Monthly Archives: October 2010

Other Sides – A Web Fiction Anthology

Other Sides is an anthology of web fiction published by Ergofiction and supported by Novelr. MCM is one-half of the team responsible for the project, and he’s here to talk about the process and intention behind the book, and why perhaps we should all support them.

One of the biggest problems with web fiction is getting people to give it a try. As soon as you say “it’s available for free on the w—”, half the people tune you out. Available for free? On a website? Ah yes, you mean a BLOG. I’ve heard of those. Other Sides cover, showing shiny pathwork design as background to text.My cousin has one where she posts photos of her kids building forts out of pillows and quilts and dining room chairs. How quaint of you.

Convincing people to invest time in your writing when is always a struggle, but getting them to take web fiction seriously is extra hard, because it plays into every prejudice you can imagine. Self-publishing, the cult of the amateur on the web, free = bad… we’ve got it all, and more! And the tragedy is, there are a lot of great stories on the web that don’t get the recognition they deserve simply because of how they’re presented. It’s not just a tragedy for the writers, it’s a tragedy for the readers, because they’re missing out. But how do you help people take that first step? How do you show them what web fiction has to offer?

Many, many months ago, the ever-sharp Ergofiction editor A.M. (Anna) Harte was having this very discussion with me as I was crumbling under the weight of a truly epic workload. The conversation went something like this:

ME: Pity me, I have no time to finish my work, or eat, or sleep.
ANNA: The best way to spread web fiction is to offer a sampler of some great writers.
ME: I see you are ignoring what I am saying.
ANNA: And we can offer the sampler as an ebook so people more comfortable with Kindles and iPads can partake.
ME: Oh dear, I see spots. Goodbye, cruel world!
ANNA: And when the new readers see how great web fiction is, they will want to read more!
ME: [gurgle]
ANNA: I like this plan. Do you like this plan?
ME: [dies]
ANNA: Excellent! Submit your story by the end of the week!
ME: Yes, master.

And that, in a nutshell, is how “Other Sides” came about. And once you get over the initial shock of reanimating corpses, it’s actually quite genius. We have a book of some really great web fiction writing, wrapped in a tidy package and distributed in ways that will not scare the average reader. We have print, even! Real people can browse Amazon, come across “Other Sides”, and say: “Hey, that looks like a nice collection of short stories! I will buy that for only $6!” And when they read it, at the end of every story, there is a little blurb that tells them more about the author, with a link to more of their writing. And when they visit that link… they are partaking in web fiction. And it won’t seem so bad.

The great thing about web fiction is that it’s addictive and personal, like a massive bowl of candies right next to your workspace. A bowl of candies that nobody can eat but you. Mmm, candy. Strandline is like the caramel-filled ones, and… sorry, what was I saying? Oh, right: once someone becomes aware web fiction exists, they almost never leave. Just like the bowl of candy. “Other Sides” is what I hope to be the first step of a bigger campaign to bring our little community to the rest of the world. It’s the thin end of the wedge, if you will. A wedge of chocolate.

So if you haven’t already, please go read “Other Sides”, and leave a review on Amazon. And tell your friends about it. And make your family buy you copies for Christmas. Because the more people that discover web fiction, the stronger the community will be, which will energize our writers and make our stories even better, and eventually, “web fiction” will be a label to aspire to.

Also, if we hit 10,000 downloads, Anna will give me my soul back.

MCM is the technical half of the team behind Other Sides. (Anna does the editorial work). He writes at, and is currently the lead for the creation of a Web Fiction Writers Guild. Go download Other Sides today – he’d really like his soul back.

Passing the Hat: Soliciting Donations in Web Fiction

Cecilia Tan is the editor of Circlet Press, and a couple of other things besides (psst – I’ll let her introduce herself, in a bit!) Today, she’s going to share with you several things she’s learnt about making a donation model work in web fiction.

Hello, everyone. I’m Cecilia Tan, writer and editor. For those who don’t know me, I’ve been publishing fiction professionally for almost 20 years. Short stories, novels, magazine serials, microfictions, you name it. Last year I started my own web fiction serial, Daron’s Guitar Chronicles, and I’m here today to tell you how my donation model has evolved over time from a passive “tip jar” approach to actively “passing the hat.”

