What Is The Classic .com Mistake?

Somebody Is Wrong On The InternetI recently came across a critical piece on two Novelr articles (this one and this one), published in Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 9 (a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media). Overall, I thought the entire thing to be well written, witty at parts, snarky at others, with a respectable open-ended conclusion about the state of e-book readers at the end. There is just one part that is bothering me, though: in his analysis of my post on the Long Tail he alleges that I make something he calls ‘the classic .com mistake.’

Ah, but the blogger makes the classic .com mistake, one Jensen doesn’t make:

Our target audience shouldn’t have to be just people who are willing to sort through the dross: if that’s the case online writing will forever be in the dark, pushed into the corners of the web by other bigger, better, more instantly gratifying web distractions. If, say 1% of web surfers are actively finding/reading online fiction, the ideal solution shouldn’t be just to find that 1%, but to expand upon it. In other words, we should not find a target audience—we have to create one, so the 1% becomes 5%, or more.

“If we can only get 5%…” That’s propounded by another problem—one that’s characteristic in this blog. Namely, the writer assumes traditional media are dying. “Newspapers are dying out, losing to online news sources…”—and in an unrelated post, “We know that the traditional publishing industry is upon dark times.” Ah, but never mind. We learn that “collaborative filters” are what we need to make online fiction more accessible for others—but, and it’s a big but, you have to get people to look at those filters before they’re of any use. The writer mentions a website, Pages Unbound, that can provide the collaborative filtering. I visited briefly. Wow. Ugly white sans text on a dark-gray background, making it hard to read. A front page that seems more manifesto than invitation—and the claim that readers may need mental adjustment to read web novels. Let’s just say that, as one who might be willing to read online fiction, I’m decidedly not bookmarking this site.

Here’s my question: what is the classic .com mistake? I have absolutely no idea – and his article doesn’t really explain – but let’s hold that off for awhile because I’d like to dissect his analysis to see if I’ve missed out anything.

He opens with a rhetorical question: “if we can only get 5% …”. He then follows this up with an attack on credibility (that I’m assuming traditional media is dying, when he thinks it’s actually not) but reminds his readers that this is a minor digression – the true problem is that our current collaborative filters are too ugly to be of any use.

There are three reasons why his analysis is flawed.

Firstly, the amount of people writing and reading blooks has grown two-fold over the past year or so. When I started covering blooking on Novelr the majority of blook writers were the blook readers (prompting, incidentally, this guest post by Gloria Hildebrandt). This has changed in recent times – the number of writers have grown, certainly, but the number of readers have grown even more. Two works, An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom and Tales Of MU have significant communities built around them, mostly drawn from LiveJournal, web comics and strategic advertising. The writer of said commentary has overlooked the simple fact that our 1% has grown into a 2%, and is set to hit 3 and more over the next few months.

Secondly, while the writer is correct in saying that Pages Unbound is ugly and non-functional this comment no longer applies for two reasons. Firstly, PU has closed, and a better filter (or filters, if plans for another one takes off) have replaced it. Secondly, much of the growth has been because of PU, and its close integration with the community could be felt in the outcry that followed its closing. Many readers and writers got their first start through PU’s review system – which despite its flaws managed to spark off a number of new, high quality blooks.

Thirdly, and lastly, my belief that traditional media is dying out has no logical connection to the ‘classic .com problem’. Why the writer included it there is beyond me. Whether they really are dying is open to heated debate – the said writer points out that local newspapers, for instance, are thriving because they provide local content, whereas only the large dailies are suffering. I do believe, however, that a good example does not a good argument make – while we can say that radio has not died with the emergence of television I’d like to point out that its significance has been greatly reduced. We no longer hear of people being glued to their radio sets for football commentary or nightly entertainment. The same will probably happen for traditional media – they won’t die completely, for sure, but they’ll certainly exist in a semi-significant state, less relevant than they were before.

PS: On the writer’s comment that 1000 True Fans is a gimmick – I point to Tales Of MU, amongst other works. Alexandra Erin’s full time job is writing it.

