Curveball Year Two: Analysis and Retrospective



So here it is then.


GENESIS


There are essentially two stories of the Curveball serial: how the idea for the story came about, and how the idea for how the serial would be managed came about. The idea for the structure came second, but in terms of how I create it it's actually the more important story, so I'm going to focus on that one.


So to start out: I'd already decided I was going to take some stuff I'd written about a punk rock superhero named Curveball and turn it into a web serial. The next step was to figure out how to do it, and I was already wrestling with a few difficult and thorny issues as far as webserials were involved.




But I didn't want to stop post fiction online.




So what if that was my conceit? What if I published Curveball like a comic book? Publish it for free on my site, because it is web fiction after all, and then sell each installment (issue) as mini-ebooks for 99 cents? It would allow me to bridge the gap between web fiction and self publishing pretty handily, as long as I could figure out how to make it work.


So I set about trying to figure out how to make it work.


STRUCTURE


The basic idea behind Curveball was that it was going to be a hybrid of web fiction and self-published fiction. I wanted to find a way to do a web serial that lent itself to fitting in the ebook world. Pay Me, Bug! worked because it was already a novel, but I know Jim has run into issues with getting Legion of Nothing into ebook form because when he was writing as serial he wasn't necessarily thinking of length and structure of story arcs, so getting everything to fit into book forms was a challenge. Wildbow has an even crazier situation on his hands with Worm because it is so, so, so very freaking long. He easily has a 15-20 book series there, if he wants to distribute it in the traditional 85-115K book length for each volume.





The covers, in my opinion, have worked out extremely well. I'm happy with all of them. The cover for Year Three makes me positively giddy.







DESIGN ISSUES, OR THE LAST MILE PROBLEM


By "design issues" I don't mean the physical design of the cover, or the layout of the site, or anything like that. THose are important and they may actually negatively impact the user experience, I'm talking about how I actually set up, structure, and write each issue. Because of the rules I have for each issue (8-10k words, each issue must move the plot forward) I find do a lot more planning for each issue than I ever have with anything else I write.


On top of that, I also plan the plot arcs for each year: Year One was introduce the main players, AND do the big magic reveal at the end. Year Two was show how magic fits into the world, AND give the reader a good idea on what Project Recall actually is at the end. Because of that, I usually have a rough idea of what I need to have happen come the last issue of the year relatively early in the story arc, so halfway through the year, I find myself trying to figure out how to position all the pieces on the board so that when the last issue rolls around, addressing the points is a simple matter.


Unfortunately, I've discovered both years that by the time I reach the penultimate issue I have a "last mile problem." (The "last mile problem," for those of you who don't catch the reference, was a phrase used by telecommunications companies to describe how difficult it is to connect a customer to an internet infrastructure on a wide basis. Apparently it's easy to set up 99% of the infrastructure, but when you get to the last piece--the point where the customer finally gets hooked in--it becomes exponentially more difficult).


So the specific issue I had was that even when all the characters are in roughly the right position, there's a lot of ground to cover to get to where I want the reader to be. Some of this is pacing: it's not enough to just drop everything in the reader's lap at the end, you want them to travel through it, enjoy discovering it, and be excited by the revelations. And in order to do that you have to do more than have the characters be in the right place at the right time, firing all the checkov's guns--you have to do it at a speed that makes sense.


For Year One it was clear I needed extra setup between Issue 11 and Issue 12, and so I thought "hey, comic books do extra-long issues all the time, I can just call Issue 12 a double-sized issue and then I'll have the room I need to get everything done. Plus it'll be an extra treat for the reader, and because it's the 12th issue, which is a big deal because One Year, it fits really well.


Of course the flip side was that I actually had to write a double-sized issue, and this proved to be very difficult, especially with all the moving and sudden emergency job loss issues that occurred at the time. And at the end of it, I thought "Nope, not going to do this again."


Fast forward to Issue 23. Issue 23 was supposed to be a little different than it turned out, but because it was April and I re-introduced a very silly character, I decided to go with that because it felt right (see, I'm still a pantser at heart). But that meant I didn't do nearly the amount of setup I needed for Issue 24, so I thought "fine, I'll do another double-sized issue, even though I swore I'd never do it again."


And even then I completely misjudged the amount of room I needed.


The problem is that I was trying to take a number of different divergent plot points -- at least five or six -- and "re-verge" them again. So when I hit Part Six I realized there was no way I could end the issue in two parts AND hit all the plot points I'd planned for Year Two, and I really needed to hit those plot points. So kept writing. And writing. And writing. And writing. And the problem is that with each new update I24 I would in fact be closer to the end, but I wouldn't be at the end.


