Ebooks vs Web Fiction

There appears to be two competing systems for reading digital fiction today. The first, promoted by Amazon and Apple and countless others through their digital bookstores, is the ebook. You surf a vast collection of titles, download the ones you like, and choose others based on store-wide recommendations. It is a system that works.

The second system is web fiction. You upload a text on what is likely the most open, distributable format available: a website. You make purchasable editions (ebooks, POD paper versions) available to readers. You design your own online presence, craft your own books, and in turn you get loyal readers you can talk to, get to know; readers who will support you and may become benefactors of your work.

These two systems are currently competing for writer mindshare. Just as VHS fought for mindshare with Betamax, and SLRs and rangefinders fought for photographer adoption in the 90s, so is web fiction fighting for mindshare with eBooks. And web fiction is currently losing.

I believe this is bad for all of us.

How is Web Fiction Losing?

A cursory glance of the blogosphere suggests that most writers think the ebook/digital-bookstore/electronic-reader ecosystem to be the shape of the bookfuture. It’s easy to see how they may think this: that particular vision isn’t very different from the current paper-book/phsyical-bookstore/home-bookshelf manner of reading that we all know and love.

The truth is that independent writers today don’t think of posting their book in website form. They think instead of creating a pdf and uploading that to Smashwords, and then perhaps opening a writer blog and building a following around that. (A quick comparison: Smashwords has 15360 listings; Web Fiction Guide: 754). Web fiction is not an obvious choice for the new writer. Nor is it, currently, the default manner of thinking about digital publishing.

Now I must note that the web fiction model is compatible with the ebook one – you may both have your book on a website and sell that same book through ebook stores (e.g.: Amazon, Smashwords) at the same time. But what it also means is that more writers are likely to plug their books into the Kindle store, instead of starting their own web-based books.

Why this happens is simple: it’s easier, for one. Uploading to the Kindle store and waiting for the money to come in takes far less energy than setting up your own blog, designing your own book, and building your own audience. There is a technological barrier to web fiction that we have not yet overcome. The other bit of it is that it’s easier to understand the idea of a ‘digital bookstore'; as I’ve mentioned above, it’s not very different from what we have in the real world.

So then – why is this bad? Why is web fiction so important, if the ebook model works?

Pros and Cons

I’m going to go on a tangent for a bit here (forgive me this!) and run through the pros/cons of web fiction before I tackle that question proper. I think the context is important.

The advantages for web fiction are fairly obvious. Off the top of my head: you get to watch a book take shape, right in front of your eyes – week in, week out. You get to talk to the author while you’re reading, via book comments and Twitter. You get to be part of this crazy, rabid, fanboyish group of fellow readers who await the weekly update with barbed club in hand and then afterward gather together in the comments to speculate on plot development like Potter-maniacs on the eve of a book launch.

For many writers currently engaged in web fiction – writers who want most to write and to talk to fans – this is enough. And so web fiction is satisfying in a way that pushing your content via Kindle is not: you gain a following, a community of loyal readers.

The problem with this is that the model for web fiction isn’t working out. MCM wrote recently of how he has given up on relying on donations in the weblit sphere:

(…) But just looking at the numbers, and getting a sense they seem to hold true across the board, I think there’s at least a subtle trend towards NOT supporting weblit authors. Not in a vindictive way, but in a “I just can’t, right now” sort of way. And if enough people feel that way, weblit authors are looking at tough decisions about how to proceed.

And herein lies the danger, I think, for the weblit community: Kindle is easy for writers to use. It’s a massive crapshoot, but if you get a reader, you get a sale. Self-publishing used to require proofs and shipping and all that jazz, but now it’s just “upload a file and wait.” It’s like weblit, only with a searchable catalogue. And if the numbers in “free to access and depend on donations” continue the way they’re going, I think we’ll see a massive shift away from true weblit, into something akin to serialized e-book publishing.

These are the disadvantages, ones I suspect are crippling the medium: 1) there is no possibility of an impulse buy with the web fiction model. 2) There will be no reader cross-hopping between works, based on store recommendations. Those two things are possible only within the store model, and right now this means that there is a lack of attention (and therefore money) going to web fiction. And a withdrawal from web fiction would be a bad thing indeed.

