Why Pay-Per-Chapter Sucks

I’m surprised at the number of people who still sell their fiction with a pay-by-installment model. The format is  pretty simple to understand: I’ll give you a free first chapter, and then you need to pay me small amounts of money to read the subsequent ones. Some variations, however, are a lot nastier than you’d suppose: the writer puts 30 out of 35 chapters online, and then they spring a nasty surprise on everyone at the very end of their project: you need to pay $1 per chapter for the last 5 chapters! The ending’s not free, you suckers!

And I hate this. I think it’s stupid, and it’s ignorant, and that it does little for both the writer’s reputation and the good reader’s trust. The truth is that the Internet simply cannot tolerate pay-by-installment methods … and the one or two writers who think otherwise better get used to that, and quick. It’s been 9 years since Stephen King failed to get his readers to pay for The Plant. It’s about time people stop thinking they can sell their work like this.

But what are the problems with this format, and why? Apart from the obvious arrogance (how good do you think you are, to deserve my money?) I’m beginning to think that this model is but a mistaken carry-over from the software world – you know, the one where you download a trial edition and you pay to unlock the full version. But let’s be honest, shall we? Nobody – and I really mean nobody – previews a novel for a 30 day period. The parallels between software and writing vanish when we’re talking about business model, because they simply don’t share the same preconceptions. We don’t bat an eyelid when we’re asked to fork out for an unlock key, especially when we’ve tried out our preview version and we like what we see. But ask the same question after a first chapter? Forget about it, pal – I’m more likely to close the window and roll my eyes than I am to pay you. The only thing such a request accomplishes is that it tells me just how web-savvy you are … and I’m not likely to respect you for it.

The strange thing about the Internet, however, is that the preview idea works when you release the whole book – for free – online. You can then ask for financial contributions, or sell them paper/pdf versions of your book, and you’ll find that people will pay up when you do. There’s a principle at work here, one that works only on the Internet: the more you’re willing to give things out for free, the more likely people are to reward you.

I am now sick of online writers emailing and offering me previews of their work … but only after a small payment. The last one who did had a Flash website – a Flash website! – and a badly designed one at that. It was bad enough to demand $1 payments for chapters 2 onwards … but to sell his work in Flash? That meant he didn’t trust me – or any of his potential readers – with copyable, piratable html. I closed his site within 30 seconds and deleted the email soon after.

The Internet’s an exciting place to write, really. You’ll meet amazing people, you’ll find new things to do, and there’s a boatload more new business models just waiting to be discovered. Just – please, you know? Don’t be selfish.

Note: if you want payment models that work, try reading up on MCM’s Novel+ format or John August’s Variant model.

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Category: Making Money · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://www.midnightreading.com/rocket Pete Tzinski

    I have a number of interesting thoughts on this topic, which I will share with you for only $4.50.


    It IS a wretched idea. I’m not going to pay. It’s something I suppose you could MAYBE pull off with certain major authors who have rampant online followings. I wonder if Neil Gaiman could do it? And yet, even then…he releases stuff entirely for free. So it’s a moot point.

    In this instance, we should pull our inspiration from web-comics (why does it seem like so many other mediums have adapted to the web better than writing? What’s up with us, writers?). The work is done for free and is always available. And in some instances (people like Sluggy Freelance, Questionable Content, whatever others you lot probably read), the reader base comes around and supports the author and the comic. It’s just like you say: the more given out for free, the more likely you are to be rewarded.

    I think this works for one big reason: desperation.

    You can always tell the guy who is really nervous and really, really WANTS the job during the interview, or is really desperate to get the date. And it is always less appealing and attractive than the guy who wouldn’t mind, but isn’t whiffing of desperation. (It’s why some married guys seem instantly more attractive…they’re taken, so they’re safe, they’re probably not going to suddenly ask for your phone number in the middle of the conversation).

    It’s the same thing. If the author says, in a nonchalant fashion, “I’m doing this online for free, for me. I’d love for you to come and read it. But you know, let’s be honest, even if you don’t…I’m probably gonna keep doing it.”

    That attitude is going to come across a lot better than a web-site (and we’ve all seen ‘em) where they’re begging for your money every time you turn the corner, AND are probably witholding content.

    …terrific article/complaint. :)

  • Michael Rogus

    I have been thinking about this issue and this is the conclusion that I have arrived at, let me know if you think it makes sense:

    you offer the entire project online for free in html format but you also offer that content in more convenient formats for a fee. Offer a print version, offer a kindle version or an .epub one and charge for those. This way you offer your readers a way to pay for your content if they want to but they don’t need to. Also they get something of value for their money: Convenience.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Pete: Desperation may be one side of it, yes. Though that’s thinking of it as you would a relationship, which is – truth be told – an analogy I didn’t think of at all. ;-)

    @Michael: Err, well, yeah. That’s exactly what I said in my post. Welcome to Novelr, btw!

