By Guest Author
Posted March 20, 2012
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by Christopher B Wright
I was encouraged to write a post that dealt with both webcomics and webfiction, because I do both: I started a web comic in 1996 and began posting web fiction in 2011.
It’s an uneven relationship: my comic is old, but it’s not particularly successful — Help Desk’s audience is nothing compared to the real success stories (Penny Arcade, PvP, Sinfest, etc) — and I don’t make money. I’m not someone to emulate if you’re looking to earn a living.
On the other side, I’ve only been involved in webfiction for a year: Pay Me, Bug!, my first serial, started in January 2011 and finished in October. The Points Between, my second, started in September and is still updating. Compared to many, I’m painfully new.
Still, I’ve seen enough of both worlds to notice a few interesting differences, and I’m brash and arrogant enough to foist my opinions on anyone who will listen… or who is forced to listen… or who is grotesquely fascinated by the apparent impending trainwreck of an idea, and doesn’t necessarily want to listen, but just… can’t… turn… away…
When I started publishing webfiction, I put it on a site that was completely separate from my webcomic. Both sites have since been fused together, but while they were separate I had the opportunity to monitor traffic on both. The difference was substantial: my webcomic averaged between 2,500 and 4,000 visitors a day, with roughly 5,000 RSS feed subscribers. (Note: this is extremely low traffic compared to even moderately successful webcomics.) On my webfiction site, my best day during Pay Me, Bug!‘s run was about 350 unique views. There were perhaps 200 RSS subscribers. That’s quite a gap.
Some of that can be explained by the relative newness of my entry into webfiction: it takes time to build an audience, and the early years can be painful. But I started poking around—looking up sites on Alexa, checking out Project Wonderful statistics—and it seems this phenomenon is more true than not: webcomics attract more visitors. Seeing what appeared to be a trend, I immediately wanted to know why it was a trend.
I have a few hypotheses.
If you go to ubersoft.net, you’re immediately redirected to the part of my site that displays the latest comics I’ve posted. After that, all you have to do is scroll down to read 1-6 panels.
Boom. You’re done.
Reading a comic is easy, and the relative ease with which someone can “consume” a comic is a fundamental strength of webcomics. Because comics are easy to read, readers don’t feel they’ll lose something if they read them. I know people who have special links set up in their browsers so that they can open 30-40 tabs at a time, each pointing to a different comic. Then they read each one in turn: read, close, read, close, read, close, read, close, and so on. In ten minutes they’ve gone through 40 comics that they follow regularly. That’s awesome for webcomics because it means it doesn’t take a lot of effort to get casual readers.
Right now, I have more readers who subscribe to my comics on RSS feeds than I do who visit my site directly. I didn’t realize this until I innocently asked a question about my RSS feeds and was suddenly inundated with responses from readers I never knew I had, then started paying closer attention to different parts of my log files. The more ways you give potential readers to read your comic, the more people will read your comic, because the act of reading a comic isn’t that taxing.
But the most important part of the subtitle is ‘required’, as in “Less involvement is required”. That doesn’t mean that a high level of involvement is forbidden, and in fact, you will find readers who voluntarily increase their involvement. Communities spring up around webcomics. Large, vocal, thriving communities. The community of fans who follow Penny Arcade can decimate unwary servers if Gabe or Tycho link to something they find interesting—the equivalent of a webcomic denial-of-service attack, only not so much “malicious” as “mass quantities of enthusiastically curious”.
So webcomics have the best of both worlds: not only is there a low barrier to entry, but there’s nothing preventing you from becoming a more involved fan, either. Rather, the only meaningful barrier is the cartoonist.
So does it work the other way around for webfiction? Does being a casual reader of webfiction require more work on behalf of the reader?
To a certain extent, I think it does—it takes more time to read your average webfiction update than it does to read your average comic update. More importantly, there is a strong perception that reading webfiction is time-consuming, and that perception acts a deterrent for webfiction that webcomics simply doesn’t have to deal with.
