Please Don’t Pay Me: Dispatches from a Digital Publishing House

Isa is the president, founder, and all-around person in charge of digital publishing house fluffy-seme. Here she talks about the continued relevance of publishing houses to web fiction.

About four months ago I got an email from a writer asking if fluffy-seme would be interested in publishing her work. The timing couldn’t have been more wrong. Although fluffy-seme had been “publishing” for a few months, we’d only just decided to throw caution to the wind and just make it official and incorporate. We had started the pilot run of Hyperlocal (a scavenger hunt where players solve clues to collect pieces of an on-going story), and that program had just been featured in TimeOut New York under their 75 Things To Do Before Summer Ends cover story. The competitive environment of Hyperlocal turned out to be more competitive than I ever imagined it would be: clues were released at midnight and most of them were solved before 9am. On top of that, Split-Self had only just started publication and it needed a lot of tender love and care to help it find fans. On top of that I was also writing two other serials for a grand total of three serials at roughly 4,000 words each part … about 12,000 words a week.

Nevertheless, despite completely overcommitting myself … we were a publishing company and I was itching to start recruiting writers (mainly so that I did not have to write 12,000 words a week). So I said okay, send me something to look at.

What she sent me wasn’t going to win any Pulitzer’s, but it was serviceable and marketable. A little polishing and I could see it being a series that attracted an audience. There was just one problem…

“Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to pay writers right now.” I explained.

“Oh, that’s alright … you don’t have to pay me.”

At first I kind of assumed this was just naiveté, and so I explained to her that yes … in fact we do have to pay you. In order for us to publish you, you have to sign a contract giving us the right to reproduce your content and to profit from said content. You should never sign away those kind of rights without some compensation. So I suggested … “How about this? I can draw up a temporary three month contract at a low rate and then when it expires we’ll renegotiate.”

“Oh … no … really that’s okay, I really don’t feel comfortable getting paid for my work. It’s not that good.”

Negotiations actually stalled and inevitably fell apart over this unbelievable problem: she really didn’t want me to pay her for her writing.

Because to me when you’re selling something: $$ > $ and $ > free I assumed that this encounter was merely an anomaly … instead it foreshadowed the hair pulling frustration that was to come in October when fluffy-seme opened up for submissions and went about trying to recruit writers. Nearly every single time I started negotiations with a writer discussions would come to a dead stop as soon as the fact that I actually intended to pay them became clear. Once I spelled that out one of two things would happen: either the writer would suddenly have a crisis of confidence like the encounter described above, or the exact opposite, the writer would turn around and declare (some more subtly than others) that since I was willing to pay, then maybe a BETTER publishing company would also be willing to pay. Or better yet, maybe the author could go out on their own and get to keep 100% of the profits.

Writers Need Publishers

Writing is a scary thing. Not only are you putting yourself out there emotionally, but you have to deal with all manner of scams and publishing predators looking to sell your dream back to you at a hefty profit. One of the reasons why I started fluffy-seme’s corporate site was to show prospective writers the way we do business and make them more comfortable. You can read all about our advertising strategies, our values, our business plan, the contracts we put writers on, even look at traffic and growth reports. When I started fluffy-seme I expected writers to be skeptical, I was prepared for that. I never expected to be caught up in a cultural rebellion against the concept of a publishing house. And by in large that is the problem: everyone wants to go it alone. There was one writer I spoke to who sincerely thought he had a shot with a major traditional publisher (and who knows, maybe he still does) but everyone else wanted to go it alone. They were convinced that despite the thousands of self-publishers and web literati that have come before them, they will succeed and get their story out there to hundreds/thousands of readers without a publisher watching their back. fluffy-seme, as a digital publishing company, was not seen as a legitimate publishing option not because writers thought we were an elaborate scam but because they believed that everything a digital publisher can provide, they can get just as easily on their own.

Quality Does Not Matter

I had a very (thankfully) short career in the traditional book industry when I got out of college and one of the things I learned before I ran screaming from that world was: quality does not matter. Every writer on the face of the Earth seems to believe that their work will become popular because it is well written. Every writer also seems to wander through writing groups, scribbling corrections and edits so that they can ‘make the reader want to read more’ as if readers who have no interest in Civil War epics are suddenly going to want to read your Civil War epic because the writing is pretty.

