Web Literature: Publishing on the Social Web (Eli James)

Eli James launched Novelr.com in 2006, and helped create the Web Fiction Guide in 2008. He has worked on the form and function of web-based books for the good part of 4 years, and is currently continuing that work at Pandamian, a company he helped create. You can find him on Twitter at: @shadowsun7.

There is a belief today, particularly amongst Internet companies, that “everything is better with social.” This belief is not unwarranted—as the rise of Facebook has shown us, social is central to all that is addictive and useful in the consumer Internet. One might argue, in fact, that “social” activities were the very thing that created the consumer Internet: the researchers that built ARPAnet intended it for collaborative research, but the social inventions on top of the Web—email, video chat, and Facebook—were what brought one’s grandmother online.

Today, we have social apps for photography (Instagram, Flickr), social apps for bookmarking (del.icio.us, Findings), and—more recently—social apps for reading (Goodreads, Readmill). But what of publishing?

Social efforts tend to be as far removed from publishing as homegrown YouTube channels are from Hollywood. But unlike Hollywood—with its movie premiers and cinema-going experiences—the future of publishing cannot be separated from the distributive platform of the Web. It is only reasonable to say that publishers will soon need to roll their own digital platforms. It is also reasonable to argue that such efforts will eventually lead a publisher to consider incorporating social elements into their platforms. How might the social web fit into what a publisher does? Indeed, how has the Internet changed the way books are written?

In this essay, I explore the fringe edges of web-based social publishing: the writers, readers, and (mostly small) publishers currently experimenting with publishing on the Web. I hope that by examining what they’ve done, we will end up with a few ideas that may be used by other players in publishing. At the very least, we might have some indication as to the shape of the book future, a future that increasingly has to do with the Internet.

Fan Fiction

Let us begin our discussion with the elephant in the room: fan fiction. In a July 2011 TIME article, writer Lev Grossman described fan fiction as the dark matter of the publishing universe: invisible to the mainstream, but unbelievably massive. And it’s true.

As of March 2011, fanfiction.net hosts 6,600,000 titles of the stuff, ranging in length from short stories to Lord of the Rings-style epics. This count does not take into consideration other archives, LiveJournal blogs, and still-active listservs, where minor communities are still actively posting, reading, and commenting on each other’s work.

Fan fiction precedes the Web. In his article, Grossman tracked the origins of fan fiction to a 1964-’68 TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., where the resulting fan fiction took the form of xeroxed fanzines, passed around by hand and word of mouth. This has changed, of course. Today’s fan fiction is mostly Internet-based. Its practitioners moved to the Web in its infancy: first posting on antiquated bulletin board systems, then in mailing lists, and today on web-based digital archives such as the aforementioned non-profit fanfiction.net.

Fan fiction deserves some careful examination for the simple reason that its practitioners—out of necessity—have been publishing on the Web for far longer than anyone else has. The fanfic community has developed a number of interesting features, some of which are common to other web-based publishing efforts, as we shall soon see.

I would like to focus on three features in particular: the beta reader, works in progress, and reviews.

A beta reader is fan fiction terminology for a reader (or fellow writer) engaged in responsibilities similar to an editor for a more conventional author. Beta readers typically communicate through digital means and are responsible for the checking of grammatical, structural, and consistency errors in a fan fiction writer’s work prior to public release. The relationship is sometimes reciprocal: writers who beta for other writers tend to receive the same services in return.

It is worth noting here that beta readers are not unique to fan fiction—in self-publishing, writers engage the help of one or two beta readers as part of the editing process. Zoe Winters, in her book Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author, admits that she has met all the beta readers she works with through social networking in some way.

Traditionally published authors also sometimes engage beta readers for help (traditionally called critique or writing partners). All the fiction authors I talked to at the SF Writer’s Grotto either had reciprocal critique partners to work with or were actively looking for one. These writers also told me that most of their writer friends had such partners as well. But while these traditionally published authors met their critique partners in writing groups or at conventions, web-based writers, naturally, tend to find their beta readers through the Web.

