The First Conversation

MCM is likely the most experimental author in the web fiction sphere. He writes (and blogs!) at, does crazy online livewriting events, and has a whole host of books available, for free, at his site. Here he talks about his experience at FanExpo Toronto: in particular, how it’s like talking to web fiction outsiders about the medium for the very first time.


A few weeks ago, I was at FanExpo in Toronto, pitching 1889 Labs to anyone and everyone that came by my table. It was an enlightening experience, and one that’s given me a lot to think about, particularly as it relates to web fiction. See, when I went there, I didn’t really appreciate how to talk to people about what I do. Turns out, it’s not a pitch, it’s a conversation. But the conversation is more nuanced than you might expect.

There’s a type of reader that most of us know already: they’ll visit your site regularly, they know the Web Fiction Guide inside out, and if your navigation to Chapter Two isn’t up to their standards, they’ll give you holy hell for it. They’re the key to success and happiness, and when you talk to them, you talk to them about the finer details of what you do, about the pros and cons of Disqus or WordPress or Drupal, or about how your update schedule is killing you. They’re not necessarily writers themselves, but they’re deep enough in the web fiction world that they appreciate what it’s like to be a writer, and they’re supportive and fantastic and keep you alive.

These are the people we’re going to ignore today.

The other type of reader is the outsider. They know nothing about web fiction (except maybe peripheral negative impressions). They may not even realize they can access great content for free on the web. They’re coming to you completely blind to what you do, and it could very well be your responsibility present their very first experience with web fiction. No pressure, right? You’ve just bumped into them at a party or a convention, and they want to know more about you… what do you say? How do you start that conversation?

Here’s the thing about these readers: they very likely won’t be excited by the idea of a full free book online. They might even be turned off by it. I mean, they’d love to get it for free, but if you lead your conversation with “hey! My book is free online!” I think you’ll find the average reader is going to wonder what’s wrong with you. You’re worth what you charge, and if you’re giving yourself away for free, you must not be worth much. It may seem heretical, but volunteering the best aspects of web fiction are the worst possible idea. You need to work your way there.

Look at it this way: how do most people consume their media? They go to a store (virtual or real), find something they like, hunt for the best price on that product, and buy it. If there’s a free sample, they’ll read it. If there’s a special discount offer, they’ll use it. If they can make a relatively small investment to get something for free, they’ll probably do it. This is normal behaviour. Web fiction defies all this, and because of it, it seems alien and WRONG. Hell, maybe even a bit communist! It’s not a selling point, it’s a strike against you. “Free” is something for the sharp-eyed consumer, and you have to respect that.

What you need to do is frame your work like you’re the same as everyone else. Talk to the prospective customer about anything or nothing at all. Let them know you’re a real person, and not a marketing machine. If they ask about your writing, don’t pitch it, just discuss it. Don’t talk too much or you’ll sound like you’re preaching. They need to feel like they can decline and move on without retribution, and if you’re too pushy, that’s exactly what it seems like. If they’re keen, offer them a free sample (FREE SAMPLES!) so they can get a sense of what you do. If they’re ready for more than just samples, be ready with a promotional link to the full story (OMG! FREE!) that you don’t just give to ANYONE… you give it to people you really like. If you’re really adventurous, sell a physical something with a link to bonus material (BONUS!) that sets them apart from the average reader. Give them your email address, your Facebook page, your Twitter account, in addition to your website. Ask them to drop you a line about something unrelated, and make sure it’s genuine. Replicate the traditional experience so they’re comfortable, but offer something regular authors usually don’t: a personal conversation that will continue long after that first meeting.

What happens to these readers once they catch on to the bait-and-switch? Well, to be honest, most of them don’t care to figure it out. They’re happy never having to officially recognize web fiction, and will continue to view your work in that context. But if they DO notice the main page of your site has links to all this free content… well, by that point, they’ve already had their first taste of web fiction, and with some careful handling, you can probably convert them into full-fledged members of the community. The bait-and-switch is working in their favour, and as long as it’s paired with a strong relationship with their new favourite author, they’ll probably be happier at the end of it all.

Web fiction is still a tiny fledgling concept in the big world of literature. Realistically, you’re not going to be able to change that for yourself or anyone else at a convention, no matter how shiny your signage is. If you want more readers (and I think we all do), you need to convert the outsiders to insiders, and the best way to do that is to tell them that everything’s going to be okay… you’re not the advance scout of a new, evil empire they’ve never heard of… you’re just like any other author, just with a little something more. A genuine conversation and some cool, just-for-you freebies.