More than mere melancholy

I should pause here to note that I’m very much involved in web fiction, having put together the first bits of the current community, and so may be the wrong person to be writing about this. I may also be completely mistaken – having spent the last three months programming under the proverbial rock.

But I firmly believe in this: if the primary model for digital publishing turns out to be the ebook one, we would have lost more than fond memories. We would have lost a brighter bookfuture.

Bookfuturist and blogger Craig Mod has argued that there is a great need for an open, web-based format for books. He thinks, as I do, that such a format makes for richer reading experiences. Mod says, in The Cornerstone of Digital Books:

(…) when a blogger — and Infinite Jest fanatic — wants to point out something he or she loves in the book, and that book has a digital edition, is it not mad that the digital text isn’t ‘publicly’ referable?

Openness is a big part of the discussion behind books in HTML5. Not openness in terms of ‘free’ books, but openness as books being free from the referenceability prisons of eReaders. Which is not to say that applications like Kindle or iBooks shouldn’t exist, or that the only way to do books is in HTML. But, one might go so far as to say that having a strong HTML based, publicly referable edition of a book is the cornerstone of a strong digital edition. (emphasis added)

The problem with this, of course, is that there are no natural forces acting to create such a ‘strong, HTML based, publicly referable edition’ of a book. Publishers are busy squabbling over ebook prices; writers seem perfectly happy with the mere ebook upload. They don’t really know what they’re missing – the fulfillment from writing to a live audience; the depth of the reading experience made possible only through the web, something that we as web fiction readers have had the luck to experience over the past couple of years.

This last point is one that I keep going back to, in my head. The reading experience with the ebook is solitary at best. It is no different from the reading of a paper-bound book – and I think its evolution will be limited by this. A web based book-future has more possibilities: imagine a central, online version of the book where your annotations appear as you read. The online version shows where you mark pages for quotes, or highlight specific passages for ideas that leap out at you. Now imagine what it would be like if you had access to everyone else’s annotations. What a difference that could make – to bibliographic knowledge, to literature!

Possibly the only way to force this change on them is to make it easy enough for writers to consider the weblit path. Part of it lies in making the technology of publishing a book online (hacking the blog software, designing the text) normal and boring. The other part lies in getting the word out. I am working on the former, and am thinking of the latter. There is much to do.

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Publishing
  • http://amharte.com A. M. Harte

    One could argue that you didn’t put together the first bits of the webfiction generally speaking, as webfiction did exist prior to 2007.

    But, yes. Interesting post. It seems many webfiction authors offer their books in ebook forms, but the opposite does not hold true.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I saw Kira’s arguments on Twitter. It’s fixed – I mean current community, the one that sprung up after blog software emerged.

    Thanks for reading, Anna. I’m still editing bits of it, though – woe be to me for posting at 3.30 in the morning!

  • http://claudiadchristian.com Claudia

    I’m mulling over the valid and strong points you’ve made for webfic. I’m a writer who began with fanfiction back in 1999, self-published original work in 2004, released ebooks in 2005, fell off the screen from 2005-2008, and came back in 2009 to start all over again.

    I found in those three years of absence things had changed quite a bit. Everyone had a blog and it seemed as if everyone was a writer.

    I experimented with different ways to engage readers from a pay-model, to donations, to posting free webfic, and now to posting WIP novels online as well as selling the completed work via Kindle, Smashwords, and good ol’ Paypal.

    What I’ve found is that the people who consistently read my webfic are far less likely to buy my ebooks. The people who buy my ebooks are far less likely to read the webfic.

    I’ve yet to figure out a way to bring the two together. I don’t know if it’s because readers who read webfic aren’t interested in supporting a writer beyond page views. I don’t know if readers who buy ebooks are converted to the Kindle medium but aren’t converted to web reading.

    I admit I’ve contemplated pulling the webfic off my site and concentrating solely on writing offline. However, I think my fanfic background has me primed to look for a connection with readers. It’s a connection I can’t find when Amazon delivers my work to an anonymous Kindle owner.

