Success Over Time


Web fiction has one of those with Wildbow, but something he said recently troubled me. Namely, he mentioned that each of his serials was less successful than his predecessor. So Worm had more readers than Pact, and Pact had more readers than Twig.


This is just one data point, but it reflects a larger pattern that worries me.






Time and time again this seems to happen, with the first serial being the most successful one. The only person who bucked the trend was Robert Rodgers. His first serial got 9 ratings, his second got 3 ratings, and his third got 19 ratings. But he himself ended up leaving the web fiction community.



Can a web fiction author have more than one successful work?



Is the problem that each serial needs time to build up an audience? Is the problem that authors maybe need to be patient -- waiting not just for the first serial to become popular, but also taking the time to grow each successive serial? Is the problem that finishing a successful serial makes the lack of success of a new serial seem much less tolerable?


I've noticed the trend and I've formed some theories, but I feel like I haven't fully wrapped my head around what all this could mean.


time. worm ran so much longer that it grew and grew an audiance that was invested. not all of them moved over to the new one. and the new one was over quicker. but yeah, serialization is not long term, eventually you have to collect into books i think.


I'd say, "Let's look at how this was done," in terms of the evidence you mentioned for your worry.


1. Tales of MU: Alexandra Erin started multiple serials, (something like four or five in total) after Tales of MU grew. At that point, she found it impossible to keep up with her self-imposed insane schedule. Added bonus: she has some kind of disease that actually saps her energy. At some point not only did her extra serials start to post irregularly, but so did Tales of MU--to the point that the audience shrank considerably.


2. Meilin Miranda took a break from her established serial to revise it. That took a very long time. It took so long that she started Scryer's Gulch after a gap of some months after Intimate Kingdom's break--a long enough gap that the regular readers had stopped checking in as much.


In my view, the problems with the "second serial dropoff" has more to do with the schedule break that lost both writers a lot of readers.


In addition to that, both serials drew from complimentary circles of readers (fantasy readers who enjoyed sexuality and not just heterosexual sex). Both serials had issues during the same period, much like they had their growth in the same period with the result that they weren't effectively crosspromoting each other (which they did mostly unintentionally).


Now Worm is another thing altogether.


Worm was a superhero serial that hit when people were discovering an appetite for more superhero stories, but it had its own distinctive spin. Plus, it ran long enough that people who would enjoy it had a chance to discover it while it was running. Additionally, I think it may have tapped into an interest in darker superhero stories that definitly existed, but hadn't been previously obvious.


He did an excellent job filling that niche, but he went on to do something that wasn't related to superheroes. Wildbow did urban fantasy next, and now he's doing Steampunk (well, more like Biopunk if that's a thing). These aren't the same genre that he became known for.


He probably would have kept more readers if he'd done "Worm II: Even Wormier"---except he probably needed a break from that universe and that mindset. I know I would after that many words. He's made the right decision, I think in that he's writing the thing that sounds interesting to him. Bearing in mind that he has an audience, he's in an excellent position to grow again--especially if he writes something long enough for the audience to find him, and if he gets lucky again like he did with superheroes where the topic itself has momentum.


To echo Alexander, (whose comment I apparently just restated, but with more words), the thing that's really going to help Wildbow is to put Worm, Pact and Twig into ebooks where they'll find a whole new audience (and one that pays better).


EDIT: You know what? I'm going to make this already long comment even longer by adding my own plans for what I'm doing next.


1. I'm going to revise Legion of Nothing section by section and turn it into ebooks while it's still going, hopefully drawing ebook readers to the ongoing serial (which worked well for Drew Hayes).


2. If I do a second work that's totally unrelated, I'm going to finish the first draft before posting it on the web in sections--thereby stopping it from interfering with Legion's consistency. And then it will get revised and turned into an ebook.


Legion's function was always intended to be something that's on-going and a kind of calling card that people can find and then become aware of other things I'm doing. It's got a planned out ending, but it's not going to appear for a while. In the meantime, I'll be completely happy if it turns out to be my best known work for a while. Sadly, the other stuff I'm working on hasn't made it to the web yet, but I'm confident it will.


