What We Can Do About Self Promotion

So here’s the problem in a single word: readers. It’s the only tricky problem we still have. Most of us today do know how to publish online; we know, too, where to find other like-minded-writers, and we’ve had up to four years to experiment with the web as a storytelling canvas. It’s the readers that continue to puzzle us. We don’t have enough of them. We want to find more of them but we don’t know where to look. The name we’ve given to the process by which we find new readers is ‘self promotion’, and I’d like to talk about that process today. I think it’s important to do so because it’s beginning to seem like a problem that won’t go away on its own – a problem that was there when I first started Novelr, four years ago, and one that’s still hanging about now, four years on.

At first glance it appears that promoting fiction is a terribly complicated affair. You’re writing on the Internet, and so you’re forced to compete with videos and comics and email, and cool little flash games. Which begs the question: is it possible to make people read fiction, online? Can you advertise your work on a random web page, say, and expect readers to hop on to read? Are Facebook and Twitter good platforms on which you should promote your work? In essence: what do you do and where do you go if you’re looking to find new readers? The possible answers to this are endless. But do they make sense?

Many of us have not stopped to consider this last question, even as we’ve gone on to find the right promotional strategy for our fiction. Much of the advice I’ve seen in recent months has largely been rooted in the idea that you should advertise in whatever medium there is: so long as there are eyeballs, by gum, be there! But this is a rather silly idea. Mediums are not created equal. You are not going to get the same responses on Youtube, the same way you are not targeting the same audiences if you’re promoting on Facebook, and Twitter. Because here is one truth: what platforms you advertise on will determine the kind of audiences you reach out to, and here’s another one: your time is limited. You cannot advertise your work on everything just for the sake of it, and so it only stands to reason that you should pick the platforms you choose to do so.

And here we get to the tricky part: which platforms do you pick, then, that is best for online fiction? This is a good question, and I’ll get to it in a bit. But before that: is self promotion really that complicated? I don’t think so. I’ve found that when you think about it long enough, there are really only two problems with self-promotion in online fiction. These two problems can best be expressed in the following questions:

  • Why should I read web fiction?
  • Why should I read your web fiction?

Everything I’m going to talk about leads on from these two questions.

The Proof

So is this true? Are there only two questions worth talking about?

A simple way of testing this is to ask yourself these very questions. I am quite certain that all of us here have our own reasons for reading web fiction, and like all good fiction readers, we all have our own particular reasons for reading some works over others. The second question is really arbitrary; what I’m interested in is your answer to the first one. My contention is that if you’re reading this, you probably began reading online fiction for a particular set of reasons. And then, for whatever reason, you continued reading. This probably happened in two parts: you were open, firstly, to the idea of reading fiction on the Internet. Then, after you found some stuff to read, you began looking for other good things to add to your growing collection of online fiction. And so you became a reader. You became one of us.

When turned on its head, then, these questions become particular challenges for the web fiction community. The myth about people not reading on the Internet is just that – a myth. We know this. People read emails, they read news on websites, a large number of them gather daily at fanfiction.net to read what I profess to see no value in (note: hehehe). But anyway. The challenges are as such: firstly, how do we convert web readers – that is – non-web-fiction-reading readers – into web-fiction-reading ones? And secondly, how do you get these converted readers to read your work?

The Two Pools

Several things become clear to us the instant we look at web fiction through the lenses of these two challenges. The first and most obvious thing we’ll notice is how wrong we’ve been doing things the past few years. When we first began to talk of self promotion, the kind of ideas we tossed around were usually answers to the second challenge, instead of the first. We were concerned with getting readers; we did not pause to consider the fact that these readers were of limited supply – that there really weren’t many places where we could go to with a high density of potential readers in the first place. That conversion had to happen before we could get them to read our works. And so after a while it began to feel as if there were more writers than there were readers. After a while it began to feel as if we were marketing to each other.

And then, even more curiously, there were writers who understood this difference, and worked hard to find readers that were not existing web fiction ones. The best examples I can think of are Alexandra Erin and MeiLin Miranda. Both are responsible for some of the earliest members of the web fiction community: Sarah Suleski, Gavin Williams, and Jim Zoetewey (and later Jan Oda, to name a few) all came from reading Tales of MU, and they went on to become contributors to the web fiction sphere in their own right. And how did they discover web fiction? They found a Tales of MU ad on a webcomic site, which led them to Tales, which led them to start their own sites, and later on, to an early Novelr.

