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Brad Guigar talks webcomics and Webcomics.com

by  in Comic News Comment

Brad Guigar has a pretty good perspective on the world of webcomics: He is the creator of the daily webcomic Evil Inc., one of the co-authors (with Dave Kellett, Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub) of the seminal book How to Make Webcomics, and the editor-in-chief of the website Webcomics.com. He was nominated for an Eisner Award for his earlier comic Phables, which has now come to an end, and he draws Courting Disaster, a weekly panel that accompanies a dating advice column. Guigar is a busy guy.

In January 2010, Guigar put Webcomics.com behind a paywall, a move that initially caused a lot of controversy. Two years later, I thought it would be interesting to talk to him about how that move worked, and about the state of webcomics in general in an increasingly diverse comics scene.

Robot 6: I want to start with a general question: Are webcomics still an important sector of the comics world? And how do you think their role and significance have changed in the past two years?

Brad Guigar: I think webcomics are the most important, most vital comics being produced today. I think the term “webcomics” has come to represent not just comics posted on the web, but rather, independent comics as a whole. The recent cresting of digital downloading is going to be one more tool — like social media was a few years ago — that webcomics will incorporate to help make independent comics thrive.

Do you think it is still possible to make a living from a webcomic, and are there more or fewer creators making a living from webcomics than there were two years ago?

It is possible to make a living doing this. But due to the fact that publishing is now accessible to anyone with a computer, the general perception is that there should be more full-time cartoonists. However, doing a comic that is good enough to generate leave-your-day-job money is a very difficult task — and it always has been. Doing it consistently for week-after-week, month-after-month, year-after-year is Herculean. And it always has been. Webcomics has allowed more people to participate, but the rest is as devastatingly challenging as it always has been.

But consider this: Webcomics has allowed everyone from the rank amateur to the polished professional to get something from their efforts. Whether it’s the joy of knowing that someone is reading your work … or a complimentary e-mail from one of those readers … or pizza-and-beer money … or mortgage money … or any of the other steps along the way to becoming full-time … web cartoonists are able to get a return on their efforts that buoys them as they improve and experiment. Kinda like on-the-job training. And I’m convinced that this effect is what helped many of the full-timers that we have today to get to where they are now.

Are there more or fewer than there were two years ago? My guess is there’s just as many as there ought to be. But those comics are no longer broadly-aimed comics that try to appeal to the largest-possible audience. The full-timers are a much more diverse group of people than they ever had been, and they’re doing work that is much more unique than in years past.

It has been two years since you took Webcomics.com behind a paywall. Do you feel this has been a success, financially and otherwise?

Converting Webcomics.com to a subscription site has been an incredible success. Financially, it has generated the income that has allowed me to put more time and energy into the site. And in terms of the effect that it has had on the level of discussion that we’re able to have, it has been phenomenal. Everyone who is there is someone who is serious about the topic. That means we can have contentious, passionate debates — that are waaaay more civil than the ubiquitous flame wars so common elsewhere. I don’t spend half as much time correcting misinformation as I did when the site was a public site. And the group itself has evolved into a very cohesive unit in many ways. Very often, a member will post an S.O.S. — maybe they’ve screwed up their ComicsPress code — and within minutes a fellow member with that expertise has offered the solution. We’ve done absolutely frank tell-it-like-it-is critiques of members’ work — with a minimum of nastiness and hurt feelings. We’ve had impromptu after-hours panels at conventions. It’s simply been one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of being involved with.

It is not uncommon for a member to comment “this post alone is worth my $30/year subscription!” I love it when that happens.

How has the community of readers and commenters changed in the last two years?

It really hasn’t changed that much — in terms of tone and subject matter. I think a kind of societal structure has developed. For example, it has become understood that this is not a place for promoting your comic. It’s a place to learn how to promote your comic. When a new member missteps, a member of the group very politely points this out. In other words, I don’t have to set the tone as much anymore. The longtime members know it, and they help establish and maintain it.

One of the reasons you cited at the time was that you weren’t making very much money from ads. Has focusing the site made it more valuable to advertisers?

The conversation was more along the lines that a site like Webcomics.com could never be attractive to advertisers. We never ran ads on Webcomics.com for that reason. Now that the site is a subscription site, I refuse advertising for very different reasons: First, because I feel it would be disrespectful to expose subscribers to ads, and secondly because so much of what I do is discussing vendors, products and services, I never want there to be a question as to whether I’m commenting favorably about something in order to win advertising revenue.

You also said you were “absolutely sure” that restricting the site to paid members would raise the level of the conversation. Were you right?

Absolutely. Everyone who is in there is serious about webcomics. The subscription has eliminated the drive-by flaming by the uninformed wacko. And it has greatly reduced the well-intentioned sharing of misinformation by the beginner. Furthermore, we can talk about our comics and our philosophies without worrying what a reader might think if he or she read it. Finally, I try to be a pretty strict moderator. And I say “try” because I’m sure I’ve had better days than others. I try to step in and keep the discussions constructive and civil — and that’s not always easy because I’m quite passionate about the subject of cartooning. But overall, I think the conversations at Webcomics.com are among the highest-level discussions of the craft as you could possibly have.

The conventional wisdom is that people don’t like to pay for content on the Internet. Why do you think they would make an exception for Webcomics.com?

Today, the average Internet user is paying pretty regularly for content. iTunes is proof. So is Amazon.com. And the more people move to tablets — where paid downloads and apps are the norm — the more people are going to accept paying for content. However, people will not pay for content that is easily replaceable. Webcomics.com offers a service that’s pretty unreplaceable. The daily content, the private forum, and the members-only benefits all make the site well worth 30 bucks a year.

When you first started the paid website, you had an audience who were already following it in its free incarnation. I know quite a few of them signed up right away. What has the renewal rate been like, and have you been able to attract new users? What proportion of your readers are original subscribers vs. new additions?

The renewal rate has been amazingly strong. As we move into the third year, I’m continuing to see my membership climb as the number of new members outweigh members who leave. I have a large enough membership now, that when I approach a vendor and ask for an exclusive discount for my members, they’re enticed by the potential to expose their services and products to a group of professionally minded cartoonists this size.

Do you have a problem with people pirating your content and posting it elsewhere for free? If so, how do you deal with it?

So far there has been very little of that.

How has the coming of digital comics on the Kindle, iPad, etc., changed the content and focus of your site?

It has definitely affected the range of topics that I feel I need to address. Last year — especially in the second half of the year — I spent an awful lot of time discussing social media as a promotional tool. This year, I have a feeling that much of my emphasis will be on digital downloading and how independent creators can use it to their advantage.

What sort of plans do you have for Webcomics.com for the upcoming year?

I want to continue to do what I first set out to do with this site — make it a place that serious, professionally minded cartoonists can gather to share information and inspiration. I want to continue to use our numbers to broker exclusive deals to benefit that membership. And I want to see the site help to produce an entirely new crop of full-timers.