Why You Will Never Read Fiction Online

Cory Doctorow has posted an interesting article at Locus Magazine about why reading ‘long-form works’ off the screen will never succeed – not that there’s anything wrong with reading off the screen – just that novels aren’t written or made to be read in a digital environment.

His article goes on to say the various problems facing reading novels online: the multitude of distractions available with a click of the mouse (oh wow – i need to clear up my spam folder!), and the fact that pleasure reading on a computer is in a splintered, scattered form.

The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.

His observations are true, for someone who has published 3 books and then released the entirety of all 3 books on his blog. In unbroken text, under a Creative Commons License, no less. So let’s ask ourselves, is it possible to release fiction online and attract a sizeable audience doing so?

I believe it is possible, but very difficult. Writing a novel in blog form to me has always been just another way of writing a book. There may be readers, and then there may not be readers. But putting your novel in a digital format allows for a lot more flexibility (and a certain degree of interactivity) that writing in, say, a spiral bound notebook.

So what works for online reading at the moment?

1. Really Short Stories (RSS?) – Millions of people read blogs everyday, and if there are people reading personal blogs like Dooce and An Unreliable Witness then it is only safe to assume that people will read fictional accounts of the lives of fictional characters. So while we can have fiction on the web, the stories presented cannot be as long as Lord Of The Rings, or even War and Peace.

2. Sharp Writing – We deal with words on the web. There is no escaping that, even with the proliferation of broadband and the rise of streaming (music and video). People still communicate with each other through words, and it is in our best interests to devour sharp, witty, high quality writing that comes in bite-sized pieces. Which brings us to our next point:

3. Bite Sized Pieces – There has to be a system for delivering your story in acceptable portions (not too often, yet not too spaced out) and each portion must be of an acceptable lenght. How can this be accomplished? Blogs may have RSS feeds, but there is the inherent problem of the reverse chronological order that its posts are presented in. Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town has a service that delivers chapters (from chapter 1 to chapter 2 and so on) to your favourite RSS feed reader every few days. And I’m very interested with an experimental online book form that can be found at the Institute for the Future of The Book (link).

4. Pictures, videos, sound - I won’t go so far as to say that all books should have pictures and videos and sound, but all these three are possible with the web, why not make use of them to enhance your (sharp) writing? Pictures accentuate points in the text (if the text is a wee bit long), and videos and sound are an accepted part of high speed internet entertainment. Again, if it’s out there, why not find a way to incorporate it into online fiction? Why ever not?

5. Don’t write a novel -Yeah, you heard that right. There are a generation of writers now – online, whether they’re bloggers or not. They write short pieces, funny pieces, pieces that get read. They’re not writing a novel, but their work (or their blogs) can be turned into books. So I suppose we have to concentrate on the little things, the parts that make our blog a whole, before we even think about book deals and whatnot.

Cory Doctorow is right. While we’ve made leaps and bounds in the social aspects of the internet, the majority of writing and fiction and literature still goes through the same (offline) channels as before. Blooks and online fiction may be an alternative way, one that breathes new life into the publishing industry, but it isn’t one that can easily succeed in digital form alone.

We will not be able to produce War and Peace successfully online, granted. Nobody will read it. But this is where I see some hope – if the web allows anybody to write, and this writing is short and sharp and readable within the distracting environment of the web, then we’re bound to get something brilliant.

After all, amongst the 1,094 million internet users worldwide (Jan 2007, source), there’s got to be something worth reading out there, right?


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Category: Publishing · Writing · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://hopcottfictionblog.hopcott.net/ Rob Hopcott

    Nice blog!

    Funny thing is that most of the readers of my free online short stories, novels and novellas seem to read them during the working day!

    Maybe there is a huge market out there of bored office workers who want to escape to a different world of romance and adventure during their tea break (or maybe even longer, if the boss doesn’t notice).

    WordPress blogs allow the creation of static pages which don’t have to be chronological and are ideal for short stories and online novels because they stay visible and aren’t archived. Chronological posts are also available, as needed.

    Bye for now


    (Rob Hopcott – online author)

  • http://www.ohouse.ca Gloria Hildebrandt

    I will probably always prefer to read books in hard copy, for all the usual reasons. And I would probably not write, that is compose, a novel in blog form, because I do a whole lot of revising before I want to share my work. But there may be a great use for blogs in PUBLISHING already-written, well-crafted novels that have not yet been picked up by established publishing companies. I’m doing this on my ohouse.ca site, posting a portion of my complete novel every day or so. I am learning that more people are reading it than I realize. I don’t have many comments, and people tell me that they don’t think it’s appropriate to comment on my novel — but it would be great! Just a note that something worked or didn’t, or they like this character or that one is a bore, could start discussion that I would greatly appreciate. The ultimate goal is to get this novel published in “real” book form, but if that never happens, it is still being read, which is the whole point of why I spent years writing it in the first place. It’s far better than having it gathering dust on a shelf in my office.

