Author: T. E. Waters

I write. >:B

Half-formed thoughts on Kindle Unlimited

To add onto SgL’s last post — I have been wondering if Amazon’s latest program, Kindle Unlimited, the subscription service released back in July to compete with Scribd and Oyster, is part of their ongoing experiment with non-traditional models. (And if Kindle Serials, which functioned much like a subscription service, has become obsolete and will ultimately be phased out.) A lot has been said already about KU from a reader’s perspective, as well as a lot of ongoing chatter/controversy at various writer boards, so I’m wary of adding much more to the conversation.

But. A few things that have been on my mind:

1. The rise of paid serials outside of existing programs (in particular Kindle Serials)

– I think this started roughly in 2013 with H.M. Ward and her (still ongoing) “Arrangement” serial. Each installment is short novella length (~20k?) and published for $2.99.  She’s been wildly successful, obviously. This led to a surge of serialization in various romance subgenres.

– To be precise, there was stuff going on with the form as early as 2011, and 2012 is probably where it first started hitting its stride on Amazon, especially in the erotica/romance realm (H.M Ward among them). I remember this being the impetus (or one of them) for the Kindle Serials program (unleashed late 2012). I wasn’t paying as much attention at the time though, so please do correct me if I’m mistaken. (2013 is only when it seemed to me serials started becoming “mainstream” due to a variety of factors.)

– 2014 in particular saw the rise of serialization in paranormal romance, with several writers finding great success there, all without relying on Kindle Serials

– I believe SF was the other genre that saw an indie serialization boom thanks in part to Hugh Howey (but I did not watch this as closely)

2. Ye Olde Pricing Dilemma

– H.M. Ward prices each installment at $2.99, as mentioned above. A fair number of serializers follow this model too. But there are also a lot of 99c per installment serializers, who then price higher for “bundled” versions of the story. Installment lengths vary (especially depending on genre), but are generally in the 10k-30k range.

– There was a lot of vocal reader complaint about these pricing models, especially since way back at the start of the Kindle/self-publishing movement the fad had been full novels priced at 99c (with $2.99 being the other common option). There’s been a definite shift in pricing models over the years, but it’s also undeniable that the math can be harsh for the serial reader: last I checked “The Arrangement” is now on part 17, for example, with several offshoots. That’s $50+ in all for maybe 3-5 novels’ worth (if we count strictly by words and assume a base of 20k)… which actually isn’t that outrageous compared to equivalent print pricing*.

Of course, either way it hasn’t really stopped these installments from selling like hotcakes. Despite complaints, there has clearly also been a large contingent of readers who are perfectly happy paying for what they love (or who complain about it but pay up anyway).

* sure, apples and oranges, but probably just as much so as comparing serials with novels in the first place

– 99c may be a friendlier price for readers (from what I observed there were complaints even at that price point though), but disadvantages authors due to the lower royalty rate

– This was an issue Kindle Serials faced as well. The program seemed to approach the matter essentially as if serials were novels: a reasonable one time payment per serial with all subsequent episodes free. Great deal for the reader and fair for the author, but potentially not as profitable as independent releases as above, and also not good for writers with really lengthy serials.

3. Enter Kindle Unlimited

– For $9.99 a month, a reader can read anything they want in the program. Authors are paid per read out of a fixed pool (which may just be there for show, considering the fact that Amazon has manipulated the size of said pool every month of the program’s existence thus far to ensure [or so it seems to me] deliberately calculated payout rates). For the serializing community, this is a win-win for both sides… assuming, of course, that the reader is voracious (i.e. reads other writers’ material in the program too) and/or there are enough installments published and/or the writer publishes frequently. Reading either three to four $2.99 installments or ten 99c installments in a month is enough to make that fee worth it.

– But the program’s exclusivity requirement (anything in KU cannot be published anywhere else) may or may not be to its detriment, as well as the fuzzy payment pool issue. H.M. Ward (who was allowed to experiment with KU without being bound by the exclusivity requirement) recently claimed to have seen a drastic loss in revenue due to the program and has since pulled her work out. Whether or not the loss of revenue for her is true, it’s certainly true that readership will be limited to the Amazon customer base (which is nothing to sneeze at, mind).

(NOT, however, limited to KU subscribers. Those who don’t subscribe can still purchase, as before.)

– Also, KU was not designed specifically with serials in mind. Whether or not it has succeeded for novels is kind of a touchy issue among writers. But the impact of the program has definitely been far broader than Kindle Serials. And even half a year in, it’s really tough to gauge the full implications — in particular the question of “who is really using/will continue to subscribe to KU in the long run?”

