Monthly Archives: July 2009

  •    Just popping online to say that I’m settling in to a new place (on campus), so Novelr updates will be slow for the next week or so. Also, I’ve not forgotten about reader requests to enable comments for Linked List posts, and I’ll get down to that as soon as I can – once I’m back and solidly online. Thank you for paying attention, keep writing good stories, and I’ll be back before you know it. #

Making Money From Online Fiction – I’ve Done It, So Can You

Nobody in the online fiction sphere has experimented with business models as much as MCM has. Originally the creator of childrens’ TV series RollBots, he writes (and sometimes illustrates) books for kids like TorrentBoy and The Pig and the Box. His latest work/experiment is an adult novel called The Vector, which runs on a format he calls ‘Serial+’ (continue reading, he’ll explain). Here he talks about how he’s experimented with the medium, and what you can learn from that experience.

Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Also, some are mentally unstable, and actively seek out disaster. That, in a nutshell, is me and publishing.

I’ve been writing fiction online for over three years now, and I’ve tried countless publishing business models, with some great successes and horrible failures. I endeavour to be the guinea pig for authors everywhere, testing the theories others are too scared to try. It takes a lot of patience, but it’s very rewarding. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned

Find Your Niche

This is fairly obvious, but I think it’s greatly overlooked. Possibly the most important thing you can do when starting a project is to know who your audience is, and what they’re looking for. Taken to an extreme, this could be called pandering, but that’s not what you’re trying to do. You know that expression that goes “you can’t break the rules until you know what they are”? Same idea. You can’t push the boundaries of a sub-genre unless you know which sub-genre you’re writing.

But it’s more than substance. Certain niches don’t work in certain media, and can spell disaster for your release plans. One of my series, The SteamDuck Chronicles, sold in amazing volume in e-book format, but bombed badly in print. If I’d taken the time to really understand how my niche audience worked, I would have known they weren’t interested in paper, and saved myself some money. Ignoring that tiny bit of research meant my first 30 sales went to offsetting the Print on Demand set-up costs. You don’t want to do that to yourself.

Free Works

One of my most popular titles is “TorrentBoy: Zombie World!”. It’s available in print and e-book, and just like all my other projects, it’s completely free. You can read from start to finish on my website without any obstacles, and over 250,000 people have already done so. Obviously, I’m losing lots of money on it, right? Wrong.

In the three months since it was released, TorrentBoy has earned over $9,700 in profit, almost entirely from donations. In fact, even though 99.8% of my readers don’t pay a thing for the experience, the ones that do are spending more than I would have earned from royalties under any conventional model. And the only reason they donate is because they can see the whole picture. You can’t count the non-payers as lost income, because in all likelihood, they wouldn’t pay anyway. Worse yet, if you obsess on them too much, you’re going to scare away your true customers. They’re an endangered species, and you can’t afford to mess around with their generosity.

Focus Efforts

When you’re building your website, it’s easy succumb to what developers call “feature creep.” Every new widget or feature or side-issue that you come across gets squeezed into your page design, often at the expense of the content itself. You have to make sure nothing is distracting from the text. Hosting may be expensive, and ads may pave the way to stability, but if you overload the reader’s senses when they’re trying to browse, you’re losing business.

To help test these theories, I created a special Reader site, which lets you read any of my books in whatever languages they’re available in. The design removes everything but the content from immediate view, with chapter navigation and title information one click away. Since the switch, my “rate of completion” (how many people actually finish the book) has jumped from around 40% to 98%, and both donations and sales are up (230% and 180% respectively). As a trial, I create a parallel version of the site, adding a right-hand column with navigation and tombstone information, and made it display for a random subset of visitors. The result? Smaller gains over the traditional model: 10% for donations and 0.3% for sales. The fewer distractions, the better off you’ll be.

Streamline Donations

I’ve tried PayPal buttons in various places around my sites, and this is what I know: a link in the right sidebar gets clicked 0.21% of the time. The same button in the left sidebar gets clicked 0.01% of the time. The link can be “below the fold” (not visible when the page first loads), but too far down and your click rate drops to zero. Putting the link inline almost never works (0.002%), and at the start of the text, it’s utterly useless (0%). Placing a link at the bottom of a chapter or page often works, but you need to be careful that the reader feels a sense of closure when they see that link. Cliffhangers and wrap-ups work nicely (1.1%), but if you’re just arbitrarily cutting the text mid-stream, those links never get clicked. And sometimes you get hate mail.

Another thing to consider is not using the PayPal icons at all. If you create your own button, or apply the “email link” code to plain text, those tend to outperform the branded icons 2:1. Again, don’t overwhelm readers with too many options in too many places. My Reader site places a “thanks!” page at the end of each book, with several donation options to choose from. Since it went live, donations have increased to almost 3% across the board. It’s simple, inoffensive, but blunt, and it does far better business than overcrowding ever did.

