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 1889.ca, and he’s also heavily invested in the future of online fiction. See a full collection of his works here.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Making Money
  • http://1889.ca MCM

    I know I briefly touched on a lot of topics here, so if you’d like any more detail, I can dig up almost anything from my logs. And thanks to Eli for giving me a chance to destroy your brains!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Oh, and I just want to say here, for the record: you guys MUST read The Virus Coder’s Girl. It’s a fantastic story, and currently my favourite from MCM’s collection. =)

  • JanOda

    Very unprofessional comment ahead (but I’ve been locked in with the family for 3 days, so please forgive me)

    I think I’m in love.

    Smart stuff later…

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  • http://fiftywordstories.com Tim Sevenhuysen

    Great post! Lots of useful info in there, MCM. Thanks!

  • http://www.strangelittleband.com Nancy

    Thank you. Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou! I’m going to apply some of your advice and findings to my online serial. :)

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Tim: We aim to please. And by “we” I mean my three personalities.

    @Nancy: Glad I could be of help! It’s never an exact science, but I’ve tried enough permutations to be able to say what DOESN’T work, at least :)

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

    Gotta say that a lot of the advice made sense, but it wasn’t something I would’ve come up with on my own without a lot of trial and error. Thanks for sharing it with us, MCM. I’m going to have to sit down with the suggestions here and really look at my sites to see how I can improve them.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @S.A. Hunter: A late-breaking tip that someone suggested to me was that framing your donations in a very familiar way greatly increases your income. So saying “Buy me a cup of coffee” works better than “Donate $5″, even if they’re both going to the same PayPal site.

    I’m testing a lot of new features that I’m hoping will give me more stats to share in the future. Glad I could be of help!

  • Jan Oda

    So smart comments have finally arrived, or at least longer comments. Your conclusion couldn’t be more on top of things, and it doesn’t apply to making money alone. For months I have been advertising and promoting online fiction through various ways and 2 things have bugged me amazingly.

    Authors are copycats. One person finds out that incentives work great to get more traffic and people more active and BAM, 30 author websites start the same. What bugs me there isn’t the fact they are copying a system, but that they are copying too thoroughly, without thinking about their own audience. I would expect creative people to be creative about such things. It gets tiring to see the same donation-buttons, same website set-ups and same advertising everywhere.

    Authors are lazy and conservative. In my quest for promotion I have tried out various ways of promoting authors and websites. After a while it struck me how few of those social media or other tools are used or at least tested by people publishing online. I’d espect people who are ‘nerdy’ enough to publish online to try out every online way of promoting their fiction possible. I’m not saying all of these social media ventures work for online fiction, in fact most don’t. But a big reason some of them don’t is because not more like-minded people are using them.
    I know the internet can be baffling and that people just want to stay in their comfort zone and write on that gorgeous story they are writing. But you’ve chosen the internet as your battlefield, so make use of it, experiment, learn and have fun with it. Don’t stick with what you know.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    Personally, I’m not sure that it’s conservatism as much as just lack of time.

    I may just be speaking for myself here, but I struggle just to write what I write in the course of the week. I’m not unaware of how things work online (I’m a web developer).

    I’ve been thinking of creating a new theme for my story blog for the longest time, one that oddly enough, shares many of the features suggested in the article. Have I done it?

    Er… No. Mostly because if I do off hours programming, I’ll be doing that instead of off hours writing. I should though. My readers are suggesting that I should put up ads and a Paypal link, which ought to tell me that it would be worth doing.

    The other thought is this: What you’re saying about authors is actually similar to what I’ve observed as someone running a small business. Business people are copycats too (and oddly enough indie authors are business people. Many just haven’t noticed yet.), but in this case, they’re really excited about the writing part. They never really gave the same level of thought to the business part and in many ways don’t really want to.

    Anyway, there’s my thoughts (for what they’re worth).

  • Jan Oda

    @JZ I can see where you are coming from and I reckon lack of time is a very big part of the problem. However its either one way or the other. The moment you want to make (some) money with your website you should be professional about it, or at least try to be. If you don’t want the hassle of dealing with the internet and trying out stuff to reach more readers then you’ll never reach the full potential of the medium, and thus of your audience.

    I know that for a lot of people it’s just a hobby, and they are juggling with jobs, family and other types of things that need to be done. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the people who are trying to earn (a partial) living with their writing online could in my opinion often make more of it.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    I tend to agree with the idea that many authors rely too heavily on copying. It’s a tricky situation. Some of it comes down to the laziness angle, but I think a lot comes down to the “I can’t risk my audience” fear. Or “I can’t afford to give up that one donation”. If you hear that someone else had amazing success with one factor or another, you want to do it too and save yourself the hard work. You might think you can do it another way, but if that costs you donations — and god forbid, a BIG donation — you’ll have shot yourself in the foot.