4. Differing paths of evolution…

Over the past few years it’s started to appear to me that “webfiction” and “serials” have been evolving along different (but not necessarily contradictory) paths — one with a free/community-based model (Wattpad et al), and another, more aggressive commercial model. KU feels like a gamechanger, and yet it’s hard to say how things will develop from now on. The market is in constant flux. I’m not convinced the dust has settled, and even when it does (if it does), I’m sure there will be more changes waiting ahead of us.

Either way, as 2014 comes to a close, there are a lot more options now to consider, especially for a new writer interested in serializing. Having experimented with a few options myself by now (some under another, secret name), I’m not convinced any path is easier/superior to the others.

But that freedom of choice is what makes this all really so exciting.

Wattpad does crowdfunding

I received an email from Wattpad earlier this week with some rather interesting implications for serial writers/self-publishers. Long story short, it seems they’ve decided to start experimenting with some form of crowdfunding a la Kickstarter/Indiegogo.

To my knowledge this is the first time there has been an attempt at creating a platform purely for crowdfunding and tailored solely to writers, in particular serial fiction writers and self-publishers. (Pubslush is the other attempt I was aware of, but that particular program had or has relatively messy execution/ambiguous aims in that it was also originally intended as a hybrid traditional publishing model, i.e. suspicious rights grabs ahoy. They did relaunch last year with a revised model, but I am not aware that the relaunch has been particularly successful. Further reading: Writer Beware, Publisher’s Weekly. Some brief research also uncovered the UK-based Unbound, but I haven’t heard much about that one and a brief glance at their site seems to indicate a similar hybrid model as Pubslush, where funding is not so much the end goal as “getting picked up”.)

At any rate, it’s certainly the first organized attempt I know of to leverage a preexisting, built in reader community/structure… as opposed to the cold pitching model Kickstarter and its imitators are known for on the surface, if not in actual practice. On Wattpad, the readers are already there — and, in theory, a participating author would have already carved out a fanbase from that readership. Rather than having complete unknowns appealing to the masses and attempting to gain traction that way, the setup here has more to do with converting free readers into paying fans. Which has, in the past, been a much stronger basis for successful crowdfunding attempts (this last being more of an example of preexisting network -> active supporters).

I think it’s a very natural move for Wattpad to make, especially after all the fanfic -> publishing successes over the years (minus the legal gray areas of fanfic*). And though I’ve said before that Wattpad’s audience seems to be vastly skewed to a younger (credit card-less) population, things won’t necessarily stay that way, and successful crowdfunding doesn’t actually require a high percentage of supporters…

* Obviously Wattpad does host (and encourage) fanfic as well, but I highly doubt they are going to allow this crowdfunding program to mix with that end of things, as it would raise all sorts of complications I don’t even want to begin to imagine.

There still isn’t very much information on the program posted yet (all requirements so far seem pretty standard for a crowdfunding program, though perhaps people with more familiarity with the process will notice stuff I haven’t), but it’s definitely going to be worth seeing how this experiment plays out. In fact, I’m actually more curious to see how they’ll deal with issues of fulfillment, which have been notoriously hairy for Kickstarter.

WordPress, Wattpad, and FictionPress: a comparison of numbers

Context

I’ve been serializing Memory of AUSOS on a free WordPress account since December 2010, also mirroring releases (with a several week lag) at Wattpad and FictionPress. From August 2011 to May 2012 I went on hiatus while I focused on personal issues and on getting my other novel, The Ghost Tiger’s Lament, finished… during which time I totally neglected the serial. I published “Ghost Tiger” the first week of April 2012, and was approached by Wattpad for a feature towards the end of May. I started posting Ghost Tiger on Wattpad in June, and was officially listed as a feature on July 5th. I also relaunched AUSOS at the same time (in May), posting twice a month rather than weekly as before, and this time making sure to keep the mirrored releases better updated.

Also, my social media presence is pathetic.

WordPress

I did some minor advertising via Project Wonderful shortly after I first launched (December 2010, though the site itself has been around since October 2010), and peaked in traffic at a, uh, very modest 150 visitors a day. Since my relaunch in May 2012 I’m at a relatively consistent 400-600 hits a month (if I update in a timely fashion :P). The only other “promo” I’ve done is announcing updates on Twitter (if I remember to), and listing the story on Web Fiction Guide and Muse’s Success.

As I only have the free WordPress tools, I can’t drill down as specifically as SgL has on her stats, however — i.e. I have no idea what percentage of those hits are readers, returning or otherwise, and what percentage are SPAMBOTS.