It’s nice to think that people are really that open minded, but sadly that is not how books get bought or sold. The vast majority of people look to buy books that reflect their existing interests and world views. The only thing that you as a writer can do to convince someone to read something they’re not usually interested in is reframe the blurb so that appears to be something they ARE interested in. This is why the publishing industry gives us totally absurd cover quotes like: “It’s The Hunt for Red October meets Free Willy!”

The reason why writers cannot rely on the strength of their writing is simple: unlike music or TV or movies, reading is not a passive activity. You cannot just zone out, listen/watch and find yourself enjoying it. Reading is actually quite a lot of work neurologically. Even books on tape require focus and attention to “read”. All that work requires a commitment of time and effort from the reader and even if your writing is beautiful and your characters fascinating … if the story isn’t about something that interests the reader already they’re not going to keep reading.

Strength in Numbers

There is one exception to this and that is having established a familiarity and rapport with an existing audience. One of Haruki Murakami’s more recent works involves a guy who murdered cats … I can’t imagine the market for that is very large, yet it was a run away bestseller because it was Haruki Murakami. (It was also good, but again that’s irrelevant. If Kafka on the Shore was written by Harry Kim– first time writer– doubtful it would have had the same success)

It takes a long time to build that kind of trust with a large reader base and that’s the real strength of the publishing company and what an author really gives up by going alone. Publishing companies are businesses designed to make connections with readers both directly and with intermediaries (book reviewers, bookstores, etc) for the purpose of selling stories. Publishers keep the connection open with the reader even when the writer is on a break from writing. By going alone you only maintain that connection with your readers for as long as you are producing content.

More importantly, publishers pull resources that individuals do not have access to on their own.

Today’s writers, particularly the ones who are internet savvy seem to resent that fact, as if the publishers have access to these resources because the industry is snobby, elitist and unfair. Well, the industry is snobby, elitist, and unfair, but that’s not why publishing companies have better access to resources. It’s a basic economics principle at play: economies of scale. Economies of scale means that in an industrialized modern economy things are cheaper in bulk. In other words a company that manufactures frying pans will pay more per frying pan if they produce 20 than they would if they produced 20,000. How does this apply to publishing? Even with online publishing, POD, eBooks and a number of other services that have made getting the story out there dirt cheap, writers still require a variety of services to make their book a success: editing, design, promotion, more promotion, still MORE promotion. A publisher with a whole stable of writers can buy these services in bulk for dirt cheap. Editors can be paid a salary instead of by word, and just about every advertising department major or minor offers deep discounts the more you buy.

As an individual writer you pay out the nose because all you have is YOUR BOOK. You may write another book … or you may have only one in you. You’re in no position to offer service providers even the promise of more orders that might encourage a discount. All you have is yourself.

Give Up Some of Your Rights

By now you may be thinking ‘okay but I can get a few other writers together to pool resources and still be independent’ and yes, absolutely, you can do this. And probably some writers will find a modest amount of success in doing just that, but there are also pitfalls to consider. An informal arrangement like that often offers neither the group nor the individual writers any legal protections. I’m not just talking intellectual property here either. Imagine this situation: three writers throw in $100 dollars each for an advertising campaign and because it’s hard to advertise three books at once they pull together a little site for their group, give it a name and a brand identity and start promoting. Two of these writers see sales and make money as a result of the advertising, one does not. Does the unfortunate writer have claim to the profits of the other two?

Another wonderful advantage to publishing companies is that the roles, responsibilities, and obligations of everyone are clearly defined and spelled out in contracts. You give the publisher the right to distribute your content in exchange for an agreed upon sum. Both your claim on the profits and the publisher’s claim on your work are clearly spelled out. The above situation is not so clear and unless there was a partnership agreement drawn up before the adventure began saying otherwise, the writer without sales could argue that the profits from the other two should be split evenly as return on their joint business venture.