I24 is finished. It consists of fifteen parts and is almost 28,000 words long. That's not a double-sized issue, it's a triple-sized issue, and while that's not a lot of writing for everyone, it's a hell of a lot of writing for me. Even after all that writing, I still didn't explicitly tell the reader what Project Recall is, which is what I wanted to do. It's in there, and I think it's reasonably obvious based on the information I provide, but it's not stated, for the record, with no possibility of misunderstanding. But I'd also reached a point where I simply couldn't add any more to the issue. It was done.


That last mile problem is a real pain in the ass. And I need to fix it for Year Three, because I can't have a repeat of this.


IMPLEMENTATION: POSITIVES



As I've mentioned before, choosing to write in the present tense has been immensely satisfying for me as a writer because it's caused me to grow and consider a lot of choices I wouldn't have otherwise.


One of the biggest advantages I've run across is that my readers are willing to edit my work. This has proved a huge boon for me, because that means that my original manuscript (the web serial) improves in quality over time, and the other formats benefit from this. I'd still probably be better off if I could afford an editor, but I can't, so them's the breaks so far.


IMPLEMENTATION: NEGATIVES


All is not a bed of roses in Curveball-land, however. I've had a number of challenges and setbacks, partially due to external forces, partially due to the nature of what I've set up, partially due to reader tastes, partially due to weaknesses I need to improve on.


First: writing in present tense is divisive. Some people hate, hate, hate, hate, hate it and will not read it no matter what. I was one of those people before I started doing it, so I can't really blame other people for being the same way, and it's probably alienated some potential readers.




GROWTH AND MARKETING


Curveball has not grown quickly as far as readership goes. There are a number of factors that might play into this, but I think the primary reason has to do with the scheduling irregularities. Getting regular readers on board with monthly updates is a big problem to begin with, because it's a pretty dramatic break from the normal, expected publication schedule for web serials. The issues, both external and internal, that cause publication dates to slide to the right, to the extent that Year Two had an effective publication schedule of every other month, really doesn't help this.


That said, in the last few months I've noticed a definite increase in activity for reader comments, and I do consider reader engagement a sign of positive growth. But I don't have any way of determining how much growth that represents. It still feels slow.


There are other factors that could play into its slow growth:


1. Present Tense Narrative


Mentioned above, but some people can find reading present tense narratives artificial and alienating. Choices like that automatically cut you out of a certain number of readers.


2. Poor Product Placement


:-)

Basically: I'm terrible at this.


3. Ineffective Outreach




4. Hybrid status


Finally, I wonder if the attempt to bridge the gap between web fiction and self-published fiction is, at least for the moment, working against me on both fronts. I don't have any hard data on this, but I also don't have much hard data on whether it's working.


FINAL ANALYSIS


It's annoying to admit three years into a project, but I don't have enough data to determine if this model is viable. I know that I really enjoy it--on top of enjoying writing the story (which is really the important part) I really enjoy the process by which I publish it. That's not nothing. But I don't have enough information to know if the model can successfully work both as webfiction and as a self-published serial, because there are too many things I can't account for. Is the slow growth because the model doesn't work, or because people just don't like the story, or is it because I'm having problems publishing on time? Obviously I need to be able to publish on time in order figure out what other factors are in play.


I still think the hypothesis is sound, and I think it's testable, but I don't have a full suite of tools to test it yet. This year, if I can regain control of my schedule, I may be able to squelch enough variables to collect more useful data.


I have the same experience as you with Pay Me Bug. Magelife was a novel that I released chapter by chapter. It doesn't have the same rise and fall as a serial, the cliffs. So I can't offer much there.


Web Fiction model and Self published Model, should not be in competition. It caters to different readers. That may be part of the problem you are seeing, the lack of cross ever. Many serial readers will grab an ebook, but less ebook readers will bother with a serial. I don't know why. Drew may be able to shed some light on that.


Yes, the updating is going to affect readership. Monthly is a hard sell. But with the sheer amount of issues you have it shouldn't affect sales on that end.


I hate present tense. Bugs me. Not sure why.


Product placement. Might look into some advertising. No idea. But felt it worth a mention, it is probably an issue. Same with the getting the word out.


I'm about to be experimenting with Reddit advertising on /r/Fantasy in the next few weeks; I'll let you know how it goes.


