Filter Shmilter

Alexandra Erin is a full time blooker who makes her living off the medium. She’s been doing it for 7 years. She blogs at Refresh Monkeys and Usual Nuts, and her main works can be found here, here and here.
Standing Out From The Dross

“Look, I’m a busy person. I don’t have time to read through a chapter of every story on the net just on the off-chance that it might be good. I need some kind of filter. If it’s not a publisher and a team of editors who screen out the worst of the worst, then at least I need a review site that will give me an overview of multiple stories so I can have some idea if they’ll be worth my time.

Who has time to sort through the dross?

That’s a very good question. I’ve heard it posed by people who are within the traditional publishing industry, as a reason why internet self-publishing is a bad idea that will never work. I’ve heard it posed by people who are within the self-publishing community as an expression of a serious problem which must be addressed if our good idea will ever work.

I’ve had it put to me in particular a great many times since I became a vocal proponent of self-publishing both for people who have the talent, dedication, and all-around “chops” that another path might be available to them… and for people who are simply writing for fun, people for whom it might not be a worthwhile goal to pursue a traditional publishing career.

The argument goes that the vast majority of everything is likely to be “crap”, so with no filter – no central reviewers and no barriers to entry – the amount of crap available vastly outnumbers the number of gems. The fact that the creators of the gems may have other options available to them while the crap has no other natural home only exacerbates this disparity.

The result – supposedly – is that anybody with a “gem” to offer the public who goes the self-publishing route is more or less doomed to see their work lost in the shuffle.

So… what do we do about this horrible, inescapable, and seemingly insurmountable problem which besets the world of internet self-publishing?

A Solution

Some have suggested that, in the absence of any kind of central authority, what we need is authoritative reviewers… trusted sites which can highlight the best of the best, point people towards stuff that’s worth reading, and generally serve as the much-needed filter.

Well, I admit that such sites have their uses… and would like to see more of them… but I don’t think they’re really the best solution to this particular problem. No, I have a different solution in mind. Would you like to know what it is?

Well, in a word…


Simply put, I believe the problem is badly overstated and that we would be better served by simply trying to attract more readers to the medium in the first place.

No, I don’t dispute the basic premise that there’s more bad stuff than there is good stuff, but as in most cases, I believe we can learn a lot from looking at webcomics … a medium which, when it was new, was predicted to fail for a lot of the same reasons we’re supposedly also doomed: “Who’s going to want to read comics off a screen?”, “There’s no standards, no central authority, and no barriers to entry.”, and the all-important “Who has time to sort through the dross?”

And yet here we are, years down the road and … despite the barriers to entry actually managing to sink lower and lower through wide availability of off-the-shelf content management software, free comic-centric hosts, widely available tools for screen capture and clip art comics… high-quality webcomics have actually managed to become big business, and good webcomics manage to attract large followings and make their creators some money.

How have they managed this, when it seems as though there’s more and more unquestionably crappy comics on the net every day?

Very simply, what we might call the “bottom-rung” comics don’t have any hope of competing with the quality ones, so what actually happens is that only crap gets lost among the crap… gems shine through.

This happens because by and large, people are not only capable of “filtering” for themselves, but they do so gladly… both as individuals and as an ad hoc community, as they exchange links with each other on forums, through e-mails, etc.

Look at these words: “surf”, “browse”… the adoption of those words to describe internet use wasn’t accidental. They’re descriptive. People surf through sites like they channel surf on TV. They browse through collections of links, or sites like YouTube, Digg, and even Wikipedia, the same way one might browse the stacks at the local library.

Now, I fully admit that if you put the question to any of these people as, “Hey! How’d you like to spend an hour looking at stuff thrown up by random people with no qualifications in the hopes that you’d find one thing that wasn’t total crap and which would make the whole thing worthwhile?” the answer you’d get would probably be something like “Um… no.”

That’s just common sense, right?

Yeah, well, they’d say “Um… no.”… and then… they’d go right back to their web surfing, an activity that consists mostly of doing just that.

The simple truth behind this all is that if you’re making a webcomic or writing something a long-form piece of web literature, the answer to the seemingly all-important “Who has time…?” question is surprisingly simple: your target audience does.

After all, who even has time to sit in front of a computer screen and read stuff in the first place?

Users With Too Much Time

Here’s a little example: when I first launched my current flagship story, Tales of MU, I posted it on Livejournal… mostly as an experiment in the marketing advantages of doing so. One such advantage is that people would subscribe to the story by “friending” me, and this allowed me to view the profile and interests of a large segment of my readers. Even now, I can still track back hits from Livejournal users who are following my RSS feed.

Do you know what I have learned from this impromptu bit of market research?

A surprisingly large number of my readers like to knit… or crochet… or do needlepoint. Now, if you’ve never read my stories, I will tell you right off the bat: they are not heavy on the yarncore.

So, what exactly is up with this odd statistical anomaly?

