A Format For Online Fiction

When you go to a bookstore to buy a book you expect a number of things that the publisher – and the author – readily provide you with. You expect quality content – a good story or a good idea argued well, perhaps – but you also expect a number of things so rudimentary nobody actually thinks about them anymore. Consider the following:

  • you expect a cover
  • you expect soft pages you can flip
  • you expect binding of some sort
  • you expect book-smell (and this is a personal favourite of mine – I really really like the smell of new books) –
  • in short, you expect a standardised reading experience.

Compare this experience with that of online fiction. Granted, one of the main draws of the medium right now is that it is new, experimental, and that it doesn’t come with a set of preconceptions or constraints that may bind you if you so choose to write a dead-tree novel. But if you think about similar mediums that have matured, over the past few years, you’d realize that there exists a very particular growth pattern to which all these mediums follow before they became mainstream, one that we haven’t gotten to yet.

Clay Shirky best summed it up in his June 2009 TED talk:

What matters here isn’t technical capital. It’s social capital. These tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. It isn’t when the shiny new tools show up that their uses start permeating society. It’s when everybody is able to take them for granted.

And this is the truth. Nobody really paid attention to blogging until WordPress and Blogger came along and made the technology – or, more importantly, the concept – boring. But it’s interesting to note that while blogging is staple to us now, in 1997 it was chaotic, and less of a movement than a collection of fringe geeks. Early blogs were literally ‘web-logs’ – records of links found on a person’s travels throughout the world wide web (and, yes, I am aware of how old-fashioned that sentence just sounded) and there really was no defined idea of what – and how – a blog should look like.

This has, of course, changed, in so far that even fringe communities like ours now write our fiction in the blog format. We know what blogs look like. We know how they work, and we know how to read them. Somewhere in between 1997 and 2001 the blog morphed from a collection of links to a reverse-chronological order of posts, with comments, trackbacks, RSS feeds and what have you … and this change enabled the mass adoption and acceptance of blogs and blogging. The blog became standardized. When you go to a blog now, you expect a number of things that all blogs provide you with – things that are by now so rudimentary that nobody thinks about them anymore. And in this way blogs resemble books: they deliver content in exactly the way you expect them to.

The same cannot be said for the blook. Or blog fiction. Think about it: when we publish fiction on WordPress/Blogger/Drupal, we are taking a system that was designed for something else entirely, and adapting that for the delivery of fiction. There is a difference between text and prose, and I believe that WordPress, and Blogger, and Drupal fail to make this distinction. How the author displays the work is up to him or her. Sometimes this works. Most of the time it doesn’t.

And you don’t have to look very far for evidence of this! Take two random works, any of the 300+ you can find on Web Fiction Guide, and compare their presentation styles. Some will have their chapter listings on the right, some will have it in the footer. Some display a splash page, some just hit you with a reverse-chronological order of posts; still others give you a link to the first episode in the sidebar. Whenever you read web fiction you are literally taking a dive into the dark – you don’t know what you’ll find, and you don’t know the context you’ll find it presented in. Imagine going to a bookstore to see books of all possible formats – some read right to left, some packaged in scrolls, others propped up and sold in ring files. This is terrible. It is already a huge challenge to find good content within the confines of the book as we know it. Likewise for online fiction – the diversity of presentation styles is is a huge mental block, particularly for the reader, and it’s one that I think we should do away with.

So Who Should Do It?

Let’s go back to the story of the blog. I told you that somewhere along the way – around 1997 to 2001 – the blog was transformed from a ‘web-log’ to the written format we accept and know today. Now I believe that this change did not happen via collective community movement. Nobody decided anything together. And so I’m not going to suggest some cliched ‘let’s decide now, together, what we’re going to change about this’ as a solution to this problem. If we look at blogging, we see that the change happened not because of the old-timers, it happened in spite of them. A bunch of newcomers – programmers – came together and wrote b2, cafelog, and then later on Movable Type and WordPress. This changed the nature of the blog. WordPress and Movable Type were easy-to-install platforms that lowered the bar to entry for many. More importantly, however, it put blogging on the map. The more bloggers started using WordPress/Movable Type (and it didn’t matter which, for the format was essentially the same) the more people read them; the more people read them, the more they started clicking these interesting little ‘powered by blogging engine‘ links; the more they knew blogging, the more they were inclined to blog; the more bloggers there were using that particular blogging format … and on the cycle went.

I believe that the easiest way to have a standardized online fiction format is for somebody to actually sit down and develop the system himself. And yes, that does sound rather difficult (!) but note that blogs are actually rather simple applications to write – ask any programmer if this is so and he’s likely to go d’oh at you. So while WordPress and Drupal are too bloated for our purposes, the former – being open source – is actually a good starting point on which to built a system on. The crux of the change is this: this app – whatever it is, or how it looks like (and I’ve got quite a few ideas on how it should look like), it should be good enough, and simple enough, and intuitive enough to meet all possible online fiction needs. And if it is all these things, mass adoption should follow, sooner or later, allowing writers to do what they do best in an environment that currently throws so many obstacles in the good writer’s way.

