The Story Behind Web Fiction Guide

This guest post is written by Chris Poirier, the founder of Web Fiction Guide. Here he talks about the origins of the site, the story so far, and his plans for the future.Web Fiction Guide

Back when we opened, Eli asked me to write an article for Novelr on the Web Fiction Guide. To be honest with you, when he asked, I wanted to run screaming for the hills. I just couldn’t imagine what I’d write about. And yet, the calmer, more business-like part of me knew it was a good idea—for publicity for the site, if nothing else.

So, last night, I figured something out: I’ll just tell you a story. That’s something I know how to do.

Where it all began

A few months ago, I started writing a serialized novel, called Winter Rain. I didn’t set out to write it. In fact, I set out to write a vignette—a one scene “moment in time”—for a net friend. But I’d had an idea bouncing around in my head for a story, for a while, and once the vignette was written, it just felt like I could go somewhere with it. So I did. And it’s been a lot of fun, so far.

But, of course, there’s no point writing something for an online audience if that audience never shows up to read it. And, frankly, I’m a bit of an attention hound. So, after the first week, I decided it was time to publicize the story.

And that’s where the trouble began.

Starting from nothing

I’d been hosting Sarah Suleski’s website since she started publishing Alisiyad online, and she and I have been friends for a long time, so I’d heard from her about wonderful publicity tools like Pages Unbound and Project Wonderful. So, that first week, I went and submitted a listing to Pages Unbound, and bought advertising space through Project Wonderful on a number of popular web fiction sites. And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Here are the things I found out:

  1. Most of the people who click through on banner ads leave again right away. 80+% of them, in fact.
  2. Even on busy sites that are appropriately chosen, most readers don’t click on banner ads.
  3. Pages Unbound is only a useful source of traffic if you have a ton of good user reviews, or if you buy a banner ad on it (and not really even then).

The truth of the matter is that most of my readers did not come from banner ads placed on other sites. Even fewer of them came from Pages Unbound. The majority of my readers found my serial (perhaps not surprisingly) from personal recommendations made by other web authors, in the form of links from their sites.

So what’s this all got to do with WFG?

This whole experience got me thinking: shouldn’t there be a better way to do things? Winter Rain isn’t brilliant, by any means, but neither is it chopped liver. Surely there should be a way to help people writing quality online fiction to connect with people who want to find good stuff to read. A way to combine the power of personal recommendation with a constant stream of new stories—where authors don’t have to wait for someone “influential” to discover them.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only person wondering this.

Around about the time this all started, Eli posted here about why the review system at Pages Unbound wasn’t very effective. He argued, approximately, that Pages Unbound suffered from a “mom” problem: because Pages Unbound uses a straight average of ratings, one great rating on an otherwise-unrated story counts for more than 40 good ratings on an another. And that one great rating could very easily have been written the author’s mom.

In other words, Pages Unbound’s rating report is easily hijacked by people who have a few friends willing to help them out. It makes no distinction about the quality of reviews, and only recently has made any distinction about the quantity. Eli argued that what the online world needed was an editorial filter—someone readers could trust to provide an “objective” rating, so that the good stuff would get some publicity, and so that readers didn’t have to wade through great piles of stodge to find something good. That idea attracted a number of people, and gave rise to the Shelves project—a website that would spotlight the cream of online fiction.

Reviews as subjective truth

Of course, being the ornery, disagreeable fellow that I am, I didn’t care much more for the idea of Shelves than I did for the Pages Unbound’s free-for-all.

My point of view is that there is no such thing as “objective” truth when it comes to fiction. Well, very little of it, anyway. The truth is that what I love, you may hate, and vice versa. The benefit of an editorial filter is not the filter—it’s the editor. Because, if you can get to know that editor as a person—their likes and dislikes—you can start to make reasonable predictions about how much of what they say will apply to you.

To me, the problem with reviews at Pages Unbound is simply one of trust: you can’t know whether or not to trust those reviews because you know little or nothing about the person who wrote them. And the Pages Unbound software makes no distinction, either, which means you still have to do all of the work when you go looking for something to read.

And on the other end of the spectrum, the problem with Eli’s Shelves project is that it seeks to list only stories its editorial board deems of sufficient quality, which means people who disagree with their editorial viewpoint will find no use in their listings, whatsoever.

Back to the story

In any event, as it turned out, Eli wasn’t going to be ready to start on Shelves until 2009, due to real life time constraints—which is an eternity in Internet time—and, after waiting two weeks for my listing to show up on Pages Unbound (with no listing in sight), I decided I wasn’t going to wait any longer. I pinged Sarah on YIM, and by the end of the night, we had registered a domain name (she came up with it), sent out emails to hija—cough—borrow most of the Shelves editorial staff, and started on a site design.

What can I say: I’m an impatient fellow, too.

Of course, all did not go as initially planned. In my usual totally-out-of-touch-with-reality way, I figured I could customize WordPress in about a week, to do everything we needed.

As usual, my estimate was off by a factor of four. One of these days, I’m going to remember to apply that factor *before* getting started, instead of after.

In any event, after four weeks, I decided it was good enough, even if it wasn’t quite finished, and we opened for business at the end of July, 2008.

Editorial staff

Thanks to Sarah’s efforts, our editorial staff includes a number of well-known authors, bloggers, and reviewers from the web fiction community. Rather than be redundant here, I will simply refer you to our Editors page, where you will find a complete list, and links to our self-penned introductions.

As a group, we represent a range of opinions and viewpoints, as well as tastes in fiction, and while we may not always agree about the merits of a particular piece of web fiction, we have agreed on common definitions for our rating scale. As a result, when we average the editorial ratings on a piece, we think we provide a fairly representative estimate of the quality of a piece of work, with our individual reviews filling in the details of our disparate viewpoints. To use a metaphor, we don’t all sing the same parts, but we do all strive to sing as one choir.

