COVID-19 And You…r Webcomic

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A post about some niche concerns in serious times.

Look, hopefully by this point you’re all following the news about the new coronavirus going around. You’ve read all the guidance on FlattenTheCurve.com, and looked up your local public-health department to get any specific COVID-19 advice for your region. You’re rescheduling meetups and canceling travel plans, you’ve picked a favorite 20 seconds of song lyrics for all the hand-washing you’re doing — you are, in general, being a responsible citizen in the middle of an outbreak.

“Flatten the curve” graphic

(Also: you’re not just trusting a stranger on the internet about this medical information! You’re checking it against the latest advice and research from scientists, public health officials, and your doctor.)

This is a post for people who are on top of all that…but who still have some concerns, specifically related to the comics you make on the internet.

Let’s start with the most basic one…

What if I have serious, urgent issues to deal with right now, and can’t spare any time for trivial things like the comics I make on the internet?

Deal with the urgent issues. Full stop.

Listen, you are always allowed to put your webcomic on the back burner when something more important comes up. Family, financial security, your personal health — those matter more.

So if any of the effects of COVID-19 are demanding all your personal attention right now? Focus on that. Don’t waste a moment of stress on the state of your comic. Don’t even read the rest of this post, honestly, if the information isn’t going to be valuable to you right now. Whatever your circumstances, I wish you strength and luck in facing them.

If you have the time and energy to do just one webcomic-related thing: post a short update to let your readers know you’ll be on hiatus. They’ll appreciate hearing from you.

If you have plenty of time to focus on a variety of webcomic-related concerns, and to think about things like logistics and resources and technical tools…read on.

Starting with the first outbreak-related issue to hit many webcomic creators’ radars…

What if I was supposed to table at an upcoming convention?

Large events are being called off around the globe — from Emerald City Comic Con to the London book fair and back again. Some organizing committees are canceling conventions on their own; others are having the choice made for them, as local governments ban large public gatherings to make it harder for COVID-19 to spread.

And it’s the right decision. “Con crud” is a well-known hazard at the best of times, when the only things going around are the common cold and the easily-vaccinated flu. During the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak in 2009, Penny Arcade Expo became a news-making source of infections.

Comic on safety procedures after the outbreak at West Coast PAX (via Penny Arcade)

Long story short, if you have an upcoming con that hasn’t already been canceled, it probably will be soon. And if it isn’t…you honestly shouldn’t go.

For people who make a significant portion of their annual income from con sales: Honestly, you will have to reach out to peers at your own level for this, because it’s way above mine. Artist Alley Network International is starting to get support threads on this issue, full of con veterans whose experience and ideas will help you more than anything I’d be able to put in a post.

A few things I do know, and hopefully they’ll have some use to the rest of us:

For your travel costs: Check your airline, your hotel, anything else you’ve already paid for, to see if the company is offering refunds and waiving cancellation fees.

If they aren’t already doing that, try tagging them in a (civil, but) disappointed tweet. You’ll be just one of many people whose travel plans got upended by COVID-19 — and other similar policies have already collapsed under the weight of bad publicity.

For your extra merchandise: It’s internet sales time. Link to your online store in those promo posts and tags. Consider doing a con-themed special offer. If you have any items that are normally con-exclusive, this is a valid time to make an exception and sell some online. (Your fans’ con tickets got canceled too! Give them one less thing to miss out on.)

A con table of the author’s (via Leif & Thorn)

Special note: is there any merch in this offer that you haven’t sold online before? Don’t forget to pack it nicely, check the weight, and look up shipping costs to various countries/regions, so you can build all that into the price.

For your lost exposure/advertising: Look for the people who are making an extra push to promote creators in your situation — from con committees to indie publishers to general Internet Personalities. Also? Reach out to other people in your situation, and promote each other.

The Twitter account and hashtag for your con is a good place to start. There might also be a specific one for creators, as with #ECCC2020 versus #ECCConline (“the social distancing convention for all“). More general tags include #PajamaCon, #CoronaCon, and #AmplifyArtists. Similar things are happening on Instagram, Facebook, and probably Other Social Network Of Your Choice. Check around.

ECCC soap dispenser (via Bleeding Cool)

And don’t be afraid to tell your existing readership about your situation! Not in a pushy or guilt-trippy way, just be honest. An update with “if you were considering buying something of mine, now would be a great time to go for it” on your website — or mailing list, or Patreon, or, ideally, all of the above — can pull people off the fence.

On the topic of time-sensitive motivation for people to make up their minds to buy something…

What if I was planning to run (or am already running) a Kickstarter?