(Image from XKCD)

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Category: Meta · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://inmydaydreams.com jz

    From what I understand, the classic dot com mistake is assuming that you can get some percentage of possible customers without really figuring out how or who they would be.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Jim, I’m wondering if it’s really possible to predict how or where your customers/readers come from. The Internet is not a bricks and mortar store, after all – you can only push for a higher profile by commenting, or getting listed in a directory, or perhaps pushing in a community site … but beyond that you can only sit and pray.

    I might be mistaken, of course, but this has largely been how I promote Novelr. I push, and push really hard, in certain community sites, but by and large the community, readers, and the people who eventually matter come to this site. Not sure how they got here.

  • http://www.sflare.com Eoghann Irving

    I was under the impression that the classic dot com mistake was to assume that just because you had a cool idea, you could monetize it. While that is an issue for blooks (at least if their authors want to do it full time), I’m not sure how it relates to this authors criticism really.

    As far as whether print is dieing, well no its probably not dieing, but it is shrinking and it will continue to shrink not matter how firmly some people put their heads in the sand.

    The recent discussion over the state of science fiction short stories and markets which I dipped my toe in (or perhaps inserted foot in mouth) is a perfect example that print publishing is a struggling medium. Personally I expect it to remain because there are some books I really want to have permanent physical copies of. But I could see the paperback fading away and only prestige hard backs remaining one of these days with the rest of the activity occurring in some form of ebook.

  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    Wow, it’s weird to see the History mentioned in the same breath as ToMU. I think the “classic dot com” mistake is

    1) Write online book (build online pet store, make cool widget, what have you)

    2) ?

    3) Profit!

    Dot coms were always vague about step 2.

    But really, that’s the classic mistake of any writer sitting down to scribble since the beginning of time, and that’s where publishers came in. That “?” is what the publisher usually handled for us. But these days, the publisher isn’t handling much beyond printing the book. Just ask folks with book contracts. Step 2 is being left to them.

    So writers are having to learn step 2, whether we’re online writers or print writers. We’re having to learn about distribution, about publicity, about, frankly, pimping ourselves. The publishers aren’t doing it any more, regardless whether you think print as a medium is dying.

    The mistake that the online novel (or serial in my case–I have more in common with the newspaper serials of the 19th century and the modern soap opera than with a standard novel) addresses is the publishers’ insistence on the least common denominator. I’m not even talking about in quality, I’m talking about the least common denominator in terms of genre as well.

    There are audiences too small for a major publisher to bother with that aren’t being served. Those audiences, however, are big enough to support someone like Alexandra Erin. I’ve been on the air since March of this year, and I’m already making a not-insignificant chunk from donations, book sales and ads. I’m expecting within a year that this chunk will be big enough to more than justify the time I’m putting into it now. And I can guarantee you that I’ve made more off the History than most first-time novelists. Granted, that ain’t hard, but hey. :)

  • http://www.lethebashar.blogspot.com Lethe

    My general impression of the piece was that the author conveyed an air of know-all about the Net, while priviledging the print sector/old media.

    It would be nice to know the author’s name, which I can’t seem to find. To understand the author’s position, we need to know more about the source, which is scholarly I assume and library-based. This community may be more conservative about admitting to the sea-changes currently underway, namely because this community has its roots in “legitimate print”.

    These sea-changes are most likely due to the viral-marketing/word-of-mouth aspect of the Web. So whereas with the old media, enlarging a target audience may take months or years, an audience on the Net can mushroom over the course of a couple days or weeks.

    Of course this means that it can die just as quickly but there are too many variables as I see it with regard to prophesizing about the economic outcomes of online readership. Like Eli says, we don’t know where readers come, they just come. To me, this makes Net publication a sort of game with an aura of mysticism behind it.

    For all of the article’s pretensions of scholarly research, the author moves rather breezily between arguments, using one weak example after another to cover a whole circumference of information. I was clueless on the meaning of “.com mistake” (a rather techno-savvy term); the author implies his readers just know.

