Webcomic Outlets In A Recession

By | Wednesday, July 08, 2009 Leave a Comment
According to this article from eMarketer, consumers in general currently have a distinct preference for broadband access over mobile access by some noticeable margins. I'll provide their charts if you don't want to read the full article...

As you can see, the use of mobile devices (regardless of platform) for data transmission is considerably less important to people than a solid broadband connection at home. Although their research doesn't get into the reason(s) for that difference, it seems to me that usability is probably the biggest factor here. The combination of small screen sizes which don't always adapt "normal" web page layouts well, plus a typically clumsier set of input options which make navigation more difficult than it ought to be, plus inherently slower -- sometimes even intermittent -- connection speeds all point to users having a much better user experience on their desktops than on a typical mobile device. Being able to find movie listings or a restaurant's menu in the car is useful, to be sure, but the old Spider-Man cartoons look/run better from the computer sitting on your desk.

What I'm getting at here is that people seem to view their desktop computer as their "home base" when it comes to internet, and their mobile devices are still just communications tools that provide more flexible access to that base station. (Although I feel that dynamic will shift over the next decade or so. People are still thinking in terms of personal hard drives and floppy disks, but I see the trend as shifting to more decentralization, where your personal files and data -- and even applications -- are all stored on a server which has full-time broadband access to the Internet, and can be accessed and worked on from any other computer regardless of platform. More of a thin client model than a thick client one, if you want to use the IT vernacular. Indeed, much of how I personally work today is along those lines; the last column I sent in to Jack Kirby Collector was seamlessly written from three different computers in two different states, without having to transport files around on CDs or via email. Right now, in 2009, though, most people do NOT think or work in that manner, and still consider their desktop unit as their central processing computer, as opposed to simply an outlet through which they can get to their online data. But I digress...)

The upshot is that, if the recession continues through 2010 or even into 2011 as some experts predict, people will increase their reliance on broadband through their desktops and will be more likely to drop data services from their mobile devices.

Now, what does that have to do with webcomics?

What that has to do with webcomics is the manner with which they are delivered.

There are a number of sort-of-competing formats for delivering webcomics right now. Some folks use a specialized flash viewer, some rely on the CBR or CBZ format, some present JPGs on hard-coded HTML pages, some use dynamic web page/RSS feed generators, some are just sent via email... not to mention iPhone apps and other similar programs specific to certain platforms. Generally speaking, most of the options available are flexible enough to work under a variety of conditions. For example, while a PDF comic relies on the user have a PDF viewer of some sort unique to their operating system, PDF viewers are readily available for nearly every platform, so you can read a PDF file regardless of whether you're on a Mac or a PC or a Palm or...

And that, I think, is the key to webcomics at least for the next five years, if not longer. To make them as fundamentally accessible for flexible reading as possible. Unless you're comic is THE ABSOLUTE BEST THING EVER, people are not going to spend a lot of time dealing with your delivery mechanism. This is a distinct failing, I think of flash-based comics in general. They are inherently based on hitting a specific page on the internet and require the latest version of a flash player to view them at all. There's nothing wrong if someone WANTS to go to a specific web page with their flash player, but you won't be able to rely on that for delivery.

Early this year, when Diamond changed some of their policies, a lot of people went into a panic not knowing how or even whether their books would be distributed. A handful of us said, basically, that comic creators need to explore as many outlets as possible and ensure that as many people can get to/read their material as possible. There are, in essence, two ways of doing that.

First, a creator (or his/her representative) can essentially bust their butt getting their product into as many venues as possible. They have it on their web site; they've set it up with some POD service; they've made it available through Wowio and iTunes; they've posted CBR torrents... All of which would help, certainly, but it would take a considerable amount of time -- time which could be instead spent on, say, actually making the comic.

An alternative would be to have a set-up in which, once the source files are created, they could be uploaded to a server which then automatically propagates the files out to an array of venues via an XML (or equivalent) feed. This second method would essentially take the source files as they come in, automatically reformat them, and route the reformatted versions to the appropriate outlets. So, a 300 dpi page scan gets sent to a POD server, while the 72 dpi version is posted on website, whose relevant information is included in an RSS feed, which is in part read to display the pages on a web site. As a person who has NOT even attempted creating their own webcomic, I haven't looked in to whether or not this type of set-up currently exists, but it's at least conceptually do-able. Further, it could be implemented in several different ways such that a variety of companies could realistically compete in such a market. Maybe one provides really high quality paper to print the books on, while another does a better job formatting the XML, while still a third looks exclusively at making it as cheap/affordable as possible. Perhaps, then, a fourth has developed a unique iPhone app that's able to utilize the same files as well.

That, I think, is what needs to happen for the webcomic market generally. It absolutely can continue on in the higgedly-piggeldy manner that's characterized webcomics to date (as my reading list has grown, my online comics reader has gotten almost obnoxiously cumbersome -- I'll have to post some status updates on that sometime) but I think for webcomics to be more viable as a sustainable commercial venture, it needs to be at least a little more codified.

Because, if those original numbers I cited at the start of this post are any indication at all, there's still a lot of uncertainty in preferred delivery formats. Readers (i.e. consumers, i.e. where comic creators will get their money from) are NOT married to a particular format (with the possible exception of iPhone users) and that lack of definition with regard to delivery systems can and should be exploited. Readers are not going to choose one method over another simply because YOUR comic is available (or easier to get to) -- the comic creator, if they're going to survive -- needs to make their material as widely available as possible. And, while the creators themselves likely don't have the expertise to do that, other companies do and need to step up to the plate. The "killer app" for comics isn't going to be the best CBR reader, or something for the iPhone; it's going to be the company that develops a process by which any number of people can read your comic in any number of ways.
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