science fiction magazine “Grey Matter” and in the upcoming anthology “Den of Thieves”.