    I cringe when people talk about online publishing in the same terms as “selling widgets”. True an author may choose to sell books on her site or downloads or whatever. But I’m more interested in talking about why web fiction has more potential than print fiction, money aside.

    There is a fundamental difference between blog fiction and print and that is the interactive element. The interactive element is what builds communities and tagert audiences around a single site in less than a year.

    The product is not a product. It is an interface of readers and writers, and while we may frequently complain about the quality of the writing or the ubiquitousness of it, readers are becoming writers (in posting comments) and that’s totally new for fiction. This novelty is what has driven the success of the Web thus far. Why don’t people default to the television as much as they used to? Because it’s a passive medium. The interactive element gives a user control over his or her online environment. This is huge. It is changing the way we want to read.

    In short, I would like to say those who have one eye to the past will see only the past. Those who are trying to imagine a future will see just that.

  • http://lukehoughton.com Luke

    My biggest problem with sweeping statements like “classic dot com” mistake is that we assume you can plan for success online. I mean to be as successful as Tales of MU might be possible but it’s an entirely user driven media. The author seems to forget about youtube, flickr and many many MANY other examples where the crowd made it grow because of it’s broad appeal.

    I think your article hit the nail on the end (the long tail) because there is an emerging market for the kind of fiction on which you are defending. Planning helps… but it does not guarantee a readership neither does it mean you will wake up and find yourself self-supported off your work. The audience (and yes how you find them) is what I find to be the biggest challenge.

    It’s my firm opinion that the next few years are critical for the arts in general. We need to find mediums of expression that show people that art and indeed expression can find audiences in ways that haven’t been possible before. What we probably should think about is that a filter may help but ultimately people will decide what is popular. There is no market… it’s interacting perceptions people!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Eoghann: I’m not really sure about the book disappearing … I still think that it’s a really good piece of technology that so far no screen has managed to replace. And, like you, I really, really, like my books. =)

    @MeiLin: It’s weird … really? How so? But it’s really good to hear that the Internet is doing what it’s meant to do – like getting audiences to small niches that are suited to them, for instance.

    @Lethe: Well said. But I’d like to disagree with what you say about interactivity (changing the way we want to read). The web is more of a conversation, but I wouldn’t give up a book for the conversation-style reading the web provides. I see both as two different forms of reading, one not necessarily better than the other.

    @Luke: I suppose that classic quote (I can’t remember by who) applies here: true quality, no matter how well hidden, will find users.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Update: Been in contact with the writer concerned (his name’s Walt Crawford, if you’re wondering), and I’ve just gotten his permission to quote our email correspondence:

    The classic .com mistake is the “even if we only get X%” claim for an eventual big market, where 100 .coms each said they’d do great if they only got 1% or 5% of a market they assumed to be 100% of the population–where, as it turned out in the first big .bust, too many competitors were going after that sliver and the sliver wasn’t growing fast enough. (That’s shorthand…)

    And that, folks, is what he means by the ‘classic .com problem’.

  • http://lethebashar.mypodcast.com Lethe Bashar

    Maybe I was misunderstood. I didn’t mean to say that online “interactivity” is better than print. I read the New York Times Sunday Edition cover to cover and it is one of the greatest small pleasures of my life. Nothing can replace a book or a newspaper to me . . .

    But reading online has become something other than just reading. And that was my point. This new activity of commenting and interacting in forum-like environment is shaping our reading habits (online), which in turn leads to greater participation and greater numbers flocking to personal and professional sites.

    I like your description of the web as a conversation. And as you know conversations are sometimes very pleasant things, but at other times we just want to be alone.

  • http://lethebashar.mypodcast.com Lethe Bashar

    Would have been nice if that (.com mistake jargon) was explained in the article.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com jz

    So, is he aware of Web Fiction Guide now?

    At the very least, it is easier to read than Pages Unbound (which was, I think, his main complaint about it).

