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.


I’ll quote James on this one:

… But for 99% of the world who try and write nowadays it isn’t what they are reaching towards: it’s the fallback, when they discover that they cannot get traditionally printed. It is, for most writers, a way of vanity publishing.

I’m going to ignore the firestorm on whether or not we write blog fiction because we cannot get published (Novelr’s community is the 1% who doesn’t) and focus on the truth of the statement here: most new authors don’t even consider online fiction. They don’t even realize its existence – and even if they do, why should they aim for it? There is no minimum bar of entry, there are few readers as compared to the distribution might of the bookstore, and … wouldn’t it be nice to be able to pick up a copy of your own book in Borders? Online fiction is at the moment a fringe movement – associated primarily with fanfiction, perhaps, or amateur writing.

This is something we must change.


In a comment James had talked about how a conventionally published book goes a long way when you’re a lecturer:

I’ve got a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing, and am currently looking for job posts teaching CW at University level, and they all require nowadays that you are a conventionally published author. Despite my thesis concerning online fiction, despite many of the jobs saying that an awareness of online fiction is a desired quality, they still want me to have a book in the shops that the students can buy. It’s a bizarre attitude, but that’s the way it is.

This attitude isn’t weird at all – it brings us to our next point- that online fiction simply isn’t seen as credible. There are a multitude of factors associated with this: I believe it is the compound result of little readers, low quality and lack of exposure all lumped together. Then there is the sad truth that Internet fiction currently isn’t built to last – if the creator of a blook dies, his work dies along with him because nobody is there to pay his hosting costs. It’s hard to be credible when works disappear along with their writers – what would’ve happened to literature if Anne Frank had blogged? Scary thought, that is.

Closing Thoughts

James is right in saying that online fiction isn’t a viable alternative to traditional fiction. Not yet. But with an ailing publishing industry on our hands I am convinced it will eventually become integral to reading and fiction as a whole. We can’t continue on like this for much longer … a whole industry waiting for the next Da Vinci Code? That isn’t rubbish – that’s just sad. Let’s start making things better.

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Category: Publishing · Writing Web Fiction