Sun-Times: “How To Succeed In Online Publishing Without Really Syndicating”

This column was originally published in The Chicago Sun-Times on April 24, 2008.

These are interesting times for folks in my line of work. By “my line of work” I mean people who write and draw things and publish them…and by “interesting times” I mean that I’ve added weight training to my workout regimen, so that next year I can get a job loading trucks at the UPS depot and maybe start earning a decent living wage for once.

No, no, it’s not that bad. But the business is changing. You’re no longer a writer or an artist. Nowadays, you “produce content.” And oddly enough, if you want to build and hold on to an audience online, the important thing is to give your readers more freedom, not less. It’s like holding on to Jello: the tighter you squeeze, the more you lose.

This was on my mind as I read through a PR pitch about the revamped Dilbert.com site, detailing all of its (“Gutsy!” “Unique!” “Compelling!”) new features. Scott Adams is arguably the most successful cartoonist currently in worldwide syndication. If he’s suffering for readers and revenue, the only tangible sign is that he can only afford one $250,000 ticket on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, and will be forced to go into space without putting his feet up on an empty seat next to him.

And yet the reinvention of his site is indeed ambitious. It’s a great example of what an independent, scrappy creator would need to do in order to succeed in online publishing.

First and foremost — and virtually unprecedented in a “big syndicate” strip — the Dilbert strip has a full RSS feed. I don’t need to visit Dilbert.com every morning; I can simply subscribe to the strip via Google Reader or Bloglines or any other content reader on my desktop, notebook, or my phone, and the daily strip is delivered to me automatically via my mechanism of choice.

It also illustrates the need to relinquish control of how your work is read and accessed. This is a particular bugaboo with web strips, which only make money when readers visit the creator’s site, where they can buy merchandise. Very few strips offer Dilbert.com’s hyper-flexibility.

But there’s a serious downside. I love Danielle Corsetto’s “Girls With Slingshots” (daniellecorsetto.com; sometimes not work-safe) but without any sort of feed, I have to remember to visit every day for my strip fix…and that doesn’t always happen. Even Player Versus Player, arguably the best online strip of them all, only offers “partial” RSS feeds. The feed only offers the strip’s title and a link that takes you to the actual strip on PVPOnline.com.

Each creator needs to make that sort of decision for themselves. It’s completely understandable that creators don’t want to give their readers so much freedom that it never occurs to them to send a little cash your way from time to time.

But you must build your audience before you can bilk your audience. And thus it’s critical that you make it as easy as possible for people to find, read, and get hooked on your content. Full feeds are the very best answer.

The new Dilbert.com also offers archives of every strip back to 2001, with the goal of ultimately putting the entire archives online. Terrific: never forget that content is king. In traditional publishing, putting material online for free when it’s also in bookstores for $12.95 is a seriously itchy idea. But it helps build an audience and for now — for now — the numbers indicate that web archives just make the printed editions more valuable. It builds and maintains interest in the property.

And once you have a large archive, you need to take advantage of the awesome power of your audience to market your content for you. Which takes us to another thing that the new Dilbert.com is doing right: if a Dilbert reader likes a particular strip, they can MySpace it, Facebook it, Twitter it, and all kinds of other verbs that didn’t exist before Web 2.x came along.

Linking to a favorite strip is the modern equivalent of slapping a clipping on a cubicle wall. If you don’t give your readers the ability link directly to your content, you’re just running on two cylinders.

Dilbert.com has added another feature that’s very buzzword-ey: now, there’s “user-created content.” You can submit your own punchlines for selected strips. This was done first, better, and breathtakingly illegally with “The Dysfunctional Family Circus,” in which visitors to Spinnwebe.com were encouraged to add decidedly less-wholesome captions to “Family Circus” panels.

User-created content is a smart addition. It helps to build communities of users…intensely devoted readers who feel a certain amount of pride in being part of the group. This is a fine compliment for your work. This is also a rather lucrative group of suckers. Pick one up by his or her ankles and shake them until the majority of their cash has clinked to the floor and they’ll be pleased to have been singled out for special hands-on attention.

And once the flywheels of the user-content area of your site are up and spinning, thousands of people are updating your site with fresh content for free while you’re off somewhere getting waffles. Which in itself will expand the popularity of your site. Folks keep coming back if they know that they’ll find new stuff every time they visit.

But user-generated content is less useful for an established property like Dilbert. People are coming to see Scott Adams’ jokes, not mine. And although me pitching in to create content for Dilbert.com is a nice demonstration of the old Dunkirk Spirit, I mean, come on: look at Scott Adams’ car and then look at mine. Who should be doing free work for whom, here?

