19 Communities of Writers (Jürgen Fauth, Fictionaut)

Jürgen Fauth is the co-founder of Fictionaut. His debut novel Kino is out now from Atticus Books. You can follow him on Twitter at @muckster. Fictionaut is an innovative literary community that combines elements of a social network with a self-selecting literary magazine. Follow @fictionaut for news and @fictionautrx for recommended stories.

Introduction: “Chronologie”

In 2008, Carson Baker and I launched Fictionaut, a literary community that combines elements of a social network with a crowdsourced literary magazine. The site’s genesis, however, started much earlier. By 1996, it was becoming clear to me that the Internet would profoundly change publishing. At the time, I was a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi and worked with Frederick Barthelme on moving the Mississippi Review online, making it the first traditional literary magazine to take to the Internet. Fascinated with the possibilities, I started my own online German-language magazine, Der Brennende Busch.

Anyone who knows German will agree that Der Brennende Busch is a terrible name for a magazine. One of the first sites of its kind in German (or any language), it had a good run anyway. This was the era of screeching modems and AOL discs clogging mailboxes, but from the very beginning, I wrestled with fundamental questions of how to translate a print magazine into a more fluid online incarnation.

What did it mean, for instance, to have issues on the Internet? Did it still make sense to collect work I had accepted for publication into distinct packages, or should it be put up as soon as it was ready? I really began to understand the possibilities on a trip to Ireland, where I found myself formatting essays a contributor had sent from Japan to be posted on a server located in the US for a German-speaking audience—all at no cost.

The answer I came up with for Der Brennende Busch was a section called “Chronologie.” I waited for enough material for a new “issue” to post to the front, but I immediately linked newly accepted stories on a “chronology” page that listed material in reverse-chronological order. “Chronologie” was what we now call a blog. In the 1990s, nobody had heard that word, and my half-hearted embrace of the idea made sure that it went nowhere. Der Brennende Busch had its moments, but eventually I gave up on it as I focused on my doctorate.

I’m telling you about “Chronologie” not to claim that I invented the blog, but because it taught me something crucial: I would never again let my attachment to old metaphors (“issues”) keep me from embracing the possibilities of a new medium. Moving forward, I was going to follow the technology wherever it would lead and try out whatever was possible. This is a principle I have since internalized: don’t attempt to force a new medium to conform to your habitual ways of doing things. If it’s difficult to code, set up, or implement, chances are you’re doing it wrong. Instead, you should have faith in the technology and follow the path of least resistance—let the medium itself show you the way forward. This became the founding principle of Fictionaut.

Literary Magazine 2.0

Around the turn of the century, I tinkered with Zoetrope’s online writing community and continued to select fiction for Mississippi Review, but I felt that the growing world of online literary magazines—outlets for short fiction and poetry—hadn’t quite adapted to the Internet as well as they could have. The cost of bandwidth and storage space was falling, and anyone could post fiction on a personal site with ever-increasing ease. I couldn’t help wondering what it meant to be selected for publication by this magazine or that. Surely, there had to be a more native way to publish fiction on the Internet that transcended not just the metaphor of “issues” but of the “magazine” itself.

I suspected that the answer had something to do with turning the crowd of readers into editors, but things didn’t quite click until the arrival of the social web. Twitter, Facebook, and especially Flickr changed all that. I was particularly taken with Flickr’s “interestingness” algorithm, which automatically selected the most appealing uploaded photos depending on user response. In 2006, I thought that it was only a matter of time until someone launched a site devoted to posting fiction similar to Flickr’s photosharing service. I sketched ideas for this fiction community, quickly realized that I didn’t have the programming skills to make it a reality, and put it aside.

Two years later, the social web was exploding, but there still wasn’t a sign of a site that put what we then called the web 2.0 at the service of writers and readers in the way I had imagined. I was working on what would become my debut novel, Kino, and I was about to become a father. Yet I felt that there was a real opportunity—in fact, a need—for the site that I had begun to call Fictionaut.

I’d long harbored a sense that the ecosystem of online and print literary magazines wasn’t adequately serving writers, readers, or editors. Too many writers submitted to magazines without having bothered to read them. Readers were confronted with a bewildering array of choices, while editors were overwhelmed with submissions. I had experienced this system firsthand from all angles, and I was hoping that Fictionaut, using a variation of Flickr’s “interestingness” algorithm, might be able to provide an alternative.

