Why Self-Publishing? Webcomics.

In 2009, while I was at the tail-end of submitting an earlier draft of Pay Me, Bug! to publishers and getting a little discouraged about the process, people in my life encouraged me to self-publish. These people included a few friends, and even my parents. My parents even went so far as to mail me a promotional packet from a company that specialized in helping authors self-publish.

I didn’t want any part of it.

In 2009, at my very core, I steadfastly believed the only legitimate way to publish a story was to do it through an actual publishing house. Self-publishing, I believed, consisted of:

  • Deluded authors who were being played by vanity press outfits
  • Failed authors who had more ego than talent

In 2010 I began to revise Pay Me, Bug! one last time, intending to publish it first on the web, then as an eBook, and finally as a trade paperback. What, you might reasonably ask, changed my mind? Was I deluded by a vanity press? Did my ego overcome my talent? Well, no to the first: I publish everything using my own software and on my own dime. I can’t speak to the second, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who might think so. But for my part, the decision really had very little to do with self publishing fiction, or any of the arguments surrounding it. For my part, the decision to self-publish came from another venue entirely:

Webcomics.

A Long Segue that is Relevant (I Promise)

In 1996 I started a webcomic. I posted it monthly on OS/2 eZine, a web publication that catered to us starry-eyed, OS/2-using windmill-tilters. In 1998-1999 I took it off OS/2 eZine and put it on my own website. At about the same time, I discovered a UseNet newsgroup that was, for the most part, a discussion of newspaper comics.[fn]The most prominent discussions at the time were about how great Luann was and how much Cathy and Mallard Filmore sucked (for different reasons).[/fn] However, there was also a small group of people who were experimenting with the whole “web thing,” putting their comics online and talking about it there.

Nobody really paid any attention to us. You might, however, recognize some of the names today: Maritza Campos, Chris Crosby, and even Scott Kurtz for a while.

At that time, assuming I remember it correctly, there were two generally accepted “truths” about webcomics:

  • The best use of a cartoonist’s time on the web was to practice cartooning, to build up a portfolio, and to show a syndicate that you could hold an audience.
  • Comics could never really work online because they took too darn long to load on a modem.

Neither one of these generally accepted truths turned out to be, well, true—but if I’m being completely fair about it, the arguments in favor of both were actually pretty good.

In 1998 if you wanted to be a working comic artist you had three choices. You could publish independently, you could get hired by a comic book publisher, or your comic strip could be bought by a syndicate and published in newspapers. In 1998 most of the web comic people I knew who were trying to make it their career were gunning for syndicates, and at that time, the limitations of the web made that a very reasonable choice.[fn]Cable modems were just beginning to be introduced back then, and the majority of people depended on dial-up connections when using the web. Generally, fast internet access belonged only to the very rich, or to a very small number of “roll-out” neighborhoods where Cable TV providers and some DSL providers were testing their new services.[/fn] It’s a lot easier to load three to six panels of comparatively simple cartoons than it is to load a full-page spread of complicated, color-heavy work. This changed over time—it was starting to change then—but even so, conventional wisdom dictated that people didn’t like waiting for graphics to load, and therefore the more you made them wait, the more you were likely to lose them.

This dovetails nicely into the second assumption, which was that due to these technological limitations, the web was just not a good place for comics. There were many of these arguments: first, that the web was primarily a text-based medium, and that introducing an element that was primarily graphical “broke” the way the web was supposed to work. Second, the bandwidth argument that I’ve already noted. And third, that graphics weren’t searchable, and search engines like Yahoo! and Lycos (and this new-fangled thing called “Google”) couldn’t do anything with “comic1.gif.”

Over time these specific barriers went away. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, preventing a comic artist from putting a large, detailed spread on a webpage.[fn]Well, that’s hyperbole. These barriers have not entirely gone away. There are still people who use dialup today. Also, as more and more people switch to smart phones for internet use—in some countries, smartphones make up the majority of internet use—web comics may find themselves, once again, ill-suited to their medium.[/fn] What nobody really expected—or at least, expected in the short term—was that technology would change quickly enough to make those technical barriers manageable.