I’d like to close now, but in case this sounds like a lot of charity work, here’s something to think about: there is now a large publishing industry shift across the digital divide, particularly where authors and novels are concerned. Consider how beneficial – and how desirable – designing a system for writers to tell their stories would be … not only for the community, but for whoever so decides to be a developer of just such an app. WordPress, is, after all, making more than enough money to survive.

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Design · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    Alice and Kev was an interesting experience.

    I would have to agree that using the blog format to upload stories isn’t working great, it takes effort to get things the way I’d like them, that’s for sure.

    More on this later, perhaps…

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Gahh I haven’t implemented comments for linked list posts!

    /hides self from Gavin …

    PS: I’d like to note that I would build such a system myself, as a fun aside, but frankly I think I’m not qualified to muck around in PHP and build something from scratch, even something as simple as blog-ish software. So I’m throwing the idea out there, for ideas are cheap; and execution expensive.

  • http://clarekrmiller.digitalnovelists.com Clare K. R. Miller

    I dunno. I mean, I see your point, but from my perspective, Drupal really does seem set up to be useful for serialized fiction. Frankly, I’m surprised I haven’t seen anyone not on Digital Novelists using it (though I have hardly looked at all the sites on WFG). It may not be perfect, but it doesn’t require any extra coding to display installments in chronological order, and it’s even set up to organize them into books! I’m glad I discovered Digital Novelists in time to not publish my story via WordPress, which would have been much more awkward to use.

  • http://clarekrmiller.digitalnovelists.com Clare K. R. Miller

    Basically, what I’m trying to say is: I’m baffled. I think Drupal is plenty adequate. I’d like to understand why you disagree.

    Also, it still drives me crazy that you talk about serial novels as taking place on blogs or “blooks,” since I don’t consider my serial as being on a blog, but I’m guessing that part’s not going to change ;-P

  • http://www.midnightcross.com RavenProject

    When I started planning the design for Midnight Cross, I did hit WFG and hit a handful of random links. I was looking for some of the exact things you mentioned — common elements which occurred frequently enough that matching them would make my site more usable.

    Then I realized there was no such thing. Like you said, there was so much variance that you couldn’t set a “standard.”

    On the one hand, I appreciated the freedom to come up with everything myself. On the other, I do like having those kind of standards to work from, for the readers’ sake.

    All of that said… yes, I am using WordPress. I’ve done a lot of tweaking to make it do things the way I want, and so far I’m happy with it, but I agree that I couldn’t have used it out of the box. I’d love to have a better solution available.

    -J

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Clare: I don’t really like Drupal, and I’m not sure why I feel that way. Now I’m sure the app is pretty damned powerful, and I’m fairly certain that it can be adapted for whatever it is that you want it to do (it is, after all, a full fledged content management system). But I’ve yet to see a good, well designed, and intuitive site that was built using Drupal – developers don’t use it, for some reason or another. Some say that it’s because Drupal isn’t easy to customize, and others admit that they prefer Expression Engine.

    Either way you look at it, we’ve been used so long to having to choose and adapt existing apps to use for our fiction. I’m proposing one that does exactly everything we need, no more or no less. Imagine something that, by default, displays your fiction in what is the most readable format possible … and without all the software bloat! Something that works out of the box!

    PS: I’m sorry about the nomenclature. But like I’ve said before, the lack of a proper name for what we do here is somewhat an indication of the state this sphere is now in, no? If somebody does come up with this app, then I’d suppose the words blok/blog fiction no longer apply.

  • http://www.midnightcross.com RavenProject

    @Eli “…I’ve got quite a few ideas on how it should look like…”

    I’d like to see you expand on this, if you would… what are some of the elements that you feel would have universal appeal, which are not currently possible through WordPress or Drupal?

    -J

  • Yiehtk

    I noticed that some online comics use a wordpress theme called ComicPress. It’s a nifty little theme that allows for much customization but helps in providing the basic comic website needs. Maybe even just a simple thing like that would be ideal.

    Not every site uses it, but a lot are converting and it really does give a nice template for sites to use. They also become easier to identify as webcomics, because they all seem to follow the same form.

    Perhaps something like this is what you mean? Or something more complicated? Or well, not complicated exactly, but perhaps something more… universal and easier to implement. Something more for digital novelists then just a few modified wordpress templates.

    I know, as a reader, I would much like to see a unifying form. It’s frustrating to learn all the navigations and layouts of different blooks. Of course, to have options would be nice, and to provide different basic templates for different needs.

    Before anything could be made, however, there would have to be a serious discussion on what readers want, what writers can do, and what kind of resources are available. It would be no good to have an app if people who cannot afford varied hosting can not use it.

  • http://twitter.com/janoda JanOda

    Ahhh Eli, you’ve touched upon one of my pet peeves here. Soo many authors just simply throw their stuff online that it drives me crazy sometimes. I do believe that an App could possibly increase the average design quality, but I don’t think it would solve all the issues.

