MCM is likely the most experimental author in the web fiction sphere. He writes (and blogs!) at 1889.ca, 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.