Comic Scrapers: Threat or Menace?
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This post originally ran June 23, 2011. If you’ve ever been curious about the kind of information, tutorials and advice that you’ll get as part of your subscription to Webcomics.com, this is a good example.
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Comic scraper sites (and apps) pop up at the rate of every other month or so. Typically, they use a webcomic’s RSS feed to “scrape” the comic and use it for their own purposes — whether it’s a collection of their favorite comics in one site or an app that allows a reader to easily surf all of their favorite comics in one, easy place. In general, comic scrapers take only the comic, leaving behind the other elements of the webcomic site — like the blog …and the site’s advertising
The scraper dilemma
Scrapers tend to present a heck of a dilemma for webcartoonists.
On one hand, they’re having a negative effect on your ads. If they’re taking your comic out of the RSS feed and displaying it on their own site/app, they’re stealing ad views outright. Some of them even go so far as to place their own ads above your content — in a sense, helping themselves to the ad views that you’re helping to generate.
On the other hand, they’re presenting your comic to new readers who may not have discovered your work otherwise. And, some will argue, these new readers just might one day support the comic by purchasing merchandise, etc. So those nickels you’re losing in ad revenue might just come back dressed up like dollars.
Something for nothing
I think I finally put my finger on an important aspect of comic scrapers. Here’s my response to someone who discovered the site when he tracked an uptick in Web traffic to their site.
You found out about this scraper when you found that they had sent you some traffic.
You hadn’t advertised and gotten the surge. You hadn’t gotten the extra traffic as a result of your readers spreading the word about your great work. You hadn’t done a comic that had gone viral and garnered new looks from people on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, StumbleUpon, etc.
You hadn’t earned it. It was just given to you.
You got something for nothing.
When was the last time you got something for nothing? And how many times have you realized later that it really wasn’t for nothing… there was actually a hidden cost that you hadn’t been able to see originally?
I’m suggesting that maybe— maybe — these kinds of sites offer exactly that kind of deal.
So if you do participate, do so with your eyes wide open. Know your risks and know what you stand to lose if this doesn’t exactly work out. If you can accept the risks, you’re entitled to any rewards.
Speaking only for myself, I’m not willing to give up my ad revenue in exchange for new readers. I can find new readers. New readers are everywhere. And there are lots of ways to direct them to my site.
Ad revenue isn’t so easy to come by. Just ask all of the webcartoonists who were scuttled by ContextWeb (back when they were called ADSDAQ*). Ask anyone who fights to see his or her Project Wonderful slot to be filled by anything but “YOUR AD COULD BE HERE!”
Comic scrapers take away something that is scarce (ad money) and offer to replace it with something that is plentiful (new readers).
But there’s another piece to the equation…
Active readers vs Passive readers
“Anything that exposes new readers to my comic is a good thing.”
That’s another one of those sentences that makes me cringe a little.
Mostly because it misses an important point.
There are two types of readers. Active and passive.
Active readers are the ones you count on to support your comic. They tweet, they “like,” they upvote… and they buy.
Passive readers are people who read the comic, enjoy it, and do little else. They’re the ones who come up to you at a convention and say, “I just want to say thanks for doing a great comic.” And that’s just what they do. They’re not bad people — they’re actually wonderful. And they’re a crucial part of your business. Where active readers give you money overtly, passive readers generate income for you passively — through ad views.
Now, it’s completely possible that you will find a certain number of active readers through a comic-scraper site. But, the odds are overwhelming that you’re much more likely to accumulate passive ones. And if they’re not being exposed to your blog or any other method you may use to communicate with readers, you’ve got an uphill battle in converting those readers into active ones.
This is particularly bad news if these are passive readers that you are blocked from collecting revenue from in the form of ad views. It’s worse yet if the scraper is collecting that passive money — based on the traffic that your work is helping to generate.
Something for something
With that in mind, here’s what I want you to understand when it comes to comic scrapers. You’re not getting free traffic/exposure. You’re not getting something for nothing. You’re paying — maybe not much, but paying nonetheless — for that site to accumulate readers that you have a slim chance of ever profiting from.
If you understand the hidden cost, then you can make the choice that’s best for you.
Mercy for scrapers?
For me, I tend to disallow my comics to be used on comic-scraper sites. However, when I’m drafting my cease-and-desist e-mail, I always bend over backwards to be as polite and non-aggressive as possible.
Because, in my experience, I’ve yet to find a malicious comic scraper.
Every last one of them have been somewhat shocked that I wouldn’t want to participate because every last one of them was convinced that what they were doing something that would help both webcartoonists and readers. Every scraper I’ve ever e-mailed with had nothing but the best intentions.
So, if this is something that you decide doesn’t work to your best interests, be firm but be nice. Scrapers need love, too.
* Now, they’re called PulsePoint.