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Eric: I will admit some temptation to make a joke about "having the nuts" here.

+EV!

(From +EV!. Click on the thumbnail for full sized Flop!)

One thing that webcomics has demonstrated, for my money, is the value of niches.

See, there's a fuckton of webcomics these days about college age kids who drink coffee and bitch. Just like there's a ton of webcomics making jokes about video games or a ton of webcomics about surreal humor or... well, you know what I mean. And some of those do really well, but it's hard to get an audience fast with most of them, these days. There's just so much to choose from.

Bobby Crosby -- not the least controversial figure in webcomics, mind -- decided that his next webcomics project would be about poker. Specifically, about online poker.

I remember when I read that announcement -- probably on Superosity, the flagship webcomic of Bobby's brother Chris Crosby. And I snorted a little bit and thought "well, I hope that works out for him." Because seriously -- a webcomic about online poker.

So, if anyone out there wonders if I ever feel really stupid? Yeah, I do. Because +EV -- which means "positive expected value" is not only a solid webcomic... it's clearly a successful one. The evidence suggests that Crosby's readership is in the thousands to tens of thousands.

And... and this is the key... those\ readers aren't generally reading any other webcomics. They're not the increasingly mythical "webcomics community" that... well, that's my bread, butter and full gas tanks to Ottawa to see my beautiful fiancee. I'll bet the majority of people reading my words here have never even heard of +EV. Crosby's fans are poker fans. And he's got them essentially to himself.

That's big. That's huge. If and when he starts merchandising, he's got a block of readers who aren't spending their money on other webcomics. When word of mouth happens for +EV, it happens in communities where they're not talking about Questionable Content or Something Positive or even Penny Arcade.

Think about that. I'm willing to put my own money down that a substantial number of Crosby's regular readers have never heard of Penny Arcade.

Now, it's not enough to target a niche. Your comic has to be good, too. And +EV is, in fact, good. The jokes are solid. They're grounded. The art (done by a "Tiger Claw" who seems a hell of a lot like David Willis in style) is solid and expressive and fun. And even though the jokes are being written for a specialist audience, they're clearly written and so a total poker dunce like me can still enjoy the strip, at least most of the time. The characters aren't simply joke machines. They are characters, and that makes a huge difference.

But it's still the niche that Crosby is going for. One recent strip featured a new character, who was oversized and had a visual impairment. He was called "Big Blind." That was the joke. And if you know nothing about poker, you would sit there and say "what in God's name is this? Is that supposed to be funny?" But a poker fan would at least crack a smile at the pun.

That's gold.

Crosby's hardly the only example of this, of course. Unshelved is a really fun webcomic by Bill Barnes that also has tens of thousands of readers and which a lot of you have likely never heard of, because it's targeted to Librarians. It's a Librarian in-joke web comic, which seems silly on one level. And it would be silly if it weren't a staggeringly brilliant idea. Librarians have stressful jobs and internet access, and that combination turns into heavy readerships for a daily webcomic that's self-supporting with collections and merchandise. Hell, you go to their website, and you see they have no less than fourteen personal appearances booked across the country this year and next. People are paying for them to fly out and talk to them. They're getting the kind of attention that 'mainstream' webcartoonists don't get until they hit the big leagues. And the reason they get that attention is they are in the big leagues... they're just in different big leagues than we're currently talking about.

For that matter, Questionable Content is certainly a webcomic with mainstream appeal. But Jeph Jacques, right from the beginning, targeted Indy Rock and music fans with his advertising and the like. And if you look at his website, you'll generally see music or indy culture advertisements across the top. These are folks who aren't advertising on "webcomics." They're advertising on Questionable Content. They know QC. And they know their fans know QC. Jacques got where he is by having a really good webcomic, but he built his popularity by finding people who weren't reading Scarygoround or Something Positive and making them regular readers.

Hell, User Friendly is essentially a niche webcomic. The reason it hit monumentally big was because at the time it was coming out its niche was a huge percentage of the internet population (giving it heavy crossover talk) and there were few major webcomics to compete with in those days. Looking at it today, you see jokes that appeal to what is now a small segment of the overall internet population... but that small segment is made up of rabid fans of the strip.

