Web serial novel: the experiment in progress

So here’s a little piece about publishing a novel online. This piece should not be taken as a “how to.” Why? Because although this piece is about what I’m doing, as will become rapidly clear, I am making it up as I go along.
Several people have asked my why “a writer of [my] stature” is self-publishing online. The short version is that publishing in print is shrinking fast and in awful financial shape. Fewer and fewer chances to publish anything edgy, or even much fiction at all, exist, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I have an adventurous spirit and have always been high tech. Rather than hide my head in a hole and hope that after Borders, Barnes & Noble, & the other mega-chains who killed off our thriving independent bookstore population die off like HMV & Tower Records did there is still a print publishing world out there at all, I’m embracing the new media. And why the hell not?
A brief background on this novel. I started writing it in graduate school in my very first semester, in a novel writing class. I had been writing about the main character for many years at that point, but had never buckled down and written his book. The “book” I ended up with was nothing like the other fiction I’ve written. It’s not in traditional chapters, but in short snippets. I envisioned it as a somewhat postmodern work, almost like a scrapbook, with photos and sheet music and fake newspaper clippings in it, although all I wrote was the prose story, the ancillary material all imagined. Several editors at major publishing houses read it. All seemed to really enjoy it, but none felt they could successfully publish it. Mostly because it was too long, and yet couldn’t be easily cut. I tried to cut it anyway, shortening the finished work from around 300,000 words to 220,000. Which for most commercial publishers still made it twice as long. So it sat in my hard drive until now.
I figured, why not put it on the web? My goals are pretty modest at this point. I figure rather than it sitting dormant it could:
1) at least be read and enjoyed by people
2) Could potentially earn some money rather than zero money
3) Maybe if it gets popular it will help bring readers to my other work, including actual books for sale
4) If it gets really popular, at the very least I could sell an ebook or POD version of it. (Maybe in multiple volumes, given the length.)
So, Goal #1. Get it read by people. I figured for that I need the following:
1) A website that looks nice and is easy to navigate
2) Incoming links

For the website I installed WordPress on a web server in my basement. It helps that I have a techy boyfriend and we host various things here, including circlet.com. If I weren’t set up for that and were looking for outside hosting, I’d probably go for something like Meilin Miranda’s latest brainstorm, which is a co-hosting site for authors doing crowdsourced fiction: DigitalNovelists.com. (Meilin is a pioneer in online novels. She and Alexandra Erin are my heroes right now!)
I futzed around with a bunch of WP themes. The main thing I wanted in the theme was: each post had to have a “Previous” and “Next” link for easy, continuous reading, a cleanly readable layout, and a sidebar where I could easily configure links and run ads if I got them. To make it look nice, I purchased a few pieces of stock art from iStockphoto and StockXpert, spending about $7 in total, I think.
For the incoming links, I of course linked to it from my regular blog, Livejournal, and mention it on a semi-regular basis on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. I set up a separate Twitter account for the novel itself, which auto-tweets each time a post goes up, so I wouldn’t inundate my regular followers with it three times a week. Right now I retweet to my regular list about once a month, usually when the story reaches a pause in the plot arcs.
Doing only that was getting me an average of 4-5 readers per day. Which is better than zero, which is what it was getting on my hard drive. But I figured there must be some places I could link it from to get more?
The first place I’ve found is a directory called The Web Fiction Guide. It’s a directory of online novels & serials. Cool! I went and listed Daron’s Guitar Chronicles there (since that’s what the novel/serial/website is now called) and in the past ten days it has brought me 17 new readers. Here’s the even cooler part, it’s brought 17 readers who spent an average of over 20 minutes on the site. (I know this because of Google Analytics, by the way. You can install a bit of tracking code on your web site and then Google tracks your incoming links, visitors, etc…) Those are really quality readers who are looking to read fiction on the web, and they’re spending some time reading. Hopefully some of them will turn into regular readers who will return again and again.