    Online publishing is moving closer to general digital publishing every day. More and more authors offer different formats of their work for all the various eReaders that are out there. The Blog-format is just one of many formats people use to read online stuff. As long as conversion between all these formats remains such a hassle, and authors always risk to loose the formatting of there proze I think it won’t matter much wheiter there is a uniform way of publishing via the blog-format. Because even when we had a Webfiction Standard Format, we’d still be kinda screwed with all the others…

    I’d love a sort of Thesis Theme for fiction, something that is highly customisable, intuitive to design, and intuitive to browse. But even if such a Theme existed I doubt it would change much, because writers seldom are designers. So many websites break standard webdesign rules. Way too many sites are cluttered, uneasy to browse, or plainly headhurting ugly. I doubt that authors who don’t take time to learn about webdesign when they publish something online, will search or find such a Theme.

    (On a sidenote, I think the Reader App MCM wrote for his own (WordPress carried), could be super usefull. I’ve been crossing my fingers he’ll eventually make it public so more people could use it.)

    As for WordPress versus Drupal, I’m a WordPress gal myself, but Drupal sites can be lovely, I especcially adore the Peacock King website http://peacock-king.infernalshenanigans.com/

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    First — blogs aren’t uniform. The fact that our online fiction runs off blog themes and all look different indicates that. Links on the left, the right, the banner, the footer — blogs are customizable. I like that online fiction can be creatively changed to create a different experience, unique to reader and writer.

    That being said, apps or themes that are easier to use would be nice. I’ve run off WordPress and Drupal and I found WordPress more intuitive and creative — but Drupal took a lot of the work out of my hands once I had it up and running. It doesn’t have the layout-flexibility that I’d like — (I feel like I repeat this a lot on Novelr) — but all in all it gets the job done.

    Online fiction is an emergent artform (again, I’m repeating myself haha) — so the quality is in flux, the form is in flux, the name itself is in flux. It’s like riding a wave and all of us need to learn how to balance and surf this chaotic, ever changing ocean of possibility.

    I’m sure we’ll figure it out. But it would be nice if the ride got smoother.

  • http://sorrowfulunfounded.com Chris

    I developed a prototype thing awhile back that was basically this – got to the point where you could add chapters, and it was displayed like a table of contents to left, content to the right, and next / previous chapter links at the bottom of the page. I also did a group presentation on the concept for a university assignment. Most of my spare development time goes towards Muse’s Success, but if there really is an interest (say a few authors pledge to try using it), I will revisit it.

  • http://sorrowfulunfounded.com Chris

    Other notes, if I go ahead with this:

    * It would be open source, in PHP/MySQL (other databases would probably work too).
    * GPLv2
    * Although I can make decent UI’s, it would probably be best if someone else joined to work on the default theme.
    * If any authors are interested, reply to these comments (or post on Muse)

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    Personally, I think that a lot of problems could be solved by one good WordPress theme (which could probably be translated into Joomla/Drupal/MoveableType/Whatever).

    Admittedly, that wouldn’t solve the internal interface issues since WordPress would still be oriented toward blogging instead of publishing novels, serials, or short story collections online.

    As a developer, I end up asking the question, “What’s unique to self-publishing a story online and does it need a full-fledged app or just a plugin for a CMS?”

    Unique things that come to mind:
    — easy conversion to Kindle/PDF/E-book format
    — a need for a linear travel through individual stories
    — ideally an ability to bookmark (or easily find) where you left off in the story
    — an interface to organize multiple works (internally and externally) and make them easy to find

    There are probably more, but from what I’m writing here, many of them seem to be display based rather than functionally based capabilities.

    Outside of that, the needs are fairly similar.

    The major reason to come up with an entirely new app (if people wanted to do that) would be for people who are new to blogging and thus aren’t comfortable with WordPress/MoveableType/Drupal/etc… Otherwise, a plugin plus a specialized theme would probably solve most problems.

    That being said, a specialized app that made it easier than installing a plugin might do writers a massive service (at the expense of losing access to the wide array of plugins available to most modern CMS’s).

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Unique things that come to mind:
    – easy conversion to Kindle/PDF/E-book format
    – a need for a linear travel through individual stories
    – ideally an ability to bookmark (or easily find) where you left off in the story
    – an interface to organize multiple works (internally and externally) and make them easy to find

    Brilliant. I didn’t think of those. Yes, file conversions is one thing that’s becoming increasingly more important – but can it be done easily in a web environment?

    And the bookmarks thing would be lovely. Just plain lovely.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    With regards to file conversions… PDF creation is built into PHP. Whether your host will allow access to the necessary libraries is another matter. The Kindle (someone correct me if I’m wrong) basically uses html files. E-book formats depend on the E-book reader. As such, that part of the architecture probably needs to be fairly open to plugin creation.

    At the very least, the ability to convert the story into a single (or multiple) text file(s) would make all the difference in the world.

    Bookmarks seem very doable if people accept cookies — assuming they do all their reading on one computer. If they use multiple computers, the website needs some kind of membership system in order to store their data.

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    While I encourage the development of software that can deliver e-fiction in a format the can span reading platforms, I abhor the thought of making all e-fiction look the same.

    One of the great benefits of e-fiction is that it is NOT a book. There are so many tools that can be used to make the reading experience more than just words on the page.

    I’m not talking about flashy rubbish or garish colours. I’m talking about thinking past the book format, and presenting your e-fiction in new and innovative ways.

    Most e-fiction, as you say, is poorly presented on blogging software or content management software that is not built for purpose.

    Think outside the book format! e-Fiction is not a book, and never will be. There are very few innovators out there. MCM is the closest to really psushing the envelope, but even his stories are still presented as books.

