Monthly Archives: June 2008

How Online Fiction Is Still Losing

Man Pulling Building Blocks
In the last post by Gavin we talked about how and why a publishing industry slump will help online fiction. In the comment storm that followed James of JPS/fact presented a counter-argument as to why online fiction is not yet an alternative to the traditional publishing world. James and I were supposed to do a Q&A post on Novelr, but due to time constraints (mine, mostly) we have settled on me writing this post, with him editing it. The arguments and ideas forthwith are, at the core, his.

First, a recap. We know that the traditional publishing industry is upon dark times – an obvious parallel would be the music industry, which was grappling with piracy and the Internet before iTunes came along and blew everything up. In the previous post Gavin wrote that the time is ripe for a similar thing to happen in Book World – and I agree with him. But before we begin discussing how best to blow things up let us talk about the challenges that are unique to us – and online fiction – in particular.


The first point James brings up is that online fiction suffers from chronic quality drought. The problems we have with quality are two fold: first of all we do not have a legion of editors, proofreaders, people who are familiar with text and who constantly hound at authors (again and again and again) to polish up, jettison chapters, rewrite characters, rethink themes and the sort. Secondly, we have little (as yet) serious works in online fiction. Traditional print fiction does not suffer from these problems – their editorial processes are so tight we accuse them (rightly, it seems) of being patronizing to new authors, and I’ve personally lost count of the amount of Book Awards designed to promote an ever-escalating bar of quality for new novels. They also have an old, long-standing gauntlet of academics and critics through which new novels are thrown into … online, all we have is The Blooker Prize.

How are we faring on these points? Not very well, I’m afraid: we’re still figuring out an editing process for online fiction (in the comments section we’ve got a lot of talk about readers being editors – I do think, however, that there is a limit to the effectiveness of this method) – however, as for quality I am confident we will win out in the end. The quality of blooks now are a lot better than they were one year ago, when I first started Novelr – and as we continue to experiment with the form and the function of the screen we will only get better and better at presenting stories online.


Online fiction isn’t as portable as the dead-tree version. We need batteries, we need a screen; that screen isn’t easy on the eyes; we have yet to build a globally accepted standard for electronic books. I have dealt with this problem before on Novelr: like James, I believe it is impossible to port an offline work to the digital world without significant change. Rather, writing has to be tweaked to suit the way we read things on a screen. And that’s leaving out things like hypertext and images – which, used wisely, help boost the immersive power of a story.

We have another problem in this area, however: did you know that only 27% of Internet users read blogs? And if we look at reading in a broader sense we have to admit that we are losing our kids to video, music and games. How many Gen Ys know the pleasure of turning to the last page of a book? If they do read, it is in bites – on blogs and newspaper websites, never more than a few lines of information. We will have to fight to get them to realize stories are another form of entertainment – just because they don’t like the reading they do in school doesn’t mean that reading isn’t fun.

But back to the technology – despite what most critics say I believe we’re in a far better position than we care to admit. I am writing this on a beautiful glossy LCD screen, and Amazon’s Kindle makes some headway in solving the screen and battery problem, though it is too expensive and too rare at the moment for any real impact. But this is what I am excited about: I am following a little known technology called Seadragon very closely – below is a demo of the technology being put to its paces in front of a live audience. My breath caught as I watched it. Tell me if yours does as well.

A Letter To The Publishers

Letter in an envelopeDear Mr Publisher.

I think most of us know the pretense under which we are having this conversation. The question is, do you? Increasingly irrelevant, you are – a dinosaur in the age of the Internet – and you just have to change. No, don’t worry, your counterparts in the music industry didn’t want to admit the truth too – for too long they handled the intrusion of the Internet in exactly the way a business shouldn’t: political lobbying and suing the socks off 80 year old grandmothers. Their lawyers must’ve been laughing all the way to the bank, no? And don’t look at me like that, you’ve made your lawyers very happy too – remember the J.K. Rowling case? That’s copyright, you say? Well, big news for you: you’ve got to rethink copyright – suing the socks of everyone who reproduces content isn’t going to do anything for your business. Not at all.

