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Conversing with Zac Echola About the Internet

April 3, 2009 4 comments

Back in the annals of last year, I wrote a two-part article (part one is here) on the business of being creative in light of the revolutions brought about by the internet and the complexities it brings about. One of those that I interviewed was my friend Zac Echola.

Zac works for a newspaper. Technically speaking, he works for a communications company, and he recently transitioned into the online department, focusing almost solely on marketing. He has helped push for site redesigns within the company’s satellite papers as well as the flagship paper of the company. In addition to his professional endeavors, he runs two blogs, Blog-o-Blog and It’s Randomonium!, and is a co-creator of WiredJournalists. He’s a bit of a mover and/or shaker in his local scene and, in my opinion, has talent far exceeding his place in corporate America.

But enough butt-licking. I’m here to present ideas, not convince my friend he’s God. (Plus it’s hard to be sycophantic toward someone who doesn’t have the good sense to move out of North Dakota…)

Anyway, a lot of the ideas I have about the internet, communications, and media either come from Zac or are things we both independently discovered and coincidentally agree with each other about. So it only seemed natural to me to post the entire conversation we had back in July. This is by no means an exhaustive delving into Zac’s ideas, but it’s a good summary. If you really want to get in-depth, I highly suggest you check out his Blog-o-Blog. Since I don’t really have a byline, consider this Zac’s co-author credit, because it’s just as much, if not more, his writing as mine.

How did you go about amassing so many contacts and networking? How much work does it take per day, on average, to acquire new contacts and maintain old ones?

I never really tried to build a large network. It sort of just happened. It started out because there were a few journalism related blogs out there I thought were interesting, but they didn’t touch on bigger issues. Blogs tend to be short posts about random things happening in a given area, but I wanted to participate in that conversation. It started by getting into lots of debates within the comments of other posts, but then I started blogging to write longer, more cerebral pieces that I thought needed to be addressed but didn’t quite fit well in the comments of other people’s blogs.

As I posted more and read more, it just grew. I’d follow links from the blogs and sources I read and if it was consistently interesting to me, I’d follow those blogs too and on and on. Information overload happens quickly, so at times I step back and let the core people in my network filter content for me. I guess I’m just lazy.

As for other networks like twitter, facebook, friendfeed and a million other sites: Once you grow a community on your own blog, you’ll notice that the conversation isn’t exclusive your blog(s). It moves around. I try to be where those conversations happen.

Right now, I don’t actively seek anyone out on most sites. I see a few new followers every day in my inbox and if we share contacts or I’m interested in what they have to say, I’ll follow them, too.

While your online presences have nice design, it’s mostly text-based. Would it be possible to have such a presence in the print world?

I don’t like design that gets in the way of ideas. Some people like to cram as many links into a page as possible, but I’m more concerned with the content itself.

It’s certainly possible to have a text-centric print product. The New Yorker, for example, has a very conservative design. Many pages are just walls of text. That’s OK to me.

Design should enhance the idea or make the product easier to use, not hinder it. I choose a rigidly minimalist style because it keeps me (and I hope it keeps my readers) focused on the ideas and not the look.

Online and print text-based content still rely on advertising to generate money. Is there a stable, non-intrusive way to make money from content production other than advertising? Will there be?

I don’t think a transaction model (whereby I pay you for for the pleasure of looking at a Web page) will ever truly work on the Web outside of porn. Luckily for us, intrusive and annoying ads have given way to other types of advertising, such as text-based ads which are projected to grow at a much faster clip than the annoying ads.

It’s fairly simple economics on the Web. As long as the cost of bandwidth, processing and storage drops and use of the Internet increases, it will always make more sense to trade “free stuff” for increased market share. It costs pennies to serve up a page, so if you make a few pennies more in advertising on that page you’re doing well.

Current “get traffic quick” schemes revolve around getting other people to link to you, as that’s how Google tends to rank pages. Would this be legitimate advertising/marketing, or shameless whoring?

On one hand, yes it is shameless whoring. On the other hand, it’s networking, community building. A network of links is really just a network of people behind their screens. You can make robots link to you in a variety of ways, but I think people see through that and even if it increases your page rank at Google, you’re not going to see quality page views and you aren’t going to build a community that will essentially act as a free marketing department for you.

While the Web is certainly global mass media, it is also an aggregate of individuals at the same time. When you treat your site as simply mass media as we currently know it, you’re missing out on a huge value proposition–that one-on-one interaction with individuals.

