A Series Of Unflattering Questions

I’ve spent the last couple of days working on Novelr’s first collaraborative project. What this project does is it attempts to answer the question: ‘why do you read online fiction?’ and most of it is still, I must admit, in bits and pieces. But let’s examine the answers to that question, and ask ourselves some other related, and difficult, questions about this field we’re in.

For instance, let us consider that a large amount of people reading online fiction are writers themselves. One of the main community efforts in Novelr has been about how we can get more readers (ie: non-writing, non-creating people) to the medium, to consume what we writers are publishing. We want consumers of online fiction, and we must admit that ideally, we want an audience who are not participants – who do not produce works of fiction themselves. So what does that mean? It means that we’re currently writing for other writers. What is troubling with that assumption? Does it tick you off that the only reason other writers are reading your work is because they, too, want to be read by you? I’m now talking about an I’ll read your work if you read mine policy, and indeed that very topic has been explored on Novelr before in a guest post. But what’s wrong with it? Are you, like some of us, happy that you’re been read, to hell with the writer/reader dichotomy? What does an acceptance of this situation mean?

The first thing that springs to mind when we talk about an audience of equal creators is the blogosphere. People write blogs for a small audience, and it’s highly likely that a portion of that audience are bloggers themselves, and that you read and comment on their blogs to reward them for coming to visit your blog. The more successful blogs (say, Techcrunch) have a larger reader to blogger ratio, and they return a smaller amount of comments than a less successful blog (say, your Mum’s) would. Another example of a community of equal creators is the photo sharing site Flickr. Your contacts post photos and you post photos and everyone looks and comments at each other’s photos because, like us, I’ll read yours if you read mine.

The upshot of my above paragraph is that an audience of equal creators is the accepted norm in many areas of the online world. It is Internet culture. And even if this were not true, and that your blog commands a small readership of non-bloggers, consider: what is to prevent any or all of them from starting up their own blogs? Nothing? Nothing. In a medium where the barriers to entry (or creation) are almost nil, a community of creators are quite inevitable. Taking all of the above into consideration, and also taking into consideration that by the very act of writing your blook you are inspiring your readers to start their own blooks, are we likely, as a bunch of writers, to ever find an audience of ‘just’ readers? Is it alright if we don’t? What differences are there if we compare this model to the model of the book, the publisher, and the bookstore? 

You’ll find the answers unflattering, I believe, and I’d rather not answer them for you. You can tell me your thoughts in the comments area of this post. But here’s something to chew on before I step back: there may well come a day where the amount of people who want to write books outnumber the amount of people who want to read them. Indulge me and close your eyes: imagine this book future for a little while. Now wouldn’t that be strange? Yes, I can hear your voices now: that would be strange indeed.

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Category: Publishing · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://webfictionguide.com Chris Poirier

    I’m a little worried about this, too. At WFG, we now have about 2300 unique visitors a month — and I’m guessing that not even a large minority of those are writers. However, of the new user accounts being opened, I see a submission from a large number of them, usually within a week on either side of their signing up — which implies those willing to contribute to the maintenance of the Guide (with reviews and recommendations and such) are predominantly writers. That’s not a good thing.

    Of larger concern for WFG is the *rate* of new submissions. I’ve received 10 in the last 5 days, and that was after a full month of steady high volume. Now, that may not seem like much, but, with our current policies, every single one of those has to be read and reviewed by an editor. It’s a lot of work for a volunteer organization. I’m not sure how we’re going to avoid burning out.

    Right now, I’m working on redesigning WFG — there’s certainly a lot of cosmetic stuff being improved, but I’m doing my best to enhance the community involvement in the site, by making it more social, by giving more power and attention to our membership. My hope is it will encourage more *readers* to join and participate in the upkeep of the site. Because, yeah, if we end up being just a community for writers, well, as much as that is a good thing, I’m not sure it’s enough.

    Chris.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    I think this is less of an issue than you two suppose. One only has to look at high-performing web authors to see that they have far too many readers for most of those readers to be writers, given the current volume of web fiction.

    Being a reader is, by nature, a passive position. It’s easy to miss that, because popular web authors have entire communities of active readers. You’ll find, however, that these active readers are only a small portion of the regular readership of a given work.

    Most of us, then, are reading and not commenting already. I keep a blog where I post some of my more developed thoughts, but I am an infrequent commenter on even those web novels that I follow regularly.