So what is the future? You can’t think beyond the box at the moment, oh no, you’re too busy worrying about the bottom line, complaining about the short (God forbid you use this term) shelf life of new books, pushing for fancier covers and louder headlines to splash over your releases. You want television appearances, author readings, bookstore appearances – the whole package … and then you stop and wonder why you seem to be losing. You’re doing the things that used to work, but they just doesn’t seem to be as effective as they once were! So you point fingers – you say that these are fallen times, that people don’t read as much as they use to, that books are relics of a forgotten age and there’s nothing you can do about that. But really, can you?

Printing On Demand

Well I’m sure you’ve heard of this. Vanity Press, you call it. Hahahaha. Lulu can never compete with us you say. Well shut up. Do you realize the opportunities PoD presents to your dying business? No? Let me give you an example. At Kinko’s they have this service where you upload a document (it can be as big as an entire book), customize the basic look (cover, fonts, etc) and have it printed and delivered in one business-day. To a location of your choice – say you’re doing a presentation at Hilton, you can have Kinko’s print it out in a store closest to your hotel and have it sent there minutes before you arrive. Amazing, no?

Now apply this to your business model. What if readers can choose to have their books printed in store? See the opportunities this presents to you? You no longer have limited shelf space – you can have a virtually limitless number of books available to customers in your computer system – and besides that you don’t have to – ick! – plastic wrap the books on show! Your store can now be customized to encourage browsing, reading, and imagine how much smaller it’ll be! Death to the big bookstore – overhead costs will kill you on one of those! And think beyond the retail front: your backend will be much more streamlined. No more freight costs, no more surplus stock (wasting paper!), no more burning petrol as you cart books from factory to shopping mall – whenever a new book comes out you just download a shell of it from your publisher’s network! Cheaper! More effective! Do you see it yet?

And all these cost savings can be passed on to the consumer: kill the thought, now, that books are luxury items. Dell builds its computers and ships them in a week; customers love them because they’re bloody cheap! Now you can do the same! And, yes, there may be a few kinks along the way – printing a book will take a few hours, particularly if a whole bunch of customers are buying at one time … but think of it as a temporary setback, while advances are made to our printing technology.


We all know that the 21st century consumer loves choice. M&Ms made a huge killing when they implemented a system for customers to choose the colour of their chocolates. Imagine paying extra for a packet of only pink and green M&Ms! Crazy, no? Now think about what this can do for you: why not let customers choose what short stories they want in an anthology? Why not let them read stuff online and, if they want a dead-tree version of their book, get to choose their own covers? Why not allow your customers to print a message on the cover, the same way iPods can be engraved as gifts?

And why not charge a premium for all those services?

Why A Publishing Industry Slump Is Good For Us

Money In The EyeGavin Williams writes No Man An Island and The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin. In this guest post he talks about how a traditional publishing industry slump presents a unique opportunity for the growth of online fiction.

The illustrious Alexandra Erin, one of the successful online novelists (and by “successful” I mean it’s her day job) recently wrote that the publishing industry is currently tightening its belt in the face of a possible recession. That means there will likely be less sales, less new books, and less new writers. Because in the face of falling sales, the big companies will be unwilling to take risks on new authors until the crisis is past. And, readers will have less money to spend on unknown writers. They’ll want something they’re sure to find entertaining and worth the money, since we’ll all have less of it.

Now, this is where some news anchor would say “This is a good time to PANIC!”

Now, it kind of is. If the rising price of oil destroys our economy and causes a depressed period, that will pretty much suck. I’m not going to sugarcoat that sad fact. So, what chance does the new art form of Online Novels have against a powerhouse industry like Traditional Publishing? Especially in the face of a crisis of global proportions?

Well, because we have an opportunity here. The Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as the one for opportunity: Crisertunity! (Thank you Homer Simpson) If the common reader is going to have trouble finding disposable income to spend on paper books, we can present a great alternative: free online text. It’s environmentally friendly, takes zero manufacturing time, saves trees, and entertains daily.

The Old Way: Traditional Publishing

You know how it goes. A plucky young writer goes into his or her private sanctuary with a typewriter/laptop and punches out the next great American Novel. (I’m Canadian, but we’re talking myths here) It’s a work of genius, with rich drama and realistic characters. The earnest would-be novelist sends it to agents and publishers, writing query letters, hoping for the best.