I don’t think we should simply put a generic ad or piece of news content in front of 100 people when we could use the same technology to engage those 100 people on an individual basis. It may be a little more work to do the latter, but the payoff would be so much greater.

What is the biggest thing holding print back from dominance (just a distillation, I know you write extensively about it. Just want a soundbite-y synopsis for other people)? What is holding online back?

Print operations, particularly local newspapers (and local TV, too) need to realize that the Web has destroyed their geographic monopolies. The technology on the Web has lowered the barriers to entry. Anyone with a laptop camera and microphone has a “TV station,” every person with a WordPress.com account has a printing press.

Traditional media were quick to see the value of the Web initially, but have been incredibly slow to understand this essential truth. Rather than building communities (I say this word a lot, but hear me out), they’ve seen bloggers and youtubers as competition. This just isn’t the case. You are only as strong as your network and when you actively refuse to create a loose partnership with real people in your community through networking and linking, while meanwhile these individuals create their own networks without you, you’re placing yourself at a disadvantage.

The only thing that has held the Web back (in terms of traditional media’s use of the Web) is that they’ve refused to dive in and completely understand it, leverage it. Many people in this industry feel they’re in a transition state of business, but the rest of the world already understands the transition happened years ago. Former monopolies will do that to your thinking, I suppose.

Is it worth attempting to break into publishing–print or online–on a financial level? Would one be able to see a recuperation of expenses, at the very least?

Producing something new (like content) costs something. Be it time or money or sweat and tears, it bears a heavy cost. There’s still lots of money on the Web and it grows every day. Good content or good filtering of content to a targeted group of people will almost certainly make you some money. But I don’t think any content creator should expect huge success. The Internet may give you the opportunity for global scale, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

As for print, I’d avoid it. I would still buy newspaper companies, but not for their printing presses. I’d buy them for their archives of information and their efficient ability to create new information.

Any other comments on the state of print or online content production? (This is probably my favorite single comment Zac made.)

At the end of the day, it’s just the fucking Internet. It’s meant to be a place to watch free porn and laugh at the Star Wars Kid, maybe read an article about the platypus. You’ll notice that neither of my blogs have ads on them. Not even Google ads. They never will have ads, either. It’s about the ideas. It’s about creating lolcats, folding proteins or annoying your family with email forwards.

The web legitimizes the First Amendment in ways the traditional media couldn’t. If some people can make a buck off that, great. If not, I hope that doesn’t discourage them from communicating.

Zac Echola is a muffin but trouble. Rick Cummings fancies himself a writer and thinks he’s better than you.

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Categories: web 2.0, zac echola

Content Creation for the Web and For Reals (Part 2)

September 16, 2008 Leave a comment

NOTE: Okay. So. I’m a liar. In that “You said you’d post and then you didn’t!” sense. But a few things in “real life” intervened, so now here I am. In all honesty part of getting this done is so I can get to my review of Metallica’s Death Magnetic, so you have that to look forward to later this week/early next week.

But that’s next week. This week is part two of Content Creation for the Web and For Reals. (Part one is available here.)This one is longer, as I have a lot of material to cover this time around. So let’s dive in.

First, though, some re-introductions:
Zac Echola, an online content producer for Forum Communications, blogger, and co-founder of WiredJournalists.com.

Adam Carico, web developer for Ecliptic Technologies, and musician.

Ben Templesmith, comic writer and illustrator, Eisner award nominee and winner, creator of Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, and artist for Fell (written by Warren Ellis), 30 Days of Night (written by Steve Niles), and Dead Space.

Brian Clevinger, creator of webcomic 8-Bit Theatre and the Eisner-nominated Atomic Robo.

I originally thought that the main thrust of all this would be something along the lines of “How to Make Money on the Internet”, but that has since changed.

Certainly, there are ways to do it: posting advertising banners, selling merchandise, and using Paypal (or similar) subscriptions. Of course, there are some caveats here. Zac Echola sums it up in this: “I don’t think a transaction model, whereby I pay you for the pleasure of looking at a webpage, will ever truly work on the web outside of porn.” There’s a simple reason for this line of thinking. It adds complexity to the insanely simple-to-use internet. Now, it may not seem like much to add another page before the content that says “Before you read this you need to pay me for it.” But that extra step is akin to having a brick-and-mortar store in a good location with big windows and then boarding up the windows and saying “If you want to look you have to pay me to come in.” No one that wanders by your website through a search engine (for example) will want to pay for a snippet of information unless they’re really interested. And chances are they’re probably not that interested. Unless you’re hosting porn.

