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.

Okay, not really, but I just like saying that. What happened was a reader on the site basically waved money at me to write a “missing scene.” You know that old saying, “Sex sells”? Much of my work is erotic in nature so writing sex scene for me is second nature. Daron’s Guitar Chronicles, however, although it is chock full of sex and drugs and rock and roll, isn’t actually explicit. Homosexuality is a major theme, but there are no X-rated scenes.

At one point in the story, our protagonist has some sex that is quite significant to the plot. This reader basically said “I would pay to see that scene!” I said, oh yeah? Really? Really. So I knew I had one guaranteed customer, and if she was interested in it, probably she wasn’t alone. So I said to the readership: everyone who donates before a certain date (10 days hence) will receive via email a copy of this bonus scene. I sat down and wrote the scene.

Almost $200 in donations came over the next 10 days, most of it within hours of me making the offer. I didn’t set a price; I let people donate whatever their consciences or wallets would allow. Donations ranged from $1 to $25. I was pleased and amazed, and donors were very pleased with the scene, as well.

So I started looking for more chances to do the same thing. I offered a few more X-rated scenes, none of which earned quite as well as the first one, but which were still quite respectable, and then I tried some other offers related to the story.

One plot point happens when our hero appears on the cover of a major magazine. However he refuses to read the article, despite the fact it’s clear everyone around him has read it. Pretty soon the readership was clamoring to know what the heck was in the article. I made them a deal. If donations that week reached a certain threshold, I’d write the actual article and send it to donors. If they reached a higher threshold, I’d post it for all to see. And if they hit $100, I’d actually make the protagonist read it as part of the plot. I kept people up to date on how much had come in via Twitter, and when we got close, someone came in with a donation to “top off” the $100.

This seems to be the pattern with DGC. People want to donate; they’re very willing to. But if all I do is wait passively for them to put something into the “tip jar”, I’ll be waiting for a long time. (This isn’t to say donations can’t work–Alexandra Erin seems to do very well with them–but each project and each readership are probably different.) Whenever I explicitly pass the hat, however, my readers throw money into it. (And I reward them with more posts, too, one for every $25 received.)

What I haven’t quite figured out yet is how often to pass the hat. I have been looking forward in the text and trying to plot out where the opportunities come, figuring no more than one per month and more like one every other month. However when I wrote the novel originally, I didn’t have this in mind, so it’s not all evenly spaced. Also, my readers wave money at me from time to time, cluing me in to things they want that I might not have guessed.

My latest strategy has involved trying to increase reader engagement (and readership), under the philosophy that getting more readers will mean bigger pay offs when I pass the hat in the future. So my latest experiment is with a reward system not based solely on dollars. Last month I awarded the readership one point not only for every dollar I received, but for each tweet or retweet, facebook link, or blog post pointing new readers to the site. At 100 points the “unlocked” a whole month’s worth of bonus posting, guaranteeing a steady stream of 3 posts a week for the month. I’ve made reading my web serial kind of like clearing a level on a MMORPG (massively multi-player online role-playing game), where the readership has to work together to achieve the goal.

This month I’m awarding points for comments left on the posts. Again the goal is 100 points, and comments have pretty much doubled, which is a lot of fun for me. (And I should stress that fun is a major component for why one should publish on the web instead of sending dead tree books out to bookstore shelves, where they might be bought by total strangers you’ll never hear from, or might just languish.)

I’m also starting a few other possible revenue streams. I have made an ebook of the first 40 chapters (over 120 have been posted) for $5. I’d like to sell T-shirts and such if that becomes a viable sideline. But so far most of the money in the first year has just come from plain old reader generosity.

Next month I have already planned to pass the hat. And I plan to keep having fun. My current calculations are it will take me another year to reach that $2,000 income goal, but by that time the serial will have been read and enjoyed by 4-5 times the number that would have probably bought that “first novel” mouldering on a bookstore shelf. Although this serial may not make me more money than traditional publishing would have, it’s a huge net gain in readers.

Cecilia Tan’s
Daron’s Guitar Chronicles can be found here (it recently won a Rose & Bay award for Best Fiction Project 2010!). She blogs at and can be found as @ceciliatan on Twitter.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Making Money