  • Michael Rogus

    hah, sorry. I just re-read your article and apparently the first time I read it I skipped over that paragraph entirely. Not sure how that happened. Great site, BTW. I’m finding it very informative.

  • RavenProject

    What about a split approach — the majority of content is free, but a second related story is available for a subscription?

  • http://www.midnightreading.com/rocket Pete Tzinski

    @Raven – it’s not a bad idea. Write a series, offer book one for free, books two three and four, all for some price.

    @Eli – well, you don’t have to agree with my analogy, but that just makes you WRONG. :) (Not really)

  • http://www.midnightreading.com/rocket Pete Tzinski

    (And I don’t really think it’s LIKE a relationship, truth be told. I was just trying to find an example that made sense of that feeling of desperation that you can sometimes just FEEL coming off of another person. That, and job interviews, were the two strongest examples of that feeling that came to mind. If that makes sense.)

  • RavenProject

    @Pete – Okay, won’t be disingenuous and say it isn’t for my own gig. ;)

    I’m thinking of having the “main story” for free, plus free supporting content, while having a secondary serial running for pay. That way readers can get a complete experience for free, and if they enjoy it then there’s additional content available.

    Thanks for the feedback!


  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome Lethe

    I like what Pete said. Sales, promotion, marketing it’s all the same thing. How are you going to sell your product? To charge money for anything on the Internet you better have a damn good product or a lot of marketing backing that product.

    There is an expectation that things should be free on the Internet. Because many things are. Free information, free downloads, free movies, free music, and of course, free novels by no-name authors.

    I got to thinking, “Why would anyone visit my site? Why?”

    I’m not famous, nobody has ever heard of me, and even if my content is merely good, I sure as hell don’t put enough of it out there to be what the New York Times calls a “super user”.

    I’m getting off topic here, but “super users” are the 1% that keep Wikipedia, Twitter, and Facebook animated and alive. Then there is the 9% who are the ones who rate the material and sometimes respond. Lastly, 90% who read the content, create nothing, rate nothing.

    Eli’s 1000 fans post, the recent one, gave an excellent quote by the musician who hit it big and made money doing it. He can charge installments. Why? He’s a super-user. He creates loads and loads of content, has developed a robust fan base, and loves what he’s doing.

    For anyone not in that position, I would say it’s a little short of ridiculous.

    Here’s where what Pete said makes sense Eli. Good actors, good musicians, good novelists don’t beg. They do what they do and they do a lot of it. Not just enough. Not even more than enough. They do so much of what they do that they become detached, and almost nonchalant about what they do. What they do becomes effortless and if this isn’t the best sell I don’t know what is.

    Let me make one final remark. Marlon Brando once was asked how to act and you know what he said, “Act like you don’t give a shit.”

    And that’s what sells.

  • http://www.midnightreading.com/rocket Pete Tzinski

    “Let me make one final remark. Marlon Brando once was asked how to act and you know what he said, “Act like you don’t give a shit.”

    Yes, bingo! Exactly!

    Mostly, what I think is…do the work, for the sake of the work, and for the joy of creating. Talk to people if you WANT to talk to people. I’ve got a serial that launched two days ago. If I had any sense, I’d be jamming my comments on various blogs with links to it. But I’m not, because that feels a bit weird, and I’m mostly just enjoying the chatter.

    The important thing about Jonathan Coulton — and the reason I reference web-comics — is that usually, they just start the work in obscurity, for pleasure, and it builds into its own thing…but they’re still just doing it for the joy of the thing.

    The BEST thing you can do in order to get money, get readers, get fame, all that, is to focus on the work as best as you can. Make it the best thing it can be.

    The biggest thing that parts me from my money on the internet, or off, is when I am faced with something that just wows and excites me. I heard a single song by a band, and it blew me away, so I went out and bought all their CDs and am a huge fan.

    That’s what creates fans. Excite and stun the casual passers-by, and they’ll be excited enough and enjoy it enough to want to spend money, or talk about you, or whatever.

    …Rant rant rant, that’s all I do. :)

    What a triffic conversation this is.

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome Lethe

    For some reason, Novelr produces rich conversation. That’s why I keep reading and why I keep commenting. I haven’t found a blog yet that peaks my interest in the same way. I’m a blog snob, though. I don’t try very hard.

    But Eli’s blog has struck a chord with me. I love the conversation and hope he keeps it going with diverse posts.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Raven: I agree with Peter here, I think that your idea can work, and that it’ll definitely be more beneficial than just an outright pay-per-chapter model. But the relationship between giving things out for free and getting things in return is a correlation – the more you give out, the more human attention you receive, the more money you can make. (It sounds almost karmatic, doesn’t it?). It’s smart to release the first book for free; it’s even smarter to release everything and charge only for pdfs and books.