These are hard lessons for traditional publishers, and the phrase “people just don’t get it” is glib, callous, and overused. But it’s a fact of life: giving readers more power today will absolutely put a creator in a better position to make money and keep publishing tomorrow.

11 thoughts on “Sun-Times: “How To Succeed In Online Publishing Without Really Syndicating””

  1. One of the most popular *web* comics of the day is xkcd, where Mr. Monroe has also opted to open it up wide. He has a full RSS feed, permalinks to each strip, and encourages hotlinking. He agrees with you completely, sir, that by making the content as widely available as possible, he has been able to grow his readership far larger than he would have otherwise. As for Mr. Adams’ site, I think that he made a mistake when he decided to wrap every strip in flash. For me, at least, it really slows down the reading experience: an image will load quickly but then be obscured for a second or two as the flash loads to show me the strip again. And then when reading a Sunday strip, it requires me to use a button and scroll through it sideways (unnatural!) even though a full image of it would fit comfortably on my screen. I’d also be interested to know how much the sharing links affect traffic. I know that I have never used them but rather when I *have* posted things to social sites, I’ve just used the URL.

  2. RSS feeds really are very usefull, personally I would be following a lot less webcomics if it wasn’t for RSS.
    I don’t mind having to click on a link to the site to see the webcomic insted of having it directly in RSS, so I don’t mind how PvP does it.
    I do hope Danielle Corsetto finally gets an RSS, I’ve been waiting for one for ever.

    I just read the PvP blog and Scott Kurtz said he was going to try it for a month on your advice, well done :)
    I hope it works for him.

  3. Yeah, I put up this column because Scott emailed and asked for it. One bit of clarification: I hope nobody thinks I just up and emailed Scott and Danielle and told them how to run their businesses. In fact, after this column was published, I heard from Danielle and she asked for advice.

    And that’s what I told her: she needs to have an RSS feed. Scott’s original feed for PVP is like the feed I had on my old site; it’s pretty much just an alert that it’s time to go to the site to read the new content. Danielle didn’t have any sort of feed.

    I’m absolutely certain that an experimental full-feed would boost Danielle’s readership. There’s really no downside; if she switches down to a “notifications-only” feed after 30 days, she still gets to keep all of those feed subscribers.

    I dunno what effect a full-feed will have on PVP. I suspect that it’ll be a useful promotional tool at the very least; again, Scott has the option of switching back after a month but they can’t take back the attention he might have gained by publicizing this change. But the long-term effect won’t really be determined until many months later, when he looks at his merchandise sales and tries to figure out if they went up or down, and why.

    I kind of wish he’d done this a few months earlier or later. The San Diego Comic-Con is taking place in just a couple of weeks and it’ll be impossible to tell whether any bump came from the full feed or just from the extra publicity he might get from being at the show.

  4. It’s funny, I’ve never felt the need to subscribe to RSS feeds- I have all my webcomics under a single bookmark category on Firefox, and it’s just a matter of opening a browser window, going to the bookmarks, and selecting “Open All In Tabs” for me to pull up every webcomic I’m reading. I lose some of the advantages of RSS feeds, most notably the ability to see when a new strip has been put up, but I consider that a small blessing- I read around 20 webcomics daily, and if I could see whenever a new strip came up, I doubt I’d get any work done.

  5. “But you must build your audience before you can bilk your audience. And thus it’s critical that you make it as easy as possible for people to find, read, and get hooked on your content.”

    Great read! Please consider your own words, this site takes 40+ seconds to load, granted this may vary for other readers and it sounds as if you are working on the problem. I am hooked on your content, have been for years, but i do not want to find myself reading your posts about the problems with fuel costs and the internal business model of UPS at some point in the future.

  6. The dysfunctional family circus was one the first real gems I found on the net. I remember rolling In laughter at the abject depravity in people’s imagination. There is no way a website like that could exist today unfortunately.

  7. One thing I really don’t like about the new Dilbert is the impossible-to-kill popunder ads for Classmates and their little friends. It’s bad enough that every spare pixel is devoted to advertising (yes, I don understand that even Scott has to pay the bills) but popup/under ads are just the limit!

  8. One thing I really don’t like about the new Dilbert is the impossible-to-kill popunder ads for Classmates and their little friends. It’s bad enough that every spare pixel is devoted to advertising (yes, I do understand that even Scott has to pay the bills) but popup/under ads are just the limit!

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