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.

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Publishing · Writing Web Fiction
  • SMD

    You do realize that 27% of Internet users is actually an enormous number, right? If you only take that out of the adult Internet users (150 million), that’s 40.5 million adults who read blogs. That’s just in 2006 (the 150 mill figure). I don’t know how many use the net today, and that’s not including anyone who isn’t an adult. That’s a lot of people.

  • Eoghann Irving

    True the 27% is a bit of a red herring, but don’t miss the bigger point because of a minor detail. Tales of the MU which is generally considered a success in this area has a reach of about 0.002% of all internet users, not 27%.

    In other words… Online fiction doesn’t even register in the public consciousness and that’s the point.

    It’s not a knock on anyone who is writing this stuff but it’s not the same as being a successful published author.

  • Gavin Williams

    Online publishing is not an alternative to the print medium. It is an emergent art form that can run in parallel with the traditional model. Eventually, it is entirely possible that it will replace it. However, in my two articles I have listed several reasons why the audience and the style of online fiction is different from the traditional model. The two forms of prose, while related, are not written in the same way, nor appreciated in the same way, because of speed of delivery and audience interaction.

    Quality: Is NOT the problem people make it out to be. Literacy begets literacy. The more people write, the better they get at it. Daily posting causes writers to evolve. Audience interaction gives them feedback to aid this process. The more readers read, the higher their expectations become, and the more aware they become of what needs fixing in our writing.

    Being an emergent art form, the vast majority of writers haven’t thought to come online. Most of them still want to publish traditionally. There will be a spectrum of quality, from good to bad, in online writing. There IS a spectrum of quality in the traditional model, from good to bad. But, because the vast majority of writers belong to the old model, they will have more good writers and more bad writers. They have more writers, period. But that will change with time, the more online writers seek to improve their craft and expand their audience.

    Accessibility: again, solved by time. The Kindle, cell phones, and laptops are the first step. Give another generation the time to develop new technology, and you’ll probably have solar powered book panels that you can carry everywhere, look better than paper, and give you access to online libraries. Technology advances more rapidly than science fiction writers can imagine, and costs come down.

    Time is all it takes. Our generation, and every one following us, is increasingly digital. The old model is slow, controlling, and benefits only the people who run it. A generation who uses Wikipedia and believes in the power of collaboration isn’t going to put up with the same model as previous generations.

  • Allan T Michaels

    I agree with Gavin on the quality argument. I know my own writing has improved tremendously since I started writing regularly. Is it on the level of Stephen King? Probably not. I don’t think I write as well as Alexandra Erin.

    But then, there are hordes of bad writers out there in the old-model world. They just have a much more limited audience.

    But the point is, people vote for quality with their feet (or their mouse in the case of online writing). Not everyone who has stopped by my world has stayed to read me. But several have.

    I haven’t stayed with every piece of web-fiction or webcomic I’ve ever glanced at. Then again, the same can be said for the books I’ve read in the real world. There are plenty of authors I’ve read and said, not my cup of tea.

    And I really think we overestimate the power of filters. There’s A LOT of crap that can be found on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. At least with my work, if you don’t like it, it hasn’t cost you anything but time.

  • Gavin Williams

    I think that Allan’s last comment right on the money.

    We’re a free alternative, where funding is something entirely voluntary, and decided by the audience. It goes directly to the artist, and isn’t soaked up by publishers and their houses.

    What would you rather do? Spend $40 on a new hardcover by an established author, who’s probably recycling the same thing as last year in a different box? And then wait another year? Or read something new, creative and free, every day? Then, decided to pay what you thought it was worth directly to the creator?

    We’re even more convenient than free libraries: we’re in your house, on your computer.

  • Allan T Michaels

    Hahaha – I just got a great image of LOLWovelers




  • Robert Burton Robinson

    They say that people won’t read novels online. Maybe they will read eBooks on a Kindle or some other reader device, but not on their computer. This is simply not true.

    It is true that most people don’t want to spend all day at work in front of a computer and then go home and sit down at their computer to read a novel. But that’s missing an important point. My fans are doing their reading at work.

    Think about it. Do you visit sites while you are at work to catch up on the latest news? It only takes a few minutes, right? You can do it on a coffee break. Well, that’s all it takes to read a chapter of one of my online novels. People drop in for a chapter or two each day. Once they have read my first four novels, they start on my current serial novel, reading three chapters per week.