Most readers coming via the Twitter feed, on the other hand, only spend 3 minutes on the site. But you’d expect if people are caught up on the story, they are only reading the most recent post, so that makes sense.
I’m looking for more places like Web Fiction Guide but haven’t found them yet. In between all my other projects, I haven’t had hours and hours to scour the web yet, and am building it up bit by bit.
In the meantime, I decided to see if I could get even more readers to come around, and it might be worth spending a little money to do so. So I began to run ads via a group called Project Wonderful. I don’t have room here to explain everything about Project Wonderful (hereafter PrW), but their own website gives a great explanation. The short version is I can very easily buy ads for DGC on blogs and websites all across the web for as little as 1 cent a day, sometimes ZERO cents a day.
I set up a PrW advertising campaign to bid on ad boxes on sites that have GLBT themes and/or are web fiction, with a maximum bid of 1 cent per day, with a total maximum in spending of 50 cents per day. I started the campaign 10 days ago and already it has brought me 180 visitors, and my ads have been shown over 100,000 times. 180 visitors! Pretty cool, and I paid about 2 cents each for them. The campaign is due to run for 30 days. All told I should spend about $15.00 and if this pace holds up, it will bring me between 500 and 600 new visitors. Not all of them will become regular readers, but some probably will.
Of course, I’m relying somewhat on word of mouth, as all authors of any kind of fiction do. When people read a book they like, they tell their friends. They lend it. It’s free to read this on the web, so the ideal thing would be, if people enjoy reading it, they’ll blog and tweet and email their friends about it. Which will hopefully bring in more visitors.
So, goal #1 accomplished. The work is getting read instead of moldering unseen.
Now, how about #2? “Could potentially earn something instead of zero.
The way I see it, there are two potential direct sources of revenue, “crowdfunding” and ad revenue.
Crowdfunding means there is a “donate” button on the “Tip Jar” page, and I hope that from time to time some good soul will toss a dollar or two into my hat. So far, nothing, but traffic hasn’t been that high since I launched the site ten weeks ago. For comparison, I’ve had a Paypal “donate” button on my baseball blog for ten years now and the total amount I’ve received from that? When WILBB was at its height of traffic, it was still under $100 per year, though I did get a case of beef jerky sent to me once. But other folks tell me crowdsourcing might work. At the very least, I figure it doesn’t hurt to ask and have a way for someone to contribute if they are motivated to. I am not sure if I should make the Donate button more prominent. I feel kind of squidgy about it.
What I will likely do, when there is more of the book posted, is start offering a “pay $5 now and get the whole section as a download” so that those who want the convenience of having the whole thing as a PDF or PDB or RTF on their own machine can pay for it, and those who want to read it free still have the option of reading the whole thing online.
Now let’s talk about ad revenue. I’m pretty skeptical of this, too, and this TechCrunch piece explains why it’s not a huge goldmine. But I’m not after a huge goldmine. Right now I’d just like to recoup the $15 I’m spending on ads myself, and the $7 I spent on art, right? So today I applied to become a PrW publisher, will hopefully be approved, and will hopefully start running ads that will pay me perhaps a few pennies a day. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a few pennies I didn’t have before. If it ads up to $50 a year, that’s $50 I didn’t have when the thing was languishing on my hard drive. And if the site gets popular and traffic goes up and the bid rate on the ads goes up? I’ve seen sites where making a few dollars a day via PrW ads is possible.
I’ve looked at some other ad services, but am skeptical for a couple of reasons. First, LinkAds. I ran LinkAds on circlet.com for over a year. We provided hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of pageviews for companies like Playboy, JimmyJane, Rifftrax, etc etc etc. How much did we get paid? Nothing. We never had enough click throughs who purchased anything to even earn the minimum $25 to trigger a payment. I dumped those ads after a year and am very happy not to have circlet.com cluttered up with them.