MCM writes at, and is currently writing 1000 short stories this year. See a full collection of his writing here.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Marketing
  • Bill

    MCM, I think that for all your contributions to the cause of web fiction, for all you’ve accomplished, this sentiment you’ve expressed regarding pitching what you (we) do is *seriously* flawed.

    I think that you had a golden opportunity at FanExpo and it FAILED, but not for the reasons you mention.

    It failed for the same reason so much web fiction promotion fails. It fails because we keep – promoting – WEB FICTION! Nobody CARES about web fiction! So you write stories online?? SO WHAT?

    We talk about web fiction as if what we write is inherently better or more interesting because it’s on the web? By that reckoning, a GOD-awful band that puts a demo on cassette (yes, I’m dating myself but so what) will suddenly morph into The Stones upon pressing a CD of same said album? BS!!!!

    And then, when that tack doesn’t work, you try to promote the fact that we’re “real people” and that we’re not in “ivory towers” looking down at the masses. Got news for you, Rowling, King, Meyer, Harper, Conan Doyle, and that fella who wrote all those tragedies about English kings…they were real people too. So again, nobody cares!

    What DO we care about??? The same we’ve cared about since GOD said “Let there be light”. Is – this – story – any- damn – GOOD??? THAT’S what matters. It mattered when George Melies made those almost cartoonish sci-fi movies, it mattered when actors at the Globe Theater held up signs that said “Forest here”, and it will matter when he watch movies in a kind of virtual environment like the Matrix. The story MUST – BE – GOOD.

    I have become a fan of an online superhero story called The Legion Of Nothing, by Jim Zoetewey. I don’t read it because it’s posted online. I don’t read it because the website is hip (actually, I think it needs a bit of work). I don’t read it because Jim Zoetewey is a cool guy (he might be). I read it for the same reasons I watch Star Trek The Next Generation over and over, and paid twice to watch the first Iron Man, and why I reread All Quiet on the Western Front at least once a year.

    The story is GOOD! That’s all that matters. That’s all that will ever matter. I think the first episode featured a scene in which these kids with super powers are hanging at their top-secret, high-tech base…playing video games on the large monitor. In one of the latest episodes, the main characters uses his tech to disable an opponent with a brown note. I read that story because I don’t find that sort of thing anywhere else.

    MCM, you are one of the leading champions of our cause. We don’t need you to waste your talent convincing people that they should read online fiction because of how pretty our websites are or how novel our concept is. They won’t listen. I wouldn’t listen.

    We need you to show them that there are stories here that they can’t find anywhere else. There’s love and hope and fear and tragedy and adventure and we’ve got it in ways that they’ll never get from HBO or NBC. That’s what we need. That’s why they’ll listen.

  • Eli James

    There are two angles that I think are most awesome, especially in the context of a conference:

    1) Livewriting. This is an odd, new, cool(!!) idea that wasn’t possible before the Internet (well there was fire-side storytelling, but that doesn’t count as writing, right?

    2) Talking to the writer. Also delightful and unexpected, especially when you’re a reader and you’ve just finished a book (or a chapter!) and now you want to reach out and thank the author, or talk to him, or hound him for killing off this character or that character …

    I think these are the most wonderful bits of web fiction. :)

  • Nina Lassam

    Thanks very much for this. I’m going to several expo type events in the next month and this was a really helpful primer.

  • MeiLin Miranda

    Maybe I do need to table at Orycon this year… *winces*

  • Eli James

    Why the wince, MeiLin?

    @Nina: I’ll tell MCM this helped. :)

  • Eli James

    Note: Just saw Bill’s comment and took it out of my spam queue. Sorry bout that.

    @Bill: I agree with your thoughts, in general, though I think your tone’s a tad acerbic. That said, I see little in your comment that addresses MCM’s main points: 1) building a connection with readers at an expo is an efficient use of energy/the ‘best’ way to do it, 2) you need to engage with them at a level that’s different from the rest, if you want them to understand.

    That the story is ‘all that matters’ is an obvious point to make, and so wasn’t raised in this article. Yeah sure the quality of the story matters. But – and this is the question – how do you tell the reader/visitor that?

    You can’t, can you? You don’t see writers going up to people and say: read my story, it’s great! The quality of my work’s brilliant! People just don’t buy books that way.

    What you do, then, is that you make them curious enough to check you out. And if it’s good, they’ll stick around; if it’s bad, then it’s our loss.