Fans and Feedback
There are thousands upon thousands of comic out there on the web and I can only think of a dozen or so capable of making any sort of reasonable money. For most of us, then, the appreciation of fans is the only payment we get for all our hard work.
And it's very important that we do because it is all we get. We need something to keep us going, something to make the hard work worthwhile - and, after all, humans are social animals. Respect and appreciation are important to us.
There are basically three ways of getting this. Firstly, email - or fan mail in this case. Secondly, the ever popular tag-boards. And, of course, a forum.
The problem is that people will set these up and start writing their comic and expect gushing fans to appear out of nowhere. It does not, by any stretch of the imagination, work like that.
At its peak, my Phantasy Star fan comic, the Conversations Within Elsydeon, had 250 readers. Of them, I only had five who were actual fanatics. They were the ones who sent me regular fan mail, asked me questions and just generally showed an interest.
If you work that out, it comes to just two percent and observations since have shown me that's it's pretty accurate, too, as rules of thumb go. If anything, it's a little generous, although Justin Pixler of Masters of the Art worked it out at three percent.
Around there somewhere, anyway. It does vary from comic to comic although probably within a fairly narrow range. I doubt any comic, for example, can boast 10%. That's fully one in every ten readers sending in fan mail, and would be an awful lot even for a exceptional comic.
That small percentage of your readers will be the ones who'll be there waiting for you to update every day, who'll occasionally send you fan mail, who'll leave messages on tag boards and who'll join a forum if you have one. They're the fans rather than the mere readers.
What Fans Will Talk About
Even if you have thousands of people who like your comic, they might not necessarily discuss it on your tagboard or in your forum. A lot of writers just don't write the sort of story that gets discussed. That's not a criticism. Fine literature doesn't get discussed in everyday life, but Harry Potter certainly does. Some writing styles encourage discussion and some don't.
A quick check of the CTRL-ALT-DEL forums seems to confirm this. It's an extremely popular comic and although the forums are very busy, most of the discussion is about popular culture - computer games and so on - while the comic is barely touched upon. It makes sense. CTRL-ALT-DEL is almost purely a gag comic and about all you could say about most episodes is "Haha! Man, that was funny!".
(As a side note, it's worth mentioning that you can get an active forum that doesn't discuss your comic by tapping into a popular niche like CTRL-ALT-DEL has with gaming. However, I'm mainly concentrating on the writing aspects here.)
So... what gets people talking, then?
Firstly, dramatic turnarounds. A massive loss which is turned into a win, such as the arrival of the undead army in the last Lord of the Rings movie; or that key moment when a character changes from what he was to what he becomes such as when Neo, in the first Matrix movie, comes into enough faith in himself to tackle Agent Smith in the subway. Or even both at once, such as when Darth Vader turns on the Emperor at the end of the last Star Wars movie.
And dramatic surprises - bombshells if you like - such as the revelation of the last surviving Dalek in the first season of the new Doctor Who series. Or Darth Vader's revelation to Luke Skywalker at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
Mystery, too, such as the nature and appearance of the predator in the movie of the same name. Or what was done to River Tam in the laboratory wherer she was imprisoned in Firefly and its movie sequel, Serenity.
Good cliff hangers, such as the ends of Back to the Future One and Two. In movies, a cliff hanger is usually executed with a change of scene, leaving the poor character in deadly peril for another couple of minutes, but you don't even need that. In the movie Sneakers, there's a point near the end where the main characters are about to be shot and the movie hangs on the moment for a good minute as one of them tries to convince their ally in the roof that now would be a good time for a rescue. Of course, with webcomics, you can happily have a cliff hanger at the end of each comic.
Character drama. The soap opera elements, if you like, which are mostly to do with relationships. How much of this is down to personal preference. I prefer less soapy and more realistic character drama, myself, but GPF Comics for one has managed quite well in full-blown soap mode.
And, finally, punch lines. This is largely specific to webcomics because of how they're presented. When you have one short page a day, humour will often get people talking even if there's nothing else in that particular four panels worth commenting on.
So, turnarounds, surprises, mystery, cliff hangers, character drama and punchlines. What comics do we know which have all these? The ones with active forums full of fans, of course. The comics College Roomies From Hell and It's Walky, for example, both have very big, devoted forum communities and both comics are full of well executed dramatic twists and turns, mysteries, character drama, cliff hangers and so on. The forums were built up around people wanting to know - and discussing - what happens next.
I should point out that, although I've basically just laid out a neat blueprint for a talked-about comic, there's a certain level of skill involved in the execution. The keyword all the way through, after all, is drama and that comes down to how you do something more than what it is you're doing.