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I think he is, but I’m not sure. We didn’t talk about it.

  • http://wibblypress.net/arcana/ Spotty

    I visited briefly. Wow. Ugly white sans text on a dark-gray background, making it hard to read. […] Let’s just say that, as one who might be willing to read online fiction, I’m decidedly not bookmarking this site.

    Wow. I was never a huge fan of the layout, but I never thought it was that bad.

    On a related note, I wonder what scathing remarks he might come up for my own site, which I have never recieved a single complaint about, despite asking several times for feedback on. It fits almost word for word that description.

    Still, all things aside, the whole argument about PU is effectively null and void now, which doesn’t leave him with much to stand on.

    where, as it turned out in the first big .bust, too many competitors were going after that sliver and the sliver wasn’t growing fast enough. (That’s shorthand…)

    And now, that sliver has grown. And it has grown. There are now millions upon millions of people roaming the internet. And this is just in a single country.

    We’re now a decade on from the .com bust. For traditional publishing, perhaps this isn’t that long, but in the technology world, things move much, much quicker. The underlying technology has improved to insane levels compared to what was publicly available 10 years ago. The fact of the matter is, that something on the internet now is accessible to most anyone.

    The problem now is, not getting people or audience, the audience is there and waiting for their next piece of entertainment. What needs to happen is we need to find a way of letting them know we’re out there. WFG now fills that role, where PU started. I agree with Walt, PU was ugly and possibly hard to use. He should go and check out the pretty WFG site, it’s much nicer and easier on the eyes too.

    Wow, I’ve been rambling. To finish up, I believe what he said at the time (when WAS this published anyway?) was, or atleast may have been true. But we have moved on since then. There are examples of people doing this successfully as a business. As time moves on, there will be more examples. And there will be plenty who won’t make, despite their best efforts.

    Wow, sounds like a familiar story from any walk of life.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Lethe: for some reason your comments keep getting caught up in Novelr’s spam filter. Sorry for not approving them earlier. Yeah I think I misunderstood you. You’re right in saying conversations are pleasant things, but sometimes we just want to be alone (web reading vs book reading summed up right there!). Wonderful analogy.

    @Spotty: Your site is clean and readable. No problems for me, though you may want to think of creating a suitable visual identity for it. I’ve read through a significant part of AD, and the header image is a little too futuristic for your story.

    I suppose that his argument about the sliver being too small doesn’t apply … yet. There are too little of us at the moment, though we may have to reevaluate if there happens to be a huge growth in blook writers, with a lack of readers.

  • http://www.sflare.com Eoghann Irving

    Well you could reasonably argue that the sliver of people who read books at all is too small for the number of writers. Certainly seems that way based on pay rates.

    The question is do blooks increase that number of readers or just divert them from print to screen?

  • http://www.glottologic.com TW

    Blook writing will become more popular as more writers write blooks. Say that a few times fast. I must be honest, I may be new to it, but much of what I have read in the arena of blog fiction has been amateurish. That’s not an insult, I’m an amateurish writer myself. But let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking there’s a vast array of brilliant novels waiting to be consumed online. There isn’t. But there will be, because those writing blooks right now will get better, and future writers who grew up with the internet (each generation is more savvy than the last…) will be more comfortable publishing in an online environment.

  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    There isn’t a vast array of brilliant novels waiting to be read in print, either! Ask anyone who’s been through a publisher’s slush pile! :D

  • http://wibblypress.net/arcana/ Spotty

    …future writers who grew up with the internet (each generation is more savvy than the last…) will be more comfortable publishing in an online environment.

    Well, noone can argue with this much atleast. Kids as young as 3-4 are using computers these days.

    And are better at it than parents in some/alot of cases.

  • http://www.sflare.com Eoghann Irving

    @MeiLin Miranda That line of arguing gets us back to the issue of filters though. There’s plenty of bad writing in a publisher’s slush pile but the quality of what’s actually published (while not necessarily great) is on average significantly better than that published in blook form. With notable exceptions.