To paraphrase one reader on why she prefers online serials, “You ever try to read a book and crochet at the same time?” These are people with time on their hands and hobbies that keep them sitting in one place for long periods of time. Forget all the rhetoric about how much reading on a screen sucks: a story which appears “heads up and hands free”, scrollable at the touch of a finger, is perfect for a reader who’s involved in this kind of handicraft.

This isn’t to suggest that the future of online literature is entirely in the hands of the arts-and-crafts set… rather, it’s in the hands of people with time on their hands and access to the internet.

How about bored office workers in a business place with lax computer use policies (or lax enforcement?)

How about students who always finish their assigned work fifteen minutes into the class period and then have forty-five minutes of free internet use to fill?

How about insomniacs?

Now, I can already hear rebuttals forming about other, better ways to spend that time… because I’ve had this conversation before… and tellingly, always with other writers. This leads me to what is the central point which I think we as a community need to grasp if we want to succeed in reaching a wider audience, as individuals and as a community: call it the WANT principle.

We Are Not Typical.

Do you feel lonely when you have nobody to talk to? Do you feel at a loose end when you’re left to your own devices? Do you feel neglected when you’re all alone at a table in a lunch room? Do you feel bored when there’s no work to be done?

If you’re a writer, the answer is probably “no”… or at least, not to the same extent as somebody who isn’t a writer. Writers as a group are imaginative, driven to create, and capable of entertaining themselves.

Writers also likely work a full-time job on top of writing, which leads us to set a higher premium than most people on our free time and the attention we’ll give to some new entertainment.

For these reasons and more, we are exactly the last group whose habits and proclivities should be considered when we’re trying to figure out how to connect with a larger readership.

The “filter” provided by something like a review site would provide a valuable service for people who are discriminating in how they spend their free time, but nobody is ever going to achieve an appreciable level of success by catering exclusively to the narrow pool of people who feel their time is well-spent reading a story off a screen but aren’t willing to spend it idly browsing and randomly surfing… people who, in short, are already passionate about web literature.

Incidentally, these are also the only people likely to be reading the review site in the first place. Such a site would only really be useful to people who’ve already got a foot in the door… it would be a very rare reader who simply up and chose to start reading web lit, sought out a review site, and then proceeded to make an informed decision about which story to begin with.

As the community of web lit readers grows, trusted reviewers will take their place within it as they have done for webcomics, as will such things as topsites and various other forms of link networks… but it is possible and even easy to overestimate the necessity of such things. The community will grow on the strength of its ability to attract new readers, and this will be accomplished not by convincing discerning skeptics that yes, we do have a way of separating the wheat from the chaff for them!, but by getting the internet-surfing public at large to read our stories in the first place.

The best way to accomplish this is for each of us to put ourselves in the path of “casual clicks” of people who do have time to burn… I could (and probably will) write a whole separate post on just how that is best accomplished, but for now I will just say that this – and not any idea of “filtering” – is the true key to success, for any of us as individuals and for all of us as a medium.

Look at webcomics. Look at[1] fan fiction and erotic fiction, which are probably the two biggest categories of prose stories on the web both in terms of amount of content and number of readers… the vast majority of examples of these that you can find are pretty abysmal, but people keep reading them anyway, because they know there’s some good ones… and when they find them, they are so overjoyed that they plug, they praise, they post links… and in short order, an internet star is born.

It’s not an immediate process… it’s not even an automatic one… but if your masterpiece hasn’t found an audience yet, I can promise you that it isn’t because a bunch of lesser works are somehow getting in the
way. The internet doesn’t work like that. That besides, the public awareness of what we are doing is so low that even the crappiest of crappy stories effectively raises our profile as a whole and will likely succeed in making people hungry for something better. If we for some reason did try to systematically exclude the most amateurish offerings, we would only succeed in making it harder for readers to graduate from such works to more professional ones.

In the end, the vast majority of people will judge your work for themselves… so you can best serve yourself and the medium by giving the vast majority of people a chance to do so. Put yourself out there, in other words. Advertise. Exchange links. Form an alliance, or collective, or whatever, with other like-minded, talented authors. Encourage your readers to share the link… people can be surprisingly shy about this, if you don’t give them explicit permission and an occasional prod.

Above all, don’t break a sweat over how much “dross” there is out there… don’t worry that there’s nobody “trusted” or “notable” around to recommend you (though by all means, welcome all the plugs you can honestly come by)… in short, don’t worry that nobody is filtering. Our critics within the traditional media and assorted erudite twits will be decrying the rise of “amateurism” on the net for decades to come, but it will not hurt us any.

1.(The phrase “look at” is used here in a purely rhetorical fashion. I don’t recommend anybody actually “looks at” these categories of fiction on the internet, and I furthermore disclaim all responsibility for the health and sanity of anybody who does.)

Alexandra Erin’s flagship story, Tales Of MU, can be found here. There’s a review of it on Novelr, but this isn’t expected to draw in many new readers to her already fanatical fanbase. Just click the link and read, won’t you?

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Writing Web Fiction