Guest blog on

I contributed an article to about the difference in audience sizes for Webfiction and Webcomics.

Thanks for the article. Those are all valid observations. It's the "how do you do it?" part that is always the most challenging, it seems...

Yeah, I have two rudimentary opinions about that, and I can't figure out how to test either.

The first is that a site like 1889 Labs will, over time, have an easier go at developing a community because it develops a certain kind of content (i.e., it's creating a specific niche) that will benefit everyone associated with it. The downside is that everyone who contributes to it might be constrained to creating "that kind" of content... an author who wanted to branch out into, say, Regency Romance would probably not be able to do so comfortably there, since it would be at odds with the niche that is being developed and wouldn't be receptive to an audience looking for the niche being developed.

The second rudimentary opinion is that a site featuring one author only gives that author more freedom to experiment with genres, because the niche being built around such a site is The Author Doing Stuff. But I expect it's extremely difficult to build a community around The Author Doing Stuff -- not impossible, but you'd need charisma in spades.

I went with the solo site because I know the stuff I want to write is going to be in different genres. PMB! is the start of a continuing series of stories. The Points Between is possibly a standalone novel, and is very, very different in feel and tone. My next project, Northlander, is a fantasy that will also be the start of a continuing series of stories (after which I expect I'll be alternating between PMB! and Northlander stories to infinity and beyond, with the occasional diversion into something else). I also went solo because I'm experimenting with other media (i.e., podcasting) and it's easier to dabble in that stuff when you're running everything yourself. That said, solo sites involve selling yourself as much as your work. MCA Hogarth's site works because she writes good stories but ALSO because she's a very compelling personality and talks about everything she's working on in a way that makes her audience interested in what she's doing.

So in more general terms, my hypothesis for that is "group sites/collectives need a common theme, solo sites need a strong authorial identity." And both sites need some kind of marketing/outreach that brings people in, which I'm completely hopeless at.

Maybe someday I'll find the double-secret missing link. If so I'll let everyone know. ;-)

Yeah, if you work it all out, please do share! :P

I'm doing some of both. I'm obviously working with 1889, publishing Losing Freight through them, etc., but I also have my own site(s) for other projects, and I'm trying more and more to develop some community centered around my fiction.

I'm not convinced that something like 1889 Labs needs a specific theme or genre to appeal to. Some alignment in style can be helpful in terms of helping the authors work together, but I think the uniting "theme" can just be "web fiction," and if handled right that can work well enough.

I'm not so sure about the 'strong authorial identity' bit. That, or I'm misinterpreting it.

I do think a strong presence from the author and charisma -can- be a huge part of it, but I don't think it's the primary factor. I'm thinking of one web serial, which I won't name as I'm about to be semi-rude, but I'll just say it's a notable web serial on WFG, though the author doesn't post here, as far as I know. The author, to be blunt, wasn't that likable, to me. Complained constantly, grubbed for money, failed to hold up to promises, etc.

But that author's story was undoubtedly popular.

Why? I think there's other factors at play:

* I think you touched on it when talking about webcomics, ubersoft, you need to give people a very quick, clear idea on what they're getting into. Groups like 1889 labs do this by having the type of content and atmosphere pre-defined within their portfolio of writers & writing. For a solo author, presentation, website format/scheme, the first chapter(s), art, taglines, etc, all contribute to reducing the entry-level effort on a reader's part to get into the story's mindset. It's very multifaceted in comparison to a webcomic.

* Consistency. I might exaggerate this, because it bugs me so much when an author misses an update, but I think that keeping updates coming at a steady rate (and even a steady time - so people know when to check in) sort of establishes a momentum or rhythm, where readers can work a story into their routine and thus it becomes a part of their lives. Just speaking for myself, I know that I check every day at midnight for the latest Bad Machinery. Once someone gets into a habit like that, it's very hard to break, and they stay a reader, even if their interest wanes to a degree or if the quality drops for a little while.

How does this break down for the webcomic/author-driven serial/company serial? Webcomics are at the far end of one spectrum, where timeliness is paramount - there's some bad, bad webcomics out there (Ctrl alt del) that keep readers because they never miss an update, even if the quality is low. Company serials (a la 1889) are more likely to depend on a consistency of quality. If it's hit or miss, then people may just decide to walk away. Author-grounded web serials fall somewhere in between. Depending on how often it updates, and how much the serial depends on momentum, it might lean more one way or the other. A serial that updates once a week is going to lose readers that forget it even exists if it misses one or two updates in a row. Less so for a serial that updates 3 times a week with bonus chapters from time to time.

Ubersoft: I've wondered about the difference in audience sizes myself.

Here's one thing I've been noticing lately though: Most webcomics have smaller audiences than I do. I'll qualify this a little. Most webcomics using Project Wonderful have lower ad views than I do. Not that my ad views are particularly high (nowhere near your webcomic), but the vast majority of webcomics are nowhere near Penny Arcade (or yours) either.