    Honestly though there are a vast array of brilliant novels in print. Speaking for the science fiction field which I know, point out a blook that’s a good as a novel by Neal Stephenson. There isn’t one. I’ve yet to read anything that has the quality and sophistication of a relative newcomer like David Louis Edelman.

    This is an infant medium and it has a lot of growing to do. Nothing wrong with that. Skills will develop over time as people become more familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of this format. But we’re not doing any favors if we just pretend that what’s out there is as good as the printed field. You have to acknowledge weaknesses if you ever plan to overcome them.

    Are there any people writing blooks who for example pay for an editor? Probably not because I doubt there are many if any making the money to even consider it an option.

  • http://wibblypress.net Stormy

    With notable exceptions.
    Hate to harp (as I know a lot of people have read my review), but one of those exceptions would have to be “The Gone-Away World” – a book they are hyping the crap out of. It’s crap, and it lost me on the first page – only one serial I have read has lost me that fast, and that’s possibly because I wasn’t in the target audience.

    point out a blook that’s a good as a novel by Neal Stephenson
    Is there anyone out there as good as the guy who wrote Snow Crash? Probably not yet. (Street, however, is cyberpunk, and I’ve been led to believe that it is quite good).

    You have to acknowledge weaknesses if you ever plan to overcome them.
    As writers, sure – being a writer is all about honing your skill, but there are no inherent weaknesses with the format itself.

    Are there any people writing blooks who for example pay for an editor? Probably not because I doubt there are many if any making the money to even consider it an option.
    For all of the Wibbly printed editions, we’ll be paying an editor (as well as cover designer/artist etc).

    Paying an editor as you go though – that would be a more sensible option if your book was complete, rather than if you were posting it as you were writing it. Some people do this, some don’t. If you’re writing it as you go, your final version may be very different (example: I’m editing Mirrorfall at the moment, and so far, I’ve added 10k to it – it would have been a waste to pay someone to edit the original).

  • http://wibblypress.net Stormy

    The question is do blooks increase that number of readers or just divert them from print to screen?
    Are we increasing the number of people who read fiction online? I’d say with confidence that we are. We won’t be stealing B&N’s revenue any time soon, but we’re drawing in people who were already reading stories (ie, webcomics) online. I’d wager that a lot of people who people who use PW advertising have placed ads on at least one webcomic, and if their genres are close enough, that visitor may turn into a reader.

    I did a little advertising two weeks ago: one ad on AE’s leaderboard (goes across all of her ficiton, as well as her forum and blog), Gunnerkrigg Court (fantasy webcomic) and The Zombie Hunters (webcomic). I got just as many hits from the webcomics as I did from a collective of serial sites.

  • http://www.celephi.com/blog2.php EJ Spurrell

    I don’t assume the publishing industry is dying. I know it is.

    I had an hour long conversation with Eliza Hemingway last week (Ernest’s cousin, and published author of 15+ novels), who was very adamant that getting a book published is akin to winning the lottery. She often made references that the industry was rather like the TV Show “Mad Men.” When I brought up the increased prevalence of online fiction, she scoffed and said it would never work, that it was merely “vanity”. (Mind you, she’s in her 60’s, and from just what I could glean from our conversation, has little experience with the internet.)

    Nonetheless, I will admit the online ‘blooker’ community lacks cohesion, and it’s that cohesion that will make it or break it. But time will only tell…

  • Ace

    >>>point out a blook that’s a good as a novel by Neal Stephenson. There isn’t one. I’ve yet to read anything that has the quality and sophistication of a relative newcomer like David Louis Edelman.<<<

    The bar is set at Stephenson and I have to meet it with my serial?

    Egads! I was just kinda hoping for “Butcher-esque” with hints of “Gibson-wannabe” and maybe a smattering of “pseudo-Parker”.

    Or, hell, “reads like a Mack Bolan novel.”

    I’m gonna have to work on that…