I'd say, "Let's look at how this was done," in terms of the evidence you mentioned for your worry.


1. Tales of MU: Alexandra Erin started multiple serials, (something like four or five in total) after Tales of MU grew. At that point, she found it impossible to keep up with her self-imposed insane schedule. Added bonus: she has some kind of disease that actually saps her energy. At some point not only did her extra serials start to post irregularly, but so did Tales of MU--to the point that the audience shrank considerably.


2. Meilin Miranda took a break from her established serial to revise it. That took a very long time. It took so long that she started Scryer's Gulch after a gap of some months after Intimate Kingdom's break--a long enough gap that the regular readers had stopped checking in as much.


In my view, the problems with the "second serial dropoff" has more to do with the schedule break that lost both writers a lot of readers.


In addition to that, both serials drew from complimentary circles of readers (fantasy readers who enjoyed sexuality and not just heterosexual sex). Both serials had issues during the same period, much like they had their growth in the same period with the result that they weren't effectively crosspromoting each other (which they did mostly unintentionally).


Now Worm is another thing altogether.


Worm was a superhero serial that hit when people were discovering an appetite for more superhero stories, but it had its own distinctive spin. Plus, it ran long enough that people who would enjoy it had a chance to discover it while it was running. Additionally, I think it may have tapped into an interest in darker superhero stories that definitly existed, but hadn't been previously obvious.


He did an excellent job filling that niche, but he went on to do something that wasn't related to superheroes. Wildbow did urban fantasy next, and now he's doing Steampunk (well, more like Biopunk if that's a thing). These aren't the same genre that he became known for.


He probably would have kept more readers if he'd done "Worm II: Even Wormier"---except he probably needed a break from that universe and that mindset. I know I would after that many words. He's made the right decision, I think in that he's writing the thing that sounds interesting to him. Bearing in mind that he has an audience, he's in an excellent position to grow again--especially if he writes something long enough for the audience to find him, and if he gets lucky again like he did with superheroes where the topic itself has momentum.


To echo Alexander, (whose comment I apparently just restated, but with more words), the thing that's really going to help Wildbow is to put Worm, Pact and Twig into ebooks where they'll find a whole new audience (and one that pays better).


Interesting observations!


I've had the opposite experience with my serials. My first serial (the Apocalypse Blog) did okay, but my current serial (Starwalker) is far more popular. Some of my audience from AB came with me to Starwalker but not all of it; I definitely didn't start from scratch and it grew pretty steadily.


Some idea of stats:


Apocalypse Blog:

300-500 visits per day

Updated daily

Genre: post-apocalyptic

Ran for 1 year

WFG: 4 reviews, 17 votes


Starwalker:

~900-1,000 visits per day (currently)

Updated weekly (because daily is actually insane)

Genre: (hard) scifi

Running for 5 years (and counting)

PoV: first person / mix

WFG: 13 reviews, 36 votes


Starwalker has had a lot longer to build readership, reviews, votes, etc. I also only took a month off between the end of AB and starting Starwalker, so less time for readers to forget about me. I was expecting at least some drop-off, mostly because of the change of genre and, well, life, but it wasn't as bad as I was expecting.


I should probably dig up the stats for Starwalker's first year to do a better comparison.


Coming up, I'm about to take a longer break from Starwalker, once I finish the fourth book. I'm nervous because it'll cause a drop-off in readership, but I really need a break. Also, I'd really like to start up/write a new serial before I delve back into Starwalker. So I guess we'll see what happens to the stats after that.


Hint, hint, Wildbow: your April Fools for next year has just been officially titled 'Worm II: Even Wormier'.


Worm 2: Electric Wormaloo.


Anyway, thanks guys. This all makes a lot of sense, and lets me see a little more clearly what the future of the medium might be like. With most of the authors, I could see how personal decisions lessened their success, but with Wildbow, I was just like, "HE DID EVERYTHING RIGHT IS THIS MEDIUM BROKEN!?!" But yeah, as always, it's about time and patience.