    Until we explore and push the boundaries, e-fiction will always be the lesser cousin of the printed format.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    I must have been asleep for the last week. I totally missed this post.

    I’ve been working on changing my system over the last few weeks, and while it’s not 100%, it’s making good progress. I’m hoping to open source the sucker before winter if I can. You can take a look here: http://art.1889.ca (temporary URL… will not work in a few months, I’m sure)

    I’ve unlocked editing features on it so you can give it a go. If you zip into The Vector and “start reading”, you’ll see some buttons below the title. “e”, “+”, “i”. Ignore “+” for now, because it won’t do what you want. But if you visit a particular page and hit “e”, it’ll let you edit inline. Click “i” to edit the book’s fundamentals (most of that won’t work right now. it changes hourly). It’ll export to epub and PDF (within reason… some books are too big to export with PHP’s built-in functions). It’ll eventually handle the ecommerce stuff and the voting system I use on Fission Chips.

    At the same time, I completely agree with Merrilee that this is not the right direction. We need to find what works for eFiction and really push THOSE boundaries. One thing I’ve done away with is the concept of pages… I don’t understand why all e-readers try and impose them (it never looks right and feels artificial). eBooks should be carefully crafted like an artistic web design. I want to find different presentation systems for my books, but so far I can’t think of anything truly groundbreaking. How do you deal with thousands of words of content without using the same paradigms we’ve had for centuries?

    So yeah. If anyone wants to give my system a try, have fun. And if you have ANY ideas how to re-imagine the book, I will do my best to implement it.

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    “eBooks should be carefully crafted like an artistic web design.”

    YES!

    Once upon a time, books had colour plates, fantastically beautiful illustration and illumination. They were things of great beauty, things to possess and treasure.

    Now we have mass-market paperbacks which fall apart after a couple of reads.

    The reason the colour and illustrations were dropped was due to cost, and making books more affordable to all.

    But it costs the same to produce e-fiction in black and white print as it does to produce it in colour. Removed from the restrictions of printing costs, why are we not experimenting more?

    Why are we not searching for beauty as well as a great story?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’d like to point out that that, too, was my stand for the good part of the past 3 years. I saw e-fiction as this wonderful alternative to print fiction, free of constraints and ideas of what it should or should not look like. But 3 years of nothing happening is enough. The problem with this idea is that good experimental e-fiction remains – and continues to remain – the sole domain of the academician and the occasional web designer-cum-writer. The vast majority of e-fiction out there is unapproachable rubbish. Either unapproachable because the writing belongs to the slush pile, or rubbish because the (good) writing cannot be read.

    I’m sick of this. It’s time for something different.

    Edit: In essence, what I’m trying to say is this: ‘you want to write e-fiction/a blook? Cool! Welcome to the club! Here’s a template/CMS for you to work with, one that we’ve built and tinkered with for a year now (based on observations over the past 3 years), and found to be most effective in conveying your story to a mass audience. Want to experiment with it? Sure! But use this one first – it’ll give you some ideas with what’s good and what isn’t.’

    (The vast majority of writers out there who suck at web-design/UI … my bet is that they’re not interested in experimentation in the first place, and they’re doing the medium – and themselves – a disservice by not presenting their fiction in a palatable way. This system is for them. Experimenters can and probably will have the resources to learn code.)

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    Agree with you Eli that a lot of web fiction at the moment is unreadable – tiny fonts, bad colour choices, poor layout. I found one that was dark orange text on a light orange background, for heaven’s sake!

    And I support the development of a web-fiction specific CMS.

    But that doesn’t stop me wanting to see writers with a clue and a bit of savvy, trying to stretch the boundaries and go in new directions.

    It’s always going to be one long experiment. And when someone hits on a good idea that works, then it will slowly become mainstream, as is the nature of innovations.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    “Why are we not searching for beauty as well as a great story?”

    I really wish my style engine was working… it does a lot of cool things.

    The issue I want to try and address is how to balance customizability with usability. Having done web design for years and years and years, I know the first thing to die with WYSIWYG editors is always panache. Give someone the chance to make their text purple, and they will. That kind of thing needs to be heavily restricted, because (in my experience) writers are sometimes the worst judges of visual style. If this were to be done, it needs to be very carefully executed so no writer can shoot themselves in the foot by mistake.

    Basically, the ideal is this: a standard interface that puts elements in consistent places, so the reader will intuitively know how to use it. Chapter buttons, navigation, information etc. All of this content will have a default style that is easy on the eyes and familiar. Add to that the ability to theme the experience… some colour options, font options etc (although a big part of me wants to deny font options except to the header text, just in case). And then the final level would be in-page design, where the text itself could be glossed on a chapter-by-chapter basis, so you can do some really nice design work if you like. But again, that will undoubtedly lead to clip art in books, which is probably counter-productive.

    Make all this easily used on everything from browsers to iPhones, and you’ve got something really useful. But I think the fundamental requirement is a standardized UI that applies to all books. Your customization should be stylistic, not organizational. That puts the reader at a disadvantage.