It is this point – this point on webcomics – which I must now point to as the answer to the earlier question of ‘which platforms do you pick, then, that is best for online fiction?’ Webcomic advertising is the platform. This is in itself some cause for sadness. Advertising on webcomics is the only kind of self promotion that has been proven to work in the history of web fiction, because webcomics are places with unusually high densities of potential readers. These are places where you won’t need to do much in order to get readers to convert, and it’s probably one reason both MeiLin and Alexandra have had such large audiences over the past few years.

There are two points that I’m trying to make here. The first is that there are two pools of readers out there. The first pool consists of all the web readers in the world. The second pool, significantly smaller than the first, contains the readers that have converted and are already reading fiction online. The first pool trickles down to the second one, and some of the readers in the first pool – like curious fish – are easier to convert, to push out and over and into the second pool: webcomic readers are some of these, they are certainly closer to the brim than others.

The second thing I’d like to point out is how, when you target the first pool over the second, you get a hell lot more readers than you would otherwise. This is part mathematics (larger pool = better fishing), and part common sense – apart from the examples of MeiLin and Alexandria above – web writer MCM got a huge boost of traffic from io9, when they linked to his web novel The Vector. Whether these were one-time web fiction readers or repeat consumers remains to be seen, but it makes sense to have the majority of your promotion work on the first pool, and not the second.

And this is where the real difficulty in self promotion lies. Because while the above sentence was easy to say, the problem with the first pool is that a vast majority of these readers aren’t open to the idea of reading web fiction. They’re not potentials, as one might say. The trick is to find places (or even create places) where there is a high density of potential web readers, and to promote there … and this is in itself a seemingly impossible thing to do.

Creating New Funnels

The real answer to these problems are solutions that I can’t tell you, because I don’t know what they are yet. I have a couple of ideas, though, and some suggestions that I think may be useful in dealing with this problem.

The first idea is that of delegation. It seems to me that this community is large enough to come together to create ‘funnel sites’ for online fiction – conversion channels for new readers that we would like see become regulars to the scene. Some of these sites are already primed for launch: Jan Oda’s ErgoFiction is one example, as is the new WFG, and eFiction Book Club’s relaunch (there’s also another project, to be launched under the Novelr banner, but this would take a bit of time). These can all be places where – if things go well – there would be a consistently high density of new readers, newly converted, that are possible sources for self-promotion for the community at large. The idea is to build these ‘funnels’ – these places that deal with the first challenge (i.e.: why should I read web fiction?) so that you can concentrate on the second challenge (i.e.: why should I read your web fiction?), and in reparation for this, the sites that serve as funnels can demand  some form of exchange with the writers – like money perhaps (i.e.: ads), or short fiction, or occasional guest contributions.

The second idea that may be of some help is that of locating existing sites with high densities of potential readers. WebLit.us seems well suited to this task – if they got together to organize little think-tanks, it shouldn’t be too long before they identify certain sites – such as io9 or some forum/blog, say, that are sympathetic to the web fiction cause. They would certainly be doing the community a great service if they were to compile one such list, along with the best angles (and, yes, I sound like a pirate here) in which to approach these sites.

The fact remains, however, that the actual ways we should use to find and convert readers are still largely unknown, even with all these new conversion sites coming into being. I only ask two things: that, first of all, these site moderators recognize that they are conversion points, and that they may demand certain things of the writers that depend on them. And, that secondly, we should – all of us – begin to think when we do our self-promotion, and not indulge ourselves with such sloppy method as ‘Get on all platforms! Be everywhere!’ I believe we’ll all be much better off for it.

Note: special thanks to MCM, Jan, Anna and the ever thoughtful Becky for help with the ideas presented in this article. Also, to everyone who responded to my Why Do You Read Online Fiction? post: I am grateful, and blessed.

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Category: Marketing
  • http://quillsandzebras.wordpress.com anna

    I think you make some good points here.

    I will confess to being one of those “OMG join every platform and advertise everywhere” kind of people, and spread myself too thin, with the result that my Facebook page languishes un-updated more often than not, as do some other things.

    I like that you break self-promotion down into two questions, although, really, the first question is more a case of webfic-promotion than self-promotion.

    And, regarding the webcomic advertising, I’ve just started targeting a couple webcomic sites with banner ads – fingers crossed it works!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Yes. I think that for the time being, webfic promotion and individual work promotion is inexplicably tied. It would be a blessing to the writer if a couple of them pooled their resources for the former, and only individually work on the latter.

    Plus this is probably why it’s so difficult to do self promotion at the moment: you’re fighting a double battle – you have to convince readers that it’s worth reading online fiction, AND you have to convince them to read your work.