There are, of course, different models. For example, Brian Clevinger’s 8-Bit Theatre, when in need of hosting revenue, etc., started out using Paypal donations. Not subscriptions, donations. The content on 8-Bit has been, and I suspect always will be, free. However, says Clevinger:

Donations aren’t really a big part of the income these days. I only include the PayPal button because some people complain when I take it down. I suppose it’s a convenient option for folks who want to support an independent artist but who don’t have any particular interest or need for any of the merchandise.

Merchandising is another model for an artist on the web, but for a writer, that may be difficult. I mean, could I really sell a Rarely Important t-shirt? (Well, I suppose I could if I had a clever logo, but chances are still slim.) I have a feeling this will likely only work for visual artists or musicians with a very visual aspect to them.

The most ubiquitous model, though, seems to be the advertising banner. In the evolution of 8-Bit Theatre, Clevinger has moved from donations to banners. “Ad revenue used to be a nice bonus,” he says, “but these days it provides a solid chunk of the site’s income.” And really, banners and things like Google Ads can provide a significant pile of money to sites with a high amount of traffic. If anything it keeps things efficient and economic. Echola sums it up nicely:

It’s fairly simple economics on the Web. As long as the cost of bandwidth, processing and storage drops and the use of the Internet increases, it will always make sense to trade “free stuff” for increased market share. It costs pennies to serve up a page, so if you make a few pennies more in advertising on that page, you’re doing well.

Producing something new (like content) costs something. Be it time or money or sweat and tears, it bears a heavy cost… Good content or good filtering of content to a targeted group of people will almost certainly make you SOME money. But I don’t think any content creator should expect huge success.

So, really, does it pay to be a creator? Well, no. It never really has. I think that’s the crux of it, too. Sure, it’s easier to get your work out there now, but your chances of getting rich these days are probably just as good as they were twenty years ago.

It also takes some marketing and networking skills. Ben Templesmith puts it in a nice little soundbite (like a good interviewee does) by saying “Don’t give up, take crit, … and network network network. Believe it or not, people skills (online or in real life) will get you places your work alone will not.” Templesmith, while being relatively established in the comics industry–he’s recently taken up residence at IDW Publishing, is still constantly working to improve his contacts and his fan base. “I’m lucky enough to have a small amount of name recognition,” he says, “so you really have to run with that to keep your head above water. Initially, my name was mud… though now I have quite a few who will buy things at first because my name is on it, which is a lucky place to be.”

Of course, there’s a flipside to actively marketing yourself, both in print and online. “On one hand, yes it is shameless whoring,” says Echola. “On the other hand, it’s networking, community building. You can make robots link to you in a variety of ways, but I think people see through that and even if it increases your page rank at Google, … you aren’t going to build a community that will essentially act as a free marketing department for you.”

Adam Carico agrees, in saying “Being able to get your music out to more people [with the internet] is most certainly a benefit. I still believe that word of mouth is the most potent catalyst for the ability of a musician or band to effectively garner any sort of following.”

Templesmith has a similar opinion. “I feel bad sometimes actively pimping some things, but it’s the nature of the beast to make sure people are aware an actual book is coming out.” He adds, “[B]ut just showing art off or discussing things about projects I’m doing is something I enjoy.”

The main thing that we’re going through, now, is a transition in the way business is done. Not in an operational sense, the sense that the nuts-and-bolts exchange of ideas, or the actual act of writing, but in an institutional sense. The issue is that the old distribution model has changed. Not is changing, but has changed. Selling ads in a paper isn’t the same as throwing some code onto a page for a third-party ad farm like Google Ads, where companies seek out the distribution channel that runs in perpetuity rather than someone selling an individual ad at a contracted price to run a certain length of time.

The problem is people trying to leverage an old model onto a new system. “Traditional media were quick to see the value of the Web initially, but have been incredibly slow to understand,” says Echola. “They’ve seen bloggers and YouTubers as competition.”

And what that leads to is a transition into a new media model. That transition is something that was the “unspoken” thread throughout all the e-mail interviews I conducted. The connection between the creator and their audience is now much more intimate than it has been in the past. Carico hinted at it when he said “I think [marketing] is part of what sites like Myspace can provide, but I don’t believe that it’s as simple as a marketing tool.” The community-building aspects of Myspace, Facebook, and the comments feature of most blogs imply an interaction that can’t be built by traditional means. “When you treat your site as simply mass media as we currently know it, you’re missing out on a huge value proposition,” says Echola, “that one-on-one interaction with individuals. I don’t think we should simply put a generic ad or piece of news in front of 100 people when we could use the same technology to engage those people on an individual basis.”