And this is where webfiction has come to: no one can reach a large enough audience alone. Cross promotion is an obvious and necessary next step that will benefit everyone, but it can’t be done without capital (read: $$$) and that can’t be done without agreements that make it clear who’s putting up the capital and what they’re getting in return, that requires publishing houses. Webfiction writers have understood this need for a while, but they implicitly hand off this responsibility to sites like WFG and, and they offer the owners of these sites nothing in return. As amazing as both are, without a commitment of serious capital to promoting the webfiction brand, their effectiveness at opening up the wide wonderful world of webfiction to new readers is limited. And why should anyone be expected to pony up large sums of cash without any claim to the profits from that result from those actions?

As fun as it is for everyone to set up their own private sites to distribute their work, if webfiction is going to thrive as a storytelling medium it cannot remain a self-publishing model where everyone goes alone. And while other models could be developed the one that handles the challenge most efficiently is the one we already have where the writer signs over some rights in exchange for services and $$ … a publishing company.

Isa tweets at IsaKft, and maintains a business blog chronicling her adventures as a digital publisher on Campaign for fluffy-seme. Her super-power is her business sense, and she plans to some day rule the world.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Publishing
  • Eli James

    Seth Godin seems to say something similar, w/r/t publishing houses. He argues that the balance of power today has shifted to the writers, and so the only way for publishers to survive in this new environment is to treat their businesses like the magazine companies – find a captive audience first before finding writers to bring content to aforementioned audience.

    Thus far, the only two publishing houses I can think of who’re doing that (and thriving) are McSweeney’s and O’Reilly. Both have loyal fan-bases, and therefore they’re not so dependent on the writer as the other publishing houses are.

    How this fits in as commentary to your post: err, I’m not sure. *sheepish grin*

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  • V. J. Chambers

    Hmm… This post says all kinds of things I don’t want to hear, so maybe I can’t really view it objectively.

    My question would be this, I guess: What do you think are the differences between fiction, comics, and music that make it so much more difficult for fiction writers to “go it alone,” while there’s evidence that people who write webcomics and record music are successful doing just that?

    (And I don’t mean this to be argumentative at all. I’m curious about your thoughts.)

  • Dary

    Well there are webcomic hosting sites, like Drunk Duck and Webcomics Nation, though they’re not quite the same as what Isa’s doing with FS (I think?).

    Maybe there just needs to be a bigger incentive for people to join a digital publishing thingiemajig? Like “our stories get 2k readers every month!”. That might be a bigger enticer than “We’ll pay you!” and reduce the “I’m not good enough to be paid” angst. Maybe.

  • Isa

    V. J. Chambers: I don’t find this argumentative at all :)

    The music issue is briefly addressed in the original post, I think the same concept applies to webcomics as well: they’re relatively passive mediums. Routinely I go to sites like and search for new indie bands I like because all that requires of me is clicking play. I don’t have to pay much attention to the music to appreciate it. Same with webcomics, it doesn’t take any thought to appreciate pretty art.

    By contrast reading is a task that requires a lot of thought. As a writer describes a scene I have to actively use my imagination to create images out of those words. It’s a lot of work.

    Incidentally, I don’t think writers shouldn’t go alone necessarily, I’m just trying to point out that most webfiction writers think there are no benefits to having a digital publisher. It’s true that on your own you have complete editorial and creative control, retain all your rights, and keep 100% of the profits. But how much money did webfiction writers make in November? How much profit was there after hosting costs and advertising and whatever else? Last month a writer publishing on f-s would have made $2 (and that’s with the site as it is, new, with low traffic) … hardly something to get excited about, but that’s $2 with us covering the cost of hosting, advertising, promotion, design and everything else. The only thing the author puts up is the writing.

  • K. Godwin

    I think publishers (and economies of scale) are in general useful.

    The problem with web fiction publishing is:

    Publishers need to behave like any other portal for digital content, which means having the traffic (e.g. 10,000 unique visitors/day), to justify the creators of the content handing it over to an established audience. Paying the author is also needed …but I think it is less of a draw than the large audience.

    A far as webfic goes, there is no ‘Publisher’ drawing in that kind of traffic that I know of.

    In other words, I agree with Eli.

    As far as the rest,
    Do you really want to work with people whose expectations are that different from your view of reality?

    I understand your frustration that decent authors are turning you down.

    It also sounds like it is equally effective in making an argument that authors should band together to promote the community as a whole, rather than individual pieces. But I doubt anyone is that altruistic as well.

