Increasing serial readership needs better models

Recently, news articles have generated excitement about serials and installed some hope that these new developments will bring more readers, money, or attention to these online novels out there on the web. That said, there is something fundamentally wrong with the ecosystem right now.

Any standalone website with a story on it has two avenues to finding visitors. First — luck of the draw based on your social media capital. (How popular are you online. Or how popular are your online friends. Or how can you go viral?) Second – sharing traffic from a hub or network of existing readers.
There are a few problems I can see right now that mean some problems for the standalone serializer.

Readers exist, they’re just more likely to end up in a colony

Currently the model for serial fiction is predominantly moving in the direction where someone else is doing the aggregation. Meaning, writers and readers are joining other “colonies” and perhaps not existing outside those spaces.

You have the aggregators like Wattpad, Fictionpress, and Jukepopserials. Wattpad has built up a large community ecosystem with votes/comments that influence rankings. Jukepop has no attached forums but does a nice job of bringing serials together in a friendly place for readers. Fictionpress is an easy step up from its fanfiction.net sister for authors to join.

Then there are a large number of more focused communities like Figment that are similar in concept to Wattpad but highly focused towards a specific female demographic. There is Scribd, and sites targeting cellphone novels, and a half a dozen more entrepreneurial fiction start-ups that I’ve mentioned in this blog but they all indirectly “own” the content by putting it under their own “brand.”

There is nothing wrong with using places like this so long as you maintain your rights to unpublish your work and can secure your work. Of course these sites benefit from the content authors can provide them. They generate revenue via advertising or by clever marketing partnerships with publishers. You are both content provider and a source of regular traffic whose data can be mined indefinitely.

The hope is that the trade-off (i.e., number of eyes on you, the author and your work) is worth joining the colony.
Goodreads is one of the largest and most valuable reader communities out there. Serial authors are barely present there amongst the whole host of other indie and mainstream authors. And it’s not to say serial authors should be there promoting themselves obnoxiously, but they’re not present and in any way able to represent their work or the genre

The sites that list fiction still are small and/or do not reflect reader ownership

It’s fair to say that there are three serviceable directories that point to web fiction of some sort or another. Two of the three are heavily geared towards “written works” and tend to favor novel-like serials whereas EpiGuide is more open on the term “webfiction.” (Recently I discovered that in Europe’s news feeds, “webfiction” is actually more a reference to web tv series than written prose. Google that term in their “News” sections and you’ll see!)

But going through all of these show that the majority of reviews are from other authors. This is a worrisome practice in itself that probably came about simply because the readers weren’t there to fill that need for reviews. It’s worrisome because as a whole authors have a conflict of interest. Amazon recently just torpedoed all author reviews of other authors after heavy criticism of their review system and several publicized news articles about the mischief caused by well-known authors who were sock-puppeting reviews and trashing competitors.

Some of the conflict of interest at these directories could be mitigated if the author reviewing other author’s work didn’t end up benefiting with a link to their serial. The incentive actually to review for “sake of your own exposure” decreases.
Also, the entire thing could improve for those sites if readers truly took over but that in itself seems unlikely because none of the hubs are marketed. Admittedly I would be reluctant to do so given the existing conflict of interests that have been built into these sites.

Creators of web fiction, serials, weblit needs to study webcomic network models and adapt it for ourselves

Last year two-three new networks came online for webcomics. The key thing about these networks is that they did several different things. Most importantly all of them allow you to maintain your own site but basically serves as a “ring” either through direct top-bar navigation or ads in your page for other products.

  • Comic Rocket — provided a means for content watchers to have one place to track every comic (and some serial webfic) in their network. Think of this as RSS feed tracker meets network.
  • Ink Outbreak – Front page portal highlighting “most recently updated” for all members plus a top nav bar.
  • Hiveworks – Comic portal (invite only), with robust internal ad network

These came up in response to the other major networks that come and go for various reasons. All have different motives and it’s also likely that ad revenue is a large/huge part of what motivates the members and/or folk who start these up.

But I think the fact that we keep seeing new networks pop up in webcomics is a hint at continuing need to address the traffic problem that exists for niche content. And I commend them for trying to do something about it and the people investing in such a goal.
Long ago, in the old fandom days, we used to band together using the “webring” concept and in thinking about it, it was a pretty good idea that probably fell apart because of shinier, better options to the official Webring entity.
But it still has merit.