    Give me a few days to kick Reader into shape, and I’ll upload the source so everyone can take a look. It ain’t pretty, but I’m sure someone with better coding skills could fix it.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    If I’m understanding this correctly, I’m seeing two ideas being advanced:

    1. That we should find a standard.
    2. That we should push the limits of what’s possible on the web.

    My position: Both are correct.

    Most writers (I suspect) care more about the story than the presentation. What they need is a system to get the story out. As long as it’s intuitive for them to use, intuitive for the reader, and looks decent, they’re happy.

    Even beyond the writer’s preference, a standardized user interface is probably the route to getting a mainstream audience.

    Some writers really will want to go wild and push the web to its limits. Bearing in mind that web development is time consuming and expensive (at least when you want to walk the edges of the possible), they’ll either have to be web developers or hire them.

    They’ll also be pushing away the mainstream reader as experimental stuff often does.

    And that’s okay. Experimental stuff can become tomorrow’s standards.

    That being said, it’s useful to have today’s standards so that the experimental stuff can:

    1. Ignore it.
    2. Improve upon it.
    3. Or whatever.

    The key point is to create something your average reader can be comfortable with so that some percentage of average readers can become readers of the experimental stuff too.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    Hmmn. Looks like I wrote my reply at the same time everyone else did and said almost the same thing.

    Ah well.

  • http://www.epiguide.com Kira

    Very interesting article and a concept whose time has definitely come. I’m glad Merrilee mentioned a factor that I hadn’t seen brought up yet and was about to — that works of efiction / blooks / webfiction / webseries / whatever one calls this form of literature can do *so* much more than static ol’ books or blogs, and yet almost none of the blog-based fiction sites are taking advantage of this rich, nonlinear medium. The authors who treat their works as such are doing themselves and their readers a disservice. Many of my favorite webserials don’t use the WordPress or even a CMS format, but use (gasp!) actual handcrafted HTML webpages. These are not coding geniuses, I might add; most of the creators are pretty much novices at HTML, but they manage to include more features that allow for audience interaction and nonlinear exploration of their fiction worlds than most sophisticated WordPress sites.

    I know creating webpages the old fashioned way seems rudimentary, and in many cases it is, but each of these humble sites allows readers to delve further into the fictional universe and characters in a non-linear way courtesy of in-context links to character profiles, setting descriptions, maps, historical documents, or even whole different branches of storylines without forcing the reader to click through WP categories or archives to find them. As convenient as CMSes are to us as writers, they aren’t always quite as convenient to our audiences. Even using a Wiki would be a step in the right direction, though Wikis aren’t as easy for the beginning developer/writer.

    So in short, I’d love to see a webfiction-centered CMS, and applaud your idea! I’d just recommend that it take into account aspects of nonlinear storytelling, rather than being a blog-lite, and in fact hope that instead of taking WP or Drupal as departure points, that some programmer would look at both CMS sites and non-CMS-based sites for inspiration.

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    Kira, could you link to some of the more innovative sites you know of? I’d love to see what they have to offer.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Merrilee: The Golden Notebook, A Timely Raven, and We Tell Stories are some of the good ones that Novelr has covered in the past. There’s also Dreaming Methods, which is flash based. It’s more poetry than prose but still fiction nevertheless.

    @Jim: Regardless, that’s a really good summary of the discussion so far.

    That being said, it’s useful to have today’s standards so that the experimental stuff can:

    1. Ignore it.
    2. Improve upon it.
    3. Or whatever.

    Well said. =)

  • http://www.midnightcross.com RavenProject

    “Bearing in mind that web development is time consuming and expensive (at least when you want to walk the edges of the possible), they’ll either have to be web developers or hire them.”

    I was crazy enough to think that I could develop the web site for Midnight Cross and keep writing at the same time. (I’m a web developer in my “real job.”)

    Yah, I was wrong. After realizing my writing went to crap while doing double-duty, I suspended writing until the site was finished. (S’okay, still have a full year buffered…)

    And that was using WordPress. I found a theme was was kinda close to what I wanted, so the heavy lifting was done, but I still ended up doing a serious overhaul in order to get things just the way I wanted.

    Now that the site’s up and running I can switch back to the writing end, but it took about six weeks of my available time to get it done… six weeks I wasn’t writing.

    -J

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @RavenProject: I understand what you mean. When I’m designing or tinkering with Novelr’s code I can’t write or do anything remotely content-related with the site. I don’t know why this is so …

  • http://sorrowfulunfounded.com Chris

    I guess I’m in a different situation to most of you. I’m not a fiction writer although I do occassionally dabble, and one of my goals is to publish a book (although non-fiction, technical). Anyhow, I’m still thinking about whether or not to go ahead with the CMS I mentioned earlier, but I thought I would give my opinion as a reader of web fiction (and for the moment, lets forget that I’ve thought quite a bit about a web fiction CMS).

    I think certain standards are important. I would like to see easy navigation between chapters. I always liked next and previous links, and the table of contents in the sidebar combination. Flash/Silverlight without merit always annoys me (a lot of sites that use these technologies could easily or close enough be created without them) as does presenting all the text as images. I like having reading options – so that I don’t have to be at my computer to read – so export to eBook formats or formats that convert well is a must. If I can open in Stanza Desktop and share with my iPod Touch, and get a nicely formated/chaptered novel, I’m happy.

