State of Web Fiction

So, I made another article. This time, instead of making an interview, I made sort of a think piece on what I believe the state of web fiction to be. Stuff I mention includes, among other things, improving transparency on review swaps, learning what site data means, a call to record our history before it gets lost, and ideas on where to go next. Link is here:

Haha, jesus christ. Just skimmed the thing, but the diction surrounding the review swaps comes off a little strong. Tbh I sometimes forget to throw up the disclaimer cause I don't really care (I've given things I've review swapped bad ratings), but if it means so much I'll put a little note at the bottom. Like, give me five minutes. Jesus.

Edit: You should really e-mail me the next time you feel I've done something inappropriate. That said, I've added disclaimers to Transition and Restart, Nowhere Island University, and The Other Kind of Roommate.

For the record, I don't do review swaps. I reviewed Transition and Restart because Sten asked and I wanted to give this review thing a try. I never expected a review in return, though it's nice that he wanted to return the favor. It's possible that other reviews without disclaimer were done the same way.

I agree that the wording comes across as pretty harsh.

Sorry. I should have made it clear that review swaps are definitely not the devil. Also, of all the review swaps, yours was probably the least ethically compromising. Its just that I've been involved in the world of gaming and, well, let's just say that there have been issues and that around this time last year they blew up. I just really want to nip that stuff in the bud before some asshole starts screaming about Swapgate or some bullshit.

To respond to this properly would probably require writing an essay of my own--probably several.


If you want to understand where web fiction came from, there's really no limit to where you can go. In the earliest days of the web (I'm talking Usenet groups here folks), people were writing superhero fiction. Among them were Eric Burns-White (Interviewing Leather) and if I remember reading this correctly Jimmy Wales (as in Wikipedia).


Let's say that that doesn't count for a moment because it predated websites. Then what we've got is Epiguide. Back in the early history of the web (i.e. the late 90's), became one of those "Hey, look at the wacky things they're doing on the internet" stories. It was featured on NPR and other news sources, and I think it or something like it may have even gotten venture capital money during the Dot Com Bubble.

Basically Epiguide was a site for people who wrote soap operas online.

Epiguide still exists ( ). Heck, Kira, the person who runs it has an account at WFG. In fact, she just posted recently, inviting all of us to become part of Web Serial Writing Month in August.

If you feel the urge to interview someone about history you should interview her. That's an era I know almost nothing about except that Epiguide was a very big deal. Given that it was about soap operas, however, I paid no attention to it. At the time that it was big, I was in grad school and paying little attention to anything else.

Take a look at the websites associated with Epiguide though, and you'll see the TV influence. Until relatively recently, their sites were consistently better looking than the current era of sites. Theirs though were all hand written html.

I don't know too much about what was happening in online fiction between 98 and 2006, but I do know that there were lots of online boards where people posted stories. Those are still around.

Just a moment... I'm going to add to this, but since there's no draft function, I'm just going to save the message before coming back to it.

Food Snobbery

Ok... Back. I just put 2 pounds of italian sausage into a frying pan because I'm apparently the sort of person who makes his own spaghetti sauce instead of buying it cheaply at the store...

So that was Web Fiction's Pre-History.

Let's move on to The Current Period.

That more or less started with Tales of MU ( ) and Pages Unbound. Here's how that worked. Alexandra Erin wrote Tales of MU, making money using the same system Wildbow later used with Worm--accepting donations and writing interludes and/or updates.

Tales of MU and the Beginning of the Current Community

Tales of MU was a fantasy story set in a modern univerity. Essentially it answered the question, "What would modern society look like if Dungeons & Dragons' default background supplied the history and worldbuilding?" This is better than it sounds. This was Alexandtra Erin's second serial. Her first was Starharbor Nights, a superhero serial.

One of Tales of MU's defining characteristics other than its background was sex, and lots of it, both heterosexual and homosexual, with and without kink.

Along with Tales of MU came "An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom." Intimate History was a coming of age story of a young prince set in a period similar to the Victorian period. It shared the sexual aspects of MU as well as having an atypical fantasy setting. It's no surprise then that the two serials shared audience members and unintentionally fed off each other.

Pages Unbound was another big part of that period. Alexandtra Erin started a directory of the new serials that were popping up.

Another big deal of the period? Novelr ( ). Started by Eli James (a psuedonym), a CS student at the University of Singapore, Novelr was a voice of the community for years until it slowed down. He pinpointed many issues in the growing community. It's still worth a read too.

Gratuitous Blog Linking and Sausage

Ok. I'm going to save this again and make sure that I haven't burned the sausage yet.