  • http://novelr.com Eli James

    To Rob,

    You might be right with the fact that office workers will resort to reading novellas online for entertainment because videos and music are too obvious (I’m refraining from saying ‘lol’ here ;P). But the fact remains that reading long-form fiction that has not been specifically customized and presented with the web environment in mind is tedious and hard. We may get readers, but more likely than not they’ll go away to check their inbox or to email their friends or to IM thier spouses. So we’re facing problems both with the form (we can’t present our readers with a LONG block of unappealing text, all our chapters) and the content, which is more often than not written like the paper novel.

    Thanks Gloria for your comment. Now you’ve started the little cogs in my head going round and round again.

    I admit what you’ve suggested hadn’t occured to me while I was writing this post, mainly because I was trying to build upon the points in Cory Doctorow’s essay.

    And you know what? I have to agree with everything you’ve said. If a novel has been written ‘offline’ and a lot of sweat and blood and soul has gone into the novel, and it’s not published, then it should be posted online, mainly because there’s nothing to lose.

    Brilliant point. I’m going to brood over this and write something on it.

    Thank you.

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  • http://undeadflowers.com Richard

    Thanks for a very interesting post. I’ve learnt much of what you’re saying the hard way with my fiction blog.

    I started off trying to write a (somewhat episodic) novel online. It was hard to read, disjointed to write and impossible to retain readers.

    It took me a while to realise just how different the presentation of fiction needs to be in order to be relevant and interesting online.

    Over the last few months, I’ve tried to implement almost all of your suggestions. It seems to be working. Certainly, I’m getting a heck of a lot more out of it than I was!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Wow, Richard. Your blog has readable fonts, is cut into short and consumable bite-sized pieces, and above all looks appetizing (alright, so perhaps I’m starting to make this sound like a dish).

    I haven’t started reading it yet, but I’ll bookmark it for future reference. Looks promising enough!

  • http://undeadflowers.com Richard

    Thanks for the nice comments! The blog’s changed a lot since I started: I used to have tiny print and long, long posts.

    These days I have a limit of 350 words per post and I try to take as my model those comic strips you get in newspapers like Doonesbury, The Boondocks (RIP) and Garfield where you have a short, punchy and relatively self-contained piece; but if you read several in a row you see that there’s a larger story at work.

    I don’t think I’ve succeeded yet, but I hope I’m getting there.

    Oh yes, and I’d avoid the Pilot Episode if I were you–that was my attempt at writing a novel online. It’s waaaaay too long and not very user friendly. And you don’t need to have read it to understand anything from ‘Season 1′ onwards.

    One of these days I’ll probably take it down.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Interesting way of presenting fiction online, Richard. As I said, I’ll be keeping a keen eye on undead flowers … it seems to be coming along very nicely. :-)

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  • http://www.fictionmonster.com pj

    Just found the site from the article about Ficlets/Portrayl and I’m loving it so far having just started my own writing blog.

    Now I’m beginning to rethink the whole ‘posting short stories’ idea.

    Oh well, back to the drawing board.. or is that the blank page?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Hello pj.

    I find there is plenty of time for the concept to prove itself … or otherwise. But I still firmly believe in blogs as the perfect medium for posting fiction on the Internet, if only because it gives absolute control over how the text is presented.

  • joel

    I agree with Cory. I think it’s fun to read short stories off the web, and I think it’s a great way for authors to get their work out but there’s something even better about holding a book in your hands.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Well joel, that depends on the quality of the story, doesn’t it? I believe both are fun, in the right hands (or nib, if you want to call it that).

  • http://www.crystalmaiden.com Theresa

    On the contrary, although it is rare to a a successful online author, good writing finds a way of getting around when it comes to long fiction. There is a website called fictionpress.com where people post full length fiction stories, and some of the stories on that site have thousands of fans. The amazing thing is that most of the authors are about 13 years old.

    So yeah, there’s a whole market out there that adults aren’t aware of. When it comes to teens and kids, believe me, there is a HUGE market for YA fiction. Kids spend tons of time online, right? Well a lot of them spend it reading other kids’ writing. It’s mind blowing how many young authors are out there.

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  • http://eftos.de Eftos

    you forget the new technologies / portable devices. online reading in nature will come.

  • http://jamesbent.com/blog James Bent

    Wow, this post was incredibly short-sighted. Two years and a half years later and what are people doing? Reading long form fiction on a screen. I was really resistant to saying books are “dead”, but as a mainstream device, I believe they are. I used to sit on the bus and think “look at how many people are reading books.. how can books be dead?”, but then the other day I realized “yeah, but how many people are surfing the internet, reading papers, reading stories etc… on their mobile phones?” Lots.

    jamesbent.com/blog – daily offbeat (digital) fiction short stories.

  • http://jamesbent.com/blog James Bent

    Sorry, correction – Cory Doctorow’s view was short-sighted.

  • Logic Replacement

    Ben Wood has recently started his own fiction story site called Army of Puppets. It has an interesting “reader” on the site.


  • Rob

    As someone writing in 2015, I can say that, fortunately, the view expressed in this article has proven basically wrong. Worm, an online novel by Wildbow, comes in at 1.75 million words, which is probably longer than either War and Peace or the Bible. It has proven quite successful I would argue. Another fantastic example would be HPMoR.