Jim, one of the things I find so interesting about your post is the way that a lot of authors seem to get stuck on the e-book thing. Stepping back from serial writing so she could take time to release the e-book meant that MeiLin Miranda lost some of her audience. Trying to edit the ebook while also serial writing (on top of personal stuff) meant that ebook release has been slow for Wildbow.


Drew Hayes really seems to have found the key to success, releasing the e-books while the serial is still running, but a number of Amazon reviewers criticized the LACK of editing (he has four and a half stars on the first book, so it's not like those criticisms killed the book's success, but still. Actually, has he written a blog post or something about how he found success with Amazon? Because I think that would make for a great read.)


Also, your plans for the future sound pretty solid!


Kess, it's funny that your weekly serial got more daily views than your daily serial did. But actually, both serials had/have pretty decent numbers.


I'm probably an odd piece of data here, because I actually gained way more followers after my first serial "No More Ramen" came to an end and Super Powereds started. Then again, NMR ran for all of 100 Chapters and was modern comedy, while SP has been going since 2010 and hits the far more interesting superhero niche.


I'm not sure what a good way to keep fans between serials is, but I do know what I'm planning to try when SP: Year 4 comes to a close and that serial is officially done. Aside from spin-offs like Corpies, I do have my next serial mentally planed out, and rather than let SP close and then start the new one, I'll probably kick off the new one while Year 4 is running. That way my readers will be constantly seeing it going up, and will hopefully take the time to read and get invested. Then, once SP ends the new one can take over the more frequent posting schedule, and a smaller project, possibly another SP spin-off can go into the once-a-week posts. This is all theoretical, as I have no clue if fans will actually make the transition, but its the best strategy I've been able to come up with so far.


To address @BillyHiggins questions about making the transition from serial to e-book, I did indeed write about over at SGL's blog (https://theonlinenovel.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/from-web-serial-to-book/). Editing was a personal learning curve to get through, though nowadays I've learned to take steps to overcome it (2 different editors one after the other and a group of beta-readers). It's a different world in a lot of ways, but going into it can be really fun. Plus sometimes you get new readers, which is always awesome.


oo, twig is biopunk? (yes, its a thing) I actualy... havent finished pact, it just got... too much. I might check out twig.


My second serial Twisted Cogs is doing WILDLY better than my first, Orbital Academy. On the other hand, readers of TC have the option to avoid smut if they so wish, while OA readers did not.

Also, TC is objectively quite a bit better than OA. I learned a lot from writing my first serial, and did a lot more planning for TC before I started it.

Also, TC has stayed on the same site for its entire lifecycle, while OA moved from blogger to wordpress.

Also, there were a percentage of OA readers who never showed up on my stats since they read OA in its entirety on various smut sites.

Also, TC has run for longer than OA has.


You know what, come to think of it...I don't think my experience provides very much helpful data in this discussion. Far too many confounding variables.


Worm peaked at 60k views in one day, on the month of its completion in November 2013. It declined to just below 20k views/month (17, 19, 18, 19) after its conclusion, but toward the end of 2014 it picked up and has been slowly but steadily increasing (19, 23, 26, 26, 27, 25).


Pact was an odd bird. The daily average over 14 months went (in thousands of views) 3.5, 4.5, 5.8, 6.6, 5.8, 6.4, 7.4, 7, 7.5, 7.8, 7.3, 8, 7.8, 6.2 (story ends here), 4.5.


Twig, for the two months it's been running, went from 4.8 to 3.6 (keeping in mind I've only released one chapter this month by those numbers, as today hasn't been counted yet). Those numbers aren't so different from Pact now that I look at it.


But here's the interesting thing.


Income is on a steady rise.


In 2012 I made $100/mo average from my writing. In 2013 I made 1600/mo average. In 2014 I made 2500/mo average. In 2015 thus far I've made 3100/mo average. That's bound to decline a bit after what I think of as the 'serial completion bonus' starts tapering off, but it's a slow but steady increase.


