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
  • Cecilia Tan

    And yes, I welcome comments!

  • Eli James

    @Cecilia: I’m actually curious as to your opinion about making money from web fiction. Do you think the donation model is sustainable? Can – and I say this with some trepidation – can anyone plausibly quit their jobs and work on this, fulltime?

    Because a number of people I know seem to want to believe that (and I may have propagated this … myth, for a time). But I’m beginning to reconsider my stance, and to wonder if web fiction cannot ever be just for the money alone.

  • Dary

    I’ve wanted to experiment with donation-based bonus content and ideas readers have suggested in comments, and there are plenty of things I could do, but just keeping the main story updated is a Heraclean task in itself!

  • Cecilia Tan

    @Dary — If you’re doing well with passive donations and Project Wonderful income, you may not want to mess with it too much, but if it gives your readers another way to feel engaged and have fun/increase enjoyment of following your serial, then I’d say try an experiment. Pick one thing, plan when you’re going to launch it, and make it a limited time thing so you don’t end up with your workload increased forever.

    @Eli — One of the great “myths” of publishing fiction overall is that you can make money from it. When I was a teenager (in the 1980s) I subscribed to Writers Digest magazine, where I read a very sobering study of fiction writers. It concluded that in the United States, a total of about 3000 people made their living from fiction in the English language — and that 3000 included the top sellers like Stephen King. The vast majority of fiction writers, even well-established, award-winning writers, had other jobs as well. What the study didn’t say was that many of them *might* have made enough to live off but chose to have another job also, but nonetheless, that was a very important data point for me when I was planning my career as a writer. (yes, I’ve known I was going to be a writer for a very long time…) The past time I saw a version of that study was from the Author’s Guild about 7-8 years ago and it hadn’t changed (and if anything, the pay scales have gone DOWN when adjusted for inflation…)

    I think in web fiction you’re going to find a similar breakdown as in printed published fiction. There will be a small percentage at the top who command top dollar and attention, a bunch in the middle who make some and do pretty well, but who probably won’t be able to get a mortgage based on their web income (for example), and then a lot of ‘aspiring’ folks at the bottom of the pyramid who are continually trying to work their way up.

    This is why I set myself a modest goal of $2,000 for Daron’s Guitar Chronicles to earn. I figured if that was what it was likely to get me in traditional print form, then at the very least my strategy in web publishing should be to match or top that. It seems likely to me now, actually, that I will surpass it. By that measure, web fiction is “more successful” than print. And by readership, it is already way more successful than print. I’d say web fiction is still not likely to let hordes of people quit their day jobs, but print fiction never would either.

  • Cecilia Tan

    @Eli — I thought of another useful comparison to make on the “can we quit our day jobs?” question. First, the real question is “can I make writing web fiction INTO my day job?”

    The comparison I want to make is to baseball bloggers who have turned what was a fan hobby into a job now. I have many friends who, in the early days of blogging (and just before it), started fan web sites for various teams, and began posting their own opinions, analysis, etc. of the game. Some of them began to make significant income from their sites, mostly through the ad revenue from ticket reselling (ie scalping) sites — I myself used to pull in about $2000 a year on my site Why I Like Baseball when I was updating it about once a week. The way they turned it into a sustainable job, however, was by getting aggregated into corporate blog sites, like

    The thing about fiction is we don’t have the same kind of corporate structure that sports media does. Sports media draws in readers/viewers from fandom that already exists and is supported by a multibillion dollar entertainment complex that includes the teams and leagues themselves. Whereas web fiction would BE the industry itself, not an adjunct to some other massive real world entity. There is not some massive with millions of daily visitors that could pluck the best of the web serials from obscurity and give them a bigger platform and readership the way ESPN can some sports blogger.

    We also have the problem that our product is not evergreen. Someone who writes a blog about the Boston Red Sox is never going to lack for new material. Every year there is a new season. When writing an online novel, though, what’s the longevity of the story? Readers typically do need to feel that all their investment of time and attention will eventually bring them to some kind of resolution. Stories usually end.

    There will be some that are evergreen because their serial nature gives them the ability, like a soap opera or a long running TV series, to continue almost endlessly, but I think those are the exceptions rather than the rule. Of all the forms that we have that work as episodic or serial nature (comic books, tv shows, etc), prose fiction is one of the ones that has the most inherent imperative to come to a conclusion for the sake of reader satisfaction.

    How many fantasy & sf series have you seen go on for 10-12 books when it should have ended after four? But the publisher (and author) were like, we’ve built a following for this now! We must keep it going! Only in the end to disappoint the fandom with substandard material.

    I realize I’ve just gone off on an entirely different tangent here from my original point about sports blogs being legitimized and monetized. Perhaps I should write a separate post at some point about the editorial differences between a serialized novel and an open-ended fiction serial…

  • V. J. Chambers

    Interesting post on Dean Wesley Smith’s site about how many fiction authors make a living writing fiction:

    Now, the myth he’s debunking is 200, which is a long way from 3000, and he’s talking about writers who publish traditionally.