I've been surprised to discover that there are actually good, consistently updated comics that are read by less people than Legion of Nothing.

Part of me thinks that you're right about the level of time investment turning people off. Part of me wonders if it's something more along the lines of "web fiction hasn't reached critical mass/the tipping point/whatever."

Admittedly, it might not ever happen.

That said, we've often talked about the public perception of fiction put up for free online. That perception could be summarized as "It probably sucks."

Oddly enough that was also the public perception of self-published fiction prior to ebooks and POD taking off.

I sometimes wonder if all we're missing is a few semi-well known successes--a group of people that get "internet famous" for their serial fiction, or possibly for turning it into ebooks. That might change the whole web fiction dynamic.

While I'd agree there are barriers, I also think that more people would read it if they knew it existed at all, and at least assumed that some of it didn't suck.

As things are right now, people who haven't read web fiction before are looking for opportunities to have their stereotypes confirmed. If that happens, they leave.

Way, way back when webcomics were first reaching public consciousness, there were lot of newspaper articles about web comics that amounted to "Hey, there are comics on the internet."

Web fiction hasn't even made it that far yet.

I think things like creating a community around a work are exactly the sort of thing that does change public perception. It's harder to assume something sucks when there are obviously a lot of people reading and enjoying it.

Personally, I found that I had an immediate gain in numbers once I started advertising. I deliberately advertise both on webfiction sites and (to a greater degree) webcomics. Specifically I try to focus on comics about superheroes. In the short term, I think that will be good for me. In the long term, it might be good for other people too.

Well, you know sturgeon's law: 90% of everything is crap. Link this with the level of time investment involved in the different genres, and it's far, far less painful to stumble through nine bad webcomics to find one good webcomic than it is to stumble through nine bad web serials to find a gem like Legion of Nothing.

BUT when there's a web serial that more aggressively advertises itself, as Jim does with Legion of Nothing, or (especially) as Alexandra Erin does/did with Tales of MU, people are more inclined to expect that it's going to be worth that time investment. Banners aren't free, so any creator that's willing to stake that small fee on the fact that it's worth a reader's time most likely has a degree of confidence in their work.

One other thought that strkes me, in relation to the 'bad fanfiction', is that while the barrier of entry to reading webcomics is particularly low, the barrier of entry to creating it is perhaps higher. I remember, six or seven years ago, trying to find artists to help turn a fantasy story I was writing into a webcomic. I was warned, repeatedly, that there were ten writers to every artist. Why? Because passable art is hard to come by, while pretty much everyone out there has some ideas in their heads & the most basic writing ability.

So where webcomics have a lot of people turn away because their drawing just doesn't cut it (not even being ironically bad, like XKCD or whichever), that's maybe less the case with webfiction.

It's a fair sized hurdle to cross, that preconcieved notion, and I find myself wondering what it would take to really reach that critical mass.

One of the solutions for that is time-consuming and potentially unrewarding.

Around 1999-2001, when webcomics sort of "took off," there began to be an infrastructure surrounding a lot of the webcomics community:

Keenspot started, which was the first big webcomics "collective" model, where cartoonists sort of shared in Keenspot's overall traffic. There was vetting to decide who to let in. Shortly after that Joey Manley started a subscription model publishing service for webcomics... can't remember what the name of that one was, but it was also pretty successful for a while.

Then there were magazines about webcomics, and review sites for webcomics. For a while those sites were popular and very active. They've sort of died away a bit -- the only ones I can think of that remain are ComixTalk, Fleen and the group that publishes A.M. Harte's Webfiction podcast (Webcomic Daily? Can't remember.)

All of those fed in to the idea and perception that there was a community of people who were interested in webcomics.

Then you had guys like Eric Burns, whose site Websnark did a lot of pretty in-depth reviews of webcomics, exploring what he felt worked, what didn't, what was funny, what wasn't funny any more. Some of the concepts he coined to describe what webcomickers were doing are now listed in TV Tropes.

Webfiction Guide does some of that, it's more like a directory/vetting site -- the reviews basically cover "is this worth your time?" but the format really doesn't have the luxury of getting specific. Novelr does some of the other bit, or it did, when it talked about various kinds of formats and tactics webfic authors could try to increase audience, improve audience reaction, etc. But Eli doesn't really devote a lot of time to Novelr because he's busy with Pandamian, which looks like a great tool, but obviously it's demanding time-wise.

1889 Labs has the potential to be a kind of a Keenspot of sorts. Any site where writers are pooling their talents, that specifically lists editors, etc., helps to combat the Sturgeoning of the material.

There are other sites that look like they could contribute to this as well (i.e., and muses-success) but they don't look like they update enough. The problem with meta-sites (or "feeder sites" as some marketers describe them -- essentially sites about things, that point people toward things, and contribute to a degree in the vetting of things) is that they need to be updated frequently to steadily increase traffic, and need to be marketed in their own right. This can make it an enormous time sink on top of whatever other projects the creators have already taken on (like a day job, or fiction they're already writing, etc.)

