You would think the name alone would have made it a slam dunk.
Seriously. "Webcomics.com." If there is such a thing as webcomics, surely webcomics.com would be the immediate one-stop location of choice for them. It would by definition be one of the top sites on webcomics or one of the top sites of webcomics or both.
And yet... it's never really been successful. Not really. Not outside of a niche.
It has been, in its time, a webcomics host, a webcomics collective, a webcomics portal, a webcomics commentary site, and a 'how to make comics for the web' site. It experimented with push technology and with podcast technology when they were hot. Doctor Fun had a home there. T Campbell and Alexander Danner had a home there. Most recently, Brad Guigar and the Halfpixel fighting force four had a home there.
Through it all -- through every iteration -- even if the content was good, it just never really broke out into the mainstream. It never became self-sustaining. It never became a must-go site. And that just seems weird to me.
The latest iteration of the site has now had the latest iteration of the curse hit it. Brad Guigar, the Editor in Chief of Webcomics.com (currently a site supporting the Halfpixel model of webcomics creation as popularized in their book How to Make Webcomics) has announced that effective immediately the site is going behind a paywall.
In a startling move from 2004, Guigar has locked his content behind a login you have to shell out thirty bucks a year to unlock, in an effort to make the site profitable -- or at least profitable enough to justify the time and energy Guigar's putting into it.
Now, all by itself this would not be a major deal. Websites do this sort of thing all the time. Admittedly, after they do this sort of thing their readerships drop precipitously, but still. It's a common enough reaction. However, this is Halfpixel -- the home not only of Guigar but the familiar names Straub and Kurtz. (And Dave Kellett, but he's not specifically a part of this comment.) And two of the loudest voices decrying the very existence of paywalls and subscription models and pay-to-view on the web have been Straub and Kurtz.
Do I think they're hypocrites? No. They see a distinction and they're pretty firm about it. But a lot of people are reacting as though they were -- and fair or not, the whole thing puts the very model that they espouse in their book and on webcomics.com itself -- the idea that free content can pay rich dividends -- into doubt. "If these guys know what they're talking about," goes the thinking, "why do I have to pay to get on their website?"
Now, Guigar has been quick to point out an essential difference between putting a webcomic like Evil Inc. behind a paywall versus a site like webcomics.com: the former is entertainment. The latter is reference. It's the difference between a momentary distraction on the way to the grave and information. People who are serious about becoming webcartoonists will shell the money out because of all the valuable information the site has to give (or so they hope). And someone who won't spend thirty dollars -- just thirty dollars -- to get solid advice and have a place to turn as they try to build their business clearly isn't serious about being a professional.
It is a compelling argument.
It's also wrong.
To be blunt -- if a website isn't a store or providing a service, it's entertainment. People went back to webcomics.com day after day because they wanted the information that was there, yes, but mostly because they were entertained by the articles. People listen to NPR to be informed, but also because they find it entertaining. People read CNN to be informed but also because they find it entertaining. All of these things fall into the "momentary distraction" category. The exceptions, like I said, are sites like Amazon.com where you buy shit, or sites like eBay or eTrade or your bank, where you perform services. Even a site like WebMD -- which built its reputation on pure information -- has "health news and features" to bring people back and add new vectors for Google to come in. Certainly, a site like Webcomics.com -- which is, after all, a daily blog at its heart -- is running as much on its style as on its substance. Brad Guigar doesn't just provide how-tos, he does it in a well written and concise style, and people come back day after day for the community that forms as a result.
And at its core, that means Webcomics.com is not a service. Not in its current iteration, anyway. You don't go there to upload your comic and have it publish. You go there to get information from knowledgeable people whose writing is fun and engaging. Is it a much, much smaller niche audience than, say, Evil Inc. or PvP? Absolutely. But it is an audience all the same, and so the distinction between it and a webcomic isn't nearly as clear cut as they're claiming.
Further, in what seems just the tiniest bit skeevy, a good amount of the content on the site (especially recently) came from third party writers. Long time friend of Websnark Abby L. was one of them. They apparently got no warning this was happening. There is no word on whether or not they will be compensated for their work. I do know that Abby was absolutely thrilled to have been published there, was shocked that suddenly her work would be locked behind a paywall (making it significantly harder to use either for her resume or to point people to it in general), and disheartened at what felt like a a slight. She posted comments in the announcement to that effect. Guigar, to his credit, was willing to take her content off the site, and since has marked all the third party essays as hidden until the individual writers can decide if they want them to remain, but that's something that should have been dealt with well in advance of making this move.
But then, part of what's upset folks is the utter lack of notice given for this move. Now, Guigar and Kurtz have explained their thinking on this -- they made their decision, they knew people were going to react this way regardless, and in Guigar's own words:
[It's] the difference between pulling a Band-Aid off slowly or quickly. This decision was made with the respect for my readers at the front of my mind.
However, shocking people who've grown accustomed to visiting your site isn't a good way to foster goodwill for a new project that opens with a thirty dollar payout -- especially on a site like this, whose bread and butter is information. At least one person (who called himself "Guy") had this reaction:
Um. I literally just stumbled on this website yesterday. There was a tutorial on setting up Wordpress.
Came back today to check it again only there was this login... only I couldn't log in. And there was a threat saying that if I continued to try and log in, I'd be locked out forever.
I checked the front page only to find that it was a subscription site now. Ok. Well thank god Google saves the entire internet and I could get the tutorial anyway.
Remember the Google thing. It'll come up again momentarily.