    Still, fiction IS a profit-making industry and people DO spend lots of money on fiction. I can’t help but think that part of our problem is that most readers are still looking for books in bookstores, and we need to seduce more of them to the interwebs. :)

    I WANT to make writing into my day job. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying.

  • Dary

    It’s like any creative industry – the majority won’t ever earn a living from it (which itself is subjective – how much is “a living”? I depends on the individual!). Same goes for entertainment/sports industries. There’s always a furore over here in England over how much footballers earn, but it never takes into account that it’s the top 1% earning ludicrous amounts: the best players in the top league. Go down a couple of leagues, and players are barely earning enough to live on. Most actors need to maintain second jobs. Most musicians too.

    That said, I am aiming to make a living out of this one day. It’s just a long slog.

  • Cecilia Tan

    @VJ — The 3000 number comes from the Authors Guild, and isn’t just some guess. One important thing to note is that Dean Wesley Smith isn’t just a writer–he’s also an editor (and a good one) and has supported himself by doing writing-related work that is not fiction writing. So he would not count among that number either.

    Another datapoint, look up the blog posts of Lynn Viehl and a few others since her on how much one nets from a “New York Times Bestseller.” The gist is that even a bestseller may only net $20,000-$30,000 for the writer; everyone on the NYT bestseller list is not raking in Harry Potter money. Now, if you could be sure of having a novel hit the Times list every year, and if you could write enough and well enough to give your publisher a novel every year, you can join the ranks of that 3000, but very few writers can crank it out like that. The exceptions are the Nora Robertses and Laurell K. Hamiltons of the world — follow Laurell’s twitter feed for an interesting example of how hard she works to keep up the necessary pace.

    And as I said, that 3000 does not count the many writers who also keep other jobs by choice, or who also write non-fiction or are also editors, proofread for money, or who may do things related to their books like motivational speaking gigs which pay, etc.

    For the record, I quit my “day job” in publishing in 1992 and have more or less supported myself — with the help of a well-employed husband — since. I’d say about 50% of my income comes from fiction. The rest comes from freelance editing, freelance nonfiction work, part time massage therapist work, part time tae kwon do instructor work, part time flute player, and so on… the kinds of jobs one ccan have that still give one time to write “full time.” The largest advance I ever received for a book was $25,000 (my agent took 15% of it) and that was back in 1994. The smallest advance I have received is $200. So there is a huge variation in what’s possible.

    I am a firm believer that people can and should make a living from artistic pursuits, fiction among them, but as in any business it helps to have the facts. As @Dary says above, it takes climbing into the top ranks to make it work financially.

  • Eli James

    Cecilia, thank you for responding so thoughtfully to my questions. I’ve actually been thinking about this money problem for quite a bit now, without much to show for it. And slowly I’m coming to the realization that there isn’t much you can do to ‘solve’ the money problem.

    There are a bunch of writers in the web fiction community who believe that they should get a paycheck for what they’re doing, and they worry incessantly about it. And I think this isn’t productive – nobody owes artists a living, and writing on the Internet means competing with a whole host of free content. So that makes it hard to stand out, plus it makes the writing less fun.

    I’m also starting to think that the common critique for web fiction (but can you make money from this?!) only happen because we don’t have a Rowling or Meyer as proof. Most people focus on Rowling as a signal that you can get filthy rich as an author, but they ignore the long tail of writers who aren’t writing full time in their assessment of the field. And with web fiction it’s the opposite: they focus entirely on the long tail, because there aren’t any popular authors to shift the attention away.

    Wait long enough for a Rowling to emerge and that critique goes away. Till then, we can (and should!) ignore it, I think.

  • Cecilia Tan

    @Eli There’s also some chance we’ve got a Rowling out there but we don’t know it, because not everyone will say how much they are making, either–especially the more people make, it seems.

    Alexandra Erin spoke on a panel about web publishing at Wiscon last year and said she is netting in the thousands per month, and has been doing so for a few years — certainly what I’d consider a rousing success at least. Then again, we’ve seen Stephen King meet with mixed success on online projects, but maybe he was just too far ahead of the curve.

    I suppose moreso than the money of a certain amount, what web fiction needs to hit the mainstream is our entry into the pop culture conversation, like the early YouTube “stars” that seemed like “everyone” was watching. There isn’t a web serial currently that is so popular that you could mention it at a cocktail party and have anyone else there know what you meant. I’m trying to think if there’s even a webcomic that is at that stage of popularity… Phil Foglio’s Girl Genius and Fred Gallagher’s Megatokyo are probably the two most likely candidates? But Foglio has spent decades building up his fan base via traditional print. Megatokyo is much more the home grown Internet media that compares to web fiction.