So here’s the good news: Unlike conventions (or parades, or schools, or hand-shaking), there’s no public health benefit to “temporarily canceling all online crowdfunding campaigns.”

And so far there are no side effects that would make them impossible to fund, either. Iron Circus Comics just launched a Kickstarter for a Lackadaisy artbook and short film, and blew past their $85K goal in the first 6 hours. So if you’re working on a print collection of your own webcomic? No need to put it off.

(That’s the general “you.” If you, specific person who’s reading this, have ended up in a situation where you’d be hard-pressed to find any time or energy for a crowdfunding campaign…circle back to the first section of this post.)

But even when your campaign isn’t canceled by COVID-19, you’re still going to be affected by it, in both obvious and non-obvious ways. Predict as many of them as you can, and start making plans upfront for how to handle them.

For example:

Where are your books (and/or other rewards) going to be produced? Lots of printers in China and across Asia are currently in emergency closure. Other companies will probably follow, as more places around the world encourage companies to keep their employees home for a while. And even when production starts up again…everyone is going to have a massive backlog of orders to work on.

Books on a printing press (via Dynamark)

So your book release is going to be delayed. Build that into your production timeline. Check in with your printer about their current status. When you do, be kind and understanding with the customer service agents — they aren’t happy about the slowdowns any more than you, they’re just doing the best they can under extraordinary circumstances. On your Kickstarter itself, the FAQ section is a great place to summarize the situation for your readers.

Will backers still be able to afford your book these days? Between the closings, the cancellations, and the abundance of sick days, plenty of readers are going through financial insecurity, or see it on the horizon. So, listen, if you were about to launch a gold-plated special collection at $1000 a set (and aren’t marketing it to a Lackadaisy-sized fanbase), your potential customers might have just gone from “limited” to “unsustainable.”

The point to remember is, people with tight budgets still have the basic human need for entertainment. They’re just more likely to look for things that are long-lasting without being luxury-priced. Something cheaper than a vacation or a DVD boxset or the latest release of Animal Crossing; something that can keep them occupied for longer than a ball game or a movie showing or a night in Vegas.

If you’re launching, say, a $20 paperback — and let’s be real, as a webcomic creator, the vast majority of us are — this is your niche. Go ahead and roll with it.

Is it okay to be shipping physical merchandise right now? More good news: so far, there’s been no evidence of COVID-19 being transferred by mail.

(Also, by this point scientists have had a chance to start testing how long the virus survives on different surfaces — so we have actual data about how quickly it breaks down on surfaces like cardboard and plastic. Keep an eye out for more studies on that.)

If a big order of books shows up at a time when you feel sick…you still might want to pick a place in your home to stash them for a while, instead of leaping straight into the process of packing rewards. Partly because it can’t hurt to be cautious, and partly because you shouldn’t be working too hard anyway.

Note: Since this article was published, there might’ve been new discoveries of Things Not To Do while you’re having symptoms, or improved estimates on how long to stay isolated afterward. Make sure to talk to your doctor, and/or look up your local public health department’s page of information on what to do if you feel sick, for the best and most-current advice.

And definitely don’t interrupt any self-quarantine for a trip to the post office!

The worst place to seek treatment (via Awful Hospital)

Have these if-you-get-sick plans ready before the campaign ends, and let would-be backers know that you have them. Put the information in your FAQ. Maybe have it pull double duty as an update post. It’ll reassure people who might otherwise be too nervous to back.

Keep your updates going when you get into the fulfillment phase, and when you hit delays, just let people know what’s causing them. (Unless it’s something too urgent for you to spare time for a Kickstarter update, in which case: refer again to the very first section of this post.)

On the whole, Kickstarter backers tend to be very generous about unexpected hold-ups! They just want to be kept in-the-loop. That even applies when the delays aren’t caused by a global public health crisis, let alone when your update says “hey everyone, I’m not shipping your books this week because it would go against the official guidance of the CDC.”

What if you get sick in the middle of the campaign itself? This is trickier, because it’s something you can’t delay. A Kickstarter has a countdown clock.

These days, lots of sites and services are rolling out special provisions to help users affected by COVID-19, so I won’t rule out that KS might change how that works! But as of now, the deadline is the deadline. There are things you have to do before it ticks over, or else you can’t do them at all.

(ETA, March 19: Kickstarter announces that creators affected by COVID-19 can extend currently-live projects by 7 days! Creators with future projects are encouraged to adjust their own deadlines before launching if necessary. KS also notes “we aren’t seeing any noticeable decline in support for live projects.”)

The way you prep for this is just one subset of a larger, more general topic for webcomic creators…

How do I prepare my comic for when I get sick?

A section where I feel like I really need to start off with some medical context.