I would say that even as the readership may not be booming, you have to keep in mind that writing finished is still out there. Fans go back to it, and people who find my stuff find they have more content to enjoy. I still get donations for Worm, and for Pact. Slowly but surely, 'true fans' are finding me. The fans who get me and get my writing and who will buy merchandise and whatever else.


These are the fans who back me and give everything I write a chance, paying my way.


Worm almost accidentally found a niche audience, and exploded audience-wise when the rational community found it (thanks in large part to Eliezer Yudkowsky). Pact... I know certain parts of my audience say it's stronger writing-wise, or that they like it more, but I had IRL issues leading through the first half and I know I can do better. I'm actually very interested to see how Twig 'takes' with the audience, and if a steady increase (rather than an early plateau) is possible with a stronger foundation and no complications or sabotage from real life pressures/distractions.


First off, I do not think there is anything wrong with the medium. The main problem is that not a lot of people even know we exist. The people you mentioned were the closest we have to main stream. Then again, I'm a relative newcomer to this whole thing.


By the way, Wildbow, how did you survive on $100 a month? Did you still live with your parents then, or is the Canadian dollar a lot stronger than the US dollar?


Is the Canadian dollar stronger than - hahahahahahaha!! Ohhh, God, I remember the last time the dollar was at parity. My igloo hadn't melted yet and the Leafs sucked a tiny bit less.


The 'don't know we exist' part seems like a big factor for me. It's hard to keep an audience with my slow-but-arguably-steady, but it seems even trickier to find them the first time at all.


As someone just getting started in the industry, this is a pretty reassuring bit of reality check, both in how hard it can be, and what success looks like.


From Winter's Ashes is doing very well on the Top Web Fiction boards, vote-wise, but I do need to figure out soon how I can sustain that (going from monthly to weekly, obviously, is going to be essential), and then turning eyeballs into donators.


Here's hoping we don't starve to death before hitting enough momentum to sustain us! :D


By the way, Wildbow, how did you survive on $100 a month? Did you still live with your parents then, or is the Canadian dollar a lot stronger than the US dollar?



I basically worked two jobs, and writing was one. The primary money-making work I did was intermittent (sometimes very intermittent) with house painting, landscaping, drywall installation and similar stuff; lots of helping out a family friend with work when he needed it. There were weeks I wrote 50 hours a week and did the other stuff for 30-40 hours. I also have a tendency to live below my means, as I'm okay living a more spartan lifestyle and tend to prefer to put a hundred dollars or a few hundred dollars away rather than spend it on something fancy/entertaining. The end result was that I had a chunk of money saved up and set aside, and a trickle of income (maybe $50-150/month) from a few investments that I was lucky enough to have.


That left me in a position at the start of 2012 (six months into writing Worm) where I looked at my finances and general costs and figure I could coast for half a year on no income at all, with things being tight, and anything else I could earn would buy me more time to keep things going. The $75 totals I got for the earliest donation chapters were often very, very welcome. I was legitimately terrified when I raised the asking amount for a bonus chapter to $120 because I thought people would stop donating and I'd hit a wall financially.


My hope and feeling at the time was that I'd get a more steady primary job (something like working in a grocery store if need be), but I found it next to impossible to make it happen, despite an education from a not-shitty University. I wasted a lot of time doing the door-to-door thing (going to the stores themselves and asking about opportunities) looking for work, at my parents' urging, when I should have stuck to searching online - it's a different era. By the end of the year I was still scraping by, and in early 2013 I started to earn more money. By April 2013 or so I was able to scale back how much I was doing in terms of the side work. By the end of the year I was able to focus wholly on writing as a career.


First off, I do not think there is anything wrong with the medium. The main problem is that not a lot of people even know we exist. The people you mentioned were the closest we have to main stream.



I think there are issues with the medium. On an abstract level...