Wattpad

Frankly speaking, my record on Wattpad is modest compared to the success other featured stories have had (i.e. up to millions of hits). There could be any number of reasons for this: I write in a relatively unpopular genre, I don’t do much promo, I don’t do much networking, etc. But I have been very happy with the results anyway, and the opportunity it’s given me to reach countless new readers.

My stats as of Jan. 19, 2013:

[Title (Genre*) | Date first posted | Total accumulated “reads”**]

* up to two selections allowed
** hits added up per chapter

1. Memory of AUSOS (Fantasy/Science Fiction) | February 2011 | 970

181 reads on the first chapter
14 reads on the most recent chapter (out of 20 installments total)

The first story I ever posted on Wattpad. And the only one, for a long time. Before my feature, I had at most 10-12 installments posted (recall that I’d been on hiatus for months, and before that I’d only been updating the Wattpad listing when I remembered to). I do remember having about 200 reads by June 2012, right before the feature was listed. That said, it’s a bizarre story in a very niche genre, so I’ve never expected much attention on it, and am not at all surprised by the low follow-through rate.

2. “Thousand-Year Cat” (Fantasy/Short Story) | May 2012 | 304

This is a roughly 8k short story* with romantic undertones that I originally self-published back in 2011. I posted this on Wattpad mostly as an experiment (this was before I had been approached for the feature if I recall correctly), as it’s my one story with the most “mainstream” appeal, or at least the most appeal among the majority of the Wattpad population. I did get much better hit rates on it than I did with AUSOS. (And judging by comments, readers adore the story.) Even so, I doubt I would have gotten half the attention this has if it hadn’t been for the subsequent feature.

* approaching novelette territory, actually, considering the length

3. The Ghost Tiger’s Lament (Historical/Fantasy) | June 2012 | 314,104

28,539 first chapter
11,147 last chapter (out of 23 story chapters, though there are 3 additional appendix chapters that are included in the total count above)

(Completion rate was 50% at one point according to SgL — I didn’t record this though, alas. Nice to know I’m still getting readers working their way through though — or trying to. :P)

Well, that’s a drastic difference there. For the record, I had about 300 reads prior to the feature getting listed. I was actually really worried about the story’s potential reception when I first got featured. Obscure historical time period, obscure setting, melancholy narrative arc, most decidedly not YA, and not really a typical fantasy novel in many ways. But, well, aside from some pathetic tweeting/social media notification, and a guest post on the official Wattpad blog the same day the feature listed… I didn’t do much. And yet readers flocked to the story the moment it was listed. Some of them even liked it. 11k readers have apparently liked it enough over the last six months to finish the whole thing.

Which is honestly pretty mindboggling to me — as a self-publisher who’s quietly kept track of the scene over the past 2-3 years, I’m well aware that many people have been able to give away thousands of free downloads via Amazon (and receive subsequent sales boosts). But out of those sales/downloads, it’s impossible to know how many people are actually reading to completion. My Wattpad stats, on the other hand, are very clear. And very humbling.

Are those readers subsequently crossing over to read my other work? Well, honestly, I don’t have enough comparable work out there. (I don’t even have the Ghost Tiger sequel out yet. :P) But a few readers are branching out, nonetheless (there was a definite boost in stats on AUSOS and the Cat story post-feature, if not so drastic).

Still, without the feature, this particular story would have definitely wallowed in obscurity. Is it possible to find visibility on Wattpad without a feature? Yes… but from what I’ve observed it requires a lot of investment in the community (frex the annual contests/events, forums, comments, etc.) and networking with other writers/readers on the site — and you probably need to be writing in a popular genre. YA, romance, paranormal…

4. The Land of Eternal Winter (Fantasy/Adventure) | Jan 16, 2013 | 24

The first chapter of my most recent, not-yet-released novel, which I decided to post for further comparison purposes. This is definitely an improved hit rate compared to when I first posted AUSOS (*crickets*) and when I posted the Cat story (about 10-16 hits over the first couple of days). Beyond that, I can’t say much yet, as it’s far too early and there are any number of factors that could be coming into play:

– I’m now a known entity on Wattpad.
– This is a fantasy with much more mainstream appeal.
– I tweeted it to my nonexistent followers.
– There is a human face on the cover.

FictionPress

I only have AUSOS posted on FictionPress, better known as the little sibling of the much bigger Fanfiction.net. AUSOS was written with the intention of serialization; the other works I have listed at Wattpad were not. Also, note that FP provides two different kinds of stats records*; I’m not entirely sure they match up (and only one kind gives chapter breakdown), but I will provide both.

* Also, the fanfic/fp community has traditionally valued comments/”reviews” much more than they have valued silent hits (despite typical reader behavior skewing to the latter) — take that as you will.