Of course, that changes the relationship between the creator and the audience to a point that the creator is directly beholden to his audience, right? Well, probably not. Templesmith says, “I don’t let the audience guide my work particularly. The only time they really have is when I created a small bit character that people demanded more of. Feral Leprechauns proved popular so I had to do more on the little buggers.”*

So, now that the various publishing industries have changed, there isn’t going to be much change for a while, right? Of course not! Our various interviewees had some opinions on where things are going for creative types.

  • Templesmith: The next step is to go all-digital [comics], but that will probably change the very nature of comics and after a point, I will refuse to call them “comics” anymore. They will be a slightly different medium. Not really comics anymore.**
  • Carico: I think that the best way for any musician/artist to make money is to create really good music and form their own label. Be your own boss. I believe that eventually, the old way of doing things will be purged from the system and artists will gain back more of the control of their business that they should rightfully have anyway. Do away with the old … formula that labels have been using to suck the life from artists.
  • Echola: As for print, I’d avoid it. I would still buy newspaper companies, but not for their printing presses. I’d buy them for their archives of information and their efficient ability to create new information. At the end of the day, it’s just the fucking internet. You’ll notice that neither of my blogs have ads on them. Not even Google ads. They never will have ads, either. It’s about the ideas. The web legitimizes the First Amendment in ways the traditional media couldn’t. If some people can make a buck off that, great. If not, I hope that doesn’t discourage them from communicating.

In the end, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? I mean, I wouldn’t have started my blog if I didn’t think I had things to say to the public at large. Writers don’t write novels unless they think they have a story to tell. Photographers don’t take pictures unless they see something they want others to see. Painters don’t paint unless they have something they need to express. If I wanted to make money I could be a technical writer or actual print journalist and churn out per-word articles. Chances are, though, the best way is to freelance in whatever you do. Create the content that you want and then sell what you feel like. Take your time, and don’t stress out about it. This is supposed to be fun, right? We all choose creative jobs because we don’t want “real” jobs, right?

“So really, Rick,” you’re probably saying, “What does this all mean?” Just get out there and do it. If you’re worried about how to make money with whatever it is you want to do creatively, just do it and worry about making money with it later. If it won’t sell, if it won’t make you money, is it the end of the world? No. Everything is in a constant state of flux and what doesn’t work now might work in the future. And you don’t want to be caught unawares by the future, do you?

*The Leprechauns of which he speaks can be found in Templesmith’s Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse.
**For a more in-depth look at “what comics are” I direct you to Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics

POSTSCRIPT
I would like to thank my interviewees first, for letting me pick their brains on all manner of subjects, some of which didn’t get covered here. I’d also like to personally thank Lib Walkup and Erik Wohlrabe, two writer friends of mine whose replies came in as I was in the process of writing this article, so I, unfortunately, could not get their opinions in on this post.

I’ll be posting one more point from Brian Clevinger and Ben Templesmith in the near future, as I couldn’t really get it worked into the flow of this post. I’ll likely number it Part 2.5, so keep your eyes open for that.

For an excellent example of creator/audience interaction, I suggest looking at Warren Ellis’ Whitechapel Forum. Here he builds a community with his readers, and also fosters communication among individuals.

As a final note, if anyone is interested in the original interviews, I may post them if there’s sufficient interest. Let me know in the comments.

Content Creation on the Web and For Reals (Part 1)

August 8, 2008 Leave a comment

Note: I was intending on posting this all as one massive post, but this is nearly 1200 words on its own and next week’s might be bigger. So I’ve broken it in two. Part two is available here.

So, now that we’ve finally come around to getting (most) everyone’s replies in, I can try to tackle this beast. Diving in.

My original intent in all of this was to figure out where one could build up some revenue from an online blog (or other avenues) without whoring yourself out and turning into a bland, formless word machine. While most of the e-mail interviews I conducted had some of that slant, I also tried to get some information about how some people came into their presence in their respective fields, their opinions on print vs. online work, their content creation, how they generate income, marketing, and finally some miscellaneous tidbits. I will work with the first three sections in this post, and go after the last three in my next post.

First, though, some introductions:
Zac Echola, an online content producer for Forum Communications, blogger, and co-founder of WiredJournalists.com.

