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