But there were still barriers: social barriers. Webcomics had a stigma. People in syndicates either saw web publishing as inferior, unworkable, or (to a few) a threat to their livelihood. Webcomics were free.[fn]For the most part, “free” has been the primary distribution model. There were exceptions to this, for example Modern Tales.[/fn] Cartoonists made their money selling advertising, books, and T-Shirts. It wasn’t the right way to do it!

But they did it, and enough people did it to notice. Webcomics still has a certain level of stigma associated with it, but people have proven it can work: Just ask Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, Scott Kurtz, Ryan North, Brad Guigar, R.K. Millholland, Howard Tayler, Randall Munroe… and Rich Burlew, Rob Balder, Phil and Kaja Foglio, Rich Stevens, Pete Abrams, Tatsuya Ishida, Kell McDonald, Jennie Breeden… look, I’m not going to keep going, the point is that there are people out there right now earning a living making webcomics, when conventional wisdom stated in 1999 that such a thing was not possible.

Back On Topic: Self-Publishing Fiction

At some point in the beginning of 2010 I was struggling with the idea that if I wanted anyone to actually read Pay Me, Bug! I was going to have to self-publish it. This bothered me a whole lot, because I was pretty solidly in the “self-publishing is for failed writers” camp. And one day while I was at work on one of the few comics I actually put out that year, something occurred to me. Something so painfully simple that it actually hurt when I finally realized it:

I was already self publishing. I’d been self-publishing since 1996.

This wasn’t a new concept. It was, in fact, something my father had pointed out to me at one point when he’d suggested I try self publishing and I’d resisted the advice. I believe I said something like “it’s not the same thing” and never put much thought into it. But that day I tried to figure out why it wasn’t the same thing, and the only answer I came up with wasn’t good enough.[fn]The difference: a webcomic is faster to read. The page loads and five seconds later you’re done. For the record, I believe that the instant gratification is a huge advantage that comics have over fiction, but that speaks to the advantage of self-publishing a webcomic, not to its legitimacy.[/fn] That day I realized that, when it came down to it, it was the same thing, and further, at least 90% of the arguments I’d read against self-publishing in fiction had already been made against self-publishing in comics.

“eBooks are terrible. Nobody wants to read electronically. It’ll never replace books.” Also used against webcomics, and right in line with the “nobody will wait for a gif to load” argument.

“There’s too much crap out there.” Also used against webcomics. Sometimes it’s even a complaint made by people who publish webcomics.

“It doesn’t have the same quality or editorial standards that work from publishing houses have.” Replace “publishing houses” with “comic syndicates,” and yeah, I’ve heard that one too.

I could go down the list, drawing parallels between the two of them, showing how even the reasonable criticism could be broken down into component parts of “we don’t have the technology yet” and “this is new and frightens me.” By the end of this comparison, there was only one difference between my experience with webcomics and my experience with writing that made any difference: I didn’t feel any shame when it came to self-publishing my comic.

I don’t know specifically why I wasn’t ashamed of self-publishing Help Desk, but I was ashamed of the idea of self-publishing fiction. Did I just not care about Help Desk? Was it not a risk for me? Well, no. The truth of the matter is I care about Help Desk a great deal, and there’s always been a risk. I sink a great deal of my own money into keeping the comic going, to upgrade the site so that the technology matched my vision for how the webcomic should “work,” I’ve put actual research into stories to try to make sure the jokes were topic and funny. The risk is real because it’s money I could be saving, or using to pay down debt, and there have been times I’ve had to consider not publishing simply because I couldn’t afford to do it anymore. It’s not a profitable venture by any means, but I consider it important.[fn]I skimp on the art. I admit it. It’s what I do, OK? I don’t draw. Also, the editing isn’t great, which is a little more professionally embarassing.[/fn]

Whatever the reason, at the end of the day I put Help Desk out there for anyone to see, and I didn’t think twice about it. And if I was so damn convinced that I was a better writer than I was a cartoonist[fn]Which I was.[fn] then why was I so much more ashamed of my writing? I didn’t know why, but by the end of the day I decided I had no business feeling it, so the only proper thing to do was to ignore it until it went away.

That pretty much settled it for me: if I could self-publish a webcomic, there was absolutely no reason I couldn’t self-publish a novel. So I did.

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