    Although I may only have a small audience, I appreciate when they post a comment or email me over a current WIP. I also relish the freedom I have by writing online, knowing the only person I have to please is myself because, after all, the work is free. If you don’t like it—leave.

    I can’t quite replicate that feeling working solely offline.

    However, it brings me back to my original dilemma. How to bring webfic readers and e-readers together?

    It’s a question that has been taking up more of time with each passing month.

    Anyway, thanks for the article and for encouraging me to mull this over further. :)

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    Don’t be sad :( Here I’ll give you a little preview of my research report for ErgoFiction (err… I’m working on it Anna! I’m working! Please stop throwing rocks *whimper*)

    Good News: About the only thing writers want is attention: lots of readers, lots of feedback. They’re not motivated by money or career advancement, just connection with other people. In this environment webfiction is always going to win out over ebooks.

    The reason webfic lags behind is that there are few glamorous “success stories”. Nobody has secured a book deal with a traditional publisher yet, nobody is making a high-income living doing it. When that happens, as it did with blogging, there will be an explosion in webfic for sure.

    Bad News: There are very few “pure” readers of Webfic, meaning that most people who read webfic also write themselves. The tradeoff here is that while writers are more likely to give you detailed, insightful constructive criticism (and give you a heads up to correct the occasional typo, bless them), these people have a different relationship with your work than a pure reader would.

    So I disagree with you here: webfic doesn’t need ANYMORE WRITERS … what it needs is more READERS.

    Webfiction authors who are still confused as to why their revenue models are not working should check out this video:


    It’s not that people will not pay for online content, it’s that they won’t pay for content individually. The consumer wants package access: support 5, 20, 100, 1,000 serials for $ instead of giving/buying individually. Webfiction authors traditionally have struggled to bring in consumers because they insist on going alone. And yes, you do get more creative control that way … but you also diminish the odds that anyone is going to send you a dime in exchange.

  • http://claudiadchristian.com Claudia

    Isa, thanks so much posting that link. I’m going to check it out and hopefully expand my brain a bit. ;)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Claudia: thank you for taking the time to pop by and respond. =) Don’t fret – you’re not alone in this predicament. I just got off a chat with MCM (whom I quoted in the post above) – he tells me he experiences the exact same things you do. That his web fiction and ebook readers are irreconcilable.

    I’m not sure why or how to change this, but I gave him some of my ideas to experiment with.

    I’m currently building writing software for web fiction and so I hope to solve this, myself. There has to be an elegant solution for this – surely ebooks alone cannot be good for readers? But we at Pandamian aren’t quite there yet.

    Feel free to email me (use Novelr’s contact form) if you have any other questions. I wish you only the best in your future web fiction experiments.

    @Isa: Astute, as always. (I can’t wait for that post, by the way!)

    I think, though, that at this stage more writers = more readers. The current buzz is shifting towards ebooks and Amazon and the iBookstore, and so both writers and readers are moving towards that model.

    It’s a chicken and an egg argument, really. Who comes first?

  • http://claudiadchristian.com Claudia

    @Eli, thank you for your warm welcome. :) The issue is one that truly challenges my problem-solving skills. While I don’t wish this conundrum on anyone, I’m glad to know I’m not alone.

    I’ve been designing websites for myself since ’99, but admittedly my knowledge hasn’t fully gone past HTML/CSS. This has allowed me to do cosmetic modifications to WordPress and Joomla! themes, but it’s still not enough. WordPress has inspired me to learn how to build my own themes (still in the infancy of learning) because there isn’t anything I can find that really works for how I want to present my work.

    An issue I’ve read is quite common for many webfiction artists.

    I’m glad to read you’re working on something to help change that. I’m following Pandamian’s and your tweets now so I look forward to news & updates.

    Thanks again for opening up the dialog on this topic. :)

  • http://fiction.courage-my-friend.org/ Chris Poirier

    I don’t know that anybody cares, but I can probably supply the WordPress theme and instructions for use that makes my website work: http://fiction.courage-my-friend.org/ — if you are willing to work within the parameters, WordPress is quite capable.


  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    If anyone’s interested in getting a web-fiction site up and running I’d recommend you take Chris up on his offer – he’s awesome with things like this.