    I think what will happen is, as the community matures, small groups divided on genre, or sub-genre lines, will emerge. As far as the ‘agreement’ issue between writers…they can just as easily enter into agreements with each other as they could a publisher.

  • Isa

    Publishers need to behave like any other portal for digital content, which means having the traffic (e.g. 10,000 unique visitors/day), to justify the creators of the content handing it over to an established audience.

    It’s that kind of thinking that sets up the catch-22 that dooms digital publishing houses to failure. They cannot build an established audience without writers and yet the writers always want to wait until the audience is guaranteed. The writers stand to gain a lot and lose practically nothing by reconsidering, as long as the publisher is legit and not a vanity or a scam.

    Also a word on agreements, it’s true a group of writers can enter an agreement just as easily as a publisher and writer can, but having a good lawyer draw up an agreement/contract will cost you probably around $300 at least. Costs me around $100 just to have my lawyer spend 15 minutes looking over contracts for me. As a publisher this was an easy expense to handle because I know I will use the contract over and over and over again. Can the same be said for a group of writers?

  • G.S. Williams

    Thanks for this article, Isa, I’ve been waiting for someone to say all this better than I could, and then DO something about it. As an observer, I could see that we needed a new level of organization and promotion (because most people are not altruistic) but I didn’t have time, energy or resources to do anything but observe.

    This is practical and smart — organize and promote, because bulk is cheaper. Simple. The thing Eli mentioned about publishers targeting an audience is smart too.

    On Webcomics: I found Questionable Content by accident one day and it was hilarious from the first post, despite semi-crappy art. I read the entire archive in a day or two, and it stayed funny and the drawing kept getting better. I can check it in 30 seconds every day and enjoy it.

    On Webfiction: unless it is exceptional, it’s usually boring in the first chapter. Great writers have a hook, something that gets you to read until chapter two. But it doesn’t take 30 seconds to find it, you usually have to read for 5-10 minutes to get a whole chapter down, and that’s if you’re being fair. If it’s boring, I’m gone by then. And I read and reviewed a lot of fiction on WFG because I like at least trying to be altruistic, and I got tired. Webcomics pay off sooner, more consistently, easily. That’s why their audiences are bigger.

  • K. Godwin


    I know that sounds like a Catch 22…but Tales of Mu can almost do that by itself on any given day based on their Project Wonderful Stats.

    Which means, you really only need to convince a handful of authors (who aren’t quite as popular) outside who don’t agree with my viewpoint (or that of the authors that turn you down) in order to reach that level of traffic. Given enough time, of course. That does not seem like an insurmountable obstacle, which a real Catch 22 would represent, to me. Merely a very, very inconvenient one for a Publisher.

    As far as the economy of scale issue…
    In theory, every one of those writers is going to have a lawyer look it over before they sign it. So using your numbers…

    3 Writers:
    $500 to Draw up a Contract by a mutually acceptable lawyer and spend some time explaining it to the parties.

    2 Writers + 1 Publisher:
    $300 + $100 per Writer for $500.

    3 Writers + 1 Publisher vs. 4 Writers:
    $300 + $300 = 600 vs. $600.

    This pattern continues to infinity. A group of writers, can if they operate intelligent, duplicate (roughly) the economy of scale of a publisher if they band together. The cost per writer is slightly higher because the Publisher isn’t footing the initial $300 bill, of course, but the ultimate result is the same in terms of total cost.

    I’m not saying it is ‘better’ than having a Digital Publisher. I’m just saying it is close enough to be effective unless the Publisher in question is far larger (in terms of audience, scale, etc.) than such a group of Writers.

    I haven’t seen a single publisher with 10k+ unique in terms of traffic per day and/or the kind of scale that can’t be duplicated by a group of writers. Hence my opinion on the matter.

  • Isa

    K Godwin: Well your reasoning is perfect, my question is will writers actually do this? It requires a great deal of time, organization, money and most of all trust. There are lots of writers I enjoy chatting with on Twitter, I’m not sure how many of them I would get legally and financially entangled with as a individual. (f-s on the other hand is incorporated, so there’s a nice legal wall between me as a publisher and me personally ^_^)

  • K. Godwin

    My reasoning is imperfect from the standpoint it has never occured, yet. So it could be argued the reason it has not occured is the fact that it cannot occur.