The work in progress format of fan fiction makes it possible for readers to comment on chapters as soon as an author publishes to the site. This is nothing new when compared to the blogosphere, but it does result in a closer relationship between reader and writer that might not be otherwise possible. It also keeps fan fiction writers motivated. (These two observations are important for a number of reasons that we shall soon examine.)

Finally, reviews may be posted to the fanfiction.net[1] site at any time during a work’s lifecycle, even while incomplete (in all cases, reviews are marked with a chapter number, so readers may know which chapter in particular the reviewer is writing from). As with YouTube comments, these reviews tend to span a large spectrum of quality, from short one-liners (Please post another chapter! – ‘Nick’, 2011-12-12, on Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality) to long, analytical pieces about the various ideas explored in the author’s writing.

The majority of reviews on fanfiction.net tend to communicate directly with the author. Take, for example, the last paragraph of a review by “hobble” (2011-12-13, on Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality):

But all in all, fantastic work. Made me think, made all of us think. And all those bon mots—fantastic. Thank you for crafting this labour of love, and I hope you may keep honing your vast, varied talents. Reading through some of your well-deserved, glowing reviews, I have to agree. 🙂 And as a former gifted child, thank you for creating a character I can identify with. (The loneliness and isolation, I mean, not the other stuff.)

You have my gratitude, sir.

Fan fiction participants engage in what readers and writers have been engaged in for decades—readers communicating with their favorite authors, the communication giving equal pleasure to both. But where before such conversations happened through letter-writing, digital reader-author interaction takes place through the fast medium of the Web.

This speed of interaction is important for one other reason: it enables a participatory reading culture that—combined with comments in the blogosphere and on news sites—today’s kids take for granted. This culture is not something to laugh at. A 2008 New York Times article titled Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? explored how the majority of teenagers prefer to read online. In one revealing passage, Nadia Konyk, a 15-year-old who writes and reads fan fiction (and prefers it to “book” fiction) says “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college.”

Konyk prefers fan fiction because “you could add your own character and twist it the way you want to be.” Grossman’s article profiles other fan fiction reader/writers, who participate because “it’s a (fun) improvisation exercise” and it’s “partially a political act” (e.g.: “MGM is too cowardly to put a gay man in one of their multimillion-dollar blockbusters…hrmm, let’s fix that”).

My point here isn’t about the anti-intellectualism of the democratized marketplace (though perhaps a book may be written about that; see Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget!)—my point is that any publisher intending to move to the social Internet has to make peace with the participatory nature of the medium. On the Internet, readers and writers are often one and the same, and they will modify original work. While some see it as infringing copyright, the fans see it as a labour of love. It is better for a digital-first publisher to accept this and adapt.

We have not talked about the legality of fan fiction, because such a discussion is not necessary to this essay. It is obvious, however, that under current copyright law fan fiction will never be a serious publishing activity. But as we have now seen several basic features and habits that underpin web reading, let us turn to more publisher-friendly variants of the medium.

Web Fiction

Web fiction (also known as Web Literature, or WebLit) is original fiction written for and published to the Web. The format shares certain qualities with fan fiction, but we shall first examine the differences.

Unlike fan fiction, web fiction is published on blogs or blog-like websites. Web fiction writers have, typically, more serious aspirations than fan fiction ones: it is common for web fiction authors to write in arcs, publishing the arcs as ebooks whenever an arc is complete. But the defining feature for web fiction is that the largest, most successful web fiction sites have significant communities of readers clustered around them, and it’s normal for these writers to attract lively discussions within minutes of posting a chapter.

Take, for instance, a discussion in the comment section of one such web fiction site, The Legion Of Nothing[2]:

SilasCova:
Nothing wrong with butch.