The street musician analogy is an apt one, as the novel is about a rock musician coming out in the 1980s. Daron’s Guitar Chronicles turns one year old next week, but the novel that is its source was written when I was in grad school 16 years ago.

What I didn’t know then, in my MFA writing classes, was that I had no clue how to write a novel. I dove into writing DGC without realizing that the writing workshop format of five pages per week would push me unconsciously to create a story told not in traditional-length chapters but in 1000-1250 word episodes. I also had no idea how to wrestle a plot to the ground and simple kept writing until I had tripled the length of a typical commercial novel and forced myself to stop at 300,000 words.

In the meanwhile I had made a name for myself as a short story writer. HarperCollins published my first collection of short stories. The “novel” made the rounds of literary editors, pop culture editors (the book has a rock and roll theme), as well as the gay publishing houses (the protagonist is gay). All said the same thing: we love it, but we can’t publish something that huge.

A few said they might be able to “take a chance” on it if I were willing to take a $2,000 (or lower!) advance.

I had a strong feeling that for $2,000 I could do better than a place that would “take a chance.” I put the novel in a drawer and waited.

What I was waiting for was the perfect medium to present the work. As it turns out, a web serial is just about perfect! What were too short to be “chapters” are now “posts.” The pop culture aspect of the work is easily added through embeddable Youtube videos. And, serendipitously, the first person style of narration turned out to lend itself perfectly to reader engagement. Readers, it turned out, more often left comments addressed to my protagonist than to me. So I created him an account and let him answer them. This has only made regular commenters on the site even more invested in his character development and the details of his life, which after all is what the book is about.

The next step for me, though, was how to turn that reader engagement into dollars. When I launched the site in November 2009, I put up a “tip jar” and a Paypal “donate” button and wondered what would happen. I couldn’t run Project Wonderful ads until the site had been up for three months, so there was no income there. And my first “over the transom” donation didn’t come until the end of January 2010, and it was for $20. If my goal was to top the $2,000 that a publisher would have given me to orphan my book in literary first novel obscurity… well, at that rate it would take me 25 years.

I changed my strategy then, following a tactic that I had seen on many webcomics sites. Instead of posting three episodes a week, I cut back to two, promising a third episode any week when donations reached the threshold of $25. After that, I saw a tiny uptick in donations that was probably less about the “incentive” and more that readership was increasing, and donations were increasing proportionally. I could see through my Google analytics that every week I had more readers than the previous, on a fairly slow but steady increase. The uptick was to the tune of about $25 per month.

In other words, to get to my $2,000 goal, it was now going to take… 80 months, or 6+ years. I didn’t have 6 years worth of content, and if I slowed my burn rate any more, I feared I’d lose readers’ interest. Even accounting for a steady but slow increase in readership and donations, the rate of increase was still quite low. The “bonus post for money” incentive never really caught fire.

Then a miracle happened.

Leaving The Book Behind

A trend that took me by surprise at Books in Browsers was how indebted to the book most browser-based eReaders are. Prime example: all the ebook readers that were demoed at the conference had artifacts like pages, page flipping, and book covers. The books that were displayed within these readers were literally embedded in the browser – each reader was this little self-contained bit of javascript, CSS and HTML5, and that was to be inserted into a webpage or a rendering engine the same way one would embed a Youtube video, or a Slideshare presentation.

I’m not convinced that this is necessary, or even advisable. I will admit, however, that I came to BiB with the notion that books would literally be in the browser – that the form of the book is the webpage, and the controls for reading the book were the browser’s controls; not some arbitrary chrome that you had to include for it to work.

Is the browser a good reader?

I think browsers as a reading interface work just fine, and that people today are used to reading things in a web browser. Much of surfing is text, after all. And I think that you can and should leverage this behaviour when designing for a browser-based book reading experience.

Think about it: when you have embeddable content like the Monocle reader, you’re constrained by the fact that you must read in a container within a container. It isn’t a website, which means that there’s a layer of abstraction that the reader must get used to.

