Ben Towle completed his webcomic Oyster War about a month ago and, having a little time to reflect on it, put together a summary of what worked and what didn’t in the production of his first long-form webcomic. I thought it had a great deal of useful information for new creators and asked Ben if we could republish it here. He agreed, so without further ado, take it away, Ben…
I can’t exactly remember when I started working on Oyster War–I found some initial character drawings in my sketchbook from as long ago as 2008–but I posted the last page, page 128, earlier this month. I say in this post’s title that Oyster War is “complete,” but that’s not entirely accurate; I’m currently hard at work on doing corrections and edits in preparation for a print edition that will hopefully appear in the latter half of 2015. I say “hopefully” because I have not yet signed on the proverbial dotted line. I’m pretty excited about the prospect of a nice print edition of the story and I couldn’t be happier with the publisher I’ve been speaking with. I hope to be able to make an official announcement soon. In the meantime, though, here’re a few thoughts on the whole process of putting together the story, partially just for my own edification, and partially as advice to folks considering beginning a long-form narrative webcomic:
- Buy a domain name and use it. – For reasons that I can’t now recall, when I first started Oyster War, I decided to host it on Tumblr. Oyster War‘s tumblr URL was OysterWar.tumblr.com, which was well and good until I decided to switch to a different platform. Since that’s Tumblr’s URL not mine, I couldn’t take it with me. If I’d purchased OysterWar.com from the get-go I could simply have re-pointed it to the strip’s new location. In addition to the inconvenience to readers, I wound up stuck with a bunch of promotional materials (mainly bookmarks, I think) with the old tumbrl URL on them that I had to just pitch.
- Tumblr is a terrible platform for long-form narrative comics. – Tumblr is a fantastic platform for any kind of comic that can be digested in its entirety within Tumblr’s page posting limit–which I think is ten images total per post. It is, though, not a great platform for posting page-by-page stories. The default page width is far too small (something I solved with a workaround), but far more important: navigation becomes extremely difficult once you’ve got a substantial number of pages posted.
- Use your personal Twitter account for page updates. – I set up a separate @OysterWar twitter account that just posted page updates. My thinking was that some people might want to receive reminders about page updates without being subjected to all of my personal blather about arcane comics-related stuff that they’d get from my personal @ben_towle account. I never really, though, got a lot of followers to the Oyster War account–and a lot of the ones I got were people who also followed my personal account. The appeal of social media for a lot of comics folks is interaction with creators, so give it to them. If they want just page updates they’ll use an RSS reader. I also had a separate G+ Oyster War account–also a bad idea, for the same reasons.
- RSS is still important. – You don’t hear folks talking about RSS much these days, but just anecdotally it sure seems like tons of people who I talk to about webcomics use RSS readers to keep track of their reading progress.
- Whatever social media you use, you’ll get out what you put in. – I got the most traction on my comic from twitter and Google +. Not surprisingly, twitter and G+ are the social networks I’m most active on.
- Post your comic at one website. – By the end of the strip, Oyster War was being posted at three different sites: my own OysterWar.com, on G+, and at GoComics.com. Not only was this a lot of work, but I was likely diluting my audience. Since I was getting paid based on page visits at GoComics, I probably should have redirected OysterWar.com there and just posted links at G+.
- There’s no easy way to post stuff across multiple social media platforms. – I looked into this several times while I was doing Oyster War and unless I missed some important piece of software, there’s really no easy way to do this. You have to just bite the bullet and do each manually. I posted on Wednesdays and I allotted myself around 40 minutes or so just for posting. I scheduled three tweets each Wednesday on Twitter (from two accounts), G+ (from two accounts), and Tumblr. I also made sure to respond to anyone who replied with comments about the strip and I kept a text file of everyone who RT’d my updates on twitter so I could thank them the next day.
- Include a picture when you post to social media. – For Twitter and Tumblr, I excerpted one panel from the page I was posting and included it with my page updates. This seemed to get more traction than tweets/updates with just text and a link.
- Spend some real time doing character designs. – I have a terrible habit of not spending the amount of time that I really should designing my characters and getting comfortable drawing them. Oyster War is no exception. I started doing finished pages before I really had my characters nailed down and I wound up with a lot of “character design drift” (where the character changes appearance over the course of the story) and some characters that I just don’t like that much visually–Tevia and Lourdes are two in particular that I wish I would have done a better job with design-wise.
- Assume that your comic will be printed, Part I. – You may just be planning on throwing some stuff up online and seeing what sticks, but you can make some serious trouble for yourself down the line if you wind up deciding that you want to print your comic if you haven’t been doing some basic “just in case” things. Thankfully, I did the most basic of these with Oyster War–more just out of habit than good planning. Work in CMYK. Exporting CMYK to RBG is a lot less prone to problems than vice versa. Also: work at print resolution. I keep my line art at 1200 dpi and my coloring at 300 dpi. Again, it’s easy to export all that down to 72 dpi for screens… but there’s no way to do it in reverse.