I somehow keep managing to forget Sam’s description and having to back pages again to looksee. But she’s cool

Another great monday read.

captain mystic:
unless the piece of plastic is like a broken transponder or something i dont know how sam plans to track them. and also i thought rod would be the one with mad tracking skills given as trolls are butch. lie that adjective.

MadNinja:
Sam is a magic user so she can use the broken piece of plastic from the car to scry for the kidnapers.

Thomas:
Totally Madninja, thaumaturgic law of similarity. I would have thought Captain MYSTIC would have spotted that one.

But yeah being called butch is not necessarily a compliment unless that’s what you are going for.

Jim (author):
Captain Mystic/MadNinja/Thomas: That’s more or less what I was going for.

Silas: Sam’s got a couple descriptions–and one of them is closer to real than the other. Amusingly (I hope), we’ll get a little more into that in a bit…

RogerWillcocks:
“Who where they” were?

Jim (author):
Thanks for that. I’m always amazed by how obvious some typos are once someone else sees them.

This element of community is addictive. It also makes good economic sense: if Jim Zoetewey decides to compile and publish the first arc of LoN, it’s a safe bet to say that I and many others in his community of readers would purchase the book the instant it is released (and tell our friends about it).

There have been other experiments of interest in the field of web fiction. Writer Michael C. Milligan used to have a model he termed “Novel+,” where a new chapter is released on his site every week, and impatient readers may pay to unlock full access to the story, in both web and PDF form. Writer M.C.A Hogarth has “sponsors” for her Spots the Space Marine serial, where readers will sponsor the writing of subsequent chapters (no new chapters are released until a sponsor steps up). This has worked well for both of them.

Unfortunately, such pricing experiments in web fiction are declining as ebooks have increased in popularity—many web fiction authors now follow the write-public-arc, build-community, release-ebook pattern of publication. It is also unclear if such experimental pricing models will suit publishers interested in moving to the Web. I would argue that such strategies—while profitable, cannot compare to the current explosion in ebook consumption taking place across the publishing industry. There is “easy” money in ebooks. It makes sense to do just that.

This begs an intriguing question: why do authors keep writing web fiction, in the open, when it makes more economic sense to write privately and publish ebooks?

Web Fiction: Interactivity

The answer is deceptively simple: interactivity. Interactivity is a powerful source of instant gratification. This isn’t at all difficult to understand: if you are a writer, and you’ve just published a chapter, quick reader responses are extremely satisfying, rewarding writing effort not long after completion. Within hours you will have readers debating your characters’ motivations, speculating about previous chapters or haranguing after you for another update.

If the community of readers is large enough, reader responses have sometimes supplanted a writer’s desire to get published. I have had successful web fiction authors tell me that their web writing is fulfilling enough and engaging enough that they no longer pursue their publishing aspirations as aggressively as before. And—with self-publishing as a valid alternative, they see little reason to run the traditional gamut of submissions and rejections.

Internet startups have known for years that one way of engaging users is to bait them with social interaction. You repeatedly visit Facebook to check on what your friends are saying about (or to) you. You check Twitter or email most rapidly when a new reply notification appears on your computing device.

Fan fiction has shown us that it is possible to keep millions of people engaged in writing so long as there is feedback. Web fiction has shown us that it is possible to override a writer’s desire for publication if the degree and quality of such feedback is ensured. These are not elements that are much discussed in today’s shift to ebooks (in fact, most such arguments are economic), but it will be once we transition to web-first publishing. It is certainly a tool publishers need to understand.

Web Fiction: Discoverability

There are other problems that web fiction writers share with publishers. That web fiction writers are serious in growing their readership and “selling” their stories means that they have to deal with another common publishing problem: discoverability.

The web fiction community has dealt with this in several ways. Web fiction writers are ultimately responsible for building their own readerships (which I admit they do rather haphazardly). Efforts that have worked out in the past include: advertising on web-comic sites, word-of-mouth, and cross-promotion—be it through web fiction anthologies or via guest posts on other, topic-related blogs.