  • http://www.humanparade.com Baron of Cleveland

    Hi, everyone, I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and I don’t think WebLit is a good model for making money.

    I have the intuition that Interactivity is a red herring in this argument. Interactivity is great for informal storytelling, facebooking, or networking; but Interactivity is not great when it comes to formalized storytelling. WebLit, in some round about way, equates with informal storytelling, while books and eBooks equate with formalized storytelling. I’m being brief here because it’s my bedtime.

    I just doubt anyone is ever going to make much of a living as a WebLit author.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, Baron. Because weblit is informal, therefore it is not monetizable?

    There is no guaranteed model for making money with web fiction. Part of it is because it’s a new medium, and part of it is because content industries (of all kinds – music, movies, you name it) have been struggling since the advent of the Internet. It is erroneous to assume that just because we haven’t cracked the code for making money off ‘weblit’ that it is not possible. Precious few have cracked the code for making money off of content (fiction or otherwise) in the digital world.

    Wait a couple of years and we’ll see then, won’t we?

  • http://www.humanparade.com Baron of Cleveland


    I understand what you’re saying, but I can’t help feeling that “cracking the code” is akin to “finding the missing link”.

    I see an inherent difference between, say, a weblit narrative, and Madame Bovary, The Stand, or Barry Eisler’s The Last Assassin. The difference lies in both execution (the skill with which the narrative is handled) and how the narrative is presented to an audience–namely, finished vs. unfinished. Weblit revels in its unfinished state, asking for comments on drafts or chapters. But why would the majority of people (who read for leisure) pay for a product that is unfinished? I wouldn’t buy a car that lacked an engine; nor do I think most people are interested in putting the engine inside the car themselves–they’d rather assume ownership of the car in a functional state. At least I would, because I’m not a car guy; I get no thrills from repairing vehicles; I just want to drive. The few people who buy a car without an engine (most likely) intend on installing one themselves. In all probability, they’re car buffs, the same way (I postulate) weblit readers are weblit writers themselves.

    I think, as some weblit and ebook authors have been mentioning recently, the weblit/ebook audiences aren’t overlapping or that more success (at least financial) is coming from ebook sales. I tend to ask why rather than to try to find a way to convince people to do something outside of their nature. No matter how veiled something appears at first, the answer is there in human nature, one way or another, already discovered and spoken about in our past and the technologies that changed us yesteryear.

    Something just doesn’t add up. I’m not sure what it is, if weblit is destined to be a niche interest, or what. Like you said, we’ll really know sometime in the future.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Two thoughts:

    a) The web fiction that’s sold right now are in ebook form. And that happens in the same way serialized comics are sold – when volume 1 is completed, that’s sold; when volume 2 is completed, sell that. The unfinished version doesn’t really make that much money (beyond ads and the sometime donation). So you’re probably right on the point that weblit (where you mean *just* the online version) won’t make much money.

    b) A clarification: when I say the web fiction/weblit model, I mean having a web-based version of the book and selling ebooks through the site (and elsewhere). The ebook model, on the other hand, is this idea of a writer just uploading (‘publishing’) their book on a store, and maybe keeping a blog on the side, but nothing more.

    I’m not arguing that web fiction authors have to leave their ebooks to stay true to the model – I’m saying that there should, at least, be a web fiction component to selling ebooks as well. And that there are ways to make money from this setup – outside the Kindle store – that we haven’t discovered yet.

  • http://muses-success.info Christopher David Clarke

    You bring up a lot of good points. :)

    Although my reasons for doing this are a little selfish (I wouldn’t need to make ebooks for use in Stanza manually if more offered them), I am working on making it easier for web fiction authors to create e-Book versions of their books. Development is slow and far between at the moment, but I am working on it (http://github.com/chrisclarke/eBook-Export-Plugin-for-WordPress).

    I would like to say that ads are the solution but I think it lies more in collective networks of authors similar to Digital Novelist but closer to say Weblogs Inc and Gawker Media. The most successful blogs I can think of are apart of some kind of selective network. The same appears to be true of podcasts (TWiT, ThisWeekIn) and online video (Revision3). I think web comics have something similar going as well. These networks are akin to publishers in the physical world.