- Assume that your comic will be printed, Part II. – Some print-prep things that I really should have done, I didn’t start doing until about half way through. I wish I’d done them from the get-go. First: coloring with a K-free palette. Despite Oyster War being my first long comic I’ve done in color, I knew good and well that it’s a best practice to do CMYK coloring with little if any black (K or “key”) values in your colors… but, I foolishly took a “I’ll figure it out later” attitude, and now I’m having to go back and color correct a lot of early pages. I felt especially dumb when I finally decided to remix the color palette I’d been using to get it K-free and it took all of about 45 minutes to do. Other things I should have done from the get-go that are now costing me time: digitally blacking in areas of spot blacks that didn’t scan as completely black, superblacking the color under the line art.
- Approach the right publishers at the right time. – Publishers tend to be interested in comics at two points: at the very beginning or the very end. Either you’ve got such a great, commercially viable idea that some big trade publisher will give you an advance to get it done (usually this is an all ages/YA book or “graphic novel memoir”), or a publisher will look at your comic once it’s done (or almost done) and decide they’re interested in it. Also, as Chris Schweizer points out so well here, for any given comic, there are really only a small handful of publishers who it even makes sense to approach. I initially took Oyster War at far too early a stage to a (great) publisher that wouldn’t have been a good fit.
- If you get asked to syndicate your strip at GoComics, do it. – About halfway through the strip’s run, I got invited to start posting at GoComics. If you’re already doing a strip, it’s pretty easy to get set up at GoComics. The pay structure is based around the number of hits your strip is getting, so you’re not going to buy an island in the Caribbean with your revenue if you’re doing a weekly updating narrative comic, but you will make some money.
- GoComics, Part II. – Really more of a benefit than money, GoComics comes with a built-in, engaged reader base who actively comment on pretty much every update. It’s like having a free editor–or just think of it as a “test run” for the print version. I kept a printed-out binder of Oyster War in-progress, and I made notations whenever dialog or particular scenes weren’t communicating the way I’d intended them to (or even when readers caught typos)–and I’m now using those notes to revise.
- Pick a Posting Schedule You Can Handle, Then Stick With It. – I got some grousing from my readers about how slowly I was turning out pages, but I felt like it was better to pick a reasonable schedule and then stick to it. I committed to a page every two weeks and once I’d settled on that, I never missed an update. The pages were big, four rows, and full color; they took a while to produce.
- Next Time: Better-Looking Website. – I was never really happy with the look or navigation of OysterWar.com. I could have spent more time trying to get it to look nicer, but frankly I wanted to spend that time drawing. Next time, I’ll probably pay someone to do a custom WordPress design/theme for me.
- Next Time: Horizontal Format. – I’d imagined Oyster War first as a print book and only after getting about ten pages in did I decide to set it up as a webcomic. The pages are formatted “portrait” for print and don’t read very well on a monitor. With whatever I do next, I’m going to format the pages such that they can be posted horizontally and then “stacked” for a print edition. That’ll mean having two concurrent “dummies” at the thumbnail stage, but I feel like it’ll be worth it in the end.
- Next Time: No Adobe Products. – This is more of an ideal than an attainable goal at this point, but I’d love to ditch Adobe products entirely. Their new subscription-based pricing model is loathsome and support-wise they seem to only really care about Wacom-based drawing setups. Photoshop CC 2014, for example, doesn’t do pen pressure with many non-Wacom products and Adobe doesn’t seem to really care. Unfortunately, there’s not a good alternative to PS right now for doing professional coloring for CMYK printing. GIMP’s CMYK support is still fairly rudimentary and Manga Studio has real problems with the way it deals with ICC profiles and exporting to CMYK.
- Next Time: Digital. – I’m thinking pretty seriously about doing my next book all digitally. I’ve grown to really love drawing in Manga Studio and the time advantages of working digitally would allow me get pages done faster. Maybe I’m not seeing my work objectively enough, but I feel like my digital drawing looks pretty much indistinguishable from my traditional stuff.
- Next Time: Bigger but Less Frequent Updates? – I know this goes against the grain of most webcomics advice you’ll hear, but I’ve been thinking that the webcomic reading experience for long-form narrative work might be better if I posted short 6-10 page “scenes” every six weeks or so, rather than posting a page/week.
Oh, and one last thing: A big thanks to everyone who read and supported my efforts on Oyster War! All the support, kind words, and RT’s/shares meant a lot. Stay tuned–I’m hoping to be able to release some good news about a print collection soon…