A Radical Experiment

In Carson Baker, I found an enormously talented and enthusiastic collaborator with great business and design skills. Neither one of us had ever held a job in the publishing industry; even my novel is being published by up-and-coming independent press Atticus Books. While many industry insiders cannot conceive of a new model in which they have no place, our outsider status gave us the freedom to try anything.

Together we began custom-building Fictionaut from scratch. Our principles were clear from the start: we’d keep the site as open, simple, and versatile as possible; we would trust the technology to lead the way; and we would grow the community with care.

Fictionaut started as an experiment; we had only our time to lose. The idea was to radically rebuild publishing from the bottom up. We tried to assume nothing. In fact, our working hypothesis was that the only two people absolutely necessary for publishing are the reader and the writer (aided by our recommendation algorithm). We resolved to add other functions only as we re-established that they were necessary.

The logic was this: from a purely technical standpoint, the problem of “publishing” had been solved. Anyone can now start a Tumblr blog or upload a Word file to Amazon and be published within minutes. The problem, then, was no longer technical but editorial.

It was always crucial that Fictionaut would attract not only writers but also readers. The site had to become a destination, an automated magazine where one could easily find interesting work. To this end, we developed our own version of Flickr’s “interestingness” algorithm, a simple recommendation engine that picked the currently most viewed, “favorited,” and commented-on stories and poems and presented them on the front page, via Twitter, and in our newsletter.

Would we really be able to run an online magazine that allowed anyone to post? We weren’t sure, but we were going to try —after all, on the Internet, if something is possible, somebody is going to do it sooner or later, so why not us? Before we launched, there were serious doubts that the vaunted tradition of editing a literary magazine could simply be crowdsourced, and we weren’t so sure ourselves. But the Internet had already given anyone the opportunity to publish on their own blogs, and the only way forward was to find out if technology had an answer to the flood it had created.

Giving Up Control: Surprises

We decided to proceed cautiously, balancing our principle of openness with the desire for quality. We had seen too many Internet boards swamped and drowned by abusive or selfish participants. We took guidance from the community blog Metafilter, which evolved through careful self-policing and periodically opening and closing signups. To attract readers and fulfill its goals as a magazine, Fictionaut would have to maintain a certain level of civility and literary quality.

To this end, we started the site in a very small beta test, hidden from the eyes of the public. With the help of a board of advisors that included authors, publishers, agents, publicists, and social media experts, we slowly extended invitations to talented writers of our acquaintance and then asked them to invite their most talented friends in turn.

We patiently grew the site and fine-tuned it for a year before we made it visible to the public. During that time, we attracted a wide range of forward-thinking writers of all levels of accomplishment as well as literary magazines, who began using the “groups” function as a way to showcase work and attract new readers.

From the time that we sent out the initial batch of invitations, Fictionaut has been full of surprises—the first of which was that the recommendation engine actually worked (with an asterisk or two—more on this in a minute). Not every worthy story is necessarily picked up by the algorithm, but the stories listed in the recommendations are reliably interesting and of high quality.

The good manners of our users provided another surprise. Anyone who has ever attended a writing workshop or witnessed an all-out Internet flame war could expect a writing site to exhibit the worst of both worlds. Somehow, though, the opposite happened: if anything, the comments and feedback on Fictionaut are too nice and supportive, if there is such a thing. Hard-hitting criticism is reserved for special workshop groups such as “The Woodshed.” Fictionaut is a supportive and safe place to post fiction without fear of being attacked or ridiculed. Whenever the rare troll has reared its ugly head, we intervened and found a solution quickly.

Running a site as open as Fictionaut, we have found that when you give up control, good things happen. Instead of strictly defining how Fictionaut is supposed to be used, our goal has always been to give users maximum flexibility on how to interact with the site. In turn, a couple of distinct ways of using Fictionaut have crystallized, some of them well beyond what we had imagined.

There is no right or wrong way to use Fictionaut. Private and professional readers comb the site to discover fresh voices, and there have been many cases where editors have picked up stories first published on Fictionaut for publication in a traditional literary magazine. Some writers have published books and signed agents after posting on Fictionaut.