    I don’t particulary think a WordPress theme exactly is the way to go, but at the very least we need a standard set of plugins (although when I offered, only 1 person replied :(). I would like to see each novel having a distinct visual style for the online site. I don’t want to feel like I’m reading FictionPress.com.

    I agree that current location in reading tracking is important. However, I don’t want to see this information tied to a different account for each web novel I decide to read – so something like OpenID needs to be used. Cookies would kind of work too, but as someone who uses multiple computers, this just would not work.

    Something I’ve also liked is those stories which give you information, meta informatiion and descriptions of sorts, of at least the main characters of a story. Also, a glossery or encyclopedia on various aspects/terms/places/items used in the story.

    The developer side of me is telling me a microformat would be good too.

    Now, regarding the CMS:

    – I have at least three people willing to play with it or beta test.
    – I may go the WordPress plugin route instead or at least initially. Would the authors reading this like an export to ebook plugin or table of contents sidebar widget?
    – Still 50/50 whether the actual CMS would go ahead. I really want to do it, but I have to assess whether I have the time (if only I didn’t have uni!).
    – Many authors (significant amount) are not hosting themselves either meaning anything we do won’t help these people. Of course free hosting exists, but will they have the libraries installed to make the switch worth it?

  • http://www.midnightcross.com RavenProject

    @Eli “I don’t know why this is so …”

    Very, very different styles of thinking — the visual style of design, the logical style of coding, and the verbal style of writing.

    -J

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    This probably isn’t the place to get really specific about implementation but I just thought I’d clarify something.

    I mentioned creating a theme and people seemed to think that that would result everyone’s story looking the same.

    Here’s why I wrote that:
    1. I’m a web developer who’s worked on a lot of WordPress sites. For me, themes are something you modify. As such, I tend to assume that people will. Most authors won’t, but enough online writers are web developers that modifications will happen.

    2. Knowing that that’s the case, if you get one good theme, you’ll get twenty variations on it. That’s a good thing. It’ll spread the common elements and most likely spread the working parts.

    3. You can make themes that have some easily customizable parts and documentation on how to do it. I’m thinking of header images specifically.

    4. The key point is that if you have a theme, people can see how the plugin or plugins work together. If you just have plugins, it’s not always obvious.

    5. Also, sometimes it’s useful to put code into the theme and it’s hard to explain where to put that code to non-technical people and even harder to debug it via frantic emails for help. Of course, putting code simply into a theme is what plugins are for, but sometimes it’s not that simple.

    Anyway, I just throw that out to make it clear where I’m coming from with that.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    Eli: not to put all the pressure on you, but maybe a new post would be useful, made specifically for soliciting ideas for what this system should be. A feature list, as it were. I could do it on my site, but I think yours is better-suited for this kind of thing. Whaddya say? :)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I was planning to do exactly that. Thanks for the push, MCM. =) But err, give me a day, I’ve got a few non-Novelr related things to finish first. (Plus I intend to do at least one or two photoshop mockups? – we’ll see how it goes).

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    You’ve got more important things in your life than your blog? Is that allowed?

  • http://webfictionguide.com Chris Poirier

    Never!!!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Ehhehehehe. =)

  • Becky

    The problem here is that the physical reality of a book requires some method of holding the pages together through a certain amount of use and abuse. The way we bind books comes from that – it’s the most logical way to do it.

    The internal design of books is a different matter and developed from the technology and need for ease of reading.

    For online fiction the former problem is a non-problem. An electronic file isn’t going to fall to pieces if the binding is faulty.

    So the main issue is using or creating the technology to ease the reading experience.

    In part what we’re talking about here seems to be ‘how to we make webfiction easy to navigate’. This is not really a CMS issue since good navigation is possible with any half-decent CMS it just takes a little time. So what makes good webfiction navigation? When I read books I’m one of those people who flip back to check I remember stuff right. You’re never going to be able to rifle around a website like you can a book but with good navigation you can easily find what you’re looking for. Well, not just backwards and forwards links (absolutely crucial) but a contents page and links to start and end. As much – hum – “dipability” as the medium allows.

    Most of the issues I have with online fiction are design issues. No CMS is ever going to stop people skinning their site lurid orange or using horrendously unreadble fonts. In the end good web design is, like good book design, about being attractive and transparent. Attractive meaning that the new visitor’s first response is not “blergh, my eyes!” and transparent in that navigation and reading is so easy you don’t notice the design after a while. (I always say that what works is transparent, we only notice things when they are wrong). Resolving these issues is more about education than creating a new platform.

    This is not to say I don’t support the idea of a new platform for webfiction. It’s a great idea because of the time it will save the writer on hacking the CMS to get it to do what they want it to. I’m getting ready to launch my own online story (I’m currently editing it and thinking about site design – so this post is timely).

    I’m drawn to Drupal as a potential CMS because of its social networking side. It seems Drupal would be better for building up a community of readers around a work than WordPress. WordPress, however, looks easier to work with for a novice (like me). I think the community side of any webfiction CMS needs to be considered, since close reader contact seems to be one of the best things about webfiction. As a reader I love it when I comment and the author responds, as a writer I know good it feels to connect with a reader.