Form letters come back, saying the manuscript isn’t “right” for their publishing house or agency. Or that the writing is excellent, but that marketing it would be difficult. Perhaps a rewrite? The writer goes back into seclusion, writing like a madman, until it’s finished. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” was rejected 13 times by publishers. James Joyce’s “Dubliners” was rejected 22 times, and then the first run was bought by one person and burned. They had to try again.

Finally, the young writer (probably no longer young) gets an agent and gets published. And then waits for a year while the manuscript is edited and printed, cover art finalized, marketing planned… Until finally, one day there is their book, on a shelf in a store, for the world to find and love.

Readers will spend fifteen, twenty, twenty-five dollars for a paperback. And from there to the neighbourhood of fifty bucks for a hardcover. And that plucky young writer? Well, after the publisher pays the corporate owners, the editors, the publicists, the artists, the printer and the agent, not much is left.

And if a recession closes the publishing world’s doors to everyone but the big names, the bestsellers? You get zero.

The Alternative: Faster, Leaner, Cooler

A new economic model is emerging thanks to the Internet. The Music Industry has already proven it works, and that the culture needs to adapt. Downloads. Why buy a CD with two good songs and ten bad ones, when you can download the two songs you like? Ipods and MP3 players make digital music more convenient than CDs. Some bands are taking this to heart: Radiohead offered some of its music online for free, and fans could leave donations. The whole industry is trying to recreate itself.

Bands are getting fans to help them publish music, instead of turning to big studios. Fans get to feel like part of a community, vote on favourites, comment on albums, and decide who’s worthy of funding. These are exciting times.

Small Crowds Aren’t Very Wise

FanboysThis post talks about how small crowds aren’t wise, how this affects voting-based filters such as Pages Unbound and what can be done about it.

Democracy is a strange thing. It powers much of the Internet we see today: Google uses it to decide link relevancy, Digg uses it to decide article placement and Pages Unbound uses it to determine the quality of a work. This model assumes that the crowd is wise: if a vast majority gives an article the thumbs up then surely it must be a good article, and surely it must deserve a spot at the top/in the front page/where most people can see it.

I have talked about the fallacies of this model before, so I’m not going into detail about the strengths and weaknesses of harnessing the crowd as a filter. What I am going to talk about, however, is an underlying assumption that must be fulfilled before the crowd’s wisdom can be harnessed properly. This assumption is deceptively simple:

The crowd must be large.

I kid you not. (Alright, alright, stop giving me that stare). Pause for a moment and think about what this assumption implies.

The larger the crowd, the wiser it is. Here’s an example: let’s say there are 10 people voting in Digg. I have a story I want on Digg’s front page, so I post it up, vote for it and then look for ways to get other people to vote it up as well. The good news is that I am friends with 6 of the other 9 voters. They vote for my story because we’re chums and – hey presto! – instant fame.

Alternatively, I am not friends with the other 9 voters, and my story sucks. Fret not – I’ve got another solution. I call up 20 of my friends and ask them to register and vote for my story. Once that’s done there’s nothing anybody else can do – even if the original 9 try to vote me down I have enough friends to overcome them.

In a sentence: I’ve gamed the system. The crowd is stupid.

Not so for big crowds. We know now that it’s pretty difficult to trick your way into Digg’s front page. They have thousands of users – trying to trick them by befriending a significant proportion of that voter base is plain impossible, as is bringing in thousands more of your friends. Tricking Digg has been done before (by Wired magazine, no less), but it was done with another concept, one we call ‘herd mentality’. Yes, Diggers can be cows too. (Note: in this particular case the crowd corrected itself at the end. Big crowds really are hard to beat).

Pages Unbound Is – Oh Dear – A Small Crowd

The truth about small crowds is that it isn’t really a problem – communities around crowd-based filters tend to grow over time, and even ‘bring-in-my-friend’ behaviour isn’t bad, because it encourages other slighted people to bring in their friends, and so on so forth, until the user base is large enough to be wise. But small, unwise crowds can be a problem when the voter base doesn’t grow.