    Don’t look at the most active participants and draw a conclusion about the whole group. It’s only natural that the most active readers are those who also write.

  • http://poncy-mclean.net Duane Poncy

    I tend to agree with Sebatinsky on this. Bartlett House, which has received very good reviews on WFG, gets about 90 visitors per day—over 2000 hits on our feed alone in January. Even adjusting heavily for robots and such, I can safely claim 50 unique visits a day. That’s 1500 people per month who are reading all or part of Bartlett House.

    Now, only about a dozen of those visits were referred from WFG. Where are the others coming from? I haven’t figured that out yet, but I have posted widely about it, optimized for Google and other search engines, etc. If you are a decent writer, and you do what you need to do to promote yourself, I believe the word gets around.

    All that doesn’t mean that WFG isn’t valuable. But, sometimes it’s hard sorting through the dross, even with the fine editorial help.

  • http://charlotte-faulkner.blogspot.com/ Bekah

    I don’t think that future is possible because I find it hard to imagine people who want to write but not read. I do think its natural for avid readers to want to write; if you love stories, words, it is the most obvious step. But I think that’s always been the case. Now it is easier to self-publish, but that doesn’t fundamentally change that much.

    I also think proportion is really important. I love writing and want to write a book. Let’s say I write a book a year (which is far too optimistic). I read, say, 50-100 books a year. Or blogs– I do have a blog, but I read about 10 or 20 others regularly… even if everyone participates in both, I don’t think it has to be a bad thing, as long as we’re reading other stuff because we want to, not to get attention for ours.

    And ultimately, commenting back is important in internet culture, (well pretty basic notion of reciprocity is universal..), but if you are good enough, people will read it without that extra incentive.

    For something like WFG, I just don’t see the incentives for readers to join. It’s very writer-oriented. Or visitor-oriented; they can see ratings, reviews, etc. But no reason to join, for most readers.

  • http://unicornbait.sahunter.net S.A. Hunter

    Everyone thinks that they can write a book. That doesn’t mean they can or that they will, but because simple writing is something everyone can do, it means everyone thinks they can write. Look at Nanowrimo, an event that invites everyone to write a book in November. Nothing but a willingness to write required. Every reader is a potential writer, while in other fields such as music, one needs to learn a bit to become a musician (Yes, I know that’s open to debate, but nod along with me), and it’s generally assumed that a level of skill is needed to be a comic book artist. Because the act of writing is so assessible, we will always have a high number of fellow writers to strictly fans. It’s the nature of the medium.

    Bekah is right that writers love to read as well, but though online books are highly assessible, reading them is not a natural inclination yet. The cart has come a bit before the horse on this. Writing and posting to the internet is much more natural than reading. I think it’ll just take a little time for reading to become as natural, but it will catch up.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    I think that S.A. Hunter pretty much summed up my thoughts. Lots of people want to write. Few people have the need to do it and commit to a schedule of regular writing. Fewer yet manage to continue that writing for any length of time.

    I think it’s more likely that those with a high level of investment in their writing are going to be showing up at WFG and making an account. At the same time, I don’t see much evidence that many of my readers are WFG connected writers. I’m sure that a few must be, but my regular commenters mostly aren’t (with one obvious exception).

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Chris: We’ve always been fighting against the new listing backlog in WFG, and I think we’ve already talked about how it’s only going to get worse as time goes on. Am looking forward to helping you future-proof WFG in preparation for the Digital Shift.

    @Sebatinsky: I did think about high-performing web fiction before I wrote this, and I do agree with you that a vast majority of the readers over there are just that – readers. But you must also realize that there are quite a few writers in the WFG sphere – influential ones – who started their blooks as a direct result of reading MU and/or one or two of the other high-performing blooks out there. And there’s nothing to prevent the conversion of more and more readers to writers in the distant future – after all, almost everyone believes there’s a book or two within them.

    Incidentally, you’re one of the ‘pure readers’ in this community, so I suppose it must be rather ironic that we’re having this conversation, no? ;-)

    @Duane: thank you for your thoughts. A related question: in your experience, are the comments on Bartlett House primarily from ‘just readers’, or from fellow writers?

    @Bekah: Thank you. You make two good points, one of which (the book future one) I’m going to accept and think about, the other I’m going to bring up in the WFG forums to figure out how to make the site more reader-oriented.

