When is Weblit "Successful"?

There's been a conversation going on over on Twitter about whether or not weblit is "successful" yet or not... which is getting somewhat painful to read in Twitter format. So I thought I'd open it up over here.

My one peeve about this discussion is that inevitably "we need to be able to make a living at it" is used as a metric for success. By this metric, most traditionally published authors would fail. :)

So what do you feel is keeping weblit from being legitimate in your eyes? What defines it as a successful medium to you?

All right, how about this? You feel like it's economically feasible to be a weblit writer. You don't feel guilty that you are not doing something more lucrative.

I don't see how you can define success in a monetized field any other way.

Actually let me step back even further. Success is when you are happy. People in this field aren't. I hear the aching frustration and sadness all the time. "People won't read my stuff." "No one's interested." "I can't make it at this." Personally I feel it myself.

By that definition we are not there yet.

Reading your starting post more carefully, I see the word "legitimate." I am not talking about legitimacy at all. That's a subjective term and useless except for PR reasons imo. (If you can convince readers you're "legitimate" in their minds, they're more likely to read and pay.)

My question, I guess, is why should we hold ourselves to a standard that print authors don't even? A lot of them are doing the same thing: they feel guilt because their spouses are keeping the roofs over their heads. They have to work day jobs. They fret that no one cares about their stuff. They're upset that they can't make it.

Most -artists- are in this position. Making money at art is rare enough that most people never do it. Why do we have to choose a metric that is guaranteed to make us feel inadequate as artists when very few people working in any creative field can claim to that measure of success?

I would like to see the field get to where a writer of the same skill and dedication and, yes, luck, can make it as well in weblit as they can in dead-tree. I personally know about five people who make a decent, regular living writing dead-tree novels. These are people who are or were friends, not just whose names I know. I know not one in weblit.

Statistically valid, obviously not, but I think that we would find if we could do a statistical analysis, we would find that there are more people making a living in the dead-tree world.

This does not make weblit "illegitimate" in my mind at all... but it is something that might turn young writers who want to make a career of it away, at least until a bigger weblit-accepting readership is built up.

All writing/publishing faces the dual challenges of artistic validation and commercial validation. There are plenty of examples of writers or books that have one and not the other, vacuous poorly written trash that still sells a ton, award-winning prose that never earns the writer more than a pittance, et cetera.

I think with weblit the one additional factor is the general perception that "any schmoe can start a blog" even if they can't write their way out of a paper bag, and so therefore 99% of weblit must be crap -- "because if it wasn't, they'd find a 'real' publisher..."

The plain truth is the "real publishers" are in terrible financial shape right now. They put all their financial eggs into the baskets called Borders and Barnes & Noble, and now that both those corporations are struggling, they have no safety net. So they aren't taking chances on new authors, they aren't developing new readerships or new markets/genres, and they are clinging to stupid marketing bull**** like giving a book deal to Snooki in the hopes that fad celebrity will sell more books than developing an actual good author would. (It's this kind of strategizing that has the industry in shambles and no one buying the crap that is in the chain stores in the first place.)

So writers are still going to be writers and readers are still going to be readers, but at this point the consumption of literature is changing drastically. It's a bit like readers have been spending less and less on overpriced, overproduced arena rock shows, but they haven't yet started to give much of their unspent money to the busking musicians on the street corners. Yet.

I have friends who had moderately successful careers as "recording artists" but they actually make more money standing on the street corner four nights a week. Working for a major label gave them prestige and validation as musicians in the industry, but didn't actually net them financial success. Whereas they can pull in $1000 a week on the street corner, weather permitting, while still being looked at by most as little better than a panhandler.

Weblit will have our successes, the street corners that get crowded and sell additional merch and rake in the regular donations, but which get ignored by the "mainstream press," (or which then get cherry-picked into deals) and we will have our well meaning but actually not that talented folks who are just having a good time expressing themselves. That's fine, too. Standing on the street corner is never going to be a "reputable" way to make a living, but if you don't depend on the literary establishment for your legitimacy, all the better. :-)

Having said that... I think it might just be that it's early going. I see some who seem to be working towards it. I hope I am working towards it myself.

To me the joy of the field is the way you can pull readers right into the creative process... I did a seven-person Google Docs role-play last night that was a blast. Definitely successful in the "are you happy?" sense.

I just want that and to make a living.

Awesome post, Cecilia. Lots of useful info.

Re this though:

Standing on the street corner is never going to be a "reputable" way to make a living, but if you don't depend on the literary establishment for your legitimacy, all the better. :-)

I disagree with the first part.