    I also don’t think those who start a generic livejournal.com or wordpress.com blog will be as successful as those who have their own site with a good and relevant to the story being published design to compliment it. This design should also be usable with a clear table of contents and navigation links between chapters.

    I think the e-Book component is somewhat more important as well as being solely on the web makes bed time reading difficult (and I would argue even with full featured browsers coming to the smallest devices). My solution has been to make e-Books manually, but not many people are probably willing to do that. I am a person who likes to read for 10 minutes in the car or in bed late at night in the dark. I don’t really want to carry a web connected device or turn the computer on in the middle of the night.

    I like the idea of a packaged deal – if I could subscribe to a appealing collection of on-going web fiction like I can with Crunchyroll (as much as I dislike the subs) and anime for a few dollars a month I would. I need to clarify though – I do not want to see web fiction go behind pay-walls. I would not however mind a timed exclusivity of about a week for subscribers. For this to be appealing though, I would expect the web fiction to have been gone over by an editor before publication.

    Just some thoughts. :)

  • http://www.epiguide.com Kira

    A very well-balanced comparison, Eli. I’m a fan of both formats, though I must give an edge to webfiction since there’s no barrier to entry; most potential readers have computers, while a far fewer number own devoted ebook devices. Heck, I’m a writer and I don’t have one.

    But I’m not here to opine, since others have much more informed opinions than my own. As ever, like a hovering and annoying hawk waiting to strike, when I spot some apparent ignorance of history I must swoop down and add a teensy bit of perspective.

    Isa wrote: “Nobody has secured a book deal with a traditional publisher yet […]”

    David Wong and John Scalzi beg to differ! They’re the respective authors of “John Dies in the End” and “Old Man’s War” — both of which began as webserials in the early 2000s and were later published to acclaim and much success. “Old Man’s War” was nominated for a Hugo award, and “John…” is supposedly being turned into a film.

    Obviously two examples don’t a trend make, but in such a young industry the numbers of successful ventures are bound to be small.

    That’s all I have, really. Just felt compelled to offer some nuggets of webfiction history/trivia. And to thank you for making that little text tweak! (Also: thanks so much for adding the link to WeSeWriMo up there!)

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    @Kira: LOL, thanks I wasn’t aware of those two cases … so to clarify: I was talking about converting webfic to mainstream success. Both of these cases are nice and all, but they’re hardly webfic’s ‘Julie and Julia’ which is what I was getting at. When webfic launches a bestseller as I know it *can*, ebooks will no longer to the medium of choice

  • http://www.epiguide.com Kira

    To clarify, “securing a book deal with a traditional publisher” actually meant “producing a NYT bestseller that turns into a hit film starring Meryl Streep.” My bad!

    Still, you really don’t think that bar is a little … high?

    This kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking sounds awfully Hollywood to me. It’s along the lines of saying a TV show isn’t significant unless its ratings are in the top 10 — or that an indie movie’s opening may earn 30 million at a significant profit with critical/audience acclaim, but that still sucks because Spiderman opened at 116M.

    I’m just saying, I think it’s crazy to set the standards for success of this genre up in the stratosphere. It’s setting us up for failure and dismissal. Can’t we start a little lower, please?

    We’re also presuming that the de facto goal of webfiction authors is to secure a traditional publisher. I’m sure many do, but some of us crafted our webserials to be just that — a story based on the web, utilizing the many features unique to an interactive environment. I’m sure I’m part of a vanishingly small minority, but while I would consider publishing a bound version of my own serial, that’s not how or why it was created, and I think it would lose something in the translation.

    Anyway, I just get frustrated when I see someone dismissing a Hugo-nominated success story like Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” as “nice and all” but not good enough because it hasn’t been turned into a Keanu Reeves vehicle.

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    @Kira: Errrrr… I think you misunderstand me. I’m not sure why the conversation is going off in this direction. The issue was not “no one in webfic is successful” the issue was “why is webfic not the preferred medium for writers looking to distribute their work digitally … why do people prefer ebooks”

    I was not trying to set the bar so high that it diminishes the achievements of notable community members. What I was trying to do was explain that writers flock to ebooks because there are cases of writers converting ebooks to fame and fortune: like Boyd Morrison who got a two book deal from Simon & Schuster from his Kindle sales of The Ark or even like MaryJanice Davidson who is little known but has gone from publishing ebooks to spots on NYT Bestsellers and USA Today Bestsellers list. I used the word “glamorous” in my original comment for the good reason.