Consider a Serial, or Serial+

Serializing a novel is a great way to build brand loyalty (where the brand is you). It’s largely psychological, but I’ve found that readers who come back to you regularly for two or three months will tend to convert from “casual observer” to something approaching “fan”. But the interesting thing is, they don’t need to be coming back for new stuff, just more of the same. Serializing creates an artificial need to return to your site, thereby boosting your fan levels. For my serialized novel Fission Chips, I’ve seen a great shift in the profile of my readership over the last month and a half. Of my 10,000+ readers, 814 are now in the category I’d call “dedicated fans”, visiting not just that site, but reading my other titles as well. After the first two weeks, that number was only 12.

Another variation on this theme is what I call Serial+. In it, you release your book on a schedule (new chapters every Monday and Wednesday, for example), but put a footnote after the latest chapter informing the readers that at this rate, it will take them until some distant date to finish the story. If they want to skip ahead, they can donate a reasonable sum, and get the full story unlocked right away. In early testing, this model has an astounding conversion rate of 72%. If your writing is compelling, people will probably “upgrade” when they can’t take waiting anymore.

Be Nimble

The biggest handicap for major publishing companies is their inability to react to subtle shifts in the marketplace. Strangely, most indie authors actively emulate this mindset, even when they have no reason to. Never get stuck in one mode for too long. If you’re seeing resistance to a certain approach, look at ways to change. You’re writing fiction online here: tradition already says you’re the scum of the Earth. Don’t feel beholden to it for any reason. Do what needs to be done, and be prepared to shift your weight when the time comes.

MCM writes at, and he’s also heavily invested in the future of online fiction. See a full collection of his works here.

  •    The e-Fiction Book Club, on reviews:
    We review novels, novellas, blog-fics, series and short story collections in all genres except erotica. Our definition of e-fiction is fiction published exclusively on the internet, whether by a registered e-publisher or by an individual.
    First reading begins Monday, 20 July 2009. They invite visitors to join the round, and to give their opinions on the selected work. Sounds really promising. #
  •    Shortcovers seems like a good place to sell your online fiction. Site launched December last year, and the service has been receiving positive press in the previews since. #
  •    From the publishers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! comes a fantastic new book: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters! (#sarcasm, via) #
  •    Andrew Savikas says that ‘content is a service business’. Or, in simpler terms – when you’re a digital publisher you’re competing with free content, so the only way to differentiate yourselves would be to sell something better than content: service.
    … what you’re selling as an artist (or an author, or a publisher for that matter) is not content. What you sell is providing something that the customer/reader/fan wants. That may be entertainment, it may be information, it may be a souvenir of an event or of who they were at a particular moment in their life (Kelly describes something similar as his eight “qualities that can’t be copied”: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment, Patronage, and Findability). Note that that list doesn’t include “content.” The thing that most publishers (and authors) spend most of their time fretting about (making it, selling it, distributing it, “protecting” it) isn’t the thing that their customers are actually buying.
    It appears to me that content is the prerequisite; service only matters when you want to make money. Still a good read, at any rate. #

On Criticism and Online Fiction

I’m not sure if this is even a trend, but I’m beginning to think that online criticism follows rules and social norms that aren’t obvious in traditional, offline book criticism. This may not be a good thing. I’ve been actively looking around the blogosphere for the past couple of weeks, and I have to conclude that nobody criticizes via comments anymore. Consider: online works – be it novel, short story or photostream – are very rarely criticized on the creator’s own turf. I have yet to see a full blown review of a person’s writing on said person’s writing blog, nor have I seen a full-blown review of a blook (by a reader) on the blook’s actual site.

I believe the main reason for this to be that people now attribute ownership to a creator’s online channel. They don’t criticize you on your blog the same way they won’t comment on your (bad) taste when they’re visiting you at your home. Two photographers I follow – Olivia Bee and lightsongs receive  praise – and only praise – every time they release a photo on their Flickr photostream, and I must say that it gets pretty annoying after two or three months, to scroll down and see a whole heap of amazing! piled upon them – upload after upload after upload.

There’s also the possibility that these people filter out their comments, and only approve the positive ones – but I don’t believe that to be the case. I wonder, though – how likely is a reader to post a negative review in an overwhelmingly positive comment thread? A creator’s loyal community is the best defense against trolls, but it also a deterrent from negative commentary on the creator’s work. And – if this is true, and it’s true for all creators – then wouldn’t the Internet be the ideal home for the narcissistic writer?

Note that this trend doesn’t seem to apply to Novelr, nor to any of the non-fiction idea blogs you have out there. People have no problems with arguing against ideas they don’t agree with. It’s the fiction – the creative work – that suffers from this dearth of online critique, and this means that the writers who blog for improvement aren’t likely to find it … not unless they ask for it, and ask for it regularly. There is one exception, however, on the Internet: writing forums and communities not clustered around the writer are good places to ask for writing feedback. Which means, then, that the trick to getting C&C isn’t to ask for opinions from the community clustered around your blook, but to ask for it at other places – neutral ones – where people do not feel that they’re intruding on your digital turf.