Someone who does a weblit that pulls in a million hits a day is going to be "reputable" real fast.

Fuck gatekeepers - we get to make our own reputations here!

Haikujaguar (sorry, that's the first way I knew you and it sticks) wrote:

My question, I guess, is why should we hold ourselves to a standard that print authors don't even?

I try not to think in terms of holding myself (or weblit) to a standard of success, but rather having in mind the possibility of success. The one shuts down, the other inspires.

That's a good distinction, K, if you can hold it in mind. I find too often that a lot of artists become so fixated on whether they can make money/a living and the legitimacy it confers that they lose the thread, and become angry and bitter. I'm also cautious of it because of how neatly a lot of print authors never talk about how they don't make "living" money off their writing; when I first embarked on my career, looking back I am astonished at how few would admit, 'hey, you'd better have a day job or a spouse' when it was clear they had one or both. I developed very unrealistic expectations, and when I hear people talking about "making a living" as a success measurement for weblit, I can't help but wonder if they are harboring the same expectations I did, to 'be like print authors' in the assumption that meant you could easily make enough money to pay your bills (and if you weren't, it was because you weren't talented/skill enough, not because of problems with art as a career). :,

Well, I know one thing... I never expected to easily make enough money to pay the bills...!

I figured it would be a ton of hard work, but that was okay because I'd be working hard at something I love doing.

I think (and have been told) that I'm not doing better financially because I don't self-promote enough... self-promotion is hard work that I don't love because it scares the crap out of me. I am working on getting myself psychologically to the point where I love doing it too. (I've had flashes!)

Most sad is the person who gets angry and bitter thinking "No one likes my work" when they don't self-promote at all. It's not "no one likes your work!" It's "no one knows it exists!"

I actually think we've fuzzified the discussion somewhat by mixing up personal measures of success with a measure of success for the field, and I possibly am as guilty as anyone else for that. If weblit is on a steady increase in readership, it is succeeding.

My experience with weblit is fairly new and likely to be unhelpful, but I see this question as it relates to art a whole lot, and it has the same definition confusions (what IS success) and emotional entanglements (I created it and love it but have no measuring stick for its value other than money).

In my opinion, something is successful when it is <i>rewarding</i> enough that you want to keep doing it.

Whether that reward is money that keeps you doing something you don't particularly enjoy, or something as simple as one excited reader's comments to keep you doing something already love, it's going to be a balance act very specific to that writer.

As a field-wide measure? I think a LOT of people know about weblit/webfiction in a very general sense - they read it on deviantart and fanfiction.net, and know that it's out there. Somewhere. Is it easy to find? Are the skilled creators well-connected to their target audiences? Oh no. The Internet is major slushpile, and it is easy to drown in the badly written Sailor Moon fanfiction and me-but-sort-of-not-fantasy-fulfillment dregs and get lost wandering around in dead-end, inactive things that never took off because no one knew about them, or never finished them.

Mm. So, those are my wandering thoughts as I procrastinate on a deadline...

(As an aside, hello! New-ish to the forums here and weblit in general and am getting just my toes wet so far...)

I wanted to be a professional writer from a very young age, so when I was a teenager some well-meaning relative got me a subscription to Writers Digest. WD isn't actually aimed at writers, it's aimed at "aspiring writers" so after a year or so it starts to repeat itself with the same advice again and again. (I'm not saying this is a bad thing, by the way, just that like 'sweet 16' magazines, they expect you to move on at some point while they repeat perennial topics.)

One thing I did learn from that magazine (and this was in the early 1980s) was how few people make money from fiction writing. They published a survey/study that had been commissioned either by the Author's Guild or another reputable writers organization, and concluded that in the USA in the English language, fewer than 3000 individuals were making their sole living from writing fiction.

Even at age 16 I realized that those 3000 people included people like Stephen King, and were very unlikely to include me unless I made myself one of the top 1/100th of a percent.

What that survey didn't say is that there *are* writers who could make their sole living from fiction if they wanted to, but that once they became a successful novelist, they didn't necessarily give up their job teaching college or working in industry or whatever. But it did drive home the point that achieving the dream of "write a bestseller, quit your day job" is a rare one.

What it also didn't say is that there is writing-related income that writers can chase down, too, and this goes for weblit writers as well as other forms of published, if they develop the skills. There are jobs to be had as freelance editors, there are gigs to be gotten as non-fiction writer/journalist (also a tough row to hoe in a different way), teaching writing classes, writing tutor/writing fellow jobs at colleges, et cetera. These are also competitive positions where the money doesn't just fall out of the sky, but they at least contribute toward the same career path and skills and many of them allow for "time to write" in one's schedule.