I think that, regarding advertising-vs-spamming; as much as people might hate the "spamming" side of it, the reality is that it really never matters how many people are saying "No", it's only the people saying "Yes" that count for your business interests. Up to the point that it's actually converting "Yes" folks to "No", I say, keep your taps flowing strong. (But make sure your investment in time/money for self-promotion is actually paying off. Otherwise you're just pissing your money away WHILE pissing people off!)


Tempest, it's not that web fiction and self-published fiction are in competition with each other, but they are at odds when it comes to what competes with your time. The secret to self publishing (or one of the "secrets" that actually seems to be true, at least for the moment) is to have large backlist. If someone reads your book and likes it, they look for other books you've written, and if they find them, they buy them. if they don't they forget about you after a while.


So there's a lot of pressure on a writer to accumulate that backlist as quickly as possible... but if you're turning web fiction into novels, you can't accumulate a backlist quickly because you're updating bits over time. So what do you spend your time on: releasing the full novels quickly in order to accumulate that backlist, or release it regularly as a web serial, at the expense of building your backlist more quickly?


Then there's also the issue of pacing. When you're doing a webserial, the story takes as long as it takes, and that's OK. The standard novel (these days) is 85K words. For huge, sprawling, high-magic fantasy novels it can go as high as 250K. There are web serial story arcs that will not fit in 85-100K words, and some would be hard pressed to fit in 250K. And then of course there's Worm.


You're right that it mostly caters to different readers, but they also require you spend your resources differently. That's why on a structural/organizational level I thought Curveball's model might make a good hybrid.


Patrick, I'd be interested to hear how the Reddit adverts go.


Yet you mentioned your own difficulties with meeting your updates for the serial. Which kinda makes the point moot. Hence my confusion. Spending your time on your serial does not need to take away from building a backlist, if you work on multiple project at at time. You could even do the ebook side first, which then makes separation and tweaking easier for serial releases.

Yeah, Worm is a different beastie.


Frankly, big monthly updates doesn't work very well for web serial reading. It's too much to read at once, and too long between updates to remember what happened in the last one. If you could have released each of the four chapters/parts of an Issue weekly, even if you had written them all in one chunk the month before, I think you would have been giving the web serial part of your model a better chance.


I've considered it. I could finish up the issue and then release it on the web, section by section, over the next month, one update a week--unless there were more than four parts to the issue, and I'm not sure what I'd do then. One week with two updates? Stagger them evenly over four weeks, so if there were five parts to the issue there'd be an update every five days? Obviously I'd have to fix my "meet the damn schedule" problem first.


That might screw up my Patreon campaign, though.





To be clear, I should mention that I haven't read Curveball, so I'm talking about present tense fiction in general. :)


I think there are specific genres where present tense is a lot more accepted. YA fiction has a lot of present tense stories, and that's a huge genre at the moment, so it may be demographics are changing, but I know people who refuse to read present tense just as a matter of principle. I figured I was giving up some audience just for adopting it, and potentially giving up more if I managed to screw it up by doing it badly. :D


But that slipping into past tense thing! yeah, it's really hard not to do that. Even after three years I find myself doing it (fortunately not often, and I have readers who catch it so I can fix it).


I once critiqued for a lady who'd written a historical novel in the present tense. The idea of writing historical fiction in the present tense was so cuckoo bananapants that I almost liked it, even tho it was giving the story a bad, strange vibe (the story had no action; it was almost entirely about the psychology of a couple of Freudian characters). Then I asked her why she did it that way, and she was like, "Oh, I didn't even notice." She fixed it, and the whole thing became so much better (still terrible, but hey progress is progress).


So yeah, a lot of present tense is done poorly. That said, from what I've read of Curveball, I think it's done well. In large part this is because of the focus on action, which present tense can be so good for.


Actually, Curveball's action feels like it would be a big selling point. It's very much pure superhero stuff, as opposed to most of the other serials you list. I'd probably put you and Stone Burners in the action-y category, World Domination and Kinda Super Gay in the comedy category. Legion of Nothing seems like YA, tho I could be off since I only read the first book, a long time ago. Super and Super Powered I haven't read, so idk. And Worm is a really different thing: a deconstruction, so much so that I don't know how to define it. The superhero genre does have a lot of diversity, so I totally understand where your difficulties could come from.


(I actually thought a lot about that for KSG. If you'll forgive a self-indulgent explanation, each of the three words in the title was supposed to explain a part of the genre. "Kinda" indicates that it's comedy, because no self-respecting drama has "Kinda" in the title. Kinda Hamlet? Crime and Kinda Punishment? Just doesn't work. "Super" puts it in the superhero genre. And then "Gay" makes it... gay.)