(Again, this isn’t professional advice — I am not a doctor, a virologist, or a member of the US pandemic response team. I’m doing my best to re-state what they’re saying, but always listen to them first.)

Listening to expert advice (via xkcd)

So there’s this statistic flying around about how 80% of COVID19 cases are “mild.” If you’re anything like me, the first time you hear that, it sounds great! Lots of these are easy!

Except that in this context, “mild” is a technical term that means “any case that can be weathered without hospital care.” Doesn’t mean you won’t be laid up in bed for days in a row with a cough and a high fever. It just means you’ll get better afterward.

And the pros have worked hard to identify which groups of people are high-risk when it comes to COVID-19, while the rest of us are low-risk. “Low risk” doesn’t mean a low risk of catching the virus. It just means your case is less likely to be the severe kind.

(Sidenote: If you’re not sure what kind of risk you’re at — or you’re feeling kinda sick, but aren’t sure how serious the symptoms are — many doctor’s offices and hospitals are asking you to call them for advice. The more people they can screen over the phone, so you don’t have to show up in person unless it’s necessary? The better.)

Basically: you should assume you’re going to get sick. Take all the precautions you can to slow it down, but assume you’re going to get it eventually.

And plan for the fact that when you do — even if you are currently the lowest-risk person in the world! – it could still put you in bed for a week.

Ideally, that means prepping your webcomic with things like buffers, queues, and auto-posts, so things can still happen when you’re unexpectedly away from the internet for a bit.

…it also means prepping things like “pet care” and “medication” and “food”, so obviously do that first.

After the essentials are taken care of, go on and read the next section…

How can I set up some of these buffers, queues, and auto-posts?

Having a buffer is the least tech-heavy part. That just means finishing more strips/pages than you’ve posted, so you always have a few in reserve.

If you’re releasing high-suspense pages on a regular schedule, this is really useful to have! If your comic is more of the “draw a random joke whenever I think of one and immediately put it on Instagram” type…not so much. Figure out what works best for you.

If readers are checking your site on a regular basis, expecting those updates, but you can’t get very far ahead because each page takes a long time to draw…maybe prepare some filler content, like gag comics, character Q&A sessions, or behind-the-scenes sneak peeks. Things that will still be entertaining for readers when you post them, but don’t take a lot of time or effort to prepare.

Emergency filler strip by the author, where it works because it’s funny. (via And Shine Heaven Now)

However! If you’re posting on a site that brings the updates to your followers — like Tumblr or Webtoon, where readers don’t have to pay any attention to your schedule, they just check their feed and get everything — too much filler content may be more annoying than valuable. If you’re only going to miss 1-2 updates, focus on finishing the next page.

You might still want to keep some filler handy, though, in case you end up on a long/indefinite hiatus. Posting the occasional fun update can keep readers’ interests up, and it’ll cut down the pressure of “oh no, now that I’ve been on hiatus for so long, I can’t post a new page unless it’s jaw-droppingly amazing.”

When I say a queue, I’m talking about any scheduled post that doesn’t go public right away, but appears on a future date. That could mean comic pages, it could mean blog posts, it could mean the tweets that say “only 3 hours left until this Kickstarter deadline!”

Of the websites where you’re probably posting a comic, most of them make it fast and easy to schedule updates. That includes ComicFury, Tumblr, Deviantart, and independent sites running on WordPress. If you’re particularly dedicated, you could, right now, have new pages queued through the end of next year.

You can also pre-schedule bonus content for your supporters on on Patreon, and email announcements to your subscribers with mailing-list services like Mailchimp.

A few comic sites, like Webtoon and the new version of SmackJeeves, will let you draft a post but not schedule it. You have to actively remember to open your drafts page regular intervals and hit “publish.” (This is also the case for Kickstarter updates.) So if you have a whole buffer uploaded, but you’re too busy getting rest and drinking fluids to log in this week…well, readers will just have to deal with getting those updates late.

Cyanide & Happiness edit about hiatuses (via Know Your Meme)

And there are other sites you might be using that don’t have a built-in scheduling feature at all.

But don’t worry — you might be able to connect those accounts to sites with more options! Personally, I use Hootsuite (start with the 30-day trial, then continue with the free plan) to arrange scheduled posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. They’re not the only site out there, so do a little comparison shopping and pick the one that best fits your own needs.

If you’re running a crowdfunding campaign right now, and you aren’t already on one of those management sites, go sign up! You never want your social media to go dark during the last 48 hours of your Kickstarter, and if that’s when you get sick, at least this can be one thing you don’t have to worry about.

Finally, a bit about auto-posts, by which I mean “a post you don’t have to set up manually, it gets triggered automatically by something else.” It lets you do the same amount of work, but get more/bigger/broader results.