    Will they?

    I think a few will. I probably won’t be one of them from the standpoint I’m a hobbyist in this. The quality of my writing isn’t high enough I could reasonably expect to make a living off of and will probably remain that way for years. ;)

    There are ways of setting up a separate legal entity (e.g. Corporation) that gives everyone an equal share in such a group. Of course, if that happened it could equally be argued it is a democratically run publisher.

  • Sebatinsky

    Well, my opinion differs from everybody above.

    @Isa – I think you’re barking up the wrong tree entirely. I think that web fiction will eventually fall into something along the lines of the David Wellington model: prove to publishers that your writing has an audience by attracting one online.

    That is, I see the web eventually becoming a ‘go it alone’ platform for authors trying to prove themselves. Then publishers come along and pick up the ones who have shown that they can draw an audience. We are already seeing this model pick up some steam in comics, not to mention the successes of Doctorow and Wong (JDATE).

    What I don’t know is exactly what publishing houses will look like in the future. What portion of their publishing will be dead tree and what portion will be online? What form will non-physical books take?

    I do know that eBooks won’t really catch on the way they’d like until draconian DRM is done away with.

  • Isa

    Sebatinsky: I <3 this comment … mainly because I think it's both right and wrong at the same time. I think webfiction will develop as you say … but I also look at the creative work of people like MCM and how other webserialists have found success by encouraging interaction and think that the future of webfiction will ultimately steer people towards publishing stories that cannot be 100% reproduced in print form.

    K. Godwin: As soon as you put incorporation on the table you're talking about a few thousand dollars instead of a few hundred. There is a point where a publishing company can blow author collectives out of the water and it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with visitor traffic.

    For example, f-s as a business can take on venture capital investment which generally STARTS at $100K of money for the business to spend (a realistic average for the first round of venture cap I would say is closer to $500K but with the right leaders and investors can easily break into the millions). A writer's collective would never be eligible, nor would a single very impressive writer working alone. So I see your point, the benefits of a publishing house could theoretically be reproduced without the publisher but in my opinion at a much greater cost, much less efficiently and with less future potential

  • MCM

    Ha! I enoyed this article, because it’s making me think again. I haven’t thought for a long time. Thanks!

    My theory on publishing is not quite the opposite of this, but definitely different. My ideal is to fragment the functions of the publishing process, so that you have specialists in certain fields, all competing for the best writers out there. I appreciate the economics of scale issue, but for me, it makes less sense to put all your resources under one roof, because it makes the marketplace sluggish.

    I’m just starting this experiment, so I can’t say for sure how it’ll work, but the idea is to work with an editor to bring the content up to snuff, and then a marketer to get the word out, and for the next title, maybe you swap around editors and marketers to see what works best. I find the notion of “all or nothing” to be worrisome… if the editor at a publishing house is great but the marketers stink, what do you do?

    I’m holding out for professional publishing speclists, like a new breed of agents that hunt rather than being fed. If they don’t start existing soon, I’ll just have to make them myself :)

  • K. Godwin

    I think the economies of scale argument will result some sort of monolithic organization. Contract work (which is essentially what you are suggesting) has too many built-in inefficiencies that increase the cost. (E.g. When hunting for work, they aren’t getting paid.)

    Or to be more precise, practically speaking, you need to be exceptional to succeed with that model. Anyone who is average needs a more efficient system (rather than using the greater value of their superior ability to overcome the natural inefficiencies) to compete.

  • MCM

    @K. Godwin: True, but I’m saying rather than bundling editors and marketers under one roof, the contract agents should become mini-monoliths of their own. They can still be companies, but I don’t see the value of trying to wedge the different elements together like that. In film, you can have one company produce a movie, and another distribute, and another market, and they’re quite often totally different entities. It lets each segment stand on its own, rather than an “all or nothing” approach.

    Real-world example: recently, a small press wanted to re-print one of my titles, but as part of the deal they wanted to redesign the cover, and count it as an expense against whatever royalties I might earn. The more monolithic the structure becomes, the less they’re willing to un-bundle these services (because they have staff to support), and the more individual titles suffer at the hands of employees who need to do their daily grind to get their paycheque, and don’t necessarily like or understand the content they’re touching.