Others wouldn’t dream of sharing their work publicly. Instead, they get together in closed or private groups to discuss unpublished and sometimes unfinished work and get feedback on drafts without ever making them publicly available at all. Since Fictionaut allows users to take down or edit work at any time, writers have maximum flexibility to leave their writing up only until they want to improve it or, perhaps, submit it elsewhere for publication.

Still others use the site to republish work that has appeared elsewhere but might be out-of-print or hard to find. Once the rights revert to them, authors are free to put them anywhere, and Fictionaut can give older stories or poems that are languishing in back issues an elegant online home.

The heaviest users of Fictionaut tend to be writers trying to build a larger audience for their work. For those looking for online notoriety, perhaps of the kind that will eventually translate into a book contract, the site rewards frequent participation, intensive commenting, and posting work that is polished and usually short. The rise of flash fiction has gone hand-in-hand with fiction published online, and it’s easy to see why: it is quick to produce, quick to consume, and allows writers to build up an impressive portfolio of work published in many venues in comparatively little time.

Which brings me to one of the qualifications I mentioned earlier when I said that by and large, the recommendation engine is working very well: in an online environment, it can be difficult for longer stories to get read and noticed. As is the case almost everywhere else on the Web, the work that gets the most attention on Fictionaut tends to be shorter. But with the rise of ereaders and tablets, the pendulum may well be swinging back to what Twitter calls #longreads. Of course, there are Fictionaut groups dedicated to longer stories as well as novel excerpts.

Another surprise has been the rise of the Fictionaut blog. Originally intended as a simple news blog that would announce changes to the site, it has grown into a full-fledged literary destination, with regular columns by half a dozen contributors. Content includes in-depth chats with our writers about their work, regular roundups of publications by Fictionauts, and the “Fictionaut Five” series of interviews with writers as diverse as Mona Simpson and Robert Olen Butler, frequently focusing on matters of craft. We also publish reviews and portraits of Fictionaut groups. We just started a series in which guest editors pick their favorite stories, a hand-selected layer that highlights work that might have been overlooked by the automated recommendation engine.

The State of the Fictionaut

At this point, Fictionaut has over 5,000 members who have published over 20,000 stories, including work by Amy Hempel, Marcy Dermansky, Mary Gaitskill, Charles Baxter, and Ann Beattie.

Our problems since the launch have been, I assume, the problems of any startup: dealing with a lack of resources to keep pace with the social evolution and growth of the site. Because of limitations of the current design, we haven’t been able to open signups just yet, and there is a long list of requests for invitations that we’d love to fill. Plans for the future include an overhaul of the front page to have it offer new views of recently posted stories and recommended stories. We also plan to foreground the groups. These changes will allow us to handle more users posting more frequently while maintaining our goal of displaying the best work at any given time.

Finally, we are looking into making stories available in more formats, and for a price. So far, Fictionaut is financed through advertising provided by the LitBreaker network, which specializes in ads relevant to our audience. But with over 20,000 stories, many of them outstanding work by highly talented writers, we’re also exploring ways to use our brand and our community to sell these stories. We plan to offer an opt-in system that allows our writers to either continue using the site as they do now or to join the publishing arm of Fictionaut, while sharing the revenue, of course.

We’re also considering subscription models that would regularly deliver the most highly recommended stories to your ereader or mobile device as well as a system that allows us to easily collect stories selected by editors or users into anthologies.

Conclusion

Fictionaut has been an incredibly thrilling, frustrating, surprising, time-consuming, and eye-opening experience. It has led me to some of the most satisfying professional relationships of my life, and it has opened my eyes to the transformative power of simply starting something. If it’s a worthy idea that solves a problem, people will offer their help, and the results will be much greater than anticipated. Fictionaut hasn’t made anybody rich yet, but the human and artistic relationships the site has enabled over the years are a great reward in their own right. Our tagline calls Fictionaut a site for “adventurous readers & writers.” Ours is a vessel of discovery launched as an experiment during a particularly tempestuous time in publishing. The journey so far hasn’t been without difficulty, but we’ve made a wealth of discoveries along the way already. On to new shores!


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