In fact, many of the strategies web fiction writers have looked into are the same ones site owners have commonly used to gain traffic for their websites. This makes sense: while potentially novels and books, web fiction is also—first and foremost—published as websites.

Along with Chris Poirier and a number of writers and editors from the web fiction community, in 2008 I helped create a filter for web fiction at webfictionguide.com.[3] The site includes a recommendations engine, an editorial reviewing system, and a forum to coordinate reviewing efforts. Its proposed benefit, I realize now, included the sort of network effects indie authors have accessed when selling on aggregated platforms like Amazon.

It is possible to do a better job of providing this benefit, and we are currently rethinking certain elements as Chris embarks on a redesign. But publishers and writers who consider selling their products outside of Amazon’s ecosystem will eventually need to evaluate the potential costs of losing networked recommendations. Building a platform of your own is a possibility, but it is difficult and potentially expensive. There is some hope, however: the marketing practices of indie authors may give us clues as to alternative coping strategies.

Indie Writers and the Social Web

Indie writers are self-published authors who write, edit, and publish their books without help from traditional publishing houses. Today’s indie writers rely on Amazon’s network effects in the following (generalized) way:

  1. The writer uses his or her blog, Twitter, Goodreads, and Facebook accounts to channel readers to sign up for a mailing list.
  2. This mailing list is used sparingly, for example when i) the author has a new book to announce or ii) the author has a promotion or contest or giveaway.
  3. When the author has completed a new book, he or she sends an email announcement linking to the Amazon sales page.
  4. The initial surge of purchases propels the book up Amazon’s ebook rankings. If the author has done 1) well, his or her mailing list should be large enough for the book to hit an inflection point on Amazon’s rankings. New readers now discover the ebook through these lists, perpetuating a virtuous cycle of purchases.

This is the ideal, of course. Not every writer manages to achieve this. But the successful writers use variants of this basic strategy—and the prolific ones reap extra benefits at stage 4, as a portion of satisfied new readers buy the author’s other books.

It is important to note how much social media is used to achieve these sales. Indie authors do not publish their work publicly on the Web (unlike their web fiction counterparts), but most of them are active bloggers. Their blogs are the central gathering point for their readers.

The writers also give away free ebooks (or sell them at ridiculously low prices) to increase discoverability on Amazon. The smart ones, however, give away free ebooks as a reward for signing up to their mailing lists. This mailing list—coupled with their blog—is everything to the author’s marketing strategy.

Seth Godin calls this technique “earning permission.” He leveraged it for the duration of his publishing experiment, The Domino Project. Editor Mandy Brown argues something similar: that publishers need to foster and grow communities as a license to sell. Both operate on the same underlying principle: in the same way that I will buy Jim Zoetewey’s book when he decides to release it, so readers who have signed up for an author’s mailing list will be partial to purchasing the author’s new ebook, and readers subscribed to a publisher’s community will likely spend more than otherwise.

Publishers who build community would be able to decrease dependency on Amazon’s networked recommendations. They have opt-in discoverability, if you will.

Lessons for Publishers

If the observations of the past few sections are distilled down to one core idea, what might that be?

Social interaction is addictive. It is fulfilling. Use it. This should, I think, be the biggest takeaway from this essay. We have seen how social interaction permeates every facet of today’s web publishing: from beta readers in the writing process, to comments, reviews, and blog conversations for web fiction and indie publishing. We have seen how reader interaction has kept some web writers happy enough to delay the pursuit of traditional publishing. We have also seen how social interaction has kept millions of writers engaged in fan fiction. (Anecdotal evidence in both the web fiction and fan fiction communities suggests that fan fiction is often how some kids today start learning to write fiction.)