  •    Louis Goddard on Times Online: What turns some writers into Internet cults?
    When Wallace died in September last year Wallace-L was one of the first places to know, and the following few days received a flood of personal remembrances from fans, friends and former students, all more true and moving than any of the newspaper obituaries. This is not to say that these obituaries weren’t taken into account — on the contrary, list members spent weeks collecting every scrap of media coverage, fragments shored against Wallace’s already formidable reputation. And as everyone else looked over at the brick on their bookshelves and thought “I really must read that some time”, the members of Wallace-L began their third in-depth group read of Infinite Jest.
    I find this remarkably curious. Certain writers inspire huge online followings; others vanish with barely a blip. Why? (via) #
  •    Ezra Klein asks: can the Internet be your new bookshelf?. Yes it can, though it’ll probably have to happen on a common-enough platform, one where a) conversation can happen, b) browsing is easy. It does beg the question, though: what use is there of a virtual bookshelf if less people are reading? #
  •    Flash Love Letter (2009) Part 1 is an essay that explores the economics of Flash games and their developers.
    Flash games are currently the ghetto of the game development industry. Compared to the number of players it serves, the Flash game ecosystem makes little money, launches few careers, and sustains few developer owned businesses. Despite the vast potential of the ecosystem, Flash games contribute surprisingly little to the advancement of game design as an art or a craft.
    Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The whole damned thing’s written well and applicable to online content producers – it doesn’t matter what kind of content – who want to get paid for what they do. (via) #
  •    The Millions’s got a list of the most anticipated books for the remainder of 2009. I’m personally looking forward to Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry – which is Niffenegger’s second novel and the follow-up to The Time Traveler’s Wife. #

Why Free Isn’t Free – Or At Least, Not Really

Chris Anderson announced two days ago that his new book, Free, would be released free to the unwashed masses, beginning with an upload to the online document site Scribd. When I first linked to it two days ago the Scribd site worked fine and I was able to read it all the way through to page 23 on the site’s online reader. That experience is no longer possible. As of yesterday Free is no longer free for all: it is currently available in the US and to US citizens only; other people, like me, from countries outside the US will have to make-do with a most unwelcoming Free page from Scribd:

Free, by Chris Anderson, on Scribd

I don’t like this, of course, though I don’t think Anderson’s got any say in the matter: he blogged recently to confess that he’s limited by the way global book-rights work, and that there’s nothing he can do about it at the moment. Here’s a thought, though: why not publish the digital versions of Free under a Creative Commons license, distribute that through as many publisher-sanctioned channels as possible, and then reap the benefits this liberalization would bring to both him and his publisher? I cannot answer that question, nor can I profess to know the minds of the publishing people behind Hyperion … but it’s worked for several books published by (now defunct) The Friday Project, and I’m sure it can work for Free.

But … Why Publisher Sanctioned?

Notice that I suggested publisher sanctioned channels of distribution, and not JUST channels of distribution. This slight distinction brings us to the topic of today’s post, which is, namely: if you make something free, and you allow users access to downloaded copies of your work, should you encourage file sharing between users and prospective new readers? Should you mind, even if you’re not in this for the money?

The short answer to that is yes, you should; but the long answer is no, you shouldn’t. And I think it’s pretty obvious, what I’m going to tell you today, but the right answer to the above question also depends on why you’re writing and publishing on the Internet. Let’s begin with the basics: the first thing that springs to mind when we’re talking about file sharing is piracy, and recently Gavin Williams and John/RavenProject had a discussion on Novelr about whether sharing an already free file was considered piracy.

I didn’t have a good answer back then, but I do have one now – and the answer is yes. Let’s face it: why are things free on the Internet? Things are free on the Internet because people expect things to be free, and because they expect things to be free you get more eyeballs whenever you meet this expectation. This is a remarkably old economic truth, to be honest: people are attracted to free things regardless of whether you’re talking about baubles or condoms, and free things on the Internet are, quite frankly, irresistible. (I’ve lost track of the number of ebooks I’ve downloaded as a direct result of the writer making it a limited-time offer, so go figure).

But the thing about offering free products is that you’re not really expecting zero returns. Free downloads earn you human attention, and human attention is the real currency of the Internet. You may not consider it particularly valuable, nor may you consider it particularly helpful when the landlord comes knocking for the rent, but publishers and independent content producers would do well to sit up and take notice of this untapped resource – human attention usually leads to community, and community in turn leads to a captive audience … always a good thing to have on hand if and when you finally decide to monetize your online efforts.

If you’re a one-man show it would make sense to distribute things for free and remain ambivalent to torrenting/filesharing amongst your users. You will, after all, gain hopeful readers. But if you’re a publisher, or if you’re in this for the long-run – serious no shit I want to make money kinda long run – then controlling your free distribution matters as much as making your products free in the first place. File sharing builds no community. Stay away from it.