Actually really glad you started this thread, because I've been wondering how the small, 99c stuff compares to the omnibuses. I saw that both you and AE used that model. Do you mind if I ask how it's worked out thus far? I'm not even looking for specific numbers but just like a "it's definitely worth it sales-wise," or a "one gets more attention than the other," or "ohgod Amazon is so scary hide your children I'm blinded by Amazon's unholy rays," or whatever you feel comfortable with. I know you said your readership wasn't where you wanted it to be, so the pool might not be big enough to say. But I think I've been wondering about that release style for like a year now.


I've actually been thinking a lot about the relationship between self pub and web serials, lately (in no small part thanks to Temp). So this was a good read.


Ubersoft, you have wonderful ebook covers, and I'm sure you could sell way more if you were into marketing at all. I don't know about serial growth, unfortunately. But I've spent months researching ebook marketing, and there's one simple truth to it: If you sell, Amazon will help you sell more. If you don't sell (or not enough), Amazon will push down into oblivion.


Ebook visibility (and thus the chance of being discovered by readers) is entirely dependent on sales. There's two effective forms of promotion:


1) Buy a promotion slot in as many book promotion services (Ereader News Today, Books Butterfly etc) and stack them - as in, have 5 or more of those services per day send your book to their mailing list subscribers. Do this for a week, if you can, getting 50-100 sales a day. Before you know it, you'll appear in 'also bought' links and in Amazon's automated mails that they send out to customers.


You'll also become much more visible in genre lists. The market is starved for superhero fiction, and there's plenty of readers who devour any superhero story they can get their hands on. Past or present tense, illustrated or pure prose... it doesn't matter. They want it, and there's not enough of it.


2) Build your own mailing list that you can send up to anyone who signed up for it whenever you release a new issue. This is more efficient with more subscribers, of course, and takes time to build. But once you have some numbers, you can push your book up the ranks right as you publish it.


That's all there is to ebook marketing!


Web serial promotion is much more tricky, because you almost can't do it without being considered a spammer. I've found listings on any site other than WFG / TWF extremely ineffective. Only TVtropes has some impact, and only because readers linked some of my tropes. The most efficient promotion is the kind you can't influence at all: word of mouth, and readers linking to your story from places that don't allow self promotion.


I don't agree with the sentiment that it doesn't matter if you spam self promotion. People get annoyed, and an author's image suffers. They get perceived as desperate. Whether or not a reader 'likes' an author matters A LOT, in my opinion. A lot of people really like Wildbow because of his comments and interactions with the community, and I dare say it's one of the factors that played into his success. Fans who really like the author (rather than just a story) will be more likely to invest time in cross promoting, in writing fanfic, in starting online discussions and last but not least donating. I've only ever seen Wildbow ask for donations ONCE, and that was after a million or so words.


On the other hand, an author who immediately expresses an interest in earning money might rub some people the wrong way (sorry if I'm being blunt there). This is a community of (largely) first time authors who enjoy sharing their stories for the heck of it. People who write because they enjoy writing and sharing their work, without financial success in mind. Unless your name is Wildbow, it's the wrong place for earning any significant amount. Patrick, I looked at your Patreon page, and it seems VERY optimistic. One of your incentives is to let a reader help you design a major character for 1000$(!!!) per update - which, at your current rate of publication, is four large per month? Holy cow. That kind of ambition could drive potential sponsors away. I don't think even Wildbow earns four large a month, and certainly not from a single sponsor. Many web fiction readers are authors as well, and... well, it comes across as if you think you can earn more than anyone else. Which could be interpreted as 'my writing is worth more than anyone else's writing'. Wildbow won fan hearts with his modesty, diligence and kindness, not asking for anything... just saying.


What I'm trying to say is - ebooks are a much better way of earning money (if you do the marketing), with a more guaranteed income and a much higher tolerance for promotion.


P.S. I still totally want to read Curveball. I'll feed my Kindle with it when my schedule frees up a bit.


Excited to see a familiar name as the artist for your Year 3 cover. Jamie was the author and artist of a web comic I followed for years, Clan of the Cats, which I mentioned on a previous thread as where I first found serial web fiction through a Tales of MU ad. Glad to see he's still kicking and making art.


Hah! Chrysalis, for second I thought you were talking about my Patreon page, and I was very confused, because it didn't take long for me to decide the goals thing wasn't worth taking seriously. The first two are semi-serious, in that if I were making that much money each month they would be true, but they're not even close to attainable (not through Patreon alone, anyway).