    @Pete: I didn’t say I disagreed with you! It’s just that … I never thought of it like that. Strange, isn’t it, that in such an impersonal medium as the Internet … perception and the way you present yourself matters more than ever.


    Marlon Brando once was asked how to act and you know what he said, “Act like you don’t give a shit.”

    Bloody good quote. Thank you, Chris – that made my day =)

    PS: I’m probably going to quote you and write something about Van Gough in a future Novelr post. I’d like to see what you think.

    PPS: As for Novelr and rich conversation … I don’t think it’s so much as what I write as it is about the people that gather here to read and comment. I owe it to all of you that Novelr’s got such a great community to draw upon. =) Cheers.

  • http://www.takingoff.org/taking-off-the-web-novel/ Nat JM

    I’m in agreement with you Eli. I’ve considered different approaches for my web novel and I have settled on giving away all the content for free and when the web novel has run its course, offer the PDFs/print book for a fee.

    What are your thoughts on other types of charging, ie not asking for money but asking for people’s email address for example? For my web novel, I have created a readers club and I give them access to extra content related to the novel (mostly, it’s information related to the various settings of the novel) in exchange for an email address. Some might say that this related content isn’t free, because readers need to provide an email address, while it is free in terms of money. What are your views on this?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    That’s considered free, Nat. Personally I think that that’s rather savvy of you – you’ll have the option to send all of them a mass email when you’ve finished your digital run and you want to sell them your (paper) book. Nice! =)

  • http://www.takingoff.org/taking-off-the-web-novel/ Nat JM

    Yes, this is why I’ve done it ;-) I’m also a musician and this is what I do on my music website, I have a “demo club” area with free MP3s etc

    However, I’ve received a handful of emails from readers telling me that “asking for an email address isn’t free”, because they see giving their personal information as a kind of payment (I’m guessing)?

    I’ve never had such emails regarding my music website which operates in a similar fashion. Most emails I’ve had seem to come from “older” people – I’m wondering if there is an age gap regarding how we view disclosure of personal information such as emails etc? Or perhaps readers of online fiction aren’t used to such practices?

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome chris

    I second that. Great idea, Nat. Now you’re giving me ideas.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Nat: You can copy what most software developers do: add a caveat at the immediate top of your email-address form saying: (we never ever ever use your email for anything other than (the rare) status updates. And you can opt out!)

  • RavenProject

    @Nat: The visitors you mention are technically correct. You ask them to provide something of value — their contact information — in exchange for access to your content. So while no currency changes hands, your content isn’t actually “free.”

    As you’ve noted, some people are more hardcore about this notion than others. You saw a lot of this in the late nineties, but the practice became common enough most people hardly notice any more.

    In the interest of accuracy, you may want to avoid the word “free” and instead play up the value of club membership.


  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Didn’t think about that, Raven. You’ve got a good point there. And I think that’s probably why there’s an incentive to give your email to beta previews of webapps/software … because there’s this exclusivity incentive involved. Good call.

  • http://www.midnightreading.com/rocket Pete Tzinski

    In the days following my switch to G-mail and their almost completely impenetrable spam-filter, I’ve long, long since stopped worrying about giving my e-mail address out. That’s not a bad idea at all, though, Nat.

    What I mostly do, with my web-stuff is, I put a button up for people to click and send me money if they’re severely drunk or something. But mostly, it just gets written for pleasure. And when I’m not writing the serial, I’m writing short stories and comic scripts and novels and things which are intended for sale, and are sold, for nice cashy money. That takes the pressure of money off of the serial.

    It’s sort of like having a day job, just so you don’t have the pressure of money put on any of your writing at all. If that makes sense.

    Then, the balancing matter becomes time. The thing about asking for money for your internet fiction is, you’re saying “for this money, I’m giving you a certain chunk of time and work and effort, and for this ADDITIONAL money, I’ll try to give you more.” but with the truly free…well, it’ll have to come lower than the thing bringing in money. My Rocket Johnny series is a LOT of work, with the historical research and the storylines and things. So if I suddenly have a series of articles to write (like this past couple of weeks) or a script, or something…well, I only have so much mental focus. And it has to go to the pay stuff.

    So it’s an interesting balancing act. And getting money for the web work adds some weight to that side of the scales.

    I agree with the karmic idea, personally. I think it’s best to focus on the work itself and let money happen, or fail to happen, as it will.


    I find that his advice in this above clip applies wonderfully to writers in ANY field, internet fiction included. (But then, I find Alan Moore and his wisdom applies to practically everything).