My “legacy” stats (since December 20, 2010):


Total views: 1311
– 241 on the first chapter
– 71 on the most recent chapter (out of 39 installments total — I break down updates differently here than I do on Wattpad)

That number on my most recent chapter is really an outlier though. Most of my other installments have about 10-30 hits (the earlier chapters have a bit more). I have outliers on a few chapters (99 on ch. 35, 108 on ch. 37). I’m frankly not sure why — possibly those were links I promoted on Twitter or that people got in their email alerts, or people like clicking to the last available chapter to judge whether or not they’ll like the rest of the story. But like I said, I’m not entirely sure how these stats are calculated, so who knows.

Monthly breakdown for the last six months, plus January so far:

[month | views | visitors | ratio of views to visitors]
January 2013 | 129 | 36 | 3.58 : 1
December | 191 | 57 | 3.75 : 1
November | 290 | 71 | 4.08 : 1
October | 378 | 108 | 3.5 : 1
September | 50 | 17 | 2.94 : 1
August | 5 | 4 | 1.25 : 1
July | 34 | 14 | 2.43 : 1

What happened between September and October is two things: I got sexy official cover art (FictionPress used to not display cover images, and when it started, I think sometime last year, I was using placeholder art). I also made a rather belated switch of categories from Manga to Science Fiction, a much more high-traffic category. Unfortunately I can no longer remember when I made the category switch exactly, but it must have been toward the end of September or sometime in October. And in August I believe I didn’t have a chance to update as I was overseas.

The subsequent decline in numbers is expected — regular browsers of that category now recognize that story either as one they’re interested in following or not. And I suspect some have been leeched over to my main site (since there is still a lag in updates). Also, as I post two installments at a time on this site, it’s hard to judge exactly how many people are returning readers and how many are new readers.

What has been interesting to me though is that there is a clear genre/audience discrepancy between the two sites (Wattpad and FP). I don’t have the data to back me up and I’m not going to say it’s a gender or age difference (I strongly suspect the female population is in the majority on both sites, and that ages of active readers/writers skew young on both sites as well*) — but I do wonder sometimes if certain types of readers are actually more comfortable on FP than on Wattpad.

Which may or may not tie in to the fact that there is also a significant difference in discovery/reader behavior on both sites. FP readers rely somewhat less on the social reading aspect (there are forums there as well and that certainly plays a factor, but my guess is that typical story discovery results from regular browsing) — whereas on Wattpad it’s much more difficult to browse “neutrally” (nor is the site structured in such a way that you are encouraged to do so). “Growth” on FP is of course much slower in general because of this, but “cricket chirp” situations are arguably fewer too.

The other major difference, potentially, is reader attitudes toward finished and unfinished stories. Due to the overlap from fanfiction culture, FP readers are used to following serialized work — it is more or less expected for a story to be uploaded and consumed in chunks (in contrast, a story uploaded in its entirety at once is quickly buried behind newer updates and forgotten). When I was approached by Wattpad, however, and I asked whether I should upload my whole story at once, or by installments, I was told that Wattpad readers by far prefer completed stories that they can just sit down and dig into. And based on casual observation, at least, I think it is true that Wattpad readers enjoy reading through an entire story in a single sitting. I don’t know how much of a difference there is, but it does seem to be there.

Of course, FP has been revamping itself in recent years, so who knows if these differences will persist.

* if you look at the fantasy/romance/YA categories on the respective sites, you’ll see that there isn’t that much of a difference actually

Conclusion

Isn’t this post long enough already? I’m tempted to end on something pithy like “go where the readers are, not where the writers/social media gurus are,” but I think I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

The Math of Serialization

Like SgL, my writing roots lie in fandom/fanfiction and I noodled around at various points with sites like Fictionpress, an offshoot of the much more popular fanfiction.net. The problem with Fictionpress and similar sites, however, was always that the ratio of writers to readers was incredibly unbalanced and there was no sense of the community inherent in fandom. I touched on this a bit in a blog post from last year, and may revisit the topic at some point from a different angle.

But I’d like to kick off this blog with something a little different. (and rambly.)

Back when I first started looking into serializing original fiction online (outside of archive sites like Fictionpress), one of my main points of comparison was webcomics. Webcomics are arguably the most visible/popular form of online fiction in the English-speaking sphere. Many of them are quite successful in the sense that they’ve been able to grow a stable audience over many years. This was something I saw replicated only very rarely on the textual side. It did happen — there were writers who did become wildly popular at Fictionpress in its early days (I suspect but am not sure that many of them picked up readers before the site split off from ff.net*), quite a few of whom have since been picked up by publishers — but it wasn’t nearly the same sort of visibility even mid-sized webcomics have. Or, to be honest, the sort of visibility of popular fanfiction.

