Interview with Chris Poirier

Chris Poirier is the man behind Web Fiction Guide (WFG) and Top Web Fiction guide (TWF.) Like most web serial authors, I owe him a huge debt. Of the sites that refer people to my serial, WFG, TWF and the WFG forums have been the sites that have come in first, second, and fifth. That translates into something along the lines of seven hundred and thirty seven people referred by sites he maintains. By the time you read this, that number will have increased.

t4nky: In your own words, why should a person thinking of writing a web serial writing a web serial get involved in Web Fiction Guide.

Chris Poirier: The best reason is the self-serving one: we offer free publicity. That is hard to come by–particularly if you don’t have an existing fan base to spread the word. That’s the reason to list, and why we have a steady queue of new submissions waiting.

What I think a lot of authors don’t understand is just getting listed isn’t enough. The site is set up to ensure *readers* have the biggest say in what new visitors get to see. Authors who list and leave usually get back as much as the effort they put in, which is to say very little. It’s the ones who participate–who link back to us, who ask their readers to review, who establish relationships with other authors, who write a few reviews themselves–those are the ones who see the most benefits.
As with most human endeavours, we are stronger together than alone. Serializing fiction is no different.

t4nky: When did you first become involved in the world of web serials? Did you decide to write your own and discover other writers or did you find several web serials that got you hooked?

CP: I started writing my serial, _Winter Rain_, back in 2008, on the encouragement of Sarah Suleski (author of Alisiyad, Dreamers, and Queen of Seven). We knew each other from an online writers’ group, and she thought it would help me get over my long-standing writer’s block. When I started, I didn’t even have a story idea. I think maybe I was going to do a collection of flash fiction. I just wanted to write something tense, as I’d had a lot of trouble with that in the past. Well, the first post went up, Sarah liked it and so did I, and over the next 24 hours, with the help of an old Irish faerie tale I liked, I came up with a story and ran with it.

Winter Rain ran for 18 months. Sadly, I wasn’t able to finish it. That lack of planning at the start (compounded perhaps by a lack of imagination on my part), doomed the story. I wrote myself into a corner I couldn’t find my way out of, and after nearly 80 instalments, I had to apologize to my readers and walk away.
All in, I’m glad I attempted it. Next time, though, I’ll do things rather differently.

t4nky: What are some of your favorite web serials? What is your all-time favorite? What are a few you are currently reading?

CP: I’m actually not reading a lot, right now. I’ve been very busy with work and personal projects, so pretty much all of my online reading time now goes to processing the WFG submission queue. I get to see everything we list, but don’t get to spend a lot of time with any given story.

Looking through my past reviews, I loved The God Eaters, by Jesse Hajicek. And Kip Manley has recently announced that City of Roses will be starting up again soon, which I’m looking forward to. And I’m currently reading Rackham & Crane, which we just listed. It’s got this understated creepiness to it that I quite like.

t4nky: How often do you look over Top Web Fiction or recent submissions to find new things to read?

CP: I process stories from the submission queue as often as I have time, but that often ends up being only once or twice a week. I usually try to approve at most three new stories a day, in order to give them some time on the home page, but if the backlog is particularly long, I sometimes have to go as high as six in one session.

As for TWF, I honestly don’t look at it at all except for administration purposes. But that’s fine–I’m not the target audience for that site, so I feel no guilt about it. 🙂

t4nky: So how long have you been managing Web Fiction Guide? I assume it was some time after you became involved in the community. What made you believe it was needed?

CP: As I mentioned earlier, I was friends with Sarah Suleski, back when she was working on Alisiyad. I had set up her site for Alisiyad in late 2007, so I had some basic understanding of the ecosystem from her. I started writing Winter Rain in early June of 2008, and I think WFG went live the first week of July, 2008. It was pretty quick, once we decided to do it. I built the necessary WordPress plugins and theme over the course of a week, while Sarah put together the original editorial team, picked from authors and reviewers she knew from her time on Pages Unbound, a listing site Alexandra Erin used to run.

At the time, Pages Unbound was really the only game in town, but it had a lot of technical and systemic problems. That’s why we decided to start WFG. We thought we could do a better job.
To be honest, we were a bit naive. One of our initial goals was to give every listed story an editorial review. We wanted to make sure the good stuff got some attention, even if it didn’t have a large cheering section. Ultimately, that proved unsustainable. Writing a quality review takes a lot of time, and the volume of things to read is just prohibitive. And, every once in a while, an author would go ballistic over a negative review from an editor–which can be very stressful.
These days, I understand Alexandra Erin’s situation with Pages Unbound much more clearly. One of my personal motivations for starting WFG was I wanted to do a faster turnaround on the submission queue. At that time, getting a listing on Pages Unbound was taking between two and four weeks, which I thought was unacceptable. As it’s turned out, I can’t often do any better myself. 😦

t4nky: How hard was Top Web Fiction to design and implement? Is it hard to maintain?