Webrings don’t editorialize. (Or rather, they can be editorial free.) And in general promoting a webring has more likely chance to spread traffic to the entire membership than promoting a directory. More creators are likely to get around the idea of promoting their network with the assumption that people are likely to jump into a circle and possibly stay there visiting other sites.
The real danger of course is more about setting up one that works with the independent mindset of creators who want to own everything on their site, including ad revenues or ad revenue sharing.
I know there are coders out there in the indie community who could figure this out. If you do and want input, let’s find places to chat!

ETA:
1) Running thread of discussions at #weblitpromo on Twitter
2) Storify catching more of Hiveworks CEO’s Antares’ thoughts and a comment about Comic Rocket: http://storify.com/whirlyshirly/conversations-about-weblit-webcomics?utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter&utm_content=storify-pingback&utm_campaign=&awesm=sfy.co_fF1n
3) WFG conversation: http://forums.webfictionguide.com/topic/increasing-awareness-of-web-fiction
4) Goodreads placeholder (no posts yet): http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1215857-would-love-your-thoughts—blog-post-on-web-serials-webfic-weblit?format=html

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11 comments

  1. I'm swooning that someone mentioned us but we're a studio/publisher with some indie arts aligned with us. Hiveworks isn't really a network except for the affiliate part.Though you do bring up valid points, most webcomic people don't like working in the type of setup we have. I get everyone into line by owning a large amount of the comics and investing tons of money into it. We also work as a team and the artists have a vested interest in Hiveworks doing well. It's a give and take, but we enjoy working together so work goes pretty fast.You'd need a unifying reason to get everyone on board and convince them to go along with the plan. The Hive/Pixie over network that is sorta like inkout gets millions of uniques a month and I can't even convince smaller comics I like to let us help them for free. Comic artists tend to be self defeating a lot of the time by means of paranoia.Though there's been enough scams to happen that I find it justifiable. The webcomics market isn't mature enough for real business people to enter so they tend to get con artists most of the time. And the other times the business people aren't really business people but they get the job done. I think other than myself Khoo is the only pure business person in webcomics. Though I could be wrong if Sohmer was business first. Everything else seems to be artists escalating vs those with business degrees or are educated. So things tend to be a mess. That's not to say it's easy for business people either. Hiveworks was a complete mess when we first started. It's just you can't really get past a certain size while doing all the work yourself.Indie people are drilled that it's a failure if you can't do everything yourself. I figure if your making multiple times what you would of other wise by working as a team that isn't a failure.Anyways, this is just my opinion. -AntaresCeo Hivework Comics, Coo Pixie Trix Comics, Coo Slipshine

  2. I've been lurking on the webfiction guide forums for a long time. I used to write web serials about 4-5 years ago (I really can't believe it's been that long). I also just started a collaboration to go into the webcomics world so I think I can provide some insight. I actually contacted Antares because I liked the idea of being a part of something. However, there are some things that I have to do on my own to get established and then become a part of something that I can actually contribute to. I think webfiction can work the same way. The one thing I remembered (and miss) the most from writing webserials was the community behind it. I met a lot of good writing friends and had some good times when I wrote a web serial. I wish I had kept it up in some capacity, but between working and going to school the story fell by the wayside. I think publishing companies like the newly formed Chromatic Press and 1889 Labs kind of speak to the model that you are describing for webcomics, especially 1889, since they are more established. They specialize in web serials and it might be beneficial to have something that is professionally edited and released for public consumption.Another thing is to make the stories easier to read in an online format. I would say consistency in updating and post size would be helpful. Also having the story available in different formats is a key for me. A good example of this would be Tokyo Demons, which you mentioned here before, they have an audio format available that is highly professional. In fact, I finished most of the story this way and was able to do homework, clean, and essentially multi task and listen to the story at the same time. With webfiction, sometimes it hard to follow a story if there are a million things that I could and should be doing. I just simply don't have the time to sit and read a story the way I can with something that's in audio/visual form. I actually think 1889 mentioned a serial+ model a long time ago, in which a story is running serially, but is also available as a fully compiled book. I don't know how that model worked out for some people, but it does seem worth trying, I know authors like Meilin Miranda of the Intimate History has this as a model. Also, perhaps having a wide variety of stories to read. There are a lot of stories to read on WGF but I'm not sure they targeted to a specific audience. One might take a couple lessons from indie publishing in this regard as to find ones target audience. A lot of web fiction writing, at least from my experience reading and writing it, seems to be written for the self first, and then hoping that people like it and it finds an audience, but that seems counterproductive for the people who want to do this for a living. Finding the audience first will kind of dictate the format (long prose, vs. short chunks), update schedule, where you need to advertise. A lot of authors seem interested in capturing the webcomic audience, but I don't know if that's possible unless you create something that is highly visual, easy to read, and is available in various medium. Not every story is meant for serialization or needs to be adapted for that market. I think authors of web serial have to keep their audience in mind more so than a regular indie publisher. Also take advantage of the resources like kickstarter and/or indiegogo to put out professional work in various formats.