Anyway, that the period when I wrote this essay:

It's also the period in which I wrote this:

The fact that I was blogging about this is significant. That's the big difference between 2006 and the era of Epiguide--you didn't have to hand edit html. You could just use pre-existing blog software. That makes all the difference in the world. Tales of MU started on Live Journal and moved to self-hosted Wordpress. Intimate History was on Drupal.

Web Fiction Guide and the Simmering Sauce Period

Anyway, the beginning of that period ended when Chris founded Web Fiction Guide (2008?). Basically, he ended up grabbing a bunch of us that had been talking about a project for publicizing web fiction and all of us (including Eli) became WFG's first editors. Soon after WFG appeared, Alexandra Erin announced she was going to close Pages Unbound. She kept it open for a while due to public outcry, but eventually closed it anyway.

WFG looked and worked MUCH better.

Post WFG's appearance lots of readers of MU and Intimate Kingdom started their own serials. They were mostly fantasy, but there was a lot of science fiction and some superhero fiction--not much though. Probably the most typical serial of the period was a "fantasy students in high school/college" serial similar to MU or Harry Potter. Also there were a number of vampire serials, some of them probably influenced by Twilight.

F**king Twilight.

There were other kinds of serials though. I remember "The Peacock King," a serial about a gunslinger looking for revenge while joining the Peacock King's court. Also, there was one about a vampire cat... Seriously. It got good reviews. It's also the period where Gavin's "The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin" started.

Infrastructure Experiments and Cooking the Mushrooms

During that period, there were a lot of attempts at building web fiction infrastructure.

--A big bunch of us got together to talk about forming an awards committee and coming up with other ways to publicize web fiction. This ultimately never got off the ground.

--There was a magazine called Ergo-fiction which tried to become an ezine for serial readers, but mostly only authors read it.

--A book club called the E-Fiction Book Club started. It reviewed serials for a whle, and then died when the site owner got frustrated during a site revision (she'd tried to convert it from to Drupal).

--An author started Fluffy-seme, a site that was a combination of free fiction and a paywall with the intention of paying authors. It ended after a site upgrade didn't quite improve things as much as the owner wanted.

--Meilin Miranda forms Digital Novelists, a Keenspot style site for web novelists which at one point included both Gavin and Drew Hayes. Meilin actually made advertising money off this--not big money, but consistent money.

The Noodle Checking Era

OK... I"m going to check on the noodles now.

The Post Supper Era

Noodles checked. Supper eaten. I'm going to finish this in one go, mostly because I still have to write my next Legion of Nothing update.

Death of Web Fiction's First Big Growth

This period of web fiction ended as periods do, not with one big bang, but with a number of whimpers.

--Alexandra Erin (the first person I know of to make a living off of writing serials) started too many serials, stopped updating regularly and lost a lot of readers, eventually ending all of the serials but Tales of MU. I understand her health was involved too.

--Meilin Miranda took a lot of time off, turning the Intimate History novels into ebooks. Her site never recovered its readership, but she did make money off the novels.

--Between web fiction authors connecting on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, the Web Fiction Guide forums became relatively empty.

--Adding to the emptiness, a number of authors founded a site called Originally focused on marketing web fiction (one project was a web fiction digest that never got off the ground), it eventually became social as well. This gave authors two places to check (three if you count Novelr's comments) for interaction. Unfortunately, there weren't enough authors to keep both sites going. died. WFG's forums' traffic was much reduced, often having only four topics that had been touched within the last month.

--Novelr stopped updating. You can't understate the importance of the site in web fiction's development. Did I say go read it?


The last and most important one is this: Amanda Hocking.

Amanda Hocking made millions of dollars off ebooks. This meant that if you were thinking, "How can I get my writing out into the world," you didn't start a web serial, you wrote an ebook.

The Zombie Apocalypse

As a result, things stayed quiet for a bit. They weren't totally quiet, but it was obvious things weren't as active as they had been. Oddly enough, that's the period where zombie web serials became popular. I blame The Walking Dead, but it does seem appropriate.

None of the bigger name zombie serial writers became active in the forums except for one guy who appeared to complain about a review he'd been given. They used Top Web Fiction to promote their work though, and that's not a bad thing.

Come to think of it, the only time Web Fiction Guide interacted with the bigger name zombie fiction writers was when someone got a bad review. In fact, one serial's readers flooded the site with good reviews in response to an editor's bad one (three star). What's up with that?