So after that I just started creating categories by doubling the money and making stuff up. They get progressively more ridiculous: one of my goals is "Consider moving into a hollowed-out volcano" and my top goal is "Desperately forage for necessities in a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland" (working on the assumption that if I'm getting $16,000 a month in donations it's only because the world economy has collapsed, inflation is through the roof, and we're all wearing leather bondage gear as we fight each other in the streets for fuel reserves).


Regarding the present tense thing, you give up some audience with every decision. Not everyone's into superheroes. And while you might be worried about shrinking the bubble even further, there's probably people out there in the superhero genre who enjoy present tense over something more traditional (even if they're not as vocal? one tends to speak more to what one doesn't like). Or there's people whose preferences change, as yours did. In my opinion, it's real hard to pin that sort of thing down. If you're enjoying it, run with it, that's what helps to make the story yours.


In terms of communication and outreach, the only things I've found annoying is either getting a number of different plugs all at once, or if there's no variation, I only see plugs. As long as there's other social media content, I don't have a problem with it. (In fact I should likely tweet out updates more than twice. I lean far the other way, to too little.) For what it's worth, the concept of a sidekick having to step up and solve the murder of the hero does sound interesting to me.


To close off here, regarding the hybrid thing, holy cats, give yourself a pat on the back for trying something different and interesting like this. I wonder, if you aimed for 10 issues, would that help with the "last mile" issue? In that you'd actually have two issues? Or can you not fool yourself that way? Congrats on I24 either way -- it seems to have been a bit of a struggle.


@ubersoft: Those goals sound awesome. Please add a category for zombie apocalypse survival, if you haven't already. xD


Oh, and one to support you in getting superpowers. You'll need a lab, obviously - and some radioactive spiders.


Billy, I think the 99c model actually works against me, to be honest, but I'm not sure what to do about it.


(This is getting away from the web fiction part, so apologies to everyone for that.)


99 cents seems to be thought of as the "junk price point" these days. At one point in time there was a mad rush for $.99 self-published fiction--and we're talking full-length novels, here--and at the end of it there was a bit of a hangover. $.99 appears to be generally percieved as "the place where bad novels go to moulder." This is obviously an over-generalization, but when I hear people talking about prices that comes up a lot.


The thing is, though, I'm working on the comic book model AND the ebook model, so I'm stuck. The average price for a full-length, self-published novel is $2.99-3.99. The average price for a comic book is $2.50-$4.50. Curveball is playing the comic book game but without pictures, so it needs to be cheaper than a comic book. Each issue is also considerably shorter than 85,000 words, so I have to be cheaper than your average self-published novel. That doesn't leave a lot of room to work in.


Originally Curveball issues were $1.99, but then John Scalzi released a serial at $.99 a pop, and I didn't figure I'd be able to compete above the prices he set for his work. So... that's where I am.


Fiona, Jamie is a really nice guy and I was really stoked to be able to pay him to draw for me. And one of the first things he said was "in your previous covers CB looks so well-groomed. I'd like to draw him a little more haggard" and all I could think was "HE REALLY GETS THIS CHARACTER!"


The price seems reasonable considering the length of each issue. I really think sales rank visibility is your only problem. Try Ereader News Today at least - among Indie authors, they're considered the second most effective promotion service after Bookbub. But WAY cheaper, and they don't require a minimum amount of reviews to accept you. Some authors have gotten several hundred sales in 1-2 days from it.


http://ereadernewstoday.com/bargain-and-free-book-submissions/


Take an omnibus (if you have one) and temporarily drop the price to 99$ for the promotion. Readers love limited time offers. Or take the first issue and make it free temporarily.


I can't make anything free on Amazon, because I don't qualify for KDP Select.


Here's the fun thing about KDP Select: technically if you do a web serial you're not eligible. Why? Because KDPS terms of service state, rather plainly, that they can be your only source of distribution for the work. And posting it for free in its entirety on your website is a competitive distribution.


Also, people who subscribe to my Patreon get a special "Patreon Edition" of the work (and the complete backlist!) which is another no-no.


Also, because I distribute under a CC license, anyone technically has the right to redistribute non-commercially. So... three strikes, no KDP. The only way to trick 'em into making something free is to make it free somewhere else (Kobo, I guess) and ask Amazon to match the price.


You already know about the price match, that's the way to temporarily get free books outside KDP. If you don't have your books in other stores... why don't you have your books in other stores? ;) ibooks and Google Play might very well out-grow Amazon if they get their clunky interfaces and search issues sorted out.


It's not a 'trick' as such. Amazon does have a category for free books, after all.


Also, many don't know that you can kindly ask Apple to promote you. They might say no, but if they like the book and do say yes... imagine being promoted by Apple.