  3. I now realize that I don't think I actually addressed the question. I guess, the tl:dr version would be 1. Know your audience, what they like, how they like to read, etc…2. Adapt writing for internet, readability and easy of access. 3. Experiment with other formats such as audio or visual components. 3. Take advantage of funding sites to release professional work. I think what it boils down to as to why these things are already intrinsic to web fiction is time and money. I do think that creating a webring in the way of hiveworks would work to get more attention. (Chromatic press and 1889 labs good examples). I think there does need to be a sort of screening process for this. As a webcomic author, something like Hiveworks has things that I already enjoy reading and as an increasingly business minded person, I would want to be in good company.

  4. Sorry about the way I quickly wrote up Hiveworks. I should have said "collective" or "portal" and that would have probably more accurately portrayed what was going on. (I revised the blog post slightly to reflect that point.)And true – webcomics have had years of experiments in play and some that seem to make everyone skittish this point of another portal or collective. But I've noticed tremendous benefits for a few of your members who I read before they joined you guys and have increased traffic. (And that is only because I used to advertise on their PW spots before they got big T_T.) I actually think (and would guess) that your traffic is now increasing even beyond the baseline too, correct? Meaning that the sum of the overall traffic everyone had independently is far less than where it is now. (I would theorize that under a 'brand' that it's easier for joint investments in marketing — even if people do their own PW marketing benefit the whole.)Unfortunately the webfiction or prose or whatever we call this community is deeply fragmented and lacks an identity. If you look at our major directories and hugs, there is no agreed name for what we do. As someone who wants to address the big picture, this drives me insane because you can't market around 3-4 "ideas" of what this format is.Getting them around one goal might be tough.Most authors start in isolation and are not as socially connected like artists (who many of us meet on the convention circuit) so I suspect that building that cohesion is very hard. (And since the barrier to entry to writing is so low, there isn't necessarily a long-term emotional investment in building something with a long-view towards benefits in two-three years versus immediate traffic."So I guess baby steps might be in order at this point. Thank you for the offer to chat with you more. Let me mull more on this (as this problem has been out there for years) and see what others say before I come back and use up your time with more questions.