A New Hope

Getting back to the historical part of this (as opposed to the bitter griping), things began to become better again in 2012. At that point the forums began to get regular discussions again (well, regular-ish, but better than before). The writers of Caelum Lex were one of the first new people to come in and stick around for a while, and at about that time others appeared too.

Plus, that's also about the time that one serial began to become really big. I think you can all guess its name. Let's say it together:


And that's the period we're in right now--the post-Worm, lots of superhero serials, actual discussion in the forums period.

I like it a lot. It's the period where people assume that turning your serial into an ebook is an option, but they still write free serials. Unlike the earliest period, there is an actual working directory of web fiction. There's a more realistic assessment of social media (it's not everything).

It's actually the best period in terms of monetizing. You've got ads, merchandise, ebooks, print books, audiobooks, Patreon, and one time donations with Paypal. Furthermore, it's also the period in which you can turn your serial into ebooks with money provided by your fans through Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Plus, thanks to Wildbow's continual promotion of Top Web Fiction, it's become a great engine for making his audience aware of lesser known serials. Drew Hayes' audience is also using the site, and some of his audience comes from people reading his ebooks and then going to read his serial.

To my mind, the latter is extremely important. Personally, I'm of the opinion that the best thing for the serial community is that those of us who do ebooks would tell people that our books come from a web serial and link to it.

Ebooks have a much larger audience.

Anyway, that's my history of web fiction. It's the short version, however. The long version will be in my memoir if I ever get well enough known that people would read it.

Note: I'm not counting on that.

Take your time, Jim. This is all very interesting.

Have people been screaming 'Swapgate'?

To be honest, my issue with review trades has always been how reciprocal they are. There's just something quietly 'off' about five people reviewing the story whose author is reviewing each of their stories in return. I think it's because in the back of my mind, I'm treating them as 'coerced'. There's ten times the threat of revenge reviews - again, just as a perception, not a reality (necessarily) - when the candle's lit at both ends there.

I'm going to hold off on naming any names, but there are four reviewers I can think of right now who've been on reviewing storms. Some of them say, "Oh, this wasn't my thing." Some say, "It totally was!" All of them were noted very highly in this forum for their participation, and I think they got a few reviews as a natural by-product. No alarms in my head went off at that. It's because there was no hostage situation threat - everyone was doing it for the sake of doing it despite the obviously concerted effort. Totally fine to me.

Likewise, to name a name that's been named, BillyHiggins' trade again avoided that hostage feeling by offering a trade in return for reviews on someone else's serial entirely. He didn't directly stand to benefit, so when I read Interviewing Leather (the Someone Else's Serial), after I quite specifically said, "Let me look the story over and see if it's something I even want to review," I not only didn't feel pressure while saying 'maybe' - which I damn well wouldn't've if it'd been written by Billy himself (*) - but I also didn't fear revenge when he upheld his end. That's why I didn't bother to and won't be bothering to put a disclaimer on mine: I wrote the Interviewing Leather review for the same reason as any other, and it's only that I heard about it more straightforwardly than clicking around. Should Billy? Ehhh... I guess. But again, it's not like he stood to gain from it directly. There's nothing to disclose, in the same way someone who's told by a buddy, "Hey, check out NIU!" should.

(* - Kinda Super Gay has a standing IOU Review on it based on a comment I made months ago. Way before this. Not the point! Shh!)

Michelle, by the way, made it very, very clear that she DIDN'T feel like there'd be people coming after her later for leaving a non-fluffy review. She said it a couple of times: she wasn't making a thread to discuss the content of what she wrote, even if that's a little how it sounded at first, but just to do some group bonding over how it's kinda nerve wracking to be so socially close to someone you review.

Tanky, you only had to ask. I'm quite free with my data.

Well, I've generally had mixed feelings about review swaps, but readers aren't even aware they happen. That said, a few years back, someone started a web fiction review book club. One of her reasons for it was that it seemed like all the authors reviewing each other's work here seemed a little too "Go you," as she put it. It was called the "E-fiction Book Club".

So I'd say that over the long term people will notice. That said, I think you can do it ethically--make sure people know why the review came about and you're good in my book.


@Chris - Well, let me flat out ask you: for the Interviewing Leather swap, where the 'other half' of the trade was for an non-offering-author's serial, do you feel the arrangement made you LESS uneasy or AS uneasy as a traditional swap (where both authors are having their works directly reviewed by the other)?

Because I really enjoyed that arrangement. I'm hard pressed to find a way to describe traditional swaps in a way that doesn't call them paid, because they are, so I'd rather talk about grayer, more positive (to me) deals than the one everyone's raising an eyebrow at.

Seems I got myself involved in something here.