There's lots more examples, but it comes down to this: Bobby Crosby found success. And he found by doing things right: he has a well written, well drawn webcomic that targets an audience not currently reading webcomics.

That's a lesson well worth learning across the board.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at March 9, 2007 7:59 AM

Comments

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 9:30 AM

I'd love to buy advertising on Arthurian legend interest sites, but they all seem to be run by universities and don't sell ads.

Since Malki !'s rant at Fleen the other day about the "entertainment community" I do think about buying adspace here. It wouldn't suit all webcomics but mine is one it would.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 10:59 AM

All webcomics are niche comics.

Everything on the internet is a niche. The difference between the internet and the "real world" is that niche's on the internet are potentially more accessible to people who aren't necessarily looking for them.

The problem is that most people don't think of niches as being "large" so they try to present their comics as NOT being in any niche. I think that's a mistake.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 11:10 AM

I think you're onto something there, Christopher.

What I think is important for people to realize is the niche your webcomic lives in should form some of your planning around that webcomic -- particularly in promotion.

If you think about it, there's no more obvious niche on the internet than "video gamer." And can anyone argue the success Penny Arcade, VGCats and all the others have had?

Comment from: djcoffman [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 11:36 AM

Of course, "Life's A Bluff", http://www.lifesabluff.com/ , was technically first out of the gate for "poker webcomic", but I bailed on drawing it after I had other work pop up.. but it was definitly a brilliant niche market. When I first announced I'd be drawing it, friends, colleagues asked WHY? WHAT?? But it was definitely for the money on my part. I think Bluff went through a bunch of artists and snags, but Brandon J. Carr is back drawing it for Frank Frisina.

Dude, there were SO many awesome plans behind the scenes with that, I mean, Frank had like the NFL of poker doing stuff with him. It's huge. A huge niche.

Alas, I can never really GET INTO poker, but I was happy to draw. The great thing is, there are TONS of little niches and cottage industries out there, but I think you have to really know about them and love them to speak to those audiences. Something obviously Bobby Crosby and Frank Frisina are doing well.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 12:16 PM

I'm just a bit incredulous that there's a dearth of poker comics. I've been seeing news stories for years now about how Texas Hold 'Em is the Next Big Thing. And we can count the number of poker webcomics on one hand?

I know a ton of people into knitting; I ought to tell them to get a knitting webcomic started. Heck, I'm just imagining a webcomic devoted to the silly interactions of people devoted to making LiveJournal/forum icons.

Comment from: Alma Mater [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 12:20 PM

You definitely have a point. I know that many of my more "visible" readers (the ones sending email or linking to my comic) have a background at a single-sex school, so it would probably be helpful if I could learn how to target that niche.

I think part of the challenge lies in figuring out how to get the word out to a given group, especially if that group isn't particularly well-organized or if its "hubs" resist advertising. Webcomic advertising is more of a known quantity, so it's easy to gravitate towards it rather than looking to other audiences.

Comment from: Denyer [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 2:15 PM

I've never played poker, and that's still an entertaining strip.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 2:21 PM

Alma -- do you have a Facebook presence? I would think that would be a start.

Comment from: Megalomaniac2 [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 3:00 PM

It's true, all webcomics service a certain niche. The truly great, like Order of the Stick, break out of the niche while still retaining that connection to where they came from... In my experience, webcomics start to get bad when they attempt premature breakout or allow the niche to become a rut.

Comment from: Bobby Crosby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 3:26 PM

D.J. Coffman said, "Of course, 'Life's A Bluff', was technically first out of the gate for 'poker webcomic' . . ."

No, it was somewhere around 10th out of the gate. There have been lots of poker comics online over the years. "+EV" is simply the first one to gain a large audience.

Eric, thanks for the nice review. And no mention of "Pupkin"? Incredible. The guys at ComixPedia can learn a lot from you.

