Monthly Archives: February 2008

Applying The Long Tail To Online Fiction

Long TailThe Long Tail is a concept, first expressed in 2005, that talks about how the Internet is changing the way people consume content. It applies to books, music, movies and DVD rentals – pretty much every form of entertainment product there is out there, and more. I first read about the Long Tail in 2006, shortly after the book was released, and I marked it off as something ‘vaguely interesting’. ‘Vaguely interesting’ pretty much meant ‘this does not apply to what I do’. I thought I understood what it was. I was wrong.

I revisited the Long Tail idea today. And I realized much of what is talked about in Alexandra Erin’s guest post is Long Tail in action. This post explores the Long Tail idea and how it applies to Online Fiction today.

What Is The Long Tail?

Now this is a tricky one. The article that started all this (it expanded into the book and the blog) doesn’t actually give an outright definition. Chris Anderson’s opening paragraph is an illustration of the Long Tail in action, and it is only in paragraph 27 that he finally stops his stream of examples and goes ‘this is the Long Tail.’
Long Tail Graph
So what is Long Tail? In short, the Long Tail is a concept that states:

In a market with near infinite supply (huge variety of products), a demand will exist for even the most obscure products.

Chris Anderson backs up this theory in the first part of his article with numerous examples. The one I like the best is Robbie Van-Adib’s question: ‘what percentage of the top 10,000 titles in any online store (iTunes/Amazon) will rent or sell at least once a month?’ The answer? Not 80/20 like many people suppose – it is 99%. He then concludes that if an inventory is unhindered by space, profit margins (it is very cheap/free to make) and time (there is only 24 hours in a day – which means radio stations are limited in their product offering), user demand will continue to exist for very obscure products. These products then earn the company money, and totaled up may even surpass the sales of the hits.

Okay, yeah, fine. The Long Tail rocks for online merchandisers. What about blooks and online fiction?

A Look At Fray

Bloody Hand - Fray Issue 1 Cover IllustrationI’ve no idea how I missed this. Fray has been on the Internet since 1996, puts out a book four times a year (though they do not refer to their issues as blooks) and is one of the best examples of online storytelling I have ever seen. They even have a proper model to sell their independently published issues: subscriptions.

Fray began as a website. It was 1996, and the idea was simple: the web as the ultimate conduit for personal storytelling. A little later Fray started live story telling events called Fray Days ‘that took place all over the world, attended by thousands of people.’ Uhhuh uhhuh. I see parallels with flashmobs here, since both are powered by the Internet. Fray took an indefinite hiatus on 22 Oct 2005.
Fray issue 1 binding
And … they’re back. Issue 1 (Busted) just came out, with almost everything available in the online issue. Notice the blook publisher Blurb at the bottom of the page: they’re one of Issue 1’s sponsors, and I wonder just how they tie in with the whole project. The stories are well written, well presented affairs. Elementary School Confessions, for instance, has a tag line you’ve got to love: ‘Joanne had only two strengths that I didn’t: social intelligence and breasts‘.


I have to say Fray has a good chance of bringing Internet fiction to the mainstream – the people behind it are web heavyweights: Derek Powazek, the founder, was the guy who did Technorati’s original design, and Kevin Cornell, who did the bloody hand cover for Issue 1, is the guy behind the whimsical A List Apart illustrations. Fray is also a part of The Deck, an advertising network for elite blogs/websites … and damn, it looks good.

I am very pleased with the whole idea, and I’ve bookmarked and subscribed to site updates. Fray is high profile and it is web fiction. That, folks, equals one heck of a point of entry site.

[Update]: Just received answers to several questions regarding Fray:

Blurb is a sponsor of Issue 1, along with Media Temple and Wheadon Mahoney. Submissions are by email: Issue 1 was put together a few months before the actual release, and they’re going to release the theme for Issue 2 soon. Derek hints at something more than email submissions this time around – though he refuses to say exactly what. He also reminded me that Fray is not fiction: it’s all true stories, hence the term ‘personal storytelling’, as opposed to just ‘storytelling’.

And guess what? He hates the term blook ‘though not as much as … mook‘. Fray calls each issues a ‘Quaterly.’

Purple Prose: Not A Problem

Purple and yellow asterA few weeks back I learnt the term ‘Purple Prose’. Never heard of it? Don’t worry. It’s strictly the domain of writing geeks, and now that you have we welcome you into the fold.

What exactly is purple prose? I find Wikipedia’s and Deb Stover’s explanations lacking (hell, I’m not going to reference something that confuses me), so I’ll just keep things simple.

Purple prose is prose that makes you wince.

There. One simple concept. It’s stilted prose; overcooked prose; writing that tries too hard and reads like a deflated gasbag. Following the excellent rule of showing and not telling:

The magnanimous attractive beauty of this voluptuous red rose in front of me, coupled by the intoxicating smell it emanated, pulled me closer to this divine entity. Its supple body, along with its delicate and tender appearance made me apprehensive towards feeling it. This was the first time I had encountered this monarch of flowers.


I was worried about writing purple prose for a bit. I reread every passage I penned, scribbled in the margins hurried notes and frightened question marks, and then it got so bad I didn’t touch my manuscripts for a week.

It took about that long for me to realize purple prose was not a problem.

In fact, it shouldn’t be a problem: it’s very, very easy to prevent it. While writing, any and all purple prose can be prevented by saying exactly what comes to mind.

Notice I did not say ‘write short’. Also notice I did not say ‘stop using descriptive passages and start taking adverbial shortcuts.’ The rule to prevent purple prose is so bloody easy I had to hit myself on the head for wasting a week:

Say exactly what you mean to say.

If I want to say they had sex, I say they had sex. I don’t go out of my way to say they consummated their relationship with vigorous bonding in between sheets. If there’s a sandstorm in my story I say exactly that, not ‘swirling twirling maelstrom of dust particles’.

This rule is in some ways related to KISS (Keep It Simple, Silly!), but not to the extent where everyone writes in simple, understated Hemingway style. If you want to write beautiful descriptions say things with words you actually use, not words you copy out of a thesaurus.

It became a lot easier for me to write again once I had this in mind. Purple prose is really just a fancy name for something I had recognized long before, but couldn’t place. I was relieved when I realized this. And I could write again.