Webcomic Creator Corner: Rob Balder and Erfworld
Hey, Factory fans! Welcome to Webcomic Creator Corner where we interview some of the top talent in webcomics today. With us is Rob Balder from Erfworld and Partially Clips. Thanks for being here, Rob.
Rob, what’s your background? Give us a little of your secret origin story.
I was writing stories and comics at a pretty early age. The first money I ever made writing was scripting a homemade comic in high school for my friend Dan Fahs. He and I later tried to get a comic strip called Belchburger syndicated. This was before the web (1992), and it got rejected by every major and minor syndicate. I think it would have made a pretty good webcomic, though. I used to post the scripts on our campus mainframe.
I majored in English, wrote a bad SF novel and some other false starts. Tried to get stories published, then kind of gave up on writing for a long time and ended up in database development.
The “secret origin” of me as a webcomics creator is kind of sad. Dan Fahs died in 2001 at age 32, just a few weeks after 9/11. In speaking at his memorial, I dragged out all the old projects we worked on. I thought a lot about my direction in life at that time, and decided I wanted to do something about leaving a creative legacy. I promised myself I would commit to one project for as long as it took to see it through.
Yeah, the idea I chose to develop became PartiallyClips. In 1998 my friend Mike Pederson had started a magazine called Scene and needed all kinds of filler for the first issue or two. So I wrote fake letters to the editor and other dumb content. Among that stuff, I created a comic strip I called “Cel Block.” I am not an artist, so I just took a piece of clip art of two women talking at a cash register, and repeated that in 3 frames, with speech balloons added.
In 2001 I could have gone back to novels or some of my other unfinished or unexplored ideas. I even an idea I had for a cable access TV show. But I picked Cel Block because it was easy, and I could do it on my lunch break at work. Celblock.com was taken as a domain, “Totally Clips” was suggested as a new name, but it was also the name of about 50 hair salons. So I picked “PartiallyClips” and wrote up a three year project plan, and got to work.
There’s been a lot of fantasy gaming webcomics, when you started Erfworld were you worried that there were already too many fantasy gaming webcomics out there? What do you think distinguishes Erfworld that has made it so popular?
There are a lot of webcomics in general, but I don’t think of them as competition. Readership is really a positive-sum game. If someone wants to read Tarol Hunt’s “Goblins” or Aaron Williams’ “Nodwick,” it actually makes them more likely to read Erfworld, too.
I think the distinguishing factor for Erfworld is probably depth. The depth of story, character and world gives the readers a lot to speculate on. We have a wiki with close to 7000 articles about the Erfworld universe. I have written about 10 of those, and fans have done the rest.
What were some of the things you took from your experience on PartiallyClips that your brought from Erfworld to make it better?
In a lot of ways, Erfworld was my attempt to apply everything I had learned between 2001 and 2006 to a new project.
PartiallyClips was a success in some ways. It built a pretty decent sized audience. It ran in a bunch of newspapers, and the checks from that were nice.
But without characters or a story, the fanbase was very shallow. Web traffic is only one measure of how a webcomic is really doing. There’s also this hidden metric: how much do people care? That’s equally important to a webcomic’s success. So I set out to create a comic that you could get hooked on.
I also learned about things like business models, traffic growth, book sales, etc. Most of that came from going to cons and talking shop with other creators. So I think of PartiallyClips as like my undergraduate work in webcomics, and Erfworld as my grad school.
You offer a Membership on your site for fans. Not a lot webcomic creators are doing this. Tell us how it works, how you came up with it and how you see it shaping the webcomic creators do things in the future?
Well, if Erfworld is my grad school, then the Toolbox program would be like my master’s thesis. It’s a combination of elements that I had seen work for other creators or tried myself (as through my site “The FuMP“).
The way it works is that people sign up for a monthly membership ($3 recurring, through PayPal) and for that they get: 1. ad-free pages when logged in, 2. a higher-resolution archive of the comic, 3. a badge on the forums, 4. a hidden forum, and 5. access to a bonus area of the site, with things like scripts and art flubs and audio and video and a monthly wallpaper.
That kind of thing has been done before. Sluggy Freelance has something similar called “Defenders of the Nifty.” But where the Toolbox is innovative is that the $3 a month becomes store credit. The “Tools” are actually banking that money toward buying shirts or plushies or the eventual book volume.
I don’t know if this kind of model will work for others, but it works very well for me. We have about a thousand Tools now, and I make about half of my living from the merch sales it drives.
You must have a tip top webmaster to organize all this cutting edge technology on your site. Tell us a little bit about your webmaster and how you work together to make Erfworld user friendly.