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    Advertising on webcomics is the only kind of self promotion that has been proven to work in the history of web fiction

    O.o? Sorry … on what basis do you make this statement? I’ve done some advertising on webcomics, and while (yes) I have gotten nice conversion rates and even a nice chunk of subscribers, nearly every single reader fluffy-seme has (and by that I mean people who come back week after week and send me comments/feedback/etc) has come through networking on livejournal … except a.m. harte and a few Split-Self fans who found fluffy-seme through WFG (but that’s not really advertising)

    What the webfiction community is finding is a very general problem with advertising as a whole: one person has some luck with one strategy and suddenly everyone tries that strategy expecting instant results, the failures out weigh the successes and everyone goes back to the drawing board disgruntled.

    What is missing is that promotion is very very EXPENSIVE and most of the writers in webfiction community prefer to go solo and yet are not willing to pony up the cash to do the marketing (ideally this should be at least $500 – $1,000). The writers in traditional publishing who succeed at self promotion typically spend closer to $4,000. If a writer with an actual book from an actual publishing company has to spend that much money to get readers, why are webfiction people constantly expecting hundreds of committed readers for cheap? And it is about being cheap: Webcomic advertising has not become the gold standard because it is the best way to grab potential readers but because it costs pennies to do. Same with Twitter, Facebook, etc.

    I too would like to see writers pool resources in this area (I started fluffy-seme specifically for this reason) but I have since given up on looking at the webfiction community for people willing to do that. It would require the writers individually give up a little bit of their equity to unite them under one brand (otherwise what are you advertising exactly?), one unified mission and one target market.

    As my Entrepreneur through Design professor is fond of saying: You can fight to own your work 100%, but 100% of nothing is still nothing.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    I think there’s actually a subset of readers in your two groups, which complicates the whole endeavour… the level of commitment of the reader.

    There are basically 3 levels of reader: the passive ones who find you via Digg, take a look and never come back. Then there are those that come back regularly, but are invisible to you, except as part of imprecise stats. And finally, there are the fans. There’s a range for fans, but at the basic level, I think a fan is someone that bothers to show themselves, in whatever way.

    I have TONS of the first level, and (if Google Analytics is right) a good-sized second level… but when it comes to actual fans, I have a pitifully small pool. Something less than 1% of my readers send me an email, leave a comment, or vote for me on Top Web Fiction (ahem). I can’t rally the masses to do my bidding, even though reader activity nearly took down my server the other day. They’re THERE, but they’re not attached in any way.

    It’s relatively easy to tap into your Wider Pool, but I think it’s far easier to get the WebFic-Friendly pool to convert to Fans. I’ve been trying to think of ways to help along that conversion, and I’m going to be trying a few tricks in 2010, but thus far, there are no easy answers.

    I think MeiLin’s greatest victory in marketing is that she’s managed to build a loyal fanbase that sticks with her. That’s what I want. Which is why I’m getting Nancy to figure it out for me :)

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    @… um …. myself:
    Yeah … if that came off as hostile Eli, trust me, I didn’t mean it that way!! ^_^;;;; I’m just kind of annoyed at a separate incident in the webfic community and I think it’s seeping into everything else I write @__@

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Isa: forgive me, this was finished at 4am in the morning. I knew I’d have forgotten something – thank you for pointing it out. Would you care to elaborate on how your Livejournal strategy works?

    … one person has some luck with one strategy and suddenly everyone tries that strategy expecting instant results

    To be honest, I don’t think even one person has had some luck. They just thought it to be a good idea, as in LOOKIE! YOUTUBE VIDEO! and so on.

    PS: No worries, ideas have always been more important on Novelr, regardless of how they’re written.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @MCM: Good point. I hadn’t factored that in, but, yes reader commitment is something I should’ve noticed. This field is fairly new to Novelr, though, so I’m still working out the kinks. Feel free to add in. Especially if anything I say comes off as wrong. The more people do that … the closer to the truth we get.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Eli: It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s just a complicating factor. I guess there’s some value in trying to snag as big an audience as possible FIRST, and then also work on converting them up to Fans, but part of me thinks there must be some way to target potential fans right away, maybe at the expense of the bigger numbers. Ten thousand readers that read and disappear cost me bandwidth, but ten readers that donate pay the bills. Big numbers aren’t the draw in this field that they are in DVD sales etc. You don’t win any prizes for audience.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @myself: Which is because DVD sales are SALES, and webfic views are browsing… but you know what I mean, right? Right. Okay, carry on.

  • http://beckyswritingblog.wordpress.com/ Becky

    Thanks for the compliment.

    There’s a lot of good stuff in this post and it’s going to take some time to digest it all. So I’ll be back later to comment in depth.