Why not have that content live as a webpage? The user doesn’t have to relearn anything. The controls are intuitive: one link forward for the next chapter, and one link backwards for the chapter before. The user behaviour for using browsers, for clicking links to advance (and scrolling to read) have existed for more than a decade now. There’s no need to reference the model of the book when reading behaviour already exists for the webpage.

The exception to this, of course, is the mobile experience. The majority of mobile phones have terrible web interfaces. And so it may make sense to serve something like the Monocle reader when you’re in a mobile device like the iPad, or the iPhone.

I’m biased, of course – web fiction exists primarily in web page form, and experience has shown us that this is highly readable in the context of a computer browser. But a strong mobile reading experience for the form may still be lacking. And that’s where these new readers come in handy.

For the rest – I’d argue that webpages work just fine.

Pandamian: A Publishing Support Layer

This is the full text of a speech I gave at Books in Browsers, a technical meeting for people currently changing the future of books. The meeting was between the 21st and the 22nd of October, and was organized and held at the Internet Archive.

Hi, my name is Eli and I’m here to talk to you about what we’re doing at Pandamian. More importantly, I want to give you an idea – or some intuition, perhaps, about the problem space in which Pandamian exists.

But before that, two things:

First, there was quite a bit of talk at BiB yesterday about how young people don’t care about their privacy. Well, I am a young person – possibly the youngest person in this room – and I care so much about my privacy that I’m speaking to you under a pseudonym. So … make of that what you will!

Second, I promised my folks back home that I’d thank the people who made it possible for me to be here. I am a second year Computer Science student at the National University of Singapore, and that means that I am on a student budget. The only reason I can be here is because of the kindness of a couple of people. So I’d like to thank Brewster Kahle, who kindly subsidized part of my flight. And my school, the School of Computing. And last, but not least, the awesome, awesome people over at the Singaporean Hackerspace, who donated to my trip – you can see their logo behind me – I promised that I’d wear their shirt and do this before my talk.

Anyway, back to what I want to speak to you about. I don’t have much time to do this, so I’m going to split my talk into three bits. First, I want to talk about the problem space to which Pandamian is a solution. Then I’ll spend 2-3 minutes on Pandamian – just a little while; I promise you that it won’t be a plug. Last, I want to talk about why I think it’s important to do what Pandamian is currently doing. And why I think more people should do it.

Web Fiction

So here’s the context: I’m coming from this place called web fiction. What web fiction is is that it’s this simple idea – not a particularly new idea, because I know a group of writers who’ve been doing this since 1997. Also not a particularly original idea. But it is a simple idea, and that idea is that you take some fiction – a novel, for instance, and you put that online. You post one chapter a week, there are reader comments, and all this happens on a blog-like website, or a blog-powered website, or – if the writer is not a particularly good programmer or designer, which is very often – sometimes on an actual blog. Which can be bad.

Where I come from in this space is that I wrote a web fiction thing 5 years ago. And at the end of that year I realized that I really didn’t know what I was doing. Nobody knew what they were doing. There were no ‘best practices’.

And there are several interesting problems there. For instance: what’s the best way to design fiction in the browser, when the browser is an inherently distractive container? Also: where do you find readers? How should you talk to readers? How long should your chapters be? How many times a week should you update your story? These are all interesting questions, and nobody knew how to answer them.

So what I did was I started this blog called Novelr, and what Novelr does is that it collates and kind of collects the best ideas as solutions to these problems. And we’ve got four years worth of experience now on how to do this – we know, more or less, what works or doesn’t work when you’re presenting fiction on a webpage, in this interactive web format.

And it’s not just me. I sometimes do experiments myself, but these ideas aren’t just from me. Sometime over the last four years of Novelr’s existence a community of writers condensed around the blog. So now I approach these writers whenever they discover a new technique, or hack, or trick to write better web fiction, and I ask them to share it with the rest of the community. Or they come to me and say: ‘I’ve discovered this, I want to share it with everyone, may I do a guest post?’ Which is cool.

But now we come to an interesting question we must ask, don’t we? Why do these people do web fiction?