    Which is not to say this is an absolute truth, but it makes me worry about re-creating the architecture of Random House, especially if we can try something else.

  • K. Godwin

    I understood that part. Even if you change the actors from individuals to companies, the same inefficiencies remain. Inter-entity communication is fundamentally weaker than intra-entity communication.

    I’m not saying it can’t work. I’m just saying it is likely to be more expensive to the people involved than a ‘traditional’ model.

    I think you misunderstood. A collective of writers can form a business by dolling out shares (thereby duplicating all the legal advantages, seeking venture capital as a group of ‘founders’, etc.).

    Anyway, I’m mainly opposing for the point of opposing at this point so I’m going to stop. :)

  • Isa

    MCM: Ha! I was wondering when you would show up! …. Incidentally about the book cover example you’ve cited: if the business truly had these services built-in (so that the designer was staff instead of freelance) than the money to pay the designer would be accounted for as an operating expense and spent whether or not the designer redesigned the cover of your particular book. I don’t see how having an in-house designer leads to the publisher looking to do work that doesn’t need to be done, the whole idea of staff is that you don’t pay them per book. He gets his salary regardless of whether he makes you a new cover or not. Possibly, the publisher is trying to do a favor for the designer … but any business person who keeps services on staff that the business doesn’t actually need on staff is just a lousy business person :)

  • Dary

    You know what we need? The fiction equivalent to Shounen Jump and its ilk. Isa should know what I mean, because I’ve seen her talk about serials vs novels on f-s.

    Because not everyone is writing a novel (or trilogy of novels, or whatever). A 500+ chapter serial is not going to get picked up by a publishing house, no matter how good it is XD

  • JanOda

    Dary or Isa, could you explain what Shounen Jump is exactly so the non anime people can understand that comment and learn from it?

    As for MCM’s point, I’ll complete it by linking to his Publishing Blueprint. He probably altered his view on it slightly by now, but I think it fits the current discussion nicely.

    Also, later, when I’m big, I want to become a web-fiction agent and rule the world :)

  • Dary

    Basically: Shounen Jump is a weekly manga anthology that serialises the most popular comics in the country (those aimed at young boys, like Naruto, Dragonball and One Piece). Some of these have been running for over a decade (one has actually been running since the Seventies!)

    More on SJ at wikipedia and Isa’s post that made me think of it

    There are other equivalents: Young Magazine, despite its name, serialises comics aimed at men (this is where Akira was first serialised), while monthly anthology Nakayoshi deals with girls comics (like Sailor Moon).

    Let’s use this here dimension hopping remote control thing to visit ANOTHER WORLD *swirly effects*

    Woah, here’s this magazine called FICTION DASH. It’s a bit like a modernised pop-culture evolution of those old pulp magazines from the early 20th century. There’s twenty different serials running in it. Each one has an equal page share of the weekly magazine, so those with shorter chapters get 3-4 chapters each week, and the longer ones only 1 or 2. There’s a “story/character guide” and “previously on…” segment before each story, so new readers can get straight in. Sometimes FD features stand-alone stories, or pilots for new series (every new series gets double the amount of pages on its first week so it gets quickly established). Oh, and each issue one of the regular series gets front cover ‘featured’ status, which also means it gets more pages and some other bonus content. There’s also reader competitions and contests, such as each series having an annual “favourite character” poll. There might be a few additional articles aimed at readers, maybe a letters page for their views, and some reviews of related products they might enjoy. All series have their collected chapters published in volumes, which are released at regular intervals with updated text and revisions.

    *returns from alternative universe*

    I know the lot were talking about some kind of ‘zine, but from what I gathered about it, it wasn’t really anything like a regular thing that would serialise their stories away from their websites and in a way that could easily attract a lot of new readers.

  • Dary

    For some reason the link to Isa’s post didn’t come up. Well there is it. Over there. See?

  • Jan Oda

    That actually sounds a lot like how I first conceived of my magazine a long time ago, but then the crowd arrived, and it looked like they were going for that angle, and I changed my views.
    I’m very happy to where my project is going (in my head that is :p), but I still think a magazine like you describe would be cool too.