Also, it's true that most "+EV" readers do not read other comics online. The vast majority of them found the strip through threads on poker forums that other fans started up. The count is now at almost 200 different poker forums where people have made posts about "+EV," with over half of those being in languages other than English, mostly in Europe, where poker is also huge. About 40% of "+EV" readers live in Europe.

You've probably inspired me to kick my merchandising plans into a higher gear. People have been asking for shirts and things from the start, but I've been lazy. I have published a collection book (with the second issue at the printers right now) and it sold out of its first printing and is about to sell out of the second printing. And look for an announcement soon (hopefully) about a major sponsor for the site.

Comment from: Bobby Crosby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 3:34 PM

Oh, and this is probably the worst day in the history of the strip to get a big link to the main page, ha. Today's comic ends a week-long storyline which is almost certainly the worst week ever for "+EV," and today's strip is probably the least self-contained strip ever. Not good. Oh well.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 3:38 PM

Heh -- for the record, I wrote the essay a few days back, so it wasn't timing per se.

As for "no Pupkin mention," Pupkin didn't really seem germane to the topic. Though it's worth noting I'm one of those elusive Pupkin fans you hear about. I always liked him, in both the original and neo-Newspaper versions.

Comment from: Bobby Crosby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 4:02 PM

"As for 'no Pupkin mention,' Pupkin didn't really seem germane to the topic."

I agree completely -- I was praising that. Whenever ComixPedia writes about me they usually mention the following things in the first paragraph (and most other paragraphs): "Pupkin," "The Non-Identical Triplet," Keenspot, Keenspace (or whatever the fuck it's called now), my brother, Scott Kurtz, and several other things that aren't germane to the topic, almost always getting their facts wrong in the process.

Glad you liked Pupkin. He is a nice dog. Finally going to publish the first "Pupkin" children's novel soon, by the way. Wrote it years ago.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 4:03 PM

I would also suggest that Alma Mater get a facebook group started. Since my school paper fired me, I've been able to maintain my comic, and I've told people about it that weren't able to read my comic in the past. Soon, I'm getting a blogger.com site set up, and hopefully that will get the word out even more. But facebook is really good for strips about college.

Comment from: Alma Mater [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 4:23 PM

That's a good idea; thanks for the suggestion!

I do have a personal Facebook account, but I haven't created one for the comic. I'll have to see if I can put one together.

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 6:16 PM

32: The problem with an IRC comic is that most of the jokes couldn't nearly be as funny as the actual IRC threads themselves.

Now, maybe it's just me, but I don't believe that all niches could be turned into webcomic gold-mines. Truth be told, the whole video game niche is more like a cavern these days, being able to fill a variety of subniches. Want your MUD/MUSH fix: Elf Only Inn. Turn-based fighting? Oh, here's Erfworld. Some of these really big niches have to start finding a groove to make them stand out than just saying, "Oh, here's just another Penny Arcade clone."

I also don't want webcomics to just try to attract niches of an absurd level, either. It's happening in the world of Mystery Writing. There are subgroups such as murders at antique shows, auctions, sailing, traveling, restaurants (complete with killer recipes), veterinarian/animal centered mysteries, and of course your gothic 'I'm a vampire, so I'd make the perfect detective' series. (I am surprised there aren't any vampire webcomics, though. You'd think there would be more of them out there.)

Or course, this goes without saying that finding an audience is just a part of what should go into finding a successful webcomic, literary series, or whatever. I just think this is just a little over-blown.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 6:39 PM

I suspect that there are a bunch of webcomics that try for "serious tortured art" amongst the people that are the sort who earnestly LARP Vampire every week, but they stay mostly in that niche. And I think we all got the humor mocking those people out of our systems back in 2000.

As for video game webcomics - again, despite all reasons to suspect the contrary, I can't get into them. The closest I get is Elf Only Inn, and that's because the game is incidental at most to the character interactions. Though its game-heavy leanings is turning me off at the moment.

Whether or not we want webcomics to reach niches is actually not on my mind at all. I'm more interested in seeing webcomics for these niches for their own sake. I mean, EV+ presumably wasn't made because Bobby felt he could make a webcomic take off in that niche. He presumably did it because he's in that niche and felt a comic would be appreciated in it. The webcomic is a means towards an end, not an end in and of itself, if that makes sense to anyone besides me.