Pages Unbound is at the moment harnessing the collective intelligence of a small crowd, and it suffers for it. In the discussions in NovLounge I frequently hear of how new stories leap to the very top of the ratings list because fans jump in, create an account and vote the socks of the particular story, even if it doesn’t deserve it. Normally this kind of behavior won’t make a dent in a bigger, more established filter, because the rest of the crowd would then step in and correct whatever rabid fanboyism there exists in PU. But that doesn’t happen here.

Another point to think about is that rating online fiction (be it serials or blooks or one-off stories) is a very subjective matter. Adam of Penfencer has pointed out that PU is dominated primarily by sci-fi or fantasy titles, so it won’t come as a surprise that blooks of other genres won’t be as well received. This isn’t PU’s fault – the demographics of the web show that people who come online are primarily Generation Yers – teenagers and adults below 30. These people grew up with Harry Potter and computer games so it natural for them to gravitate towards stories with an added wow factor. And it does mean that the crowd in PU isn’t as fair to blooks of other genres, apart from the two Adam has pointed out above.

What Can We Do?

The problem is simple – we have small crowds. The long term solution? Get bigger ones! This sounds easy enough to do, but it ties in with our overall aim to push online fiction to the fore and that isn’t easy in reality. Not many people have heard of blooks/blog novels; even fewer have heard of Pages Unbound. And the biggest risk we face concerning PU is that the fanboyism will continue to persist, thus deadening the potential and relevancy of one of the best filters in our medium.

As a short term measure I suggest implementing moderators – people who have the ability to remove reviews that appear to be too fanboyish. The most ideal format for ‘populist’ filters such as this would be of course for the crowd to correct itself, but this isn’t happening anytime soon, not unless we can get a big enough crowd to PU. And that is one of the things we must work towards.

Till then, we must innovate. All big crowds start off tiny, as ours is at the moment. Let’s make the best of what we have and continue to grow.

Novelr Has Forums!

Right. Just a short shoutout here – Novelr’s forums, aptly titled NovLounge (yeah it was a hot afternoon and I wasn’t very feeling creative, so don’t clobber me) is up and running. There’s a handy button on the sidebar that I put together on the run – it’s made out of various image scraps I’m got lying about the computer and you can use that to visit the forum too.
I know I should give a long and inspiring speech about how I hope everyone will get together and build community and write well but I’ve been doing that for some time now and I think I shouldn’t push it too hard. Well, not in this post, at least. But I started NovLounge to gather a small team of people for a site launch we’re going to do next year, and since I’m going to be offline soon the team and I have decided to open it up to Novelr’s community.

Now I’d like to admit here that I’ve no particular vision for NovLounge – I’d like you all to do whatever you want with it, so if you want to compare notes on the best ice cream flavour, go ahead; if you’d like to talk writing, do that as well. We’ve got plenty of places doing intellectual, so it’ll be nice if NovLounge is a little different: a kind of a laid-back bar for Internet writers. Whatever it is, though, it’s up to you. No, really.

That being said, here’s a brief introduction to the forum: there are four categories: Voxpop (for random stuff), Commentary (for discussion of the medium and the craft), Off Tangent (for forum games) and Lounge News (covers forum news and issues). Interaction guidelines can be found here, and the administrators are, in alphabetical order:

If you know them then you’re probably in for a bang of a time. Head over there now, have a cup of coffee, and enjoy!

Before You Begin Writing Online Fiction (An Introduction)

In this guest post Gavin Williams covers the basics of online fiction for beginners to the medium. Read on to find out more about him.

Coloured Pens In a RowHey, have you heard? Online fiction is the future!

Okay, maybe not. Online publishing is a non-traditional route for writers, and an emerging art form. Novelr’s creator, Eli, has asked me to share some of my experience as an online writer and reader with the Novelr community, in the interests of helping others who are hoping to start writing, and to facilitate the growth of the online book community.

Who am I? Glad you asked. My name is Gavin Williams, and I currently write “No Man an Island” and “The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin.” I read a lot of online fiction, and have a background in literature. A lifelong reader, I have a lot of interest in the future of the medium, and I think online writing will be a big part of that. It’s not the whole future, but it’s an intriguing facet.