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  • Irk

    @Jan Oda

    No, we kept trying to explain that that wasn’t what AntholoZine was for. It’s a sampler zine that runs some excerpts of all different kinds of WebLit (from serials to essays to poetry) that would be given out free to expose people to more WebLit. There were no plans to run sequential content or anything like that, and since it’s quarterly that model really wouldn’t work very well IMO. If someone wants to do the web serial equivalent of Shounen Jump, then they need to. There is no current effort that I know of that directly parallels it.

    I definitely see the allure of a writer going to a digital publishing house instead of working with the headache of a CMS on their own, but what if the writer’s site, which since they’ve set up already they can easily replicate the effort again to do another series, already works exactly the way they want it for their fiction? I’ve scoped out f-s and I’ve got to admit that I’m going to have to wait on sending any submissions to it until the thing’s fixed. There’s definite navigational issues that f-s has that PK’s site doesn’t. I also have complete control over PK’s site and its promotional efforts and, well, everything about it. What are you going to give me in exchange for that kind of control? By running some of the numbers I’ve seen re: f-s’s readership, and comparing how PK’s been doing with Char and I working on our own, I don’t see an advantage you’re presenting.

    I know you’re offering pay, but the $2 a month isn’t an incentive for me compared to what I can get just running ads on PK. PK doesn’t even make a lot, and it doesn’t get an exceptional amount of readers yet either. It is obviously still growing. But it’s a representative sample of what Char and I can do if I, say, started writing another serial.

    If you had subscriptions up and working then you’d have a lot more incentive. If navigational weirdness weren’t present it’d be a really good thing. Like this recent chapter that was linked from Twitter:

    There’s no links to the table of contents from that page, info on the serial itself, links to previous chapters, or anything like that. If I have a serial up on your site, then how do new readers start at the beginning of my work with ease? It’s the internet, it has to be designed to be simple for it to be accessible to a large amount of people. Especially if you want that large amount of people to be constant readers.

    I think that you have a good idea, and good business sense, but you need to build it before authors can put their faith in you. By that I don’t mean “have 10,000 visitors” but “have a site that navigates as well as something I can get at” (note: we designed/installed our own site, but a Drupal build is a Drupal build).

    The cornerstone of the self-publishing movement, which WebLit seems to be a part of, or at least a cousin of, is control. Authors taking control of their own work instead of publishers having control, and using that control to either fulfill their artistic vision or find success. It’s a part of the backlash that’s built up against traditional publishers’ failures and problems. It’s a really, really big issue, and to ask a self-publishing author to give their control to you, you’re going to have to offer a lot more in return than what’s already present. (Subscriptions working would really help.) I think the model that you’re looking for is possible, but right now your problem isn’t a lack of authors taking a dive, it’s that your system is still in beta, from an outside observer’s perspective. I’ll use a beta tool for free, but I’m not going to pay for it – and asking me to give up complete control of my work (even if you’re only taking partial control) is asking me to pay for your service in some way.

    I’m hoping that f-s improves in the future, because if it becomes the kind of tool I think you can make it into, then I WILL be willing to subscribe to it with my efforts and work. I have more serials than PK in me and I would love to be a part of something new, experimental, and adventurous. But that boat has to have all the leaks fixed before I’ll risk taking a trip on it.

  • Isa

    @Irk: First, thanks for the feedback XD In fairness, f-s is a project still in beta so there are a lot of bugs in it and a lot of things to be improved. I get that and I think you raise a lot of valid points here about the site’s failings.

    They are points that have been raised before and because of that I want to make sure everyone understands that we’re not ignoring you on the navigation thing. I think what people do not realize is that fluffy-seme is not a WordPress blog, not a Drupal installation. It runs on a piece of software called Dolphin that is designed for dating sites like eHarmony: we stripped it down, completely repurposed it, and customized it to a level where it is now completely unrecognizable because we wanted a site that did something very specific that we could not do with WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, etc.

    The consequence of that is that sometimes what people identify as very “simple” modifications are not that at all. Before any such “Previous Chapter – Next Chapter” links can be added we needed to figure out a way to alter the way the system handles the chapter archives, we’ve finally finished that and I’ve put in an order with a programmer to write the script for such links.