Harknell is quite talented and I was really lucky to get him. He’s got a lot of his own stuff going on (onezumi.com, awsom.org, interventioncon.com) but he really loves webcomics. So he built Erfworld.com and maintains it free of charge. He arranged our hosting and has dealt with all the major technical problems. Of course, our hosting is expensive and I pay for that, and I also voluntarily send him a token percentage of the ad revenue from the site for his troubles. He’s great and I couldn’t do this without him.
Some nuts and bolts questions: For the new webcomic creator out there, what’s the one thing you’d tell them to do and the one bad thing you tell them to avoid when creating their own webcomic?
Well, the single best thing you can do for your project is outreach. Go to cons, talk to other creators in person. Send fan art, link the comics you like, and when you have a book, give it to other creators when you meet them. Don’t look for link exchanges or direct reciprocation, but talk to everyone. Good things will naturally follow (like guest strips and links and convention invites and opportunities to collaborate).
The single worst thing you could do would be to compare your traffic and success to comics that are many years older than yours. You’ll lose and feel like a failure.
Traffic growth takes a long time, and I have seen good comics die in the second year because they thought they were getting nowhere. Benchmark yourself fairly. Check your average growth from month to month after a year or two. If it’s going up by at least 10% a month on average, you’re doing fine, even if that’s “100 readers last month and 110 this month.” Take the long view.
Give us the stats Rob! What’s your hits like on Erfworld? Where are most of the hits coming from?
Well, hits are kind of a poor measure, but we estimate about 300,000 unique warm bodies are out there reading Erfworld. That’s about 60,000 visits a day, 6 million pageviews a month.
It’s not bad. Erfworld is almost certainly in the top 40 of all webcomics for traffic. The top ten titles still have multiples of our audience size, though.
What’s coming up with Erfworld and PartiallyClips? What do fans have to look forward in the coming weeks? What’s the current storyline?
Actually, I don’t write PartiallyClips any more. The strip continues under the authorship of Tim Crist, aka ShoEboX of Worm Quartet. I have this whole comedy music side to what I do, and ShoEboX is a big part of that. We recorded a comedy CD together last year. He’s carrying PartiallyClips forward and making it his own, rather than my putting it on indefinite hiatus because I am too busy with Erfworld.
I have a fairly full con schedule for the summer, including Guest of Honor spots at OASIS 23 in Orlando and 5pi-con in Enfield, CT. That and publishing the book will fill up all my time until fall, probably. But I do have one cool side project I plan to announce at OASIS. Til then, it’s sekrit.
With Erfworld, we’re doing Book 2 in issues. We should have Issue 1 of Book 2 for sale before we have Book 1 for sale. We’re so organized.
Issue 1 takes place a few months after Book 1 ended. Parson is not Chief Warlord and Wanda is mostly running the show. Gobwin Knob has been unstoppable and they’re trying to conquer Jetstone once and for all, by taking out the capital city and croaking King Slately. Things don’t go quite as planned, of course. But that’s when stories get interesting.
What do you think the future holds for webcomics? Where do you see the industry headed? Where do you see Erfworld and yourself five to ten years down the road?
Heh, what did Niels Bohr say? ”Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”
If you think about it, YouTube just turned five, and Twitter is four. Five years from now, what do I think we will see? You’re asking me to predict the next Twitter or YouTube, which is impossible.
But I think streaming video is going to be one major disruptive tech. Hollywood is going to be hurting. There’s a big chance now for indie film creators to make the equivalent of webcomics: cheap movies that build large paying audiences streaming them to their mobile devices, web browsers and game consoles. The Dr. Horrible model will be huge in 5 years.
And unlike webcomics, video creators might not sink or float based on their ability to find ways to monetize that. If you’re a hit on iTunes, then the money just shows up in your bank account. Nice.
Mobile devices as content delivery systems are getting important, and I think that may blow up like the web itself did in the 90s. I hope it does, because Erfworld is ready for that. Working with Robot Comics (who are great people) we’ve now got Erfworld out for iPhone, Android, DSi and just last month we became the first graphic novel on the Kindle DX. The iPad version will come out this summer.
It’s ironic as hell that we don’t have a physical printed book yet, don’t you think? We’ll have that out by October, I promise.
As for Erfworld in five years? In 2015 I’d like to have three books done, a movie in production, and total annual revenue of at least a quarter million dollars. Everything I know about webcomics tells me that should be possible in that timespan. But I have to go out there and prove it, right? Otherwise I am just talking out of my ass.
I guess if I do, that’ll be my doctorate. :)