Web Lit vs. Dead Tree

FYI, there's an interesting guest post by Karen Wehrstein (author of THE PHILOSOPHER IN ARMS) over at Becky's Writing Blog. She discusses her experiences in traditional publishing vs. web publishing and which she likes best!


Fantastic and fascinating article; the perspective given to the publishing market is both intriguing and sobering. To me, one of the greatest things about the whole concept of weblit is that relationship between writer and reader, and the possibility for instant feedback and communication that allows a reader to feel more connected to a work (and an author to feel emboldened to work harder, and produce greater things, for the sake of his more intimate fanbase).

I still harbor the old-school desire to, as she puts it, "bill myself as a published novelist," and I'd like to eventually make some measure of profit on my creative energies, but so far I've found it incredibly satisfying on its own to have relative strangers give enthusiastic and supportive feedback on my work, and being able to thank those strangers and build a relationship.

And that leads us back to that question I wonder about: why don't more readers comment? Most serials get very few comments, even popular ones, and then it's usually the same frequent commenters.

I mean, given that commenting is one of the most fun things about this game..ah well. I can't figure out other people. I'm just waiting for the results of that survey on commenting that we were promised would be published in ErgoFiction...

A large part of it, I imagine, is that people aren't used to interacting with their art that way. Reading books is, historically, just as private an experience as writing them.

That sort of thing changes slowly over time, and I would say that web-based works of fiction are still in their infancy relative to other media, so it just takes vigilance from the brave and knowledgeable few to keep the wheels turning until things start to catch on.

I can't wait for those survey results, either. Should be very illuminating.

Fiona Gregory: "And that leads us back to that question I wonder about: why don't more readers comment? Most serials get very few comments, even popular ones, and then it's usually the same frequent commenters."

I have been thinking about this for a long since I started Web Serializing in January. It stems from this comment I received in Chapter 17 of Arcana Magi.

"You have a very imaginative storyline, along with interesting characters. I can't say I understand all that's going on yet but I just wanted to let you know I'm working on it and I like your style of writing and topics."

And this comment to another web serialist on Fictionaut

"Veronica, your story flows smoothly with graphic description, your characters are well developed and come alive in your story with believable thoughts and dialogue. I don't know where you're going with this story so I can't comment on whether it's worth continuing the journey or not. But whatever you write will be interesting to read because you are a good writer."

I believe the problem is not the Readers, but us, the Writers. We are asking A LOT of any reader to come back every week to read one chapter of our story at OUR pace, whereas said readers are accustomed to having a fully completed novel or story in their hands that they can read at THEIR own pace. When we write, we are going through a marathon each week and we want readers to do the same thing. The problem with commenting on our stories, is that our stories are not Completed, it's ongoing and the Readers do not know what direction we are taking them through or the direction our stories are taking them.

So readers cannot comment so easily, because if they comment on how great our stories are in the early chapters, then later on we go South on our storytelling or writing style, those readers are going to feel cheated, angry, and may not even hesitate to run to a Community Board and spread the word about how bad the story is. And we writers would feel ego bruised after sucking in all the praises, and would develop the nerve to attack those reader for doing so, when we are the ones who failed as writer on our end.

It's not a matter of whether we write a chapter that one week before posting, or having the entire story completed beforehand, we are asking readers to tune into reading one chapter a week, or whatever your timetable is, and expect them to give some commentary to something they don't know what's going to happen next chapter. We are asking and expecting TOO MUCH of our readers.

If the reader is willing to read one chapter a week, from Chapter 1 to whenever you wish your story to end, and not comment on it, it is best not to bite that hand that is feeding us. Because they are willing to go through the weekly marathon we writer's are subjecting them to, and we should be grateful they are willing to do so.

Why is it any different to any other serialised medium? People talk about "what will happen next?" all the time.

The key difference?

They're not talking to the author.

I think people would be more willing to talk about stories when the author isn't looking over their shoulder.

It's most likely also affected by the fact that not all of the readers are reading it on the website. A large part of my audience is on the RSS feed, which saves them the trouble of coming to the website for each post. They'd have to come back to the website to comment, which means even more effort on their part (and therefore more barriers to comments).

A lot of readers just want to be entertained.

Kess, I think you may have hit the nail on the head of a major reason for lack of comments.

Also see survey results at http://www.ergofiction.com/2010/07/surveying-webfiction-feedback/

I get plenty of comments on my stuff - and there's more on community forums off the blog. Like it was on the Valley thread on the official Sims 3 forum that someone told me about how at her daughter's Halloween party they all gathered around the computer and read what I had up until then. And how the little girls asked if they could come back and read more when I updated and asked if I was a famous published author. Man, I cried that day.

Like Chuck said, the relationship with your readers is incredible. My husband says I could never publish a book the traditional way because I'm too addicted to instant feedback. And it's true. I've never cared about money really and I have a decent day job. I write for the comments and the clicks and the love.

But yeah - I'm coming from a community that's been telling its stories online in serial form for...man, about a decade if you count the Sims 1 story exchange. And everyone knows the best way to get your story out there is to comment on other people's stuff. We've developed a culture of commenting. And of taking our stories in serial doses and discussing the characters and the story in between updates with the author - recently there was a meme flying around the Sims LiveJournal community where people shared 10 facts about a character and then tagged other authors with the name of the character they wanted the authors to profile.

I started my own Sims storytelling forum a while ago and we have a forum just for threads to journal about your story and the process of writing it and everyone checks out everyone else's story babble and comments on it. We're all up into each other's creative process and sharing the story as it's written.

It's been normal to me for five years now, and it wasn't until I came here and started posting about it and seeing the online fiction world outside of the Sims community that I realized how...not mainstream we must be. But it's my creative literary subculture, and I love it. The Bloomsbury Group has nothing on us. ;)

And hey - maybe we could be a possible example of what the full text more mainstream online fiction community could be like in the future.

With all due respect MedleyMisty, you're already cashing in on a massively popular franchise though. I mean, there is already an audience for all things Sim. I think it's a bit different for people trying to write in their own way and their own style. I'm sure if I wrote a World of Warcraft fan story I'd have a lot more readers! AND be easier to find on Google!

I really enjoyed reading the article, and it threw up some very interesting dilemmas that I'll need to consider myself. I've got a project that I would like to see 'traditionally' published, but because of the current climate, part of me is worried about getting it out there. I'm also aware that with an editor and agent, some compromising has to be done with a novel - it would be niave to think otherwise - but I felt badly for Karen when she wrote about the degree she was made to compromise.

On the other hand, while I think that the Secret Project would probably be a bit more popular on web fiction than Cold Ghost would, I feel happier sharing Cold Ghost on the web, as I feel like it's pushing me to write in a style that I don't normally read in 'traditional' publishing. I don't see the same degree of reader-to-writer interaction as some, but according to SiteMeter, I've got several people who will read everytime I update, which does make me feel nice and fuzzy inside.

I think the amount of commenting you get is dependent on the project. My heavy world-building stories get a lot more discussion than my straight SF stories, and I think that's because there are a lot more hooks for discussion in stories that ask implicit questions or inspire 'woah, what was that?' philosophical musing.

It also depends on how much reader interaction you're willing to entertain. If you're writing a story that reacts to the audience, then the audience will become more lively. :)