Design elements

The primary goal of WFG is to help you find stuff you actually want to read. Every design element has been chosen with that in mind.

First and foremost, we provide a browsable “card catalogue” of online fiction, which you can browse in its entirety, or filtered on a particular subject. Subject can be just about anything—a genre, an age group, a setting, a story type; we add new tags as they become relevant. A subject catalogue is important because, as our listings grow, you don’t want to have to page through hundreds of fantasy listings if you are looking for historical fiction, or hundreds of novels if you are looking for short stories.

To the basic card catalogue, we add a number of features. Of course, we host reviews, so every listing displays our editorial reviews and the most helpful member reviews (determined by member votes). And the average editorial rating appears with every listing, even the thumbnails, giving everything a consistent at-a-glance estimate of the quality of what you will find.

Each listing is also cross-linked in two dimensions: similar listings, and reader recommendations. This cross-linking provides two important benefits. First, it acts as a visual landmark—if you like the stuff you see in these cross-links, chances are higher that you will like the listing you are looking at. And, second, if you decide the current listing isn’t for you, it provides you with up to twelve other possibly-relevant listings for you to check out. Again, we’re trying to help you find things you will want to read.

Our site is fully searchable. At the top of every page there is a search box that will search the text of our listings, our reviews, our articles, and even our catalogue subjects for whatever you want. Personally, I use the feature all of the time, for finding specific listings.

As of this second release of our software, we provide four sort orders for the catalogue: editorial preference, member preference, name, and listing date, and you can easily switch from one ordering to another with a single click, from any point within our listings, without losing your place.

Of particular note, our member preference listings cannot be hijacked by a single glowing review from the author’s mom. Without going into technical details, we consider the weight of member ratings, reviews, and recommendations, not the average. We have also taken measures to limit the effect of spam ratings.

For the benefit of our authors, our home page now shows thumbnails of up to nine of the most recent additions to our catalogue (as of our most recent software update). We try to give new listings a full week on the home page, but, as we never post more than three new listings a day, we can guarantee at least three full days of free publicity. And a link from the home page allows readers to continue browsing by listing date.

Our home page also displays three random Editors’ Picks. These are listings at least one of our editors has Recommended. There are 10 of us, in all—and if even one of us likes a story enough to recommend it, it has a free pass to our home page on a fairly regular basis.

We also display the most recent editorial reviews. These generally don’t get written on the same day as the listing, so new listings get additional publicity when their listing is reviewed, through additional time on our home page.

Also appearing on our home page, we provide a weekly column called “What’s Happening”, that is open to any of our listings. Here, we display blurbs about current events at up to six listings, each week. The listing thumbnails appear with each blurb, and the column holds the home page for a full week. We presently give out the slots on a first-come-first-serve basis, but we are prepared to apply additional editorial standards, should demand begin to outstrip our available slots.

Finally, all of our listings, articles, and reviews are available in one or more RSS feeds, so you can have your computer monitor our site for stuff you’ll want to read.

Range of content

We will list just about any type of original, written online fiction: novels, episodic serials, short story collections, anthologies, story magazines, and scripts. Twice now, people have come to us with new types of things they wanted to list, and we’ve extended our mandate. About the only things we won’t list are pure erotica (because its primary goal is not to tell a good story) and fanfic.

How it worked out

At present, we get (on average) ten new listings each week. Our “What’s Happening” column is filled almost every week, too. We have approximately 400 unique visitors each week (we’ve had about 1500 unique visitors since opening) and they draw down around 1000 pages each and every day, amongst them. Every editorial review (even low-rated ones) gets several dozen click-throughs to the listing within the first day.

All that may not sound like an awful lot, but according to the stats Project Wonderful publishes about the ad spots on Pages Unbound, we’re well within the same ballpark, and after only six weeks in operation.

We’ve already upgraded our software once, and a second upgrade is in the works. The last upgrade simplified navigation and brought browsing by subject inline with the look and feel of browsing the whole collection. Additionally, we’ve added discussion forums for our members, and some of our authors have already gained tangible benefits from them.

All in all, I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made, and I feel strongly that we’ll continue to grow and improve in the coming months.

Plans for the future

For the next release of the software, we will be making the average member rating more visible. Presently, member ratings are used to calculate the “member preference” ordering, but next release, they’ll be shown right on the listing. We’ll also be making it easier to track events on a listing, so authors can do some cross-marketing and even provide rewards to their readers who participate.

Longer term, we might want to look into recognizing members who consistently provide quality reviews, with additional weight or presence given to their work. And, as our listings get even bigger, I’d like to work out a way to browse by multiple subjects at once.

Some middle ground

The Web Fiction Guide is an attempt to walk the line: to provide a consistent, reliable, known editorial viewpoint on everything in our collection; and to additionally provide comprehensive listings and member reviews, so you can ignore our opinion—or find others—when ours doesn’t apply to you. We do our very best to be useful to our listed authors, while, at the same time, being useful to our readers. Because, without our readers, we can be of no use to our authors, and vice versa.

Of course, trying to be all things to all people is the only guaranteed recipe for failure, so we make choices—often hard choices—to ensure we stay relevant. We can’t please every author with our reviews, and we can’t please every reader, either. What we can do is be consistent, so both authors and readers can treat us as a known quantity, and make allowances for our biases and blind spots.

Thanks for reading.

Chris’s blook, Winter Rain, can be found here. And if you’re feeling really nice, and you’ve enjoyed this post, then please go leave him a review over at WFG. He’ll appreciate it!

Disclaimer: Eli James, the guy behind Novelr, is one of the editors with WFG. This blog, however, remains an impartial party.

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Category: News · Writing Web Fiction