  5. One of the things the formal sites do well is have a lot of selection and make reading easy. (I love Wattpad and JP on my mobile devices!) But to your other points about what an author can do on an individual level. Yes – exactly! I agree! 😀 Readability: A lot of indie sites fail on simply being good websites with proper navigation. It's frustrating because there are good tools out there like Pandamian (http://www.pandamian.com/) that can work well. Blogs/Wordpress also do a decent job (and talk nicely to feeds) with the caveat that their post archiving system needs to be carefully thought through.Visual engagement: Agreed. The "visual" aspect too is something I think could be far improved with a lot of online work. I know several authors said they would like to make their work more interesting for the web, but can't draw or don't have someone to do that (i.e., costs money). If you have suggestions on making work more visual (minus the route of commissioning illustrations), I'm sure some would try them. Serial+/Expansion out into the book realm or other realms for discoverability absolutely makes sense. Ebooks/audiobooks are really where readers have also shown up. I like 1889Labs idea and think pushing your serial out of its normal online niche and into tablets, e-readers, and into print are a good idea. One or two authors have said they did have some follow-back from the book version back to their author site or serial sites.Aggregation -> Group effect/Synergy I think we're missing out on a potential synergistic effect that comes from banding together like the webcomics did. But I also am aware that there were some small efforts to try so that were successful to some extent. Digitalnovelists.com is an excellent study… They are an aggregation site as well but they host their stories. Their PW ad data shows that when four to five authors are posting actively, there's a lot of traffic moving around from author site to author site. (It is kind of quasi-ringed in that there's a menu driving people around to other stories.) But as an ad buyer I have seen that when no one is updating the volume is very poor. So small collectives of maybe half a dozen sites don't necessarily do enough, I think. I suspect (just based off what webcomics seem to do) that greater benefits are achieved at several dozen or more sites in a "network." Besides which small collectives are already within our reach. (I'm in one of four people but was the only one posting consistently for a while which meant largely the traffic flow was all unidirectional.) Larger collectives that have many active members are likely more stable and more beneficial in the long-run. The old webrings used to accomplish that until what did happen (I believe) is that many sites died within rings and many people also moved away from independent content. (The collapse of indie webpages probably was accelerated by social networks like Facebook, Livejournal, etc. Easier to update, easier to interact, and LESS WORK to market oneself.) In any case, I thank you for coming here to comment. I would love to chat with you more about your transition to webcomics… will try to look at your other sites too 🙂 PS – I'm excited about Chromatic Press. Granted they're going to be building up "light novel" which I think is fantastic (as there's a fandom built in for that concept). If I had the time I'd pitch like crazy at them. The folks who do CP are following a business model that works overseas and I think shows promise here.(I'm still kind of shocked how quickly they got their Kickstarter funded but think the multimedia aspect and market worked in their favor. I haven't seen any serializers in the indie side do that… others who have tried were in the "club" for years.) So whatever vein these guys are tapping, feel like people need to take notice.

  6. When I first started writing webfiction, I wrote it with the intention that my friends who had enjoyed the story could read it since we all moved away. It turned out that a lot of people enjoyed it as well. I think, however, if you know you are going to write for the web, then you need to write with intention. With the rise of indie publishing, I don't think the days of "If you write it, they will come" hold up anymore because many indie authors are writing complete works and giving them out for free. Why should someone have to wait a week, when they can read something that's all ready completed and optimized for reading in another format? Instead of only looking at webcomics, I think we need to look at indie publishing and see what they are doing. They are studying the market, the trends, and they know their audience. I see blog tours being a good way of spreading the knowledge of webfiction, but it's going to be a hard sell because most bloggers only read completed works that are published by major publishers. The only thing I can say about that is to research and try it. I've picked out many books that I enjoyed based on blog tours (both indie and traditionally published books) and I don't see how web fiction could be that much different. And pandamian is a great tool, but the thing I noticed and the thing that a few vets in the webcomics world told me is that it's better if your comic is hosted on it's own website. That's one of the things I like about Hiveworks is that there's no subdomain hosting. You don't see yourcomic.hiveworks.com. I think a lot of creators enjoy having that independence and that's one thing that tools like pandamian don't seem to offer, though (though it looks professional they way they have it). I think maybe people would be willing to pay for that extra bit of independence. As a webcomic author, that's definitely something I'm looking into.

  7. Visual engagement:I can't think of anything that doesn't cost money besides drawing it oneself. There are a lot of talented people out there who offer their work for cheap and do a good job. Looking back at indie publishing, one of the good ways to capture attention is to have a good and professional cover, if a web fiction author can invest in that, that might be enough. I'm not going to lie, some indie books have captured my interests with just their covers and summaries. Web fiction authors should invest in having psuedo covers that attract interest and they shouldn't wait until the ebook comes out to do so. If a web author wants to make a living doing this, they have to be prepared to invest. If that cover attracts more people than they can attract on their own, I'd say that they made a return on their investment. It's not about the short sprints, you want that 1000 true fans, that long tail. And once you make a cover, you only have to do that once and $50-$300 dollars might be worth it if it captures some of those 1000 true fans. I would also say that having multiple points of entry would be like the Serial+ model and there have been times when I've looked at other people's websites based on the link they've had in the ebook. There are several books that I plan to buy because of it. I'd say to have multiple works available, some completed novels, short stories, audiobooks, etc… Diversify, diversify, diversify. One of the things that Hiveworks did for comics is take advantage of the already existing audience that these webcomics had. For example, I had been reading Red String since the beginning (something like 10 years, I read this back in high school and I'm a grad student now) so when the site gets this awesome redesign and a little logo in the corner, I was curious. I've found a lot of comics that I had never read that way and there were comics that I was already reading and enjoying listed there so I was like "If I enjoyed all these comics, then I must enjoy the other ones I haven't read." I agree with you when you say that we're missing out on the synergy of web fiction writing, that's one of the things I loved about it was the community. I would spend hours talking to people online about webfiction. For some reason, that community wavered a bit as it started getting bigger. Turning back to Hiveworks again, the success is that those webcomics A) have their own audiences. B) update on different days. C) are affiliated with each other, but not tied to each other with hosting. I think C is important because that means that you have different things to read on different days and if an artist is out sick or has to take a hiatus, the chances of something not being available on the hiveworks website is slim. I think you are right about large collectives. The other thing with hiveworks is that it has many comics that have a large backlog of work, which is considerably easier to get through than a backlog of webfiction (ebooks/audio would help in this case)Feel free to email me at ncobb001 at gmail dot com if you want to chat about the webfiction to webcomics thing. Sorry this comment is so long. PS-I'm excited too. This was the type of story I was trying to write online a while ago, but had no idea what it was called or even if there was a market for it. I just always called it an anime in prose.