Comment from: Bobby Crosby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 6:48 PM

"I mean, EV+ presumably wasn't made because Bobby felt he could make a webcomic take off in that niche. He presumably did it because he's in that niche and felt a comic would be appreciated in it."

Correct. I've been a big poker fan since the '80s, but only started playing seriously in the summer of 2005, and I almost immediately wanted to make a poker comic, but it took a while to get it going, and I abandoned a couple early concepts. Finding a good artist took a while as well.

Also, about vampire comics, I'm currently writing one called "Last Blood," the first 32 pages of which will be released as a Free Comic Book Day book on May 5th.

www.lastblood.net

Comment from: Tyck [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 10, 2007 12:09 AM

Elf Only Inn is live again? Why doesn't anybody tell me these things?

Comment from: djcoffman [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 11, 2007 2:02 PM

Just to clarify, I meant Life's a Bluff was the first with quality (on a professional level) artwork, etc. I stumbled on a few poker webcomics while researching and they were all VERY BAD or not updating at all and not taken very seriously by actual poker players. From what I understand, Life's a Bluff has a deal with World Poker League or whatever it's called, and pro poker people writing articles on the site now.

So no dissing on EV from me, I was just talking on quality standards-- I still can't find any others that match the level of quality put out by both strips. Good luck to you guys in the road to fortune and glory!

Comment from: Bobby Crosby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 11, 2007 4:34 PM

"Just to clarify, I meant Life's a Bluff was the first with quality (on a professional level) artwork, etc."

I'd also disagree with that. There were several long before "Life's a Bluff," and "+EV" basically started at the same time as "Life's a Bluff." Here's one that started in October of 2005 and has updated consistently since then, with a new one today even (Sunday) --

http://www.all-in-the-comic.com/home.html

Many others as well, like this one that's been around for years --

http://www.thepokerforum.com/pokercartoon.htm

The World Poker Tour website briefly linked to a few "Life's a Bluff" strips which were about the World Poker Tour, and that's the only affilitation with them that I know of. The people writing articles for the site are not pros, no, or at least none of them are well known on a live or online level.

"Good luck to you guys in the road to fortune and glory!"

Thanks.

Comment from: Kate Sith [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 11, 2007 5:58 PM

I also don't want webcomics to just try to attract niches of an absurd level, either. It's happening in the world of Mystery Writing. There are subgroups such as murders at antique shows, auctions, sailing, traveling, restaurants (complete with killer recipes), veterinarian/animal centered mysteries, and of course your gothic 'I'm a vampire, so I'd make the perfect detective' series. (I am surprised there aren't any vampire webcomics, though. You'd think there would be more of them out there.)

Yeah, I read through the publisher catalogs in the breakroom at work on occasion... that's when I found 'Gourdfellas'. A gourd crafting murder mystery. The first in a series, I think. Crazy.

Comment from: kellandros [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 12, 2007 12:23 PM

Webcomics with vampires(not exactly the same as vampire themed comics)-

Clan of the Cats(lycanthropes and werewolves oh my!)
Bite Me!(went to a subscription method, lost track of it)
Gathering of Crows(Graphic Smash) had a few vampire sections.
Sorcery 101(Keenspot)

Comment from: False Prophet [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 14, 2007 10:37 PM

As a librarian, I of course love Unshelved. It's part of my daily reading alongside Penny Arcade, PvP, and Order of the Stick. Every strip that comes out, several hundred librarians across North America stand up and shout "That happened to me!" I met Bill Barnes (the artist) at the joint American Library Association/Canadian Library Association conference in Toronto in 2003, and he was quite a pleasant chap. And they were just starting to get rolling at that point. Now they're just huge. Even some of my managers (who otherwise wouldn't be caught dead reading webcomics) love Unshelved.

Just like Penny Arcade and PvP, sometimes the humour is just universal, and I freely share it with my friends. Jokes about comic books, for example.

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