    But, yeah, the scattershot approach to marketing doesn’t work well. I’ve been thinking about this, because my Tweeps have finally persuaded me to launch a web fiction serial of my own. I’m trying to come up with a promotion plan in advance of my launch sometime in January. This is interesting given my limited funds. I’ll come up with something, and it will be something coherent. And yes, it will probably involve webcomics.

    Thinktanks to identify sympathetic sites are a good idea. A list of popular sites which might be willing to accept guest blogs, review online fiction, or otherwise give us the spotlight would be a welcome thing.

    The funnel sites are also a good idea as long as they can actually attract the new readers to funnel.

    Promoting web fiction in general, or in particular, is very much a learning as we go thing.

    So another thing we could do with is for people to talk about what they are trying individually, and if it works (and if so how well) or not. Collating information on activity, investment and return would reveal what works best for which genre (it may not be the same after all) would be useful. Once I get started I’ll be happy to contribute to such a project by blogging about my experiences.

    Anyway I’ll be back with more coherent thoughts later.
    Becky

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @MCM: Surgical strikes as opposed to mass conversions … now that’s something worth thinking about. Yes, good one, especially the bit about ten thousand users vs the ten who pay the bills.

    @Becky: For some reason, I just love the word Tweeps, and am compelled to point that out to you here. (I should go to bed now, it’s 5am).

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    LiveJournal is also something that worked well for Alexandra Erin. Tales of MU started on LJ and even now she still uses it by having a livejournal that’s solely links to posts on her story blogs.

    What I’ve been thinking would be a good idea lately is to pool resources with writers who are doing things in the same genre as I am. Finding some way to promote all the “superheroic fiction” serials at once would probably be easier than separately. We could even do big crossover events…

    Similarly, I’m reminded of the early days of web comics. Back then I remember noticing groups of comics that linked to each other as a group. I don’t know how that worked for them, but I know I discovered several comics that way.

  • http://www.phantasiaonline.com/ Dary

    O.o? Sorry … on what basis do you make this statement? I’ve done some advertising on webcomics, and while (yes) I have gotten nice conversion rates and even a nice chunk of subscribers, nearly every single reader fluffy-seme has (and by that I mean people who come back week after week and send me comments/feedback/etc) has come through networking on livejournal … except a.m. harte and a few Split-Self fans who found fluffy-seme through WFG (but that’s not really advertising)

    See, I’m the opposite XD Which proves there’s no one method that will work for EVERYONE. In terms of webcomic advertising there are several common sense things to keep in mind, such as:
    – what are the demographic you’re advertising to?
    – does your advert appeal to them?
    – does your front page appeal to them?

    If I didn’t illustrate my story or segue into actual webcomic territory at points, I doubt I’d have had nearly as much success as I did. BUT that also doesn’t mean everyone should go out and get themselves an illustrator. I’m just lucky I can tap into that audience (and my stuff is likely far more appealing to those demographics than those from the webwhateverficserialthing scene). And it should be considered that there are hundreds of webcomics covering different topics. Well, maybe. A lot of them filter into “furry comic”, “comedic fantasy”, “manga spoof” and “bad geek humour” XD

    ALSO I’ve not seen that many ads for webfiction around, and of those I’ve seen a lot just aren’t that appealing. For one thing they tend to be VERY SERIOUS. Also people seem to stick with one for months. I have a policy of changing my ad design at least once a month, if not more. It keeps things fresh and alerts people who may have seen a previous ad that you’re still forging ahead.

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    @Eli: Oh I’m glad you feel that way ^_^;;;

    As for the livejournal thing, it’s not a strategy that will work for most. It worked for me because I started out with a very content starved niche (girls who love hockey … no I’m not kidding). I found a nice fanfiction community, checked the rules to make sure I wasn’t going to make a pest of myself, and started posting parts of Season in the Red. With each part, sometimes a couple of days before, sometimes a day after, I would also post a piece of fanfiction.

    I think what most writers miss about readers is that people open your story not to read the story you want to tell, but the story they want to read. If your story is not something that interests them, they won’t read. If your story is something that interests them but does not play out the way they want it to, they won’t read it. There’s this shared delusion that as long as a work is well-written it will convince people not interested in the content to become interested, this is very very rare.

    Anyway, in this sort of self-serving environment people are more willing to read fanfic than they are to read original fiction because fanfic cuts to exactly what they want. They don’t have to wait, someone else has done all the character development and world building for the writer, you can skip straight to the juicy stuff.

    So I used stories that I knew would get read to promote myself to my target market. They would read the fanfiction, love it, than because new quality content in the niche is hard to find, scroll down and read Season in the Red too. The first book of Season in the Red came in over 300 pages and that core of fans that found it through my LJ followed it religiously all the way through. Now that I’m prepping the second tome (lol) in the series I get comments asking when it will be coming out.