But back to the original question of legitimacy. Every fiction writer I know struggles against this EVEN WHEN PUBLISHED BY "REAL" PUBLISHERS. Most people in the mainstream cannot understand why someone would "waste their time" with fiction, as if it's only a pursuit for dilettantes. Somehow with visual art they can see the results, with performance like drama, dance or music they can grasp why you'd do community theater, but they can never understand that what you need to do now is go sit in a room by yourself and play with your imaginary friends. No, you cannot "do it later" and YES your s.o./mother/child has to compete with imaginary people for love, time, and attention.

That's an uphill battle for most writers and if the only line of defense we have is "but I do it to make money" then it's a losing battle. We have to do it and convince others of the legitimacy of our pursuit on its own merits as part of who we are and why we were put on earth. The end. Anyone who doesn't accept that about me can -- just like anyone who wouldn't accept my sexuality or my chosen religion -- get out of my life and stop trying to change me into something I'm not.

Potentially, weblit stands to be more profitable than print. Obviously we aren't there yet! Weblit's vastly lower overhead costs and its instantaneous global reach are big advantages. I think a part of the problem here is something Cecilia mentioned. Some people's kneejerk reaction is "Ugh! Blovels!" Sometimes this is based on experience, reading bad weblit, and sometime just on the assumption that "any schmoe can start a blog."

The big problem to be solved is the lack of readers. We also need some better monetization tools, and those are on the way, but they won't help us if nobody visits our sites. If people are not looking for us, they will not find us. The link below suggests people are not looking for us in throngs and droves; it's the Alexa page for WFG. Of course anyone looking for web fiction would pass through here at some point. So the numbers are coarsely indicative of who's looking for the kinds of things we're offering. http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/webfictionguide.com#

The question writ large is, why doesn't weblit have more penetration into the public awareness, as a positive thing, anyway?

As to what 'successful' means, I think success in the sense of artistic validation (the public appreciates my work...) is the same as the commercial definition of success (...and here are the nickels in my hat to prove it). If they are not the same they are surely related.

I think, after some consideration, my personal definition of success for weblit is when it's no longer considered some separate thing from every other way of making money as a writer. Instead of 'I'm a print author' and 'I'm an e-book author' and 'I'm a weblit author,' I'd much prefer, 'I'm an author, and you can find my work in print, online and in e-book venues.' When it's not considered something novel for an author to offer work online--fiction, I think nonfiction is quite well established online--I will be resting cheerfully. :)

This is exactly the webcomic dilemma, we just haven't got a 'Penny Arcade' to point to. I feel webcomics have really taken a head start in defining 'web' validity. You just have to get past the fact that on the web, you can as easily go to the slush pile as you can the 'success' who's making a living at it (there's a number of those in webcomics).

Attention is a metric, as well as income- in fact, you probably have to start with attention because it is the web. How many readers will make you happy? There's no top limit. When I was doing a comic, I thought of it as follows- if there are more readers per day than will fit into the room where you work, that's a success. I lost a lot of readers when I switched to text-only, but got a lot when I tried some advertising (which I'd never done much of). Recently I got a day when I had over 400 unique visitors- ones that did know they were coming to look at a site with lit on it ;) the ad I made was very text-based.

At a certain point, you become able to do things like go buy a print run of your work with some expectation that you can sell it... I think there's an advantage to us there, as many people don't like reading whole books on the web. It's a beautiful dovetail with the 'web' thing of putting your content up for free. We'll get to say, here's everything, now you can support the hapless author AND read more comfortably by purchasing this dead soiled flattened tree... go on, you know you want to...

People are trying to web-ize all artistic pursuits. It's just the method of doing it that's in question. And if you have four hundred THOUSAND unique readers a day, nobody asks if you are a real author (or cartoonist). If you have four, again nobody asks. If you have forty... four hundred... four thousand... at some point a line is crossed.

I'm a furry (anthropomorphic) writer, so I know hitting 400 is doing pretty well :)

Kendal wrote:

Of course anyone looking for web fiction would pass through here at some point.

Disagree. Judging by Alexandra Erin's numbers, many click through individual ads onto weblit sites. I think the same could be said for MeiLin Miranda too (though if she's around she can correct me if I'm wrong.) And then there's word of mouse. I think the lack of readership has more to do with the major-slushpile factor that Ellen pointed out. People read several pieces of crap in a row and figure there's nothing good, or if there is, they'll never be able to find it. (Whereas in web comics... you can sample and judge faster!)