Further again, the potential influence this site can have on the industry has just dropped precipitously. When major posts went up, they could be linked to easily on everything from blogs to Facebook to Twitter. Now, those links will lead to a request for $30 -- and no one who follows the link is going to think "hey, $30 for a year of webcomics.com seems fair! That's just two-fifty a month! I spend more than that on lattes!" They're going to think "oh the Hell I'm going to pay thirty bucks to read some essay on distribution" and close the site.
Or, someone who is deeply inspired by something he reads on Webcomics.com will take it and copy/paste it onto his own blog (or some anonymous blogger site he makes for the purpose) so he can point people to it there. And other folks will copy/paste articles sheerly because they find paywalls offensive and figure Guigar won't have the money to sue over it. Or they will do it because they've always thought Scott Kurtz was a blowhard and now that he's not "practicing what he preaches" he's fair game. Or they will do it because they're dicks.
Am I exaggerating? Hey, we've already had one example (quoted above) of someone who hit the Google cache to get the information he wanted rather than pay the entrance fee. This is how this stuff works sometimes. Please note, however: I am not advocating piracy here. If Guigar and the gang want to put their content behind a paywall, that is their right and I support their decision even if I do not agree with it. I just think that stuff's going to get out, either innocently or maliciously.
Since I'm making predictions, here's another one. Inside of two weeks, someone will have put up a site that breaks down all the steps one needs to take to put their webcomic online, under cheerful banners like "the best FREE resource for the aspiring webcartoonist" and "common sense doesn't have a subscription fee."
So, the question becomes -- what will webcomics.com need to be successful at this? Especially since very few content based websites that use subscription models have been successful, and this is more of a niche market than most.
In a word? Testimonials.
Webcomics.com needs to start gathering the names of people who went from 0 to supporting themselves off their webcomic largely if not entirely using the advice from webcomics.com and How to Make Webcomics. Especially if they're going to go down the dubious route of equating paying for webcomics.com as the difference between the serious professional and the amateur hobbyist -- a claim that is ridiculous when one considers that most if not all of the webcartoonists who make their living off their work right now (and there are many) have done so without their book or website. Certainly, no one's going to claim Jeph Jacques, Randy Milholland, Ryan Sohmer, Gabe and Tycho (admittedly two of the money-men behind Webcomics.com in the first place) or all the rest needed the site to be professionals. If Guigar et al are going to convince people that they're a resource indispensable enough to justify dropping thirty bucks, all in one go, they're going to have to prove that what they're selling works, and the only proof can come from webcartoonists who aren't affiliated with Halfpixel saying "seriously, dude, these guys know their stuff. Drop the change in the till right now."
And... well, let's be honest. Positioning yourselves as the acid test for how 'serious' someone is about producing their webcomic and being successful has a chilling effect. Do I think Guigar meant to offend when he said:
Why $30 per year? It's an inexpensive buy-in that almost any webcartoonist can afford. It has an added benefit of keeping out people who may not be as serious about webcomics. It naturally weeds out comments from people who may be passing through, and results in distilling comments to those from people who are committed to improving their comics.
Absolutely not. Guigar doesn't have a mean bone in his body. But Scott Story of Johnny Saturn took it differently (from the comments):
Well, it's interesting to find out I "may not be as serious about webcomics." After endless hours of producing my comic, after all the advertisement, after making it available on Wowio, Drivethru, ComicXP, iTunes, and in print from Amazon.com and Indyplanet/Comics Monkey, I'm stunned! I spent all those hours of my life working toward a goal that apparently I am not really committed to. Later this year, when my comic will also be available on numerous handheld devices besides the iPhone, I realize again that I've put all this work into something that I didn't care about.
I'm sure the above statement about the seriousness of webcartoonists based on their willingness to part with 30.00 was not intended to offend or alienate. But, this definitely bruises my feelings and makes me feel different about the whole thing.
Is this a common reaction? Well, it's worth noting that when Wednesday -- a person who really likes Straub and Kurtz and respects Guigar and Kellett, though she hasn't had as much contact with them -- read the announcement and the comments and looked at the site, her immediate response was "oh great. A site on the internet where a bunch of bearded men give themselves the authority to declare an artist professional or amateur, with no possible alternatives. Because we've never seen that."
(Full disclosure. Scott Kurtz does not have a beard. Second full disclosure, I do. In fact, it's currently past "Grizzly Adams" and is threatening a move straight into "Ted Kaczynski." But I digress.)
Also, why are they charging $30 a year instead of $2.50 a month. $2.50 a month seems like nothing. $30 a year doesn't feel like a cheap yearly payment, it feels like thirty freaking dollars to be allowed onto your damn website. In fact, I'd think they'd want to do a "$3 a month recurring subscription, or you can get a year for $30 -- a savings of 17%!" kind of deal.
Look, does Brad Guigar deserve compensation for all his hard work? Abso-freaking-lutely. Is, in fact, webcomics.com worth $30 a year? Probably. Will they get enough subscribers to give Guigar the compensation he needs to continue? Maybe. Will Webcomics.com continue to grow and develop the cross-fertilization and dedicated audience a site like this needs to remain fresh and useful?
It seems doubtful.
Right now, if I were asked by aspiring webcartoonists as to the best way to get started in making and promoting their webcomic, I would suggest they buy How to Make Webcomics. It really is a good book, full of good information. But would I suggest they subscribe to webcomics.com? Probably not. I'd think after they read the book, if they still had questions or wanted advice, that would be one potential route. But it's hardly the only potential route -- ComicSpace is loaded with helpful folks with advice, for example. And successful webcartoonists like Howard Tayler are generally not stingy with advice for aspiring new blood.
Regardless, I wish them well, and we will just have to see how well this works.
Still, given their respective histories and many, many hours of arguments behind them, I have to wonder just how long it will be before Joey Manley stops laughing about all this.