"Dude! That was completely awesome and unexpected! You rock!"
- A webcomic fan
Most people sit back and wait for this to happen - which is fine and in many ways more honest. Compliments which are asked for are always thought to be perhaps less sincere than those that come from nowhere.
Still, there's nothing wrong with asking. Remember that comments and compliments is the only payment most comic writers get and it certainly helps you keep slogging away when you know that your work is appreciated.
And remember also that it's not quite the same as walking up to a friend and asking them what they think of your comic. In that case, you've put them on the spot and they probably won't want to hurt your feelings. On the internet, though, even if you ask for fan mail, the fan mail you get will still be honest. The readers are not put on the spot in the same way and if they don't happen to like the comic enough to send fan mail, they simply won't send any.
It also probably wouldn't occur to a lot off people to send fan mail even if they like your comic. I never do, hypocrite that I am. Letting them know you appreciate feedback will make the idea occur to them.
Count Your Sheep is one comic that asks for emails regularly and the writer, Adrian Ramos, is quite honest about the fact he loves getting them. He goes out of his way to show an interest, asking readers for anecdotes, opinions and so forth. It's not something that would ever have occurred to me to do but Adrian manages to pull it off and comes across as an amazingly nice guy in the process.
It should be barely worth mentioning, but emailing is a two-way street. Replying to fan mail is only polite and lets people know that you appreciate, even enjoy their comments. Be nice, be gracious and be grateful.
Remember that two percent we discussed? If you have 250 readers of your comic and you start a forum, you can therefore expect five to show up. That's makes for a pretty empty and uninviting forum. Like a dinner party, there's a certain number of people you need to get it started off or it'll simply be dull and people will make their excuses and leave.
And a forum is a bit of a hassle for your fans. You have to sign up, choose an avatar, bookmark the site and check back every day. If people just want to drop off a comment saying they like the comic, it's too much bother.
So, no matter what the temptation, no matter how much you want feedback, do not create a forum until you're sure you have the reader-base to support it. If people turn up and find it empty and lifeless, they'll go away again, but if you have a thousand readers when you start the forum, then it'll will be more active from the get-go and that will help get more people involved. It's also not a good idea to have more than one forum until you need them. Most forums today allow you to have multiple sub-forums - General Discussion, Off-Topic and so on - but if you don't have many fans yet, then it's just one more level of hassle to get to an even more lifeless forum.
It never hurts to actively work at making the forum interesting and friendly. A lot of people just set up a forum and expect complimentary fans to just materialise. Nah. Give 'em a reason to go there, a little competition for some signed artwork or something, perhaps to guess some secret in the story as that'll encourage them to speculate. Post artwork on the forum you don't show elsewhere, draw requests - a lot of effort but people love it - or post a short story based on your comic. Whatever you do, report it on the main page and hopefully people will not only stop by the forum but stay.
And keep working at it, too. Try to make the forums a fun, friendly and interesting place to be. Record birthdays of the posters so you remember them, post polls, encourage discussion, give away unimportant and non-plot related background information of your comic. There're all sorts off things you can do to make and keep a healthy forum.
However, one mistake people with forums make is becoming too… eager. You don't need to reply to every post or involve yourself in every discussion. Remember that a forum is a place for your fans to discuss your comic, not for you to. I know from personal experience that it is very, very tempting to join in too much, especially since you have all the secrets of your comic in your head and humans are very bad at keeping secrets. You always want to give hints.
Don't. I also know from personal experience how bad that can be. Maritza Campos of College Roomies From Hell is sitting on some huge secrets but she never involves herself in any discussion of the comic itself except to correct misconceptions from the comic she didn't intend.
Tagboards are a wonderful idea, with most of the advantages of forums and none of the disadvantages. At their simplest, tagboards are a cross between internet chat and a forum. They're put in the main page and people can quickly and easily drop a note about the comic with the bare minimum of hassle. Discussions can spring up and the authors often pitch in.
And tagboards are much more lively than an average forum for two reasons. Firstly because of that "bare minimum of hassle" bit. Dropping in a comment can be done as quickly as it takes to type it in and click a button.
And, secondly because the tagboard is put on the main page where people can see it. The tagboard acts like a suggestion box. It occurs to you to comment only after you've seen it. Since it's on the main page, and since it's so easy, people will tend to drop in comments far more.
On the flip side, a tagboard will take up valuable space on your main page and many tagboard servers spring pop-up advertisments on your website's visitors. Nevertheless, tagboards are a good source of comments.
If you have any comments, please feel free to drop me a line. This document will be added to as new things occur to me but I'm always open to suggestions and criticism.