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.