Traditional publishing and online publishing are two very different mediums, even though their core material is the same: text. The written word. However, the way their text is presented, and the way their audiences interact with these two mediums, make them very different. We’re going to walk through those differences, in the interest of highlighting the strengths of online publishing, and educating writers in how to use these strengths to their benefit.

Part One: The Delivery

Traditional fiction comes to us in paperback and hardcover editions, on paper, usually in a bookstore. I love buying a new book (or getting an old favourite from a library) and then curling up in a chair and reading for hours. It’s a unique experience, as you get comfortable and let your imagination interact with the words on the page to create a world. It’s irreplaceable.

So, why should you read online then? Well, it’s got advantages too. A traditional writer might publish one or two books a year. You wait and wait for it to come, and that’s if you know about it ahead of time. Stephen King spent thirty years on the Dark Tower series, beginning it in college and ending it as a grandfather. J.K. Rowling started her seven book Harry Potter series in 1995, so it took about a decade to write seven novels.

But online fiction can be published every day, you don’t have to wait years or decades. It doles out its story one chapter at a time, but it’s immediate. This immediacy gives readers new material to look forward to, and can connect them deeply with a story while they wait for the next day’s instalment.

Charles Dickens wrote serial fiction, published in newspapers. It was greatly anticipated by the British audience, and connected people as they all eagerly awaited his continuing story. It gave them something to talk about and look forward to.

Online writers can create that same kind of excitement, by having a new chapter up for their waiting audience on a frequent basis. This suits online audiences quite well, as they will read episodes of their favourite stories during work breaks, or in-between checking their email. Short, intriguing chapters are ideal for the casual reader.

How To Write Long Sentences

keyboardWhen I first started writing on the Internet I owed a lot to Poynter Institutes’s 50 Tools That Can Improve Your Writing guide. The whole list was sadly taken down from the web to be sold as a book so I do suppose it’s lost forever, unless someone can figure out how to view the cached versions of the site. But back to the topic at hand: The Long Sentence. One of the first lessons I learnt from the Poynter guide was how to get long sentences right – how not to write one, how they work, and how to keep meaning clear even if your sentence is a paragraph long. Let’s start by comparing two long sentences:

A career that is spent primarily in the back office for troubleshooting for the benefit of the department can be detrimental to your advancement.

And this gem by Dave Eggers,

I fly past the smaller shops, past the men drinking wine on the benches, past the old men playing dominoes, past the restaurants and the Arabs selling clothes and rugs and shoes, past the twins my age, Ahok and Awach Ugieth, two very kind and hardworking girls carrying bundles of kindling on their heads, Hello, Hello, we say, and finally I step into the darkness of my father’s stores, completely out of breath.

Now the second example is a lot longer than the first, and yet it just seems to work. Why does it work? Why does it flow logically and not collapse inward?

Simple. It branches to the right. Branching to the right is a very important part of a good long sentence, and it is very easy to pull off – all you have to do is to put the subject and the verb as early on in the sentence as possible. It acts as an anchor and prevents the sentence from drifting out of control.

In the second sentence ‘I’ and ‘fly’ are placed at the start, and the rest of the sentence branches out from it. It prevents the sentence from spiraling out of control. In the first sentence, however, a whole chunk of text is placed between ‘career’ (the subject) and ‘can be’ (the verb). Result? An unreadable sentence.

Keeping a strong subject and verb together is a simple rule that should be applied to all forms of sentences when you’re writing to be clear. It helps give shape and direction to your text, particularly if it’s placed at the very front. But putting the verb at the end isn’t a completely evil thing to do – writers do it all the time when they’re trying to create suspense, or when they’re building tension for the reader. This works if it’s done well. Just use it carefully.

There’s one last aspect to the long sentence that I must include before I close: you might not need to write long. I believe that there are three possible remedies when a writer frequently loses you with the long sentence:

  1. The writer needs to learn how to write good long sentences
  2. The writer should stick to short and snappy
  3. The writer should stop squeezing in every imaginable detail into his/her prose

And the third is more often than not the problem. Know when to stop with your details. And fear not the long sentence.