    MCA Hogarth asked the question of what it would take to legitimize web fiction recently in an online forum. For some people it would be the money. For others it’s the attention — when we get the web serial that is optioned for a major Hollywood movie, perhaps. But even there I see it being likely the web serial’s popularity leads to a traditional book being published, which is what then gets optioned… (Hogarth, the author of Spots the Space Marine, among other things, is the reader who first threw money at me and started me on the ‘pass the hat’ model in the first place, by the way. Have you had a guest blog from her yet? She has a brilliant website also on advice for writers and artists on how to successfully balance creation and the needs of business and marketing:

  • V. J. Chambers

    All right, I’m not meaning to be argumentative here, but I just spent an hour trying to find an honest-to-goodness study published somewhere reputable about how many authors make a living.

    I couldn’t. All I can find is anecdotal evidence, and numbers ranging all over the place. No offense, but even this reference to Writer’s Digest article is somewhat anecdotal. You remember reading it in the 1980s, and remember that the number was 3000, but you can’t point us to the source material itself so others can read it too.

    My point is not to say that your memory or the numbers are necessarily inaccurate, but simply to say that apparently no one knows for sure how many authors make a living. If someone can dig up a study (and not just an article where someone says on no real authority, “Only 1% of authors make a living”), I’d like to see it.

  • Eli James

    I’d like to see the data as well – am pretty sure it exists out there, somewhere. But to be fair, though, I’d say that it’s almost certain that more writers don’t make enough to do writing as a living. Given the economics of the publishing industry, plus the the number of writers who aren’t published, plus the number of writers who have bestsellers … well let’s just say the long tail speaks for itself.

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  • Eva Shandor

    Thank you very much for writing such an insightful and interesting piece. It’s always good to hear about other people’s ideas and experiences in web fiction.

    I’d been debating with myself whether or not to set up a tip jar, or go with a rewards system (i.e. donate towards a target of so much and I’ll give you access to extra material). I realise now I need to wait until I have a larger readership until this is really a viable option and possible use some funds towards advertising.

  • Alexander Hollins

    There is not some massive with millions of daily visitors that could pluck the best of the web serials from obscurity and give them a bigger platform and readership the way ESPN can some sports blogger.

    I’ve been trying to build just that since 97, actually. And I’m failing miserably, sigh.

    On the topic of the post, I was just trying the same thing on my own story now that I have a readership! Glad to see some have already braved the pay for play model and made it work.

  • Cecilia Tan

    @Alexander — re: there is no massive brand name site for fiction like there is for sports. I know! That’s one of my points. And I fear if there is/will be, it’s going to be some offshoot of Amazon where they may be prone to “glitches” like the one that deleted all the sales ranks for gay books.

    I see sites pop up from time to time that look like they’re gaining traction as either a reading site of a site to connect with authors, Fictionaut, Red Door, etc… but none have really caught fire from what I see. Yet.

  • Eli James

    @Cecilia: How about They’re a niche brand, for sure, but the community is thriving, the stories posted there are awesome, and the site is really, really active.

    (So: maybe not a ESPN for sports, but certainly a leader in SciFi …)

  • Cecilia Tan

    @Eli is great, and they have a great brand name in science fiction, but they are still really limited to their own brand, I feel.

    For them to really be the “go to” place for science fiction on the web, the way ESPN is for sports fans, they’d need to incorporate, Locus Online, plus the folks who have been doing online sf story publishing for 10 years longer than they have like Strange Horizons magazine, AND then start pulling in and centralizing dozens of ongoing web serials like Spots the Space Marine AND The Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom AND etc etc etc…

    That’s what ESPN has done, bringing do-it-yourself sports bloggers into their network, so that these little guys and sites that had just been dedicated fans writing regularly about their favorite team suddenly gain large audiences and a significant piece of the ESPN revenue pie. (There’s also the fact that I hear doesn’t actually make money, but serves as an effective tool to promote Tor’s authors and brand name among readers. Whereas ESPN has a successful pay subscription program, plus large ad revenue, etc.)

  • Alexander

    Celia, totally with you on that. I’ve been trying to basically make a keenspot for writers (if you are familiar with keen), since before Keen existed. My main issue, I find, is that when my main draw to authors is going to be, we have an existing community of readers for interadvertising, it helps to HAVE that community, but until we have some authors, there’s no community to draw readers, and well, its a nasty NON spiral. Heh.

    I was hoping that top web fiction could become a bit of a hub for people running their own blog books, but… yeah, it seems to have fallen flat as well. Sigh.

  • Cecilia Tan

    @Alexander — It’ll be interesting to see how the Digital Novelists site develops. It’s like if we could get a combination of Book View Cafe and Livejournal together with Digital Novelists, we might have the critical mass…

    I imagine one needs some writers with followings (a la Book View Cafe’s folks) to be there to bring in readers/fans, to mingle with the aspiring digital novelists running active serials, in a social media format that would get communities forming a la Livejournal.

    I feel like it should be do-able! But like all critical mass things, it’s flat until it catches fire.