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  • http://marcintustin.tumblr.com Marcin

    Quaere whether a model where the author advertises from the very beginning that the ending will have to be paid for is viable? I think it might well be, as readers will have enough to know if they like the work enough to pay for it.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Marcin: No. Reading requires a person to make a commitment, often an emotional one at that (in the case of fiction). All the early disclosure accomplishes is to turn said person away from making a commitment, from even beginning to read the novel, because that work would now have a higher barrier to entry as compared to others.

  • http://www.midnightreading.com/rocket Pete Tzinski

    Yeah, I have to agree with Eli. If I knew that this novel-of-twelve-parts is going to be free for only eleven of them…I would give the first part a chance. BUT, I would now be bringing to bear the added weight of not only “is this good enough to keep reading?” but “is this going to be good enough, in the end, to pay for?”

    It would steer people away.

    Not least because endings are iffy things. I own plenty of books where I dislike the endings. I have a huge Stephen King library, and I dislike his endings more often than not (my weakness is the beginnings and middles of the books, which are damn good). So even if the first eleven chapters were good, I don’t know how trusting I’d be on the endings. And if I heartily disliked this one ending, that might deter me entirely from wanting to ever pay for the ending again. So even if it worked, it might wind up being a one-shot deal.

    That said, as with all things, I could see there being exceptions that are made to work. I just can’t see it becoming a functional rule instead of an exception.

  • Lora E

    I do not see a thing wrong with a pay per chapter novel. If the reader does not like the content of the first chapter then they can just not purchase the next. A writer is an entertainer and desires nothing more than to delight and inspire thought and emotion in those who read their work. If the intro is intriguing enough, why would one who reads, not want to purchase? I think it to be a great idea and plan on do just that. It is not about arrogance. It is inspiring to now that your first few chapters were so enlightening to a reader that they can not wait to read the next and are willing to pay a one dollar fee to keep the chapters coming.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Good luck with that, Lora. It’s not worked for blogs and it’s not worked for music, and there’s no empirical evidence to show that it’ll work for web fiction. If you want a format that works, try reading up on MCM’s Novel+ format, or John August’s Variant model. It’s a slight twist on the pay-per-chapter model, the only difference being that these two models work.

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  • http://www.gotoofareast.com Alternatim

    “…the more you’re willing to give things out for free, the more likely people are to reward you.” Love this quote!

    Thanks to all the encouragement of online communities such as this, I’ve made my novel available online for free. Doing it one chapter at a time in the interest of generating a steady stream of conversation, but there’s no “pay for the next chapter.” If I end up putting it in print, I will keep the free version available online.

    Book’s called The Future History of Travel. Check it out here: http://www.gotoofareast.com/tfhot/

  • Heetendra Gowin

    I am definitely in the 90% category as this is my first reply. I agree fully, there is an expectation that if it on the net, it should not be paid for. Is this perception changing? Not sure.

  • J C

    This is not a real pay-by-chapter. Real pay by chapter mechanism does work. Check out this website:


    This website only charges a couple of cents per chapter, and readers can always stop paying anytime if one doesn’t like the book.

  • FR

    The fact that some writers are willing to put their entire
    work free online doesn’t mean everyone should do the same. The $1 per chapter
    is an extreme case, and the author is risking his reputation. Why can’t writers
    ask to be paid in the first place just like what happens in any other business,
    but has to depend on readers’ tips/mercy? With Amazon’s KDP-Select free
    promotions, readers are so spoiled that some of them only “buy” free books now.

  • Toby Nixon

    Hey, don’t be so negative. Yes, while I agree paying more than $8 in all for a novel sized book is stupid for the reader and greedy for the author. For some formats it makes sense. I am writing my memoirs. Living in the Shadows.

    You might easily think to yourself, ‘What possible life experience do I have that you’re interested in’. Well *#cker, I was an abused, neglected child, born with brain damage, a sociopathic mother and an Army Special Forces Green Beret as a father.

    You can see it right on my face, the scars, of my deepest relationships and hardships. My struggles with homelessness, hunger, defense of my person through amazing hardships and challenges which you can’t even imagine. Coupled with my innocence, love and respect and ultimately a deep understanding of people. Drama for martial arts & action people, my specialty.

    I literally fought my way up from the street, selling cannabis was turned away from college for simply being Homeless and beaten by campus police to stay away. However filing a complaint in federal court and confronting them directly… I not only proved that I had the right, but I eventually received a National Science Foundation Scholarship Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics.

    That is just the overview. I am looking for the right service to publish as my story is not only long, but extremely difficult. Written in complete short stories, divided by number of overall chapters, I hope to not overcharge people. As already there’s enough material for a novel. I want to not only charge people per chapter, but enable people to buy a license for the entire book, even before it’s completely finished.

    I agree somewhat with your reservations and ask for your help to find the service or make the service available. Otherwise, we can fist fight and settle this matter like feral dogs. Lol. I am fine with either outcome are you? Reality check for you, this must be. Not every thing is as it is in your head.

    Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.