For example — when you publish a comic update, a link is automatically posted to Facebook. When you put an ad on Twitter, it automatically gets duplicated to Instagram. When you get a new follower on Patreon, they automatically get a personal thank-you message read by Siri.

(Okay, maybe that last one would be a little too cyberpunk-dystopia…)

Force multiplication explained (via Schlock Mercenary)

Some websites have a few cross-linking abilities built in. But for the most part, it’ll take some extra setup.

If you’re running a WordPress site, this is something you handle with plugins. Me, I use Social Network Auto Poster to automatically update Twitter, Facebook, and/or Tumblr when a new comic is released. Looking for something different? Whatever feature or integration you can imagine wanting, you’re probably not the only one, and there’s a good chance there’s already a plugin for it.

(Note: Plugins can have security risks, so keep safety guidelines in mind, when researching/installing new ones.)

For other websites and social-media accounts, you can link their functions together with a site like Zapier or If This Then That.

I…honestly don’t use those much for webcomic-related things, but I get a lot of mileage out of them in other ways. (Emailing me when a website updates, so I don’t have to remember to check it! Formatting my bookmarks into perfect HTML to copy directly into blog posts!)

So pick one, make an account, and spend some time exploring the different things it can do.

And, listen, maybe you prefer to some do some of these by hand. Say you post your own Twitter update, with an original custom preview image, every time a new page comes out.

Well, an auto-post might not replace that — but if you’re out of commission and can’t do the hand-crafted version, wouldn’t it be nice to have a fallback option?

App integration graphic (via WEBNOO)

If so, the time to figure out how to do it is now. Look into which websites and services will auto-do the thing. Sign up. Make the connections. Do a test post, to confirm that it works…

Then delete the test and leave the whole thing deactivated, secure in the knowledge that, if you start feeling under the weather, all you have to do is switch it on. From there you can focus on taking care of your health, and the auto-posting will cheerfully fill in until you get back.

…so, okay, up till now this post has been about dealing with practical challenges that COVID-19 might impose on your webcomic. Challenges that are technical, or financial, or physical, or maybe postal.

But, listen, maybe that’s not your big worry right now.

Maybe you aren’t working ahead that far.

Maybe you’re looking at the dire global circumstances — the terrible struggles that, whether or not they’re in your own neighborhood yet, are definitely all over your social media feeds — and you’re wondering…

Should I even keep posting my webcomic at all?

Short answer: yes. Please do.

(Unless you are not able to, in which case, this is not about making you feel guilted. Jump back to the first section of this post and review.)

Longer and more detailed answer:

Listen, if you’re anything like me, there’s a lot of people around the world right now who need things that you can’t give them. That might be medical expertise, or virology research, or legal protection, or a better social safety net, or, heck, something as simple-sounding but vital as garbage pickup.

But there are also a lot of people who are just…stuck at home. They might be trying to keep up with work and classes online, or they might have had that canceled completely. They don’t have any serious symptoms to take care of — sure, they’re doing extra-diligent hand-washing, but that only fills so much time. And because they’re being responsible citizens, they’re not leaving the house. Not to movies or bars, not to concerts or book clubs, not to ball games or to game night.

In short, they have an urgent need for a serious amount of cheap fun entertainment they can stock up on at home without going outside.

And that’s you! That’s what webcomics are! A person could get through weeks on those alone, for the price of nothing more than a working device and an internet connection.

Not only that, a lot of the other options — movies, TV shows, sports events, and other streamables — are having their production halted, or even being flat-out canceled, because they can’t be made without in-person gatherings of a large group of people.

But you? You don’t have that problem. Your webcomic is very likely a one-person production, from top to bottom. And if it’s a team effort, it’s a tiny team of people who are already total pros at this “collaborating online” thing.

It’s not the biggest or most pressing need in the world right now. We all get that. But it is a need, and you are part of a limited group of people who are especially qualified to fill it. Don’t feel bad about keeping that up for as long as you can.

One more thought: odds are good there’s a front-line healthcare worker who’s a fan of your comic. Especially once you remember how many people out there didn’t professionally train for those front lines…but a relative is sick, and the local hospital is full, and the only option is for them to take it up the best they can.

Your next update might be one of the things that brings that person a smile today. Those things are probably in short supply right now. Do it for them.

appendix: links & resources

networking, support, promotion:

financial aid, discounts:

miscellaneous: Download Folding@Home to use your computer’s space processing power on disease-fighting calculations.

I’ll keep coming back and adding new resources as I find them. If you have any links, hot tips, and/or webcomic-problem life-hacks of your own, please feel free to add them in the comments.