    My comment was not meant to be taken as an assessment of the significance or success of webfiction as a format, just the factors that attract writer to publish in one format over another.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    There may be shorter, simpler explanations for this trend. E.g.:

    a) Ebooks have more buzz. Apple, Amazon are doing ebooks. The Wall Street Journal talks about ebooks. The NYT talks about ebooks. Therefore writers think in terms of ebooks.

    b) Ebooks are supported by the publishing industry. They believe it isn’t much different a model from selling paper books (which means less work, less change for them). And where the publishing industry goes, writers and their agents follow.

    c) Ebooks, as a model, are simpler to understand. They map to the world of books that we already know (as I argued in my post above).

  • http://lleelowe.com Lee

    Anyone who needs it should take up Chris Poirier’s offer for help with a WP website. He does a wonderful job!

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

    Geez I don’t know why this seems complicated. People write ebooks because everyone knows where to download for the Kindle etc — Amazon made it easy. There isn’t a lot of exposure on where to find web lit, it doesn’t have mainstream big backing. I don’t know Smashwords but clearly it has more exposure than Web Fiction Guide.

    Millions of people go to Amazon for getting normal books conveniently, and because it already had traffic and a reputation, they’re getting into the ebooks for even more convenience. Web Lit authors are all lone wolves, making their own sites and then struggling to find readers on limited budgets. The sheer scale of it all makes it difficult to build an audience.

    The only person I know living off their writing is AE, and she struggles to maintain her audience because she struggles with her health and falls behind on updates — no one else I know of relies solely on their online writing. But she built that audience over time — Live Journal, her own site, twitter, facebook, etc.

    Writers would need to collaborate more than they do, congregate more in one place, and try to snowball the audience together. It’s not the same as a web comic (which I think is the closet parallel model) because that visual medium can easily grab an audience (it takes 5 minutes to read like 10 installments, whereas it takes 10-20 minutes to read one chapter of a book). And then most webcomics make money off of tshirts and such, which is easier to do in a visual medium.

    But the experience of web lit is different than ebooks and traditional books — it can be more interactive and engaging, and it can still produce an ebook for more mass consumption for those who don’t care about the social aspect. Web fic just needs to diversify and collaborate — I really don’t think it can be compared to anything else right now. There’s nothing like it and that means there’s going to be upheaval until we figure out what works.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Gavin: (RE: upheval) Or this may mean a barrier to entry until we’ve got that sorted out. I think, though, that while we’re close to figuring out what it is that works, that information doesn’t translate to much unless we take action. What kind of actions I think – I’ll have to lead by example.

    I love the first bit in your comment, though – you cut through all the crap (mine, as well) and got to the heart of the matter. Thanks. :)

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

    Eli — I love Novelr and Web Fiction and writing online, and I think it’s important for the community to discuss what works and what doesn’t, and look for ways to improve. I’m thrilled with how far Web Fiction Guide has come in a short amount of time and the community that has gathered, and we all had something to do with that. I look forward with great enthusiasm to Pandamian or whatever comes next.

    But sometimes, yes, there is a lot of wheel-spinning and crap which makes me occasionally frustrated — people seem to worry about not being huge and successful, and freak out at the big picture. I think concentrating on the small picture and incremental steps will get us there, because what we offer is something special. Dream big, YES, but also make sure you remember the little nuts and bolts that make the rest possible. The kingdom was lost for the sake of a nail, after all.

    One can dream up a fantasy world as complex as Tolkien’s, but you need to write the sentences and paragraphs that make it come alive — a book comes with effort and time.

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

    Further to that (I had to stop for a sec) — after we’re writing, we need to connect with the community of writers and also with readers, to enhance our skills and expand our audience.

    We’re not going to compete with Amazon or Smashwords individually, it takes communal effort. Look at Wikipedia, it’s probably used more than Encyclopedia Brittanica now, but it grew up grassroots.