Adam Carico, web developer for Ecliptic Technologies, and musician.

Ben Templesmith, comic writer and illustrator, Eisner award nominee and winner, creator of Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, and artist for Fell (written by Warren Ellis), 30 Days of Night (written by Steve Niles), and Dead Space.

Brian Clevinger, creator of webcomic 8-Bit Theatre and the Eisner-nominated Atomic Robo.

I included two of my friends, and two up-and-coming/established writers and creators. I figure that this will lend itself well to a variety of opinions and therefore help get a slightly more accurate picture of the current state of things.

Note: So y’all don’t think I’m some misogynist bastard, I tried getting some female opinions, but they either weren’t interested or didn’t return my e-mails after they said they were interested. No one can fault me for not trying. End note.

So, let’s get down to brass tacks.

The first thing I’d like to tackle is breaking into an established industry. It goes without saying that blogging is fairly well settled into its own, and comics, newspapers, and magazines have been around forever. But how exactly does one crack into any of those content generation endeavors? The first step is creation. Does it matter where it comes from or whether it has a definite destination for publishing? Hardly. The one common statement among the established creators I interviewed was that it just sort of… happened. Says Clevinger: “I fell into online comics without meaning to and tripped into print comics by accident.” Templesmith says the same about breaking into print. “No, they just sort of happened,” he says, “[It takes] lots of luck, by being in the right place at the right time, but at the same time, you make your own luck.” Echola goes a little more in depth:

I never really tried to build a large network. It just sort of happened. Blogs tend to be short posts about random things happening in a given area … I started blogging to write longer, more cerebral pieces that I thought needed to be addressed but didn’t quite fit well in the comments of other people’s blogs. As I posted more and read more it just grew.

So what’s new here? Nothing, really. But the main thing I take out of this is to just work and don’t be worried about having a place to publish it initially.

So after you’ve come up with something, what to do with it? There’s tons of places to post something, be it Blogger, WordPress, Flickr, or even just Twitter. What are the differences between print and online publishing? Clevinger puts it this way:

The only limitation of print that I’ve run into is availability. Anyone who wants to access my online comics can do so easily, at their leisure, without restrictions. In the print world, you have to depend upon retailers being willing to stock or order your material. And they have to depend on Diamond to get your comics into their stores. And they can only order your comic during a short window several months in advance. These can be huge barriers to getting your comic to its audience… It boils down to the fact that these are people who make money by selling comics. Webcomics make money be giving comics away.

Echola agrees: “Print operations, particularly local newspapers, need to realize that the Web has destroyed their geographic monopolies.”

In short, the benefit of selling a physical product comes at the expense of availability. If you want to get your name, your work, out there, you’re likely better off on the web with any physical material that can feasibly be put on it. Text/writing, video, audio, photography, any of that sort of creation and art can be distributed on the web at a much wider scale than traditional print media. The problem is that it’s difficult to make money in such a manner, but that is a topic for the next post. Of course, if you’re coming here you probably already realize these things. But I think it’s important to let people know this from the mouths (or fingers, in this case) of people that have done it and are doing it.

As a side note, Clevinger feels that the most rewarding part of his print work is the people he works with: the artists, the printers, publishers, and distribution people. That sort of teamwork is one that is rarely seen in online work, where most creators work solo.

So now that we’ve come past the initial intent to create, and the method of delivery, we come to the meat of it: content.

I was hoping I wouldn’t get the same ol’ “just do something original” response, but unfortunately, I did. But I got that response in phrasing I wasn’t expecting, and that’s why I’m actually writing about the point. The general consensus, as I’ve said, is to create something original. “I can tell you one big thing that separates me from most of the other ‘artists’ in comics,” says Templesmith, “is that I do practically everything myself, rather than rely on a single person to draw, then another to ink, and yet another to color the art. It’s all me. I am certainly not the typical “comic book” style, that’s for sure.” Clevinger adds, “Do what you do better than anyone else. That way they have to come to you to get it.”

From an institutional standpoint, it’s a good thing to remember that ultimately, you are the creator. In any company situation (that is, a publisher or record label situation), remember that. “The artists make the money flow,” says Carico, “not the labels.” Your content makes the whole deal work, so make sure it’s original and done well.

That’s all for this half of the post. The next one will deal with creating income and money, marketing, and some miscellaneous issues. I could say the next post will be the nuts-and-bolts part of content creation and income in the current paradigm, whereas this is more of the basis, the reasoning for creation in general. More from our interviewees, as well!