Why does webfiction suffer from this? Because while the World Wide Web was originally text-only and hyperlink-driven, culturally the web seems to shy away from the dreaded “wall of text” phenomenon. The more text you see on a page, the more you unfocus. The term TL;DR didn’t spring out of nowhere—at some point, someone decided that there was more work involved in trying to read a big chunk of text than there was a return from doing so, and they just stopped reading.
There are communities in the web that are not text-averse. Political sites are filled with people who do not shy away from essays—but they’re not reading fiction (at least, they’re not reading anything they’ll admit is fiction). Bloggers in general aren’t averse to reading text, but blogging also seems to favor short posts, and they’re being supplanted by sites like Pinterest and Tumblr and Twitter—sites that demand brevity. A lot of people I know like to read review sites, and if the writer is a good enough reviewer, he or she can amass a fairly loyal following (Eric Burns-White of the now-in-limbo Websnark was an excellent example of this when he was actively updating). But political and review websites are a means to an end—a place where you can read opinions about topics that interest you, and join in the discussions yourself. Those kinds of sites promise to deliver a very specific benefit that makes the reader willing to commit the time to sift through the text.
Webfiction is a blank slate. Is the story any good? You won’t know until you make the commitment to start reading. Since each chapter generally doesn’t stand on its own, it means you will also have to start going through the archives to get a grasp of the story—whereas with webcomics you usually glance at the current update and quickly decide whether you like the cartoonist’s sense of humor, or artistic talent, without needing to understand the context of the story.
Webfiction publishers have to fight against inertia in order to increase their audiences. I haven’t been writing webfiction long enough, nor talked with other webfiction publishers often enough, to learn any mitigating strategies.
But there is an audience. People are willing to read on the web—communities like Wattpad and Fanfiction.net are proof of that. So how to go from “people read my webfiction” to “hey, a lot of people are reading my webfiction” to “I need to upgrade my server in order to handle all this traffic?”
You develop a community.
At one point in webcomic history, there was a lot of talk about how webcomics needed to get out of their “niche” markets in order to succeed. I scoffed at the idea then and still scoff at it now, because the one defining trait of every single successful webcomic out there is that it has built a loyal, active, thriving, often boisterous community of readers. Readers flock to forums to talk about the latest update, or comment on the update itself. Once they’ve finished talking about that, they talk about other things. Related things. Semi-related things. Off-topic things. Books, movies, music. Even, in some remote enclaves that are spoken of only in hushed tones, religion and politics. The comic becomes a cornerstone of the community, but their interactions branch out into other things.
When people congregate around your site and put down roots, you’ve developed a community. And that initial common interest that drew them to your site to begin with? That’s your niche.
The definition I’m using for niche is ‘a distinct segment of a market’. A common misconception of the word is that because a niche is specific is must be small. This is not the case. Penny Arcade, PvP, User Friendly, Dumbing of Age, xkcd, Chainsaw Suit, Megatokyo, Schlock Mercenary all have huge communities, but they also project very specific images that communicate what they are, and what you’ll get out of them. That very specific image is their niche. None of those communities are as large as, say, fans of professional sports, but even professional sports fans are not one, single, unified community—they tend to follow specific teams, and teams are niche markets that have been exploited so completely, with niche identification so utterly complete, that some markets literally lead to rioting during games (eg, football in England).
This sense of community is not as pronounced in the world of independent webfiction. But it is present—again, look at Wattpad. Look at Fanfiction.net. Look at Goodreads. Readers of fiction congregate and form communities, just like readers of webcomics.
“That’s great, smart guy,” I hear you say. “So how do you do it?”
Oh, hey, look at the time….
Christopher B Wright is a writer, occasional musician, borderline cartoonist, and recognized authority on his own opinions. His webfiction can be found at https://www.eviscerati.org/fiction.
All content released under a Creative Commons license unless otherwise noted.