    Now it’s true that you can use WordPress and PHPBBS together to build a community but then you can’t let readers have a single login for both of them (unless there is some way to do this I don’t know about). One login to a site is attractive to readers for obvious reasons (less effort) and can also facilitate giving special access and privileges to people who donate. And from a design point of view a site built across three platforms is going to lack visual coherency no matter how hard you try which I find a little offputting. So, yeah, reader community support is important in my view.

    I think there was more I wanted to say, But it’s slipped my mind.

    Becky

  • Becky

    Oh, one other thing. I seem to be in a minority but I don’t really like MCM’s reader app (at least I assume the thing I’m using on the website to try and read “The Vector” is said app).

    As I said I’m trying to read the Vector and finding it *very* frustrating and non-intuitive. The clicking the right side of the page and the lack of obvious navigation makes it seem to be trying too hard to be a book. I’m only a few pages in, the writing is good and I want to read on, but I’m still on the verge of giving up because navigating is driving me mad.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Becky: Yeah, that one really does try too hard to be a book, though it’s based on a lot of user feedback. There are two strong sides to the debate: one that thinks “must be like what we know” is key, and the other that wants to break with tradition. I used to have things working a lot more unconventionally, but I took so much crap for it that I had to give up :)

    What I tried to do with that version of Reader is to make the UI as invisible as possible… like an iPhone reader, where you just tap to move etc (you can use arrow keys on the keyboard too). But that seemed to be a bit too obscure, so the new version (http://art.1889.ca/vector/en/2) has more design around it. Tho it’s still not quite right.

    I think we need a standardized UI for these interfaces that isn’t device-dependent. So you can feel just as comfortable using the mobile version as the desktop one. Conventions of some kind. But then, you don’t want to force readers to use something too alien, or they’ll just ignore you.

    Personally, I find the “tap the right side of the page to proceed” to be more elegant than a “click here to read the next chapter” button at the bottom of the page, if only for design reasons. I just need to figure out the right balance somehow.

    (side note: I’m also constrained by the fact that I have a bunch of picture books that I need to integrate, so obtrusive in-page navigation is a no-go. Whatever the UI is, it needs to stay out of the content area, at least in an obvious way)

  • http://muses-success.info Chris

    @MCM:

    It’s really a usability issue. We expect websites on a computer at least to behave a certain way. In this case, probably next and previous links. Clicking the right of the chapter text to go to the next page really doesn’t work on the web. It works on the iPhone (Kindle?) since applications are designed like that in general, and the users have come to expect it.

    Here’s a thought though on a possible way to implement it without frustrating users.

    You know how YouTube and MegaVideo let you darken out all the web page except the video? Perhaps you could do the same for the web novel. It would be optional, but for those readers whom wanted distraction free (and maybe more natural – you would need to do usability testing), the option would be there.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Becky (earlier post): One thing I’ve been toying with is this notion of “recall”, where you have a field on the side of the UI that you can type in, and it does a realtime search of the text of the book (up to the chapter you’re reading), so you can skim what you’ve read before. Roll over the text, and you see more context. Click and you go back to that point. It’s like a standard search, but specifically for books. I think it could be very useful, but the execution is tricky.

    @Chris: Exactly! I’ve got that (somewhat) in the new version of Reader. You can click “theatre mode” and it will darken everything but the text area. I don’t know how much a bunch of chapter links bother people, but to me, the more “other” on the page, the more distracting it is. I admit the “nothing but the text” approach is flawed, but I find even an ordered list of chapter titles at the side of every page to be very bothersome. It should be immediately accessible, but it shouldn’t need to be seen the whole time.

    For instance: on the old Reader, you only knew to tap the right side to navigate through trial and error. I had about a 30% drop-out rate from people not realizing that was possible. So I added the blue arrow button to the interface… it appears the first 3 times you browse a book (per session) and then never comes back. Since I implemented that, my drop-out rate is 0. People can understand “click here to navigate” (even if it isn’t standard for web pages) if you give them the right hints. Still, a lot of people prefer the obvious links, so I’ve been trying to adapt to that.

    But I still don’t like the idea of in-content navigation. It’s an inelegant way of solving a fundamental problem. And once you put a “click here for the next chapter” button in the content block, you’re detracting from whatever design the book might have had. We need to clearly separate content from interface at all times.

    Rambling, rambling, rambling…

  • http://muses-success.info Chris

    This isn’t going to solve the problem of a format or anything (although it may make life easier), but I created a simple table of contents sidebar widget for WordPress.

    http://sorrowfulunfounded.com/wp-toc-widget/

  • Becky

    @MCM I think this may be because I’m a long time web user. I browsed the web in the days of Mosaic. I suspect a lot of the people who prefer less blatent navigation aren’t.

    I tend to think that a fiction website is a fiction website not a book on a computer screen. I expect certain things from websites – and text navigation is one them. I’m even known to hiss at graphical navigation. I guess that makes me old school. I’m also a bit of an accessibility fiend at times – possibly because my mother was disabled. I look at sites and think “could a disabled person navigate this site and read the content”?