    (That’s not especially relevant to what you’re saying here … but I wanted to make sure I explained it because this has been brought up before and I don’t want people to think that I’m stubbornly ignoring the feedback. These things take time and do not come free.)

    Regardless of f-s current failings and shortcomings, the point of this essay was never to tell the webfiction industry ‘you should publish on f-s!!’ but to tell the webfiction industry that ‘you should support the publishing house model’ or at the very least some kind of group model because go it alone leaves everyone worse off. We’re not the first ones to step into this market, there have been many publishing house style projects that have run into the same or similar problems that did not have the technical issues you describe above. The only one I know of that has survived is MeiLin’s Digital Novelists … which as great as it is, technically it’s more a digital vanity press than a digital publishing company.

    No I didn’t write this essay to exalt the virtues of fluffy-seme (as you’ve already noticed there are very few currently) but to point out that we’ve had this conversation on this blog, on and on webfiction guide many times now. Everyone agrees some kind of group effort is needed, yet everyone wants to be a free-rider on it, giving up nothing and reaping all the benefits. Everyone is taking a “not in my backyard’ stance on this, looking for others to work hard and make it a success before they get involved. This attitude is neither fair nor particularly practical and will hold the webfiction community back for as long as it continues.

  • Clare K. R. Miller

    Isa: “we wanted a site that did something very specific that we could not do with WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, etc.”

    What is that? I’m genuinely curious. It’s hard for me to imagine a reason to use a system for webfiction that doesn’t do something as basic as chapter navigation (at least, it’s basic to me).

    “The only one I know of that has survived is MeiLin’s Digital Novelists … which as great as it is, technically it’s more a digital vanity press than a digital publishing company.”

    It’s neither of those things. It’s a host and a Drupal installation. I guess if by “digital vanity press” you mean “a place for authors to self-publish their work online” that makes some sense, but it’s not a publishing house and was never intended to be.

  • Isa

    @Clare: Since you asked :) The entire premise of fluffy-seme is to build and grow creative communities where readers not only engage stories by reading them, but by discussing them, posting fanworks, roleplaying, etc, etc, etc.

    In order to run a site like that you need it to behave like a social network, giving each reader their own “space” as it were and the ability to upload their own content. The script that runs the backend of fluffy-seme can do all that out of the box.

    Joomla can do this only if you install Community Builder along side, a mod that– though effective– I’ve found bulky and hard to customize with the occasional mega-security exploit that scares the crap out of me XD

    Drupal probably has some kind of mod that will do this. I’m less familiar with Drupal in general because when I tried it out I was not comfortable with either the look or feel of it.

    WordPress is a wonderful script, and highly flexible … but you’d have to rewrite half the code to get it even close.

    You also need the ability to run several serials at once, keep them nicely organized and separated so that readers can find them easily without having to sort through other serials they are not interested in and give each a private community area for discussion.

    You can separate with Joomla and Drupal (with WordPress not so much) but I’ve never seen anyone provide private community space using these scripts and it’s harder to sort members by what content they are interested in. One of the advantages of the way fluffy-seme is set up is that we can send out update alerts to readers when their favorite serials have updated, but only the ones they want to read. I’ve never tried this with Joomla or Drupal but I imagine it would involve managing multiple mailing lists of some kind? With fluffy-seme we do this all internally with a few clicks.

    To run fluffy-seme on WordPress the way other serials are run we would need to run a separate installation for each serial which is kind of …. umm … not scalable if you plan on one day having twenty or so concurrent serial going. Plus, where’s the common community space? How do members add their own content? Probably there’s a computer whiz that could figure out a way to do this with heavy editing of the code of any of these scripts, but why bother when we found one that would do it all out of the box?

  • Clare K. R. Miller

    @Isa: How interesting, I didn’t know f-s was doing that! Yeah, I can definitely see your point–I just hope it’s less work to do all the navigation stuff from that base than to do the community stuff from a more blog-like base. But you have made me want to check out f-s when it’s more ready.

  • JZ

    Personally, I tend to see Digital novelists as being an awful lot like Keenspot (for web comics). Anyone can get an account, but you’re primarily responsible for the success of your serial. On the bright side though, if you’re a reader and you like one, you’ve got obvious place to start looking for others.