Closer to mainstream publishing, we know that self-published authors engage with their readers on their blogs, as well as their Facebook and Twitter accounts. This activity is no different from the fan mail that writers in previous decades received. But we also know that indie writers today use such social media to capture potential readers, as well as to market their books.

We have, however, seen little of this in “serious” publishing. I mentioned earlier that interactivity is not much discussed in today’s transition to ebooks. This is understandable, as economic concerns weigh foremost on many publisher’s minds. But while discussions on “ebookonomics” are important, it is inevitable for publishers to face the fact that, on the Internet, social interactions now make up the bulk of the Web’s activity. We are also as a society shifting to a participatory digital culture. If publishers are to transition to digital outfits, they would eventually have to deal with this truth.

How might a publisher leverage the social web? The simplest possible way is for publishers to engage their customers on the Internet, adapting the marketing techniques indie writers have used to their advantage (this strategy is non-invasive, and is likely to be a no-brainer). Another–but harder–way is for publishers to provide their authors with better methods to interact with their readers. Technology permits it: if the author’s books are available as a website (like web fiction, but perhaps behind a paywall), the publisher may provide for the author the same value and pleasure web writers derive from their writing–direct engagement with readers over a text.

This is a lot simpler than it sounds. The most basic version of this effort could be a publisher offering to build and maintain an authors’s interactive presence: everything from blog to website to mailing list. The publisher may then build an audience for the author or redirect a portion of its existing audience to the author’s sites.

There is an opportunity for publishers to provide conversation spaces for readers and writers on the Internet, especially when there’s existing proof that millions of such conversations occur on the Web every day. The publisher-run tor.com,[4] for instance, is a good example of such a space. If anything, such spaces would “provide permission” for digital publishers, the same way indie authors get readers to subscribe to their mailing lists. And if that doesn’t work out the way we intend, providing high levels of interaction is still a value proposition worth offering. If writers are motivated by reader reactions, what better way than to prove publisher relevance than to meet those expectations?

Regardless of whether you agree with this opportunity, there is no doubt that publishers, like the fans and writers before them, need to embrace the social web. The participatory culture of the Internet demands it. And this is a good thing–it affords publishers, their writers, and their writer’s readers possibilities never before possible. It is something to be excited about.

Postscript: Other Experiments in Social Publishing

A few quick mentions of experiments that don’t fit anywhere else in this essay:

1) We know today that collaborative crowd writing does not work. In 2007, Penguin and some new media specialists at De Montford University launched a wiki-based crowd writing project called A Million Penguins, which by all accounts failed (Alice Fordham, in a 2007 article for The Times, reported that “the project split into ‘Novel A’ and ‘Novel B’ and had links to alternative endings.” She also spent a paragraph on the bizarre, recurring appearance of a writer intent on including bananas in as many places in the story as possible.)

2) That said, there are many other forms of social reading that we do not yet know will work. The Institute for the Future of The Book did an experiment called The Golden Notebook Project[5] in 2008. The project invited seven notable women to read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in five to six weeks, commenting in the margins of the web-based book as they did so. This project was a success; if:book director Bob Stein says that the women who participated in the project loved it.

3) Web fiction author Michael C. Milligan has experimented in something he calls “livewriting”: the act of writing a novel live on the Web in three days. His writing occurs on a JavaScript-powered frontend, where every character he types shows up live on a digital canvas. But that’s not all: the audience interacts with him using Twitter, a chat box, and a live video stream, which he turns on when writing. These channels are used to incorporate structured reader suggestions: every hour, before writing a chapter, he tweets a series of questions that one may answer, subtly changing the outcome of the story. And at the end of three days he edits the book and publishes it, sending it to members of the audience who have opted in and pre-purchased the book during the livewriting period.

While these projects may not have immediate economic value, they do highlight the variety of engagement opportunities web publishing has to offer. It is likely that ideas discovered in one of these experiments would be useful to the digital publisher of the future. As of today, they make known to us the adjacent possible in publishing.


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