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.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Making Money