This, too, was originally published on x-eyed content farm Nerd Underground.  I was curious about whether the shop pictured is still open, so I Googled the name and number.  Turns out it is.


Webcomics collective Hiveworks is on track to become one of the big success stories of the comics world, if it isn’t already. The various series they host pulled in twelve million uniques in January alone.  But this isn’t about that. It’s about the other side of comics.

Last night, founder Jojo Stillwell tweeted that “The entire professional comic industry in America could fit inside an auditorium if you count people over $30k/year.”

When questioned (by me) about the capacity of that auditorium, he replied that it would be “not more than 1,000.” And yes, this includes indie, self-published, and even crowdfunded creators.

Simply put: despite the huge shadow it casts on the culture, the actual comics industry is pitifully small. And there’s a reason for this: despite how well Marvel’s currently doing, the business as a whole has been in slow decline since the boom of the 90’s ended.

I’ve known this for a while, but I’ve always had questions about it. Why? Can this be gotten over? And can indie creators fare any better than mainstream ones in such a tough climate? So I asked him, which led to a discussion on marketing, comics’ future, and his advice for creators who’d like to get into the business.

Are low sales more the fault of comics pandering to the fanbase, or people expecting art for free?

More pandering. When your sales are to a fixed amount of audience and the content they consume can’t be marketed to others, it creates stagnation. Wide appeal and better marketing are needed.

The free art expectation creates pressure on the professional part of the industry to devalue their work. This is not a direct symptom of publishers paying so low, but allows the publishers to remain in business while paying low.

It’s squeezing the publishers too, though, right? I mean, why buy a paper comic when you can read a better webcomic for free?

Not really, they’re different markets/products. The international market is doing fine with books and webcomics. It’s specific to the mess the American publishers have caused for themselves, anything else is just a scapegoat.

You hear a lot about how more ethnic/gender/orientation diversity is needed and how well Marvel’s doing by adding it, and I agree. But what are some other changes you can think of that would bring in more readers?

Create new series, they’re just remarketing old [franchises] on new vectors. They can’t grow out of a mold they created and are trying to reshape the mold to new demographics. I honestly do not read superhero comics, so I can’t comment a lot on this.

Me neither. But that does raise the question of why indie creators who don’t do cape stuff aren’t doing better. …Aside from a few meteoric success stories.

They have no marketing outside of social media, we spend money and do fine and operate on much faster time tables.

For the most part, those [success stories] were [also] engineered on purpose. The Oatmeal is the biggest I can think of and that was skill, not luck.

I was thinking Homestuck and Scott Pilgrim, The former of which did manage to make it entirely on word-of-mouth and its unique selling points, if I’m not mistaken.

This is stuff that happened 4-5 years ago in terms of core building and growth. In the last 3 years would be relevant time. [And] this is [just two series], that doesn’t even begin to build an industry.

So, what would you say is the most important type of paid marketing for indie comic artists and companies to focus on?

I can’t really speak on this: the budgets I deal in are much higher than most creators can reasonably muster.

What would you say you put the most money into, though? Pay-per-click ads? Banner ads? Cons?

Banner ads and brand marketing. PPC and cons are awful for audience return.

So, besides banner ads, it’s mostly building the brand? What are the keys to doing that?

Invest in new artists, quality over quantity, have competent staff—mostly common sense, I never did anything especially brilliant. If anything we made a ton of mistakes.

[A big part of comics’ problem is that] most people who are competent enough to run a comic company successfully are paid more elsewhere. I don’t think that’ll change unless comics become way more profitable than they are.

Is that reasonably possible, or are comics inherently just not a big moneymaking medium?

I’m honestly not sure, I’d say no to it being a competitive place for people that could otherwise run better-paying companies.

In that case, do you think that inspiring people to follow their passion might work? As in, we could pull in people who might make more money in tech, but love comics so much they want to work with them?

Possibly, in all of webcomics I can really only think of a few people that’d fit that mold. Even if folks like that come around it’s a huge leap to them actually doing anything lasting.

I think it’s time people look into the supply/demand side of things and stop hoping to break into comics with enough work. I’m tired of people going to art school, getting a job outside of comics and then working for free for years to barely get by. I know people in terrible debt that’ll never be repaid, lives ruined. It’s bad for people to pursue a fruitless career. … People need to see it as an actual job.

In other words, most artists fail because they don’t believe it can be a good career and sabotage themselves?

No, artists fail because there is a hyper saturated market that drives the average wage to below minimum. There needs to be less, or government regulations that make freelancers a protected type of employee.

I see: so this is a societal problem, not one with the individual artists. In this climate, though, what can an artist who does see it as a career do to improve their chances? Anything?

Yeah. Treat themselves as a small personal business that needs time, investment, and effort outside of the art. If, after a few years, that still doesn’t work, look elsewhere for a career. Even if you eventually make money, if you spend 5 years getting there, you’ve wasted a ton of potential time.

And I’m guessing most of that effort would go into banner advertising and brand marketing. But what about networking with influential people? Is that a good idea?

I really don’t like the idea of networking with preexisting audiences, at least not before you’re already established. Bring something new to the table before trying to integrate.

Besides marketing, what is that “something new” the industry needs from indie artists? Better production and more creativity?

I believe the barrier of entry is both quality and relevance.

Image by Mike Czyzewski