So I don't have any good or practical suggestions for that.

I made similar observations on a recent podcast although in thinking back on it, the reason why webcomics also has a few degrees of magnitude on fiction could be explained by a few other things:

* Ad networks/comics traffic feeders (like Inkoutbreak/Rampage). The advertising/linking ecology is well developed. I usually go from one comic I read to the next through banner ads. The trickle down benefit from popular comics to less popular is highly developed.

* Artists on webcomics ally outside in real life. Then they post like hell about everyone who they like. There is definitely a sharing of fans.

I'm not really convinced that anyone can create a community portal around original fiction without some gimmick. If you look at it's actually a very good case study for how the folks failed to sustain much momentum /enthusiasm from to their next venture. That they didn't promote it or find ways to ally with POD publishers further doomed their efforts. I've seen a few other sites try to develop a personality/get a following like serialteller and projectfiction, but don't see much there.

The sites that seem to really attract people are the ones with deep pockets to reward the community, i.e., giveaways to readers, contests for writers, and have features that allow various roles to flourish. (I love Wattpad's cover artist threads/forums because readers with a knack for design all bend over backwards to help writers/get shoutouts, etc.) There has to be something more than "I like this story and I like talking to the author" at times in order to motivate participation.

None of the directories themselves advertise to any extent to my knowledge.

In that sense, I can't see a lot of our existing webfiction sites stepping into the role that some webcomic networks currently provide. Part of it is a lack of time, and part of it is the interest to actually make it a workable business model with returns.

I'd like to comment more extensively on the advertising bit later, but perhaps after I've thought about it some more. Like Jim, I advertise. His niche is superheroes, mine breaks down to "people who like fantasy," "fairy tales", "and girls who love romance/emo male characters." The value of advertising is only proportional to the size of the audience out there who likes your "niche."

My advertising strategy is a long-term investment. I'm not really interested in the revenue on the site (i.e., putting out ads so I can upgrade to a new more profitiable ad partner), but finding those readers who will become my social network partners in the long-run. I won't know if it's worth it for a while yet.

One thing I've noticed webcomics doing is deliberately promoting similar comics to theirs, sometimes creating what amounts to groups of sites that agree to promote each other.

I've sometimes thought it might be worth doing with superhero fiction (there are a few people doing that), but it's likely to be useful for other groups as well.

Actually I've occasionally wondered if some web comics groups might include similar web fiction. Given the serial nature, it seems possible. Unlikely, but possible.

Jim: I'm game! Special People falls roughly under the "superhero" banner, though it attempts to subvert the genre a little bit... We could exchange introductory blog/news posts, something like that?

Wildbow--what do you think?

I don't really do much in the way of non-story blog posts or whatever, mainly because I have no idea what I'd write on that front.

I mean, definitely interested in some kind of connection between serials, for sure, wouldn't mind seeing something like a forum for the mingled communities (with subforums for individual stories). I just don't know what I'd do that I'm not already doing (linking to other related serials)

Also, Jim, it might not be exactly what you're talking about, but I know Erfworld is one webcomic that intermingles fiction with the comic. I think right now, given that the artist's mom died, it's primary producing fiction.

I wonder if there's some way this site could be used as a location for forums like that. The only people who seem to post here are authors. Is there a structural reason that readers don't really come to the forums here, or is there some other reason?

As with webcomics and web serials, any online forum has a certain critical mass. The forum hasn't reached that critical mass, either in population or frequency of replies, so it doesn't have that gravitational pull.

Even when we were busy (a while back), readers didn't ever hang out in the forums.

Chris: Is directing the forums towards readers something that WFG has ever thought about or been interested in? I know the EpiGuide has some forums that are directed towards interaction/community among readers, but they don't really seem to get used. I'm not sure whether the audience for that is there, or whether it just hasn't been attempted or executed on well enough yet.

Just something to think about. I've considered setting up my own forums for readers to discuss my work, but I don't know that I'd be able to populate it enough based solely on my own readership. Maybe if a few different serials' readerships were combined...

I'm a big forum-user, and I think a forum community aimed towards readers of web fiction (rather than just writers) could be interesting.

I've had thoughts much along the same lines as Tim's. Would maybe like forums, probably wouldn't get enough feedback on my own.

It might have the opposite effect, though. I mean, I've got some readers who talk to me primarily via. AIM/Google messenger/MSN, and those are readers that aren't necessarily commenting on the story itself. Divided audience = smaller audience, somewhat harder to get discussions rolling.

Well, the crosslinking has begun! Thanks, Wildbow. I've returned the favour. :)

What I had in mind was crosslinking at least. Maybe more than that, but I'm not sure what.

As for swapping blog entries... Like Wildbow, I haven't done much with non-story entries. I should.