Ellenmillion said:

"Are the skilled creators well-connected to their target audiences? Oh no. The Internet is major slushpile, and it is easy to drown in the badly written Sailor Moon fanfiction and me-but-sort-of-not-fantasy-fulfillment dregs and get lost wandering around in dead-end, inactive things..."

Yep. That's a huge problem. It may be the biggest one we face. We don't have the gatekeepers print publishing has. That's good in many ways, but it also results in a situation where our potential readers and fans are also the slush readers. I think many give up the search and go buy paperbacks.

This site is a help, of course; people can at least find out what others think of a story, but how many people know WFG is here?

Karen: Yep, I was replying to Ellen when you wrote your last post, and just now saw it. The Worldwide Slush is...wow.

I do not mean to say that all traffic passes through here on the way to author sites--most of mine doesn't. I should have phrased that better. One would think, though, that anyone noodling around the web looking for fiction would wind up here at some point. But maybe not!

Great points, all.

I remember there being a time in the 70s and 80s where there was this divide between "television actors" and "movie actors" as if somehow people who could be successful on the "small screen" were inferior actors to those who could succeed on the "big screen," and how it was a big deal if someone who was on a sitcom had a successful "crossover" into movie acting. It's more likely that movies being the more established medium pooh-poohed the up-and-comers in the new medium. Movies were *obviously* better than TV because they cost more to make! And had more gatekeepers! And therefore, the actors must be better, too!

Now that distinction seems rather artificial, and I think the divide between print published and digital published (ebooks, web serial etc) is going to fall as just as artificial in time.

What we still have to get past is the "giant slushpile" thing, as weblit is seen not as movies versus tv, but movies versus YouTube. But there are YouTube "stars" and successes, too.

Wow, there is a lot of awesome stuff here. +1 to just about everything MCA and Cecilia say. The tv/movie analogy is spot on; I think many here aren't old enough to remember those days. When Tom Hanks made the move to the big screen everyone was like "ooooh! He's a *real* actor now!"

It's like we're the Velveteen Rabbit; if we get loved hard enough we get to be Real Writers, whatever the hell that means. Well, actually, that mightn't be a bad analogy. Real Writers aren't people who make money at it; Real Writers are read. That's true for any writer, anywhere, not just us.

Karen, your comment about how people find weblit: from my experiences as a neophyte weblit reader a few years ago and as a writer now, people do NOT go searching for weblit, at least originally. They stumble on it. I stumbled on ToMU in late 2007/early 2008, not sure where--oh, I think it was LJ, someone either posted or pointed to AE's knockout first chapter--whatever you think about ToMU or where it's gone over the years, that first chapter just kills. Boom, I was into the weblit community and read like mad. Once you've been introduced, THEN you might come here and look around. More likely you're going to look at the links on your fave author's site, or the ads there, before you come to WFG. That's part of the problem in promoting WFG; no one knows they need it yet. :)

My experience as a writer has been that people primarily find me through ads and word of mouth, then from sites like OnlineNovels, WFG and TopWebFiction, in that order. Top search term for me: my name. Second search term for me: miranda birth control, for srs. That's why Google Ads fail MISERABLY for weblit. No one is searching for it.

The first ten chapters of Scryer's Gulch in chapbook form has been good advertising for me; it's a free download at Smashwords and is currently the 4th most downloaded scifi/fantasy book of all time and 38th of all books including erotica, approaching 7,000 downloads. I'm starting to see more new readers show up directly, and I tie that to the ebook. Ironically, it's first draft/last draft and isn't even my best work. :)

So yeah. Finding people is the issue, letting people know we're here *and making them care we're here.* We have to find those crossover spots where people might be likely to try something new, take a risk with their time, because that's what we're asking for. We want them to say, "That was worth the ten minutes to read that installment," not "I want those ten minutes back," and to get them to commit to those ten minutes in the first place.

Webcomics have traditionally been good places to get people to at least check us out, but comics are a quick sample; even something as tersely written as MCA's (absolutely terrific top of my current webserial list) "Spots the Space Marine" takes more effort than, say, xkcd. I'm not sure how we solve that problem. I'm considering perhaps tapping the zine community, printing up some actual chapbooks and handing them out or making them a cheap buy at cons. We need to be looking for people with attention spans. ;)

People ask me all the time how I found my readership. I don't have an answer other than that I was willing to put some money into ads. I think I spent a couple hundred dollars initially, including whatever I made at PW. It paid off. I can't advise that for everyone; I just know it worked for me.

I'm rambling now; I just go back from an afternoon at the steam/sauna with a friend and I am currently made of jello...