    The problem, as I see it, is effort and risk. Too much friction between idea and execution, and it leaves time to worry.

    One thing the community is missing is really robust software that does what they need. I know WordPress can do it, but WordPress is much too heavy for what most authors need/want. To put the fundamental navigation elements on every chapter is a major hack on its own, and often not very visually appealing. There needs to be something simpler to execute, and more targeted to authors.

    That’s one of the things I’m working on now… turning my system (with all its hacks) into something other people can use. Something that lets you try a button in one place, or an ad in another, and gather stats on how it works, so you don’t need to worry so much. So you can say “I have this feeling that this feature in this place would be great”, and execute the idea yourself in minutes. If everyone could do that, I think you’d see a lot more variety out there.

    ALSO, the other thing authors need to keep in mind is that sites and features are just like elements to your book. Just because someone had a lot of success having a comic Rastafarian flamingo in one of their stories, doesn’t mean you put one in yours. You might adapt it… make it a comic Swedish flamingo, or a comic Rastafarian parakeet… you’d look at what fits your specific situation, and adapt. People like MeiLin Miranda have figured out a system that works for them, but it won’t work out-of-the-box for most. It’ll take some massaging. So try to find an angle that connects with your project, and do that instead.

    Which is to say: I’m rambling.

  • Jackie B

    Thanks, MCM. That was an excellent post. I’m developing a serialized YA soap, but my role is to produce it, not write it. And I was wondering how I might turn this into a profitable venture so that the writers could get paid. You’ve given me some great ideas!

  • http://airtheremin.wordpress.com/ Sebatinsky

    The Virus Coder’s Girl really is excellent. I’m also taking a look at Vector.

    Oh, and MCM – The first “page” of VCG is almost an excellent self-contained story, even without the rest of it. I was impressed.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Jackie B: That’s something I really envy… if I weren’t so busy writing things, I’d have more time to produce some cool new online dist concepts. There are lots of ideas I can’t execute because there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Good luck to you! It should be fun!

    @Sebatinsky: Thanks! VCG was a really fun project for me, and also connects happily as a kind of unrelated prologue to the Vector. Glad you liked it!

  • http://www.katandmouseserial.com Ace

    Excellent post.

    Now to figure out how best to apply it to my serial.

    Thanks for giving us the skinny.

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  • http://www.uninvoked.com Uninvoked

    Eee! I’m just so glad to see there are others with noveling blogs! I can’t wait to check out what everyone has. ^^

    Some details on getting your novel noticed would also be nice.

  • http://www.lordlikely.com Mr. AD Fanton, esq.

    Oh! If only I’d read this article a few months ago!

    But I completely agree with many of the points here – since I moved my online serial (The Astonishing Adventures of Lord Likely), stripped the site of widgets and gadgets, changed the donations links and so forth, I’ve seen a big rise in both readership and donations. Hooray!

    Wise words indeed, sir! Good work!

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  • henda

    I WROTE TWO BOOK, AND I THINK THAT THEY’RE GOOD. BUT THAT’S JUST ME. THERE FOR ADULT ONLY

  • henda

    WOULD LOVE TO LEARN HOW TO GET MY OWN ONLINE WEBSITE. CAN SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @henda: IF YOU WANT YOUR OWN WEBSITE, I WOULD GO WITH WORDPRESS.COM OR BLOGGER. YOU CAN DO JUST ABOUT ANYTHING THERE, EVEN IN CAPS!

  • Melissa Corbett

    I’m curious, one of the blogs I read, recently had an issue using the paypal donate button without being a non-profit. They actually closed down her paypal account for some time and she wasn’t able to withdraw money in her account for a few weeks.

    The blogger said that apparently its against thier terms and conditions. How do you use the donate button withuot this kind of issues.

  • Jnaida_24

    can i read it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004321776390 Stephanie L. Robertson

    Hi Writers! I’m infomation gathering. Are any of you guys indies? I’m going rogue, but it looks like Amazon either takes out 35%, or they only give you 35% in royalty. Unlike. So if I want to sale copies of my book on my own site, would I go through PayPal? I definitely don’t want to deal w/ credit cards myself. Your thoughts? SLR at http://www.thewritesteph.com

  • Malissa Thomas

    I created an online serial that is wrapping up soon. One more chapter(epilogue) left. I am intrigued with the idea of serial +. Thanks for the info!

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