    @Steph: You point out that at the moment writing and posting to the Internet is much more natural than reading. This is true, I think – one of the major attractions of the Internet is the joy of producing, as opposed to the joy of television, which is that of pure consuming. Which leads us to think of a few other interesting things – such as, would the Internet be populated by some who produce and some who consume? Or would it be populated by an undifferentiated mass of prosumers – combination of producer and consumer? And if the book future is closely tied into this Internet future, then would it not be possible for this to exist in the book-world too?

    But there is a limit, of course, to all this mental acrobatics. Not very practical to do, but very fun to imagine. Anyone want to write a short story making fun of this state of economy?

    @Jim: They will, unless we figure out a way to benefit readers who sign up. And, oh yes – the obvious exception – are we talking about me? =)

  • http://poncy-mclean.net Duane Poncy

    Eli, as far as I know, most of the comments on Bartlett House —and there haven’t been a lot, yet as we’ve only been up for a couple of months— are not from writers.

    I think Bekah has a very good point about WFG: there is not a lot of incentive to join. So, who knows how many people are going there to simply find something to read.

    And Steph’s point about the naturalness of reading on the web. I will make a confession here. Even though I am a web author, I still find it hard to read much web fiction. I can’t curl up on the couch or in bed with my laptop; I can’t read on the bus, unless it’s a pdf. It’s very hard to stick with a longer piece of fiction under these circumstances. I think we also need a revolution in technology. We need a reader like the Kindle (which I can’t afford, but if they ever come up with a decent design…) and a way to format our fiction for it. Something to make it all less awkward.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    @Bekah and Eli

    I agree that there is not much incentive for readers to make an account with WFG, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. WFG is a valuable stop for readers, and I don’t see why they should need to make an account. As much as I may be a ‘pure reader,’ Eli, even I do some writing – it’s just not fiction. Those folks who aren’t writing reviews and aren’t consuming critically just aren’t going to gain much from joining – and that’s OK!

    They get to come, see the editorial reviews by people who engage in the craft of writing, and member reviews by active readers and other writers.

    Judge your success with these people by unique hits, and not by accounts made.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Duane: that’s really good news, on Bartlett House. And as for the point that reading’s hard to do on laptop screens and whatnot – I have to say that I’ve gotten used to it. I point you to my latest Bookmarked! post, and the essay I linked to within … it’s a great read, one that is made possible through the web.

    @Sebatinsky: I meant you as a blooker – you’re one of the few who read online fiction and who do not write a blook … a connoisseur, as opposed to an insider, one might say.

    On getting readers involved to rate and read: it may be okay at the moment, but it won’t be for long. If digital fiction continues to grow in popularity us editors will be swamped, and we’ll not be helping the readers/visitors if we can’t keep up, no? Right now what Chris is working on is to get the readers involved – to get them to sign up by offering them some value (say, shelves/widgets/recognition) and then harnessing their collective ability to help rate and recommend things. And that would certainly future proof our editorial model against a surge in popularity.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    Eli – Thank you. :)

    I think, frankly, it has been obvious from the beginning that the editorial model cannot require all submissions to be read by the editors (unless you are willing to have a huge, unwieldy editorial board).

    I think this is where your writers come in – they serve as community editors. We understand that the editorial staff may not read every web serial, but perhaps the completely un-reviewed works are highlighted until they at least get a community review.

    The point is, you can’t expect WFG to be comprehensive and expect the editors to read every single submission – it’s just not going to happen.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Sebastinsky,

    We’re already doing that to an extent – making writers contribute to reviews, etc. And I think this has only picked up lately – before this it was purely just the editors. The chief (positive) argument for getting the readers involved is the amount of data we’re letting go by not including them in the recommendation process. For instance – certain readers prefer certain genres. If a vast majority of our hits like blook A, and also liked blook B, then if you like blook A you’ll probably also like blook B. Currently our ability to leverage a vast number of hits and give you recommendations like these are somewhat stunted – as long as the readers don’t contribute their reading data, we can’t make the site more effective and better geared towards other new readers.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    Ah – I had thought you meant more along the lines of an increase in reader reviews.
    Something along the lines of CRM would be great – emulating Amazon in this wouldn’t be a bad choice, I think.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Sorry for the late reply, Sebatinsky. Got caught with offline stuff the last coupla days. Thanks for pointing out CRM, haven’t thought about that before.