    And as far as editing…I edit and re-edit each chapter numerous times before posting it. Yes, I still have an occasional typo. But the readers are forgiving, as long as the errors are few and minor, and they don’t impact the story.

    And quality is subjective. Visitors will decide whether they like your novel or not. If they do, they will come back. And if they love it, they will tell their friends about it.

    For those who read a few chapters, like the book, but don’t want to read the rest of it online, I offer paperbacks versions.

    So, maybe we’re missing the point. We know that people are reading less books these days. But they’re not READING less. They’re reading more—but they’re doing it online.

  • Max Sampson

    Have you mentioned Baen Publication? I’ve been downloading Web subscription EBooks for $5 (US) for years. These have all pictures, covers as well as scalable fonts. They appear to be printers proofs for paperback publication.

  • srsuleski



    Heh. Perfect. And, though having many other things to do, I’ve gone and made a lolocat for that. Ahem, yes…. but you’ll have to go to NovLounge to see it.

  • Chuck Gregory

    I love to read. I love to read online. I’ve found many excellent books online. I’ve found many that aren’t so good, too, and I’ve actually started to put them aside when I decide I don’t like them. It used to be I was driven to finish everything I started to read, no matter what I thought of it. So I guess you could say that online publishing has made me a more discriminating reader.

    Actually, the thing that pushed me over the edge on that is that for a while now I’ve been performing editing and other document services, first for Scribendi and now on my own. You have no idea how much of an eye-opener that has been! There’s a lot of stuff that people have just not thought through to a reasonable conclusion. But there’s as much, or nearly as much, that just needs a little help to let the innate quality shine through, and that’s where my work comes in.

    I’m working on a new website at where I’ll actually have rates posted for different services. For now you get things like “I perform editing services and if you are interested contact me.” Check it in a month or so for something with a bit more definition.

    Thanks, Novelr. I got here from Scott McKenzie’s response to my post on his “Rebirth” blog, where he’s just announced a new novel to commence next month. He pointed me to something he’d posted here a while back. This interaction is how it’s all supposed to work, I think. I’ll be back; I’m adding the RSS feed from this blog to my reader.

  • Eli James

    Sorry for the late reply, guys. Been studying nuts since I wrote this article.

    @Eoghann: It may seem like a huge amount, but I’m trying to show here that as far as eyeballs are concerned blogs aren’t everything. There are a lot of things to read online – blogs being only a small portion of that.

    @Chuck: Welcome to Novelr. I hope you enjoy what you find here. =)

    @Max: No, I haven’t heard of Baen publications, but I’ll check it out. Sounds very similar to something we’ve been planning over at Novelr. *winks*

    @Gavin: Spot on, as usual. I’d also like to point out that while quality is improving, we’re a long way to go with regards to being taken seriously as literature. I believe recognition will only come when that happens – film, for instance, was widely regarded as on the same plane as comics until some genius came along and made an artsy fartsy film. I think the same can be said for graphic novels – they really changed perception of the comic book medium as a whole.

    PS: I LOVE THE LOLCAT! Great job, Sarah!

  • Illya Szilak

    Literature is the last stronghold for the modernist ideal of “originality.” (as if any artist creates tablula rasa.) I think the Internet is changing this. The amount of content available and the way we process information—hypertext, multiple layers of image, text, and sound, even font choice and “cut and paste” editing is changing how we write and read. In the future, the novel will exist in multiple iterations. The written work will function both as stand-alone art and entertainment and as an engine that drives the creation of work in other media.
    Please check out the website for my novel Reconstructing Mayakovsky.

    Like the hardcopy novel, the site uses “found” objects (image, sound and text) and combines elements of sci-fi, poetry, historical fiction and the detective novel to tell the story of the Russian Futurist poet in a radically new way.
    For this novel, I’ve been collaborating with a wonderful artist named Pelin Kirca, who, believe or not, I found through Craig’s list. Together, we created the animation, and a graphic version of my manifesto. We’re also collaborating on a modular multimedia space for book readings. And, I have a plan for curating a gallery exhibition around the text of my novel. If you enjoy it, I hope you will pass it along on your blog. Thanks.

  • Eli James

    @Illya: I can’t seem to get your link to work. Is it broken or misspelt? Because from what you say your novel sounds really, really cool and I want to check it out.

  • Illya Szilak

    Hi Eli:

    I’m not sure what the problem was, but it worked clinking on the link in the post. Please try it again. Thanks Illya

  • Eli James

    Turned out to be my connection. I’ve reading it in the other tab as I write this – very cool stuff.