Then, there are GoogleAds. We also ran Google Ads on circlet.com for a year, and also never earned enough to get paid a dime. Some of this was the fact that Google considered certain pages “too adult” and so would only serve up a Public Service Announcement. But click through were very weak, too. People who are going to a site to read fiction are not interested in clicking on ads that are for products that might be mentioned in the story. It’s not the same as a site that is non-fiction, where people are talking about a product or something which then might actually be relevant to the ads. I think it would be AWESOME if Ovation and Takamine guitars, for example, were to advertise on DGC. But I’m really not expecting my readers to be in the market for purchasing guitars.
So PrW ads are the only ones that seem viable to me right now. There might be other ad services out there I should look into, but I haven’t found them yet. As I said, I’m making this up as I go along.
That leaves two goals out there I haven’t talked about yet. Does DGC bring new readers to my other work? I don’t have a way to measure this, but I somewhat assume so. One assumes that some readers find you first in a book or anthology, some in a magazine, and then Google you, some stumble on you on the web, etc. etc. The more there is out there, the more likely they are to run across your path.
DGC doesn’t tie directly to a lot of what I write. It’s real-world rather than s/fantasy, and although it has some gay sex in it, it’s not erotica. But it has connections here and there and I certainly expect it to be enjoyed by some of the same readers who do enjoy reading my erotica, romance, & stuff with GLBT themes.
And finally, will DGC lead to some form of more traditional publication? At the very least, as mentioned above, I will probably make a version available as a self-published ebook where people who don’t want to click through chapter after chapter can just buy it for a price. That’ll probably be accompanied with a print on demand version that can be ordered from Amazon, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. Of course by the time I’m ready to do that, maybe an actual ebook publisher will be interested enough to make me an offer. I’m all for publishers paying me for the right to do the work of selling my stuff. That used to be the #1 goal — but since that didn’t work out, here we have the alternative model.
I am a “working writer” in the same way a lot of people are “working musicians.” Getting signed to a major label and going platinum happens to so few. I’ve gone the big publisher route before (and surely will again) only to be buried there. So I’ve taken the surefire gigs like the work for hire contracts (I suppose that’s like studio work and playing at weddings) and now I’m doing the equivalent of busking on the street corner. Plenty of people can enjoy it for free. Maybe I’ll get somewhere, maybe I won’t, but at least I’m out there plying my craft.
Which bring me back to the point about art. This book was never a good fit for a traditional “book.” I always wanted it to be a more multimedia experience. Now I get to embed YouTube videos and link to Wikipedia articles and all kinds of fun stuff like that which enhance the pop culture tangle that the narrative always was. The reader can always skip the links, but for those who want to linger, I’ve tried to make it a total entertainment experience. The book languished for so long, now it’s actually a “period piece” — set in a time before cell phones, before the Internet, before Ellen/Queer Eye — and rather than that making it “dated” I feel it’s become all the more compelling with time.
That’s where I am today. The site is up and running. I’m posting new segments every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, like my favorite webcomics. Feel free to hit me with suggestions! Like I said, I’m figuring it out as I go along and information is the best crowdsourced resource.
Updates and additions:
Another web fiction listing site, Muse’s Success: https://muses-success.info
and https://weblit.us — a site for writers of web lit to share tips and such
I bought an add banner for $10 for a month at https://www.epiguide.com/forums/view.php?pg=support#banner as well!
Relevant links:
Daron’s Guitar Chronicles: https://daron.ceciliatan.com
(My blog on LiveJournal: https://ceciliatan.livejournal.com)
Daron’s Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/daron_moondog
Mine: https://twitter.com/ceciliatan
Meilin Miranda: https://www.meilinmiranda.com/
Alexandra Erin: https://www.alexandraerin.com/
Project Wonderful: https://www.projectwonderful.com
Web Fiction Guide: https://webfictionguide.com
Digital Novelists: https://www.digitalnovelists.com

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