* It's not visual. Webcomics, games, other sites, they tend to do better because of an immediate visual appeal. I believe M.C.A. Hogarth has talked at length about the differences between their webcomic and their serials in terms of effort put in & the resulting audience size.


* It takes investment. Getting into a serial requires one to take some time to read the initial bit before assessing it. Combine with the first point above and it's a wall that we have to get people past.


* There's a perception among those who know of serials that serials don't finish. Alexandra Erin, while she brought serials to the public consciousness on a level by aggressively advertising herself (on Penny Arcade, among other places), started too many projects and self destructed, missing a ton of updates and letting projects die. I've seen people on Reddit who respond to a recommendation for Worm or Pact or Twig turn around and say they won't read it because of this.


@Wildbow - Jumping on that last point, which is probably the second biggest (if not the biggest) issue,there are so many low-effort sites like WattPad or Fictionpress that make it as easy to start as stop. The perception gets carried forward to other serials, and when it's being confirmed by a 'legitimate' serial writer who's abandoned a project (not pointing fingers; life happens, and plenty of novels don't get finished), it sends the message that it happens with all of them.


This is the writing process in real time. How many people have books in their desks that they don't finish, let alone share with others? But when we take on this format, we're asking people to get invested. Speaking personally, I'm still getting used to how much of a project this is. That's upgraded from 'hobby', and has a while to go before it gets to 'job'. Why is anyone surprised readers are wary when that's an actual attitude some writers have?


So it comes back to consistency and persistence. We need to have something to show before we can expect people to stick around or accept the wait on other serials' updates. It might also mean vouching for each other, too. Team effort, guys - who's with me?!


I'm all for more team effort. The April Fools experiment was fantastic, I'd love to see more serial writer cooperation of any kind.


I think Mr. Hollins said something about July...? But yes, there are definitely plans/rumours about another co-op fest, in whatever form this time, in the works. :D


Edit: And I have to add, I am biased towards helping people who are on this forum (or in the IRC, which is also usually folks in this forum). I don't think to check serials for activity, so knowing you're alive and willing to chat is what keeps you in my mind. If you're here, I assume you're also writing. If you're not, then you can be very, very active and I don't think I would ever notice until someone reviews you.



Fascinating to me that you pose that question. I think, like Maddirose said, there's lots of other variables involved, but it's something that was in MY head when I stopped my math serial. I felt like people weren't reading it because of the math, and thought maybe if I went away, perhaps used some of the characters in another medium, with another plot, I might pick up a new readership there... who might one day be inclined to follow me BACK to math. A bit of a stretch, I know.

I can say that I'm only aware of two people who followed me from math over to the new one - and in fairness there was a 3 month gap between ending the old and starting the new (yet another variable!). I've NOW shifted from "Epsilon Project" to "Time & Tied", this time on the same site, but the April Fool thing is now a confounding variable too, as that happened just before the shift. I guess we'll see.


Regarding the "web serial medium"...


I've written in this style for 15 years. I only discovered it had a name ("serial") in the last three. So it's possible that even people who USE the medium don't know it exists. Moreover, I think Wildbow hit a nail on the head with the problem of ending the things. Because even when serials end, they don't. (You thought "Life, the Universe and Everything" wrapped it up? Here's "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish"!) I'm actually really bad for this myself, in that there's still loose threads out there even after an arc, or for that matter, book, is completed. ("Epsilon Project" being a classic example. Do I plan to go back to it? Yes. Will that tie up all the loose ends? Uhmmm.) I know there's some people who don't like that sort of thing. But I don't see life as something that ultimately has all the answers ("it's about the journey!"), which translates into the life of my characters and plots, to a certain extent.


Author Warren Ellis posted an interesting thing about his email list, and his numbers considering he does it "the wrong way" http://morning.computer/2015/04/several-odd-things-about-my-online-business/


I think for something like serial fiction, slow and steady is the RIGHT way, sniper rifle vs shotgun, why spend the money to reach 100k people and keep 1k of them as actual READERS when you can target and reach 5 k people and keep half of them, you know>?