    And this is the thing. A book is a book and follows a very standard format. A website is a website and while cosmetically they can differ a great deal there are standards. Not everyone upholds them, but everyone should.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Becky: I’m in the same boat as you, in terms of Mosaic and blatant navigation, but I come more from the Steve Jobs school of design than Bill Gates (so to speak): especially these days, a lot of the conventions we use for web pages are anchored in the Netscape Navigator era, rather than looking at what’s really possible. We HAD to be blunt and direct before, because that’s all the technology (and bandwidth) would allow. Now we have a much bigger canvas, a much better set of tools, and we should be exploiting them to their fullest potential.

    Then again, ditching conventions for the sake of ditching isn’t the right way to go either. The dark side, that way lies.

    Really, my main concern is making a very clean break between content and UI, so they don’t mix at all. You want to be able to design your content once, and have it carry over to any other device flawlessly. So what you see on the desktop is the same as what’s on the iPhone, and on the Kindle etc. The UI of each is different, but the content stays static. And that means removing the UI from the content entirely. I think that’s fairly simple: you just put the UI in a second column, and overlay as necessary.

    Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that reading a book online is not the same as reading a story on a website… it’s its own beast entirely. It has different requirements, and it should be expected that it will behave differently than a standard website. The focus is the content — the words on the page — and the less you distract from that, the better.

    Now in terms of accessibility… that definitely needs a lot of attention. But with a solid amount of work (which I admit my Reader lacks), we can reach that goal without anchoring ourselves in the days of Mosaic. Forget books, forget websites, forget everything in between… how does online fiction behave?

  • Becky

    I wasn’t suggesting we anchored ourselves in the days of Mosaic (more like Lynx ;-P). Mosaic was cool at the time but goodness me webpages in it were ugly in retrospect.

    I guess I’m just set in my ways *laughter*. I expect inline navigation on the web and I strongly prefer it to be textual. I understand the desire to seperate the content and the user inteface for easier porting. I’m just not sure that’s feasible. There is no mp3 equivalent for ebooks and there isn’t likely to be unless someone can come up with a file format and persuade every reader manufacturer to support it.

    And this is the crux of the problem isn’t it? When it comes to a book we all know exactly what to expect. But when it comes to something on the web we all have different expectations as to how it should be presented. Because unlike a book – which as I said above is in the form it is because of the technology used to make them – there’s plenty of ways to put together a webpage that works and looks reasonable. No matter what solution you integrate some one is going to go “NO!” for some reason.

    With paper books that didn’t happen because the external format is the only sane solution to how to keep the pages together and protected from the outside world. And the internal layout is a hangover from how old-fashioned presses worked. We’ve kept it because it’s also very readable.

    Okay, I’m rambling now and probably not explaining myself well so I’ll shut up.

    Becky

    ps I managed to get through all of “The Vector” so far. I’ll be purchasing the ebook at the end of the month (I’d usually say around the 22nd but I’m on holiday then). It’s an awesome thriller.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Becky: Lynx! Gahhhhhhh! Thanks for that, you just made my brain bleed.

    Here’s where I switch my hats and talk about books as crafted content, and ignore the UI…

    The thing I hate about e-readers now is how mind-blowingly DUMB they want the content to be. I feed them The Vector, and they let you mess with the font size, the margin, line spacing, font… everything under the sun. There’s no sense of readability, usability or … er… standards. I HATE that they break pages in stupid places, largely ignore chapter breaks, and basically treat a book like text to be spit out however they can. There’s an artistry to these things, and they all ignore it. Makes me VERY cranky.

    What I want to do is make a system where writers can do anything from simple black-text-on-white old school page layouts, or design something fantastic with everything in the CSS arsenal. And whatever you make on your desktop browser version, that’s what appears in the iPhone version. Users can still switch font size, but they can’t defy good design sense on a whim.

    Anyway, in my purist world, having the UI trespass on the content means the content is being spat upon, which is why I want to keep them apart. I just can’t think of the right way to do it yet :)

    We definitely need a wish list for this subject. I have a thousand things of my own already!

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    Just to throw another issue in the pot…

    As a reader with arm and shoulder damage in the right hand, I would LOVE to see an online reader where I could page forward with a tab key or the spacebar.

    I really didn’t mind the invisible page click on The Vector, reminds me of adobe reader for the iPAQ. I just wish I didn’t need to use the mouse to do it.

    But it’s really not a good idea to use The Vector as an example. It’s a book. It was written like a book and really works best presented as a book.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Merrilee: Interaction design is going to be key. Right now you can navigate through my books with the arrow keys on the keyboard (so if you’ve got your hand over those keys already, you can go up, down, left and right to get around), but I think maybe customizability in that regard would be useful.

    The Vector is a book-book at heart, and so are many of my next projects, but I have a few where I really want to see where the medium can go… which is why this is interesting to me… can we make standards that leave enough room to explore, or are we going to make a series of clean boxes instead?

    I love this stuff!

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    @MCM
    Well, huh. Never knew that. Might be an idea to have those instructions on the front page somewhere.

    Back to the format issue, I think a standard “set of boxes” is needed, if only to give readers a place to start. (Yes, READERS. That’s what this should be about. Not writers.)

    However, that doesn’t preclude innovative authors from stretching the boundaries in their own ways.

    I’m hanging out for the day when there’s a standard format that works on ALL e-readers, one that incorporates text reflow for any size screen and is free for anyone to use.

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