Some while ago I started athread where I asked for reviews and promised to write my own in return. Knowing very well how communities tend to work I already had two reviews up to show that I do indeed write reviews in the first place.

Review-swapping for me is a means to get reviewed; to get the number of reviews up. But not to get glowing reviews. As far as I'm concerned it does the same job as being active in the community.

@Sten - Oof. Now, see, that's what I was getting worried about: anyone feeling blamed. To be clear, although yes, you had a traditional review swap recently, absolutely no one here is singling you or anyone who does a swap out. This is a general discussion of the arrangement, which is still permitted so you're not breaking rules. This is NOT condemning or judging anyone.

I get what you're saying about having it as a means to get reviews. However, to me, reviews are about readers giving their opinions about the story to other readers. I have never seen it as a promotional tool intrinsically, even though hell yeah, reviews are great for getting the word out there. But just like how viral videos went from being catchy clips to stealth marketing campaigns, I've stopped seeing review swaps as genuine. They're now... forced. Paid. They can absolutely be insightful and legitimate anyway, but it's a perception I have about the whole process that all assurances in the world can't fix.

I don't approve of direct review swaps. I think if you want one, the most you should do is explain your story to a bunch of people, casting a wide net for those few natural reviewers, or ask someone to do it WHILE GIVING THEM the option to say no. I want to see that people are reviewing freely, not being bought as fans (the perception). Leave the reviews in the reader's toolbox, not the author's.

@Jim - Hurry! You've only got so long before the comment locks editing! Gogogo!

@Tartra No prob ;)

I was actually trying to say that all the work we do has a certain amount of 'what's in it for me' to it. Hence I referred to plowing down work in a community.

As I know that I'm rather blunt in my communication I tried to disclose how my mind works.

On other sites I spend a lot of time helping out with snippets, taking part of more or less serious rating games and answering questions I feel I can help with. That kind of activity probably smell less, let's call it mercantile ;) However, I have no illusions about whether those activities drive read and comments to my stories or not. They do. I can as well be honest with myself about that.

For me a review-swap only shortens the list of unknown titles I'll read before I write a review. The total number of reviews I write in the end only depends on the time I have available. (And yes, I'm on vacation now *grin*)

So no hard feeling from this side.

@Sten - Yeah, the what's-in-it-for-me hurdle is the hardest to hop. And I'm on board with you: being active is one of the best ways to get traffic, but I'm idealistic in that although I know everyone's got a teeny tiny 'Read Me!' agenda, when I start obsessively recommending someone, I'm trying to help out a friend rather than completing a transaction. I trust a lot of you guys here, and I'd like to think there's as much play - hopefully more! - as work.

That could explain another reason why I don't like review swaps. I don't want to feel used, and if we're all supposed to be 'using' each other, I don't want to feel like the schmuck who missed the memo. Let me do favours and see favours being done, and all that jazz.

@Tartra: I agree with Jim on this one; as there's no direct consequence, I don't have a problem with that arrangement. It becomes more of a review challenge than a review swap. It is specifically the "I'll review yours if you review mine" one that worries me. And ensuring that each one includes a statement that it was part of a review swap resolves most of my issue with even those.

Jim, you just brought back a lot of memories. That late 2006-early 2007 period is right when I started STREET, and I remember it was one of maybe three or four sci-fi serials going at the time.

Man I feel old now.

I never really went in for review swaps as I'm a terrible reviewer, but I don't see a huge problem with it. Readers aren't stupid. Most people can smell a rat if there is one. And if the swaps are genuine, what's the harm? I certainly wouldn't want anyone to softball reviews of my work. It ain't perfect, but that's why we strive to improve with each project and each lesson learned. Being called on your mistakes, sometimes ruthlessly, is part of achieving success as a writer. If you give or expect blank praise you're in the wrong line of work.

Okay. I've finished. In fact, I think I might have used the maximum possible space a post can use. I know this because I keep on trying to add a little text, but I can't.

@Ryan: That's okay. I feel old too.

EDIT: Ok. I managed to make everything as good as it's going to get, and it's long. Go read it or I'll find your house and make you.

Holy crap, Jim. Just... holy crap. The titles, the formatting, the structure of that - I literally feel like I went to a museum and got an official, expert tour.

Thank you so much for writing all that up! Also, how was dinner?


Thank you very very much for that history. It contained a lot of information I had no clue about, or only knew the broad strokes of. I really appreciate you taking the time; seeing the patterns like that is incredibly helpful, and it's always lovely to learn more about the history of a hobby/profession that all of us enjoy so much