  8. I agree that there are lessons to be learned with indie publishing. But I also don't know that the success stories are all that common there either. Sure – there are the Amanda Hockings and Hugy Howeys – but they put in many years and books to get where they were and it was largely the reviewers/readers who I think they owe their success to.I'm worried about Indie publishing because while we recognize that we can learn from them, others are seeing indie writers as "someone to profit from." So I view many of these new companies and blogs with some suspicion. Whee.I miss Livejournal. Wish it hadn't met its doom when it exchanged hands. That was a great hub for serial fiction at one point, and a gathering point. It's not what it used to be and LJ left and formed several colonies, none of which match LJ's original reach.I can't think of any place that allows that sort of community at all. Most of the "places" I've seen online are still too oriented towards self-promotion. It's why I almost want to just jump into webcomics like you…we'll see… if time frees up, maybe. 🙂

  9. I think the main things that can be gleaned from indie publishing is their use of professional covers and their promotional efforts such as blog tours and the like. We need to use blog tours to push serial fiction awareness in the way that indie publishers do. Yes, I miss LJ as well, that's really how I got started into everything. I haven't gone to LJ for a while and I haven't had a real reason too either. I do remember how active the serial world used to be there and I was really happy to be a part of it at the time. Also I miss all the universe hopping stories we did. Even though I was probably not the best writer at the time, the community welcomed me with open arms. Alot of sites do tend to skew towards self promotion, but teaming up with other writers and writing sillyfics was so fun and it got us all promotion. Haha. I learned more about the comics medium and realized my web serial story is a better fit for a comic than a prose story. I don't draw though, so I'm writing the script, which is still pretty hard. I still want to do web serials, but I have a tendency to veer off course when working on a solo project. With a webcomic, especially since I'm not drawing it, whatever is created is permanent and I can't change it unless I come up with the money to do so. I think if I drew the comic myself, I would have the overwhelming need to change things. I really do want to do serials again, but even with my short foray into webcomics I can already see the overwhelming differences between the two.

  10. Jumping in here — you know, I'm not entirely convinced blog tours are all that effective in general. I know it's the thing to do and everyone recommends them, but based on my observations blog tours don't really reach anyone outside of a preexisting community (i.e. indie writers only reach other indie writers or other book bloggers). And at least from a personal POV, after a while I basically just started ignoring blog tour posts on any blogs I followed as I find nothing interesting about them. In fact, I tend to stay away from blogs that are primarily filled with guest blogs because honestly they come across as spammy.I mean, I don't think blog tours are entirely pointless, and I've seen ones that were pulled off well — the posts were interesting on a standalone basis rather than blahblah promotion, the blogs were well-curated and directed at the right audience, etc… but those were very, very rare, and I have yet to see evidence that the time and effort put into them was worth it in the long term. Or to sum up, you end up with neither the genuine sense of community LJ used to provide among fellow writers, nor any solid outreach to new readers.Of course, that's just my opinion as an observer. I do agree otherwise about serial fiction writers taking a cue from indie professionalism though — if serial writers don't treat their own work seriously, readers can tell. That said, it's probably harder to invest in your own work when in the short term you're just giving it away for free (and not everyone cares or wants to be seen as "professional" anyway)… In that sense I think webcomickers are way ahead of us!

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