* ff.net initially hosted original fiction as well. I can’t find confirmation of this tidbit of internet history on a brief search, but I swear my memory is not totally shot and that I’m not just imagining things. 😛 I don’t remember why the split happened (if we ever got a reason for it), but I imagine the site had gotten too big/they wanted to keep the legal issues separate.

Existing “webfiction” attempts seemed to be emulating the webcomic model to a certain extent (independent hosting, direct comments on updates, regular schedule, fairly consistent update sizes), pursuing a somewhat different approach from the archive sites. But for the most part, they too were far less successful than their comic counterparts. This got me to thinking about the sustainability of prose fiction on this model.

Because, see, I realized suddenly that mathematically, it doesn’t really work out.

First, consider traditionally serialized manga. Different magazines have different rules or standards, so for ease of discussion, let’s take a look at Shounen Jump, which publishes one chapter a week per series. For any given series, that’s about 20 pages a week, or 20 * 52 = 1040 pages a year. And fine, take a couple of weeks off for various breaks/cushions for illness: 20 * 45 = 900 pages a year. About 4-5 compiled volumes a year. Most successful series last about 4 years, if not more. That’s several thousand pages for a single series — 12-20 volumes is a pretty good run in general.

But to put that into perspective, each of the three most popular Jump series (One Piece, Naruto, Bleach) has now been running more than ten years.

Now compare webcomics. One of the more popular update schedules is MWF, or 3 pages a week. That’s 3 * 52 = 156 pages a year, assuming no missed updates. About the size of a single compiled volume, maybe a bit less. To finish the equivalent of a short Jump series (say, one that lasts only a year/4-5 volumes), it’ll take you 5-6 years. Or in other words, webcomics have the ability to pick up and build a loyal audience over the long run, for a single project. Like the popular Jump series, some webcomics have been going on for close to a decade or more.

So… images are worth a thousand words, right? 😛 Well, math time again:

The average traditionally published adult novel is 80-100k words in length. Let’s be generous and say you write epic fantasy doorstops that go for 200k.

If we take the saying literally, the equivalent of 3 comic pages a week would be 3k a week.

You’re done with the whole book in little over a year. If you wrote a trilogy of doorstops, you’re done in less than four years. And then you’ve got to move on to your next project, and hope that your audience will keep following you.

That update speed is actually pretty nice for readers. And fairly in line with historical newspaper/magazine serials (though those were generally monthly rather than weekly updates as far as I’m aware). The amount and regularity of content would definitely attract an audience in my opinion — it’s just that you don’t have quite the same long term advantage of comics.

But not every novel is going to be an epic doorstop. At 3k a week, a book at around the 80k length would finish posting in half a year. Barely enough time to get any traction as a serial.

Of course, in practice, most writers don’t spit out 3k a week (although it is totally doable). Even if they can, there is a line of thinking that short and easily digestible is better — the ideal blog post is supposedly 500-750 words, for instance (not a rule I personally care for :P).

That’s about 2-3 pages in print.

So you might think, hey, comics release 3 pages per week, why not for prose as well? That would give you the benefit, also, of drawing out the length of your run.

But here’s the thing — a blog post is a distillation of a single idea. A comic page is a sequential arrangement of panels — adding up, in their own way, to a single complete thought. We simply don’t read prose fiction in the same way we read a blog post or a comic page. We read in scenes, not paragraph by paragraph, line by line. And it makes for a very choppy, monotonous narrative if all your scenes or “beats” are exactly 2-3 pages long. (Notably, people writing on Fictionpress/Wattpad et al. post chapter by chapter — as did, I believe, most historical serial publications)

And I guess this may be the point I’m ultimately driving at. The contemporary 3 act novel is not at all structured “for the web”, whatever that means (I’m aware there are different structures, but for the purposes of this post, I mean the generic beginning-middle-end/setup-conflict-resolution). And… I don’t think one should force the traditional novel to adhere to a different model. Better to write something geared specifically for the web medium. For example, long, involved arcs that can be compiled into volumes like TV seasons, but don’t necessarily follow a traditional “series” pattern — allowing regular but meaty updates that will last for a long time. Alternatively, short, episodic updates/loosely linked stories.

Anyway… just a lot of rambling food for thought. SgL has a post scheduled for tomorrow that will discuss light novels (more or less the illustrated equivalent of pulp serials, and still highly popular/culturally influential in Asia, in sharp contrast to the current state of serials in Western countries) — which are very much the kind of fiction I think would be suited for the web.