By TM, writer for the webcomic Hell Inc
This article covers the main points of starting a webcomic and what to do once it is visible to the world.
First off, my pedigree. I say that as a cute way of mentioning my experience rather than establishing my eligibility for the Westminster dog show. I am a programmer by day and a vigilante writer by night. (Blame "Peggle Nights" for that atrocious combination - it isn't actually one of theirs but I feel with mixtures such as Zen Master/Rockstar I am easily clearing that bar)
In my opinion a webcomic has four roles which have to be split among the contributors.
The first two are pretty obvious although the form can differ.
1) Writing. Whether we are talking a prolonged storyline, one off comics or writing a situation with no words some form of scripting will be involved. Or a random situation generator. If you come up with the latter, call me.
2) Art. Again this can vary widely. Wondermark pastes together old illustrations, Erfworld has long high color, high detail panels.
Before we go on to technical and marketing, which are important but tertiary skills, lets get to the meat and potatoes of this. How often do you want to release and how fast are you at writing and drawing. Chances are if you are just beginning this comic it is not your full time job. That means cramming this around your regular work/school schedule. Find a time-frame that suits you. I am lucky enough to have a co-conspirator who handles the art so we can divide these two efforts but the golden rule we shoot for (but don't always succeed at) is one hour writing and one hour of drawing or less per strip. As we release daily we have to keep it to something like that to not go nuts. Choose a release schedule and a realistic amount of work you have time for, because otherwise two months down the line you will start missing updates and that is a slippery slope to saying "Yeah I used to make a webcomic once".
3) Technical. Each option in this list is harder than the last but provides greater flexibility.
Comic Network (Such as Keenspot, Drunk Duck or Smack Jeeves)
Comicpress or other comic oriented content management.
Drupal, Joomla or DotNetNuke
For our site we went with comicpress - I make websites for a living but I definitely do not want to spend all my writing time with technical debt. Unless you have some amazingly complex features planned, I would recommend going with that. To get set up you will need to:
Register a domain.
Might want to do this while deciding comic name, some great names might have really saturated domains. Godaddy tends to be cheapest but there are a ton of registrars out there.
Make sure they host wordpress out of the box and let you install the comicpress theme. We use Hostgator which has been amazing.
Decide on look and feel or the site.
Be prepared to adjust it if necessary. It is easy to get bogged down trying to get everything just so, I would recommend starting clean and tweaking as you go. I have not seen a single big name comic site that hasn't adjusted their layout once since I started reading them. Most of them adjust at least once a year.
Decide on plug-ins.
Header and Footer - IDEAL for adding in analytic code
Mingle Forum - Honestly I am not in love with it and will probably change it for something that looks a bit more pro in the next month.
Referrer Detector - This plug-in detects which site a user comes from and adds appropriate messaging.
Super-Slider Login - I LOVE THIS PLUG-IN. It provides a wonderful, clean, no real-estate way to let users log in to the site.
Theme Companion - This is a more advanced tool for anyone planning on changing the css. If you don't know what css is, you don't need it.
Tweet This - Provides social networking buttons for not only Twitter but a host of other applications - Reddit, StumbleUpon, Buzz, Digg etcetcetc
WP Facebook Like - Now if only I could damn well persuade people to use it.
Some questions to get you started:
Will you have a blog?
Will the blog, comic or both be on the front page?
Is archiving controlled by a calender?
4) Marketing. Really now I am assuming your site is live - none of this is essential to launch but it is important to improve readership.
SEO - it stands for Search Engine Optimization and is a huge factor on the bigger sites out there. SEO is a topic which can range many articles such as this but I will cover some of the basics.
Meta tags. Google a meta tag generator and use it, then paste the generated code into the header portion of the header and footer plug-in.
Sitemap. Did you sign up for hostgator? They give away access to Attracta basic for free, use that to generate a sitemap. A sitemap is a file that site in the base directory of your site that tells a search engine all the pages on your site. Regen this semi-regularly.
Implement keyword urls. Comicpress has it as an option, rather than date oriented urls. It is not on by default and again, it helps seo.
Include text on the homepage that has keywords applicable to your site but do not just spam words.
I mentioned attracta in the last point, use it or something like it to scan the site for problems
Webcomic List Sites. Top Web Comics is probably the biggest, probably followed by Belfry. I read an article from someone suggesting paying for advertising from these sites is one of the most targeting audiences out there. I am not saying you have to do it, but it probably is full of win. There are two schools of thought on how many sites to sign up for, one saying being linked from more sites is good for your site rank in search engines. The other argues diminishing returns, which is also true. I did it and have seen very few clicks from the small guys, so come to your own conclusions.
Adwords. If you signed up with Hostgator you should have a shiny $100 of free adwords advertising, if not there are coupons around the internet for $50 or $75. This is free advertising money so I suggest using it. Try and make it highly targeted - if it takes longer to drive the right people to your site that is okay.
Social Media! Twitter and Facebook each comic and blog post. StumbleUpon can generate awesome traffic spikes but resist the urge to stumbleupon all your own stuff. I found out the hard way that StumbleUpon gives you a rating based upon effectively the objectiveness of your posts, so if you stumbleupon only your own stuff, or you are the only one stumbling your site they will never show those links to people, ever. If you are lucky enough to have friends who are active stumblers ask them nicely if they will pick some of their favorite comics to stumble - the results will be much more effective. Reddit follows the same rules. If you write any good blog posts about something relevant, Digg them.
When tweeting, DO use categories. Choose a category name for your comic and each post include it, that way if anyone likes any tweet from you they can instantly see every comic and blog tweet you ever did. Apart from that, choose popular categories that tie in to your posts - recently we have been running an arc ripping into American Idol, you had better believe each twitter we do about the comic has #americanidol as a tag.
Make your signature for emails and forums link to your comic and make it appealing. A great banner would not hurt either.
If you are a member of any webcomic forums, being a good citizen will earn you extra karma from the community. Explain how to do things to newbies as you learn more and generally just try to make anything you say a positive reflection of you and your comic. It isn't like being a rockstar or anything but you kind of are a brand and as such you have to market yourself, as well as your comic.
Buy advertising. Project Wonderful is very good for this. If you are cautious and choose low readership comics it literally costs pennies a day. Make sure your ads are appealing for that audience and are well placed.
Remember to keep your site design clean. Navigation should always be intuitive.
Now let me counter some of the above advice with something I have been reading about - the 80/20 rule. It basically says 80% of the work you do will generate 20% of the traffic. Isn't that depressing! So concentrate instead on doing the stuff that is an easy hit - after all, it follows that 20% of the stuff you do will generate 80% of the traffic. I did things like signing up for extra forums and secondary hosting at Drunk Duck and Smack Jeeves. Neither of these approaches were effective and wasted an unbelievable amount of time. When you are spending your limited free time on this stuff, make sure it can make a difference.
Lastly, I would advise patience. We are still small potatoes but so far every three weeks we have doubled in size - just keep a positive trend and I call that a win.
Good luck, I hope to read your comic one day!