    I don’t crosspost Season in the Red on LJ anymore, I haven’t in almost a year (I feel like there’s only so long you can post a long ass original series in a fanfic community before you wear out your welcome) but I do post previews (with appropriate links of course) of both Season in the Red and Split-Self on my LJ and I often repurpose fanfic memes to let people request Season in the Red fiction on my LJ. Every time I do this I get a whole bunch of quality hits back to fluffy-seme. Just yesterday I was amused to find Google Analytics tracking someone reading through Season in the Red from the very beginning who had come in from digging up one of my old posts on LJ. They spent over an hour reading, then came back the next day and spent another hour reading.

    So to conclude this tl;dr reply: I think what you do is less important than how much you commit to it … be that $$ or in time and effort, you are going to pay for promotion somehow.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    So to conclude this tl;dr reply: I think what you do is less important than how much you commit to it … be that $$ or in time and effort, you are going to pay for promotion somehow.

    Not necessarily, Isa. It’s also time, and effort in the right places, with the right mediums. True?

    But I thank you for the point about LiveJournal. That certainly is another place with a high density of potential web fiction readers. It’s certainly taken more time, though, to attract them to Fluffy seme. Lots of work.

    @Dary: Furry comic is a remarkably cool genre name. I, too, have no idea why I’m compelled to point that out to you. ;-)

  • http://www.twitter.com/janoda JanOda

    I was rereading some of the Novelr and it suddenly struck me how much this comment I made still holds true.
    http://www.novelr.com/2009/07/21/making-money-online-fiction#comment-3555

    Even with the birth of weblit.us, which I believe had the original goal to unite forces to promote web-fiction, I feel nothing has really materialized there yet. Let’s cross our fingers they will.

    What I’d really really love, is some sort of CON web-fiction package. I think we’re missing a huge possible crowd by not having something general available about Web-Fiction.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    This is rather strange, actually. I’d never have thought we’d reach a point where we’d have to talk about unity. It’s weird. As for weblit.us, well … frankly I don’t see the point of it. Not yet, anyway. I’ve tried suggesting something (in the post above) as to what they can do, but for all the talk that’s been going on there … well I’m not sure. I don’t see anything, and this puzzles me a little. What I can say for certain is, however, this: writer-centric sites in the webfiction sphere won’t be the central clusters of community for much longer. Novelr’s dealing with only one last thing now – self-promotion – and after that I foresee a decline of this site. And if even Novelr is to close, and I am to move on to other projects, then what more to say of weblit.us?

    Readers, I think, will soon be the key, the glue that holds future community sites together. Where they are, the community will follow. At least, that’s what I think would happen. Need to straighten my head a little before I can make a coherent argument justifying that thought. (Psst: you’re already doing one of that, Jan, with ErgoFiction … it should be interesting what we find out about new readers …)

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

    Psst, Eli! You know you can JOIN weblit.us, right? ;)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Claire: But for what purpose? The only thing I can do to help, at the moment, is with the propagation of ideas. I already have my platform, on Novelr. The community here is larger, and more diverse, and Novelr has had a history of spawning projects within the community, through said ideas. If I propose a bad one, the people here are more likely to give me flack, and to whittle it down to just the good bits, the true bits. In particular, if I talk about self-promotion w/r/t business models, I’m more likely to get a response here from more people than I am in WebLit.us

    If there is something to do there, though, a specific project I can contribute to, a codebase, or something, I’ll join, no problem.

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

    @Eli: Because maybe then you would be able to stop thinking of Weblit.us as some monolithic, unfathomable Other (as you seem to in this post and comments). And you could ask questions and get clarification about what’s going on at that site before it reaches the larger audience!

    P.S. My first name does not have an “i” in it.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’m sorry Clare. Should’ve paid more attention. Won’t happen again.

    As for joining: you have a point. I’ll sign up for an account. I don’t see the need of discussion there, for the most part, (barely have even enough time here and on WFG!) but if they ever start a community-based project, and I can help, I’ll chip in.

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

    Thank you, Eli. That misspelling has been happening a lot lately and it bugs me.

    And yay, I convinced you to do something! :D Hopefully the antholozine we were working on (at Weblit.us) will get started again once the lives of the people who know what they’re doing have calmed down–maybe you can participate in that.

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  • http://fantasycompendium.com/index.php Elle

    Thank you for posting this, it was a really informative read. I’ll be sure to come through and read it again, along with other posts in the future. You raised a lot of good points.

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