CP: I think I put TWF together in a couple of hours one afternoon. It draws from the same tables and uses the same infrastructure as WFG, so there is very little to it.

To be honest, other than uploading banners for listings (which I still do by hand, as I haven’t been able to justify the time it would take to automate it), the largest amount of time TWF has ever required was several months ago, when it became obvious that a few authors were doing some things to inflate their vote counts. I was sorely tempted to remove those listings from TWF. In the end, I spent several days developing countermeasures instead. I’m hoping I won’t have to do it again.

t4nky: On a similar note, do you have to add in every entry yourself? If so, how much work is it?

CP: TWF and WFG draw from the same database, so there is only one submission queue for both.

Processing a submission takes anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, depending on numerous factors (including my mood). The existing submission form has proven well-below-optimal in terms of getting quality data for the system, so I still have to check everything by hand, and usually correct stuff. I also look over each story, to ensure that it meets our requirements, that it seems consistent with the submitted information, and to decide if I should promote it for the community (those “Editor’s First Impression” things that sometimes show up in the review section). All in, it’s a lot of work.

t4nky: If you could add one new feature to TWF and WFG, what would it be?

CP: WFG’s software is six years old. It needs a complete rewrite. The ranking algorithm needs adjusting, and the user experience is too static and text-heavy. Also, a large part of the design was built on a social contract that did not survive reality (ie. an active editorial presence).

Redesigning and rewriting the site is something I really want to get finished this year. So far, finding the time has proven a large problem.

t4nky: The first time I went on the Web Fiction Guide Patreon page, there were several more goals, reaching all the way up to $75. Now, you only have a $10 goal. What were the missing goals and why did you decide to get rid of them?

CP: At the time, the RSS feed situation was becoming a bone of contention in the community. Every listing can include an RSS feed, which the site software uses to provide a summary of recent updates on the listing page. It also provides the data for the home page “Featured Updates” section.

Now, WFG runs on shared hosting, which means I’m very careful about server resource use. I don’t want to be asked to leave for exceeding the limits of the shared account. So, as a result, I was only processing the RSS feeds for stories that had an editorial review at or above 3.5 stars, and processing frequency was tied to rating as well (higher rated stories got their RSS feed checked more often). But, with the paucity of editorial reviews, lots of stories were being excluded. Authors were justifiably annoyed.
At the time, without really thinking it through, I thought the easy solution would be to move the site to cloud hosting, where we’d have tons of resources, but that was going to incur a significant increase in costs. So I asked for help. The community responded, and I went to do the work. Of course, at that point, I actually did the math to determine just how much hardware I needed, and it turned out I had seriously overestimated the cost of loading the RSS feeds. So much so that we can load every feed every day and still not piss off our shared host. So, I dropped the goals, advised the community, and that’s where things stand now.
There might at some point be new goals. People are currently asking that we get a logo for links and such. I’ll probably set up a goal to fund basic marketing stuff like that.

t4nky: How many people on average visit WFG and Top Web Fiction every day? How many are then referred to a web serial?

CP: Stats–particularly web stats–are usually over-inflated. There’s a lot of bots on the web, IP addresses of mobile devices change constantly… even with sophisticated measures, it’s really hard to get legitimate stats. WFG’s tracking software thinks it sees somewhere between 400 and 600 unique visitors a day. I haven’t checked TWF’s stats in a while (and I’d have to do some work to do it now, so I’m not going to), but we get a couple of thousand *votes* a week, so presumably the number of actual visitors is somewhat higher than that.

t4nky: Earlier on, I mentioned how many people are referred to my serial by your sites. What sites refer the most people to you?

CP: I haven’t looked at a breakdown in years. Last time I did, well more than half our traffic to WFG was direct (ie. people using a bookmark). Nearly all of TWF’s traffic was via a vote link from a listed site.

t4nky: How many serials are listed on WFG? How many would you say are still active?

CP: A quick look in the database says we have just over 1000 listings. I’d say maybe 400 of them are still online. Actively updating is a subset of that.

t4nky: You’ve been around the scene for a while and have seen some stuff. What are some important events in web serial history?

CP: To be honest, I have a memory like a sieve, and history has never been my strong subject. You’d best ask this question of someone else. 🙂

t4nky: Certain authors like Wildbow (Worm, Pact, Twig,) Drew Hayes (Super Powereds,) Maddie Rose (Twisted Cogs,) and Jim Zoetewey (Legion of Nothing) have managed to attract quite the audience. How do you think have they been able to do it?

CP: I don’t think there are any tricks. They are all good writers who produce consistently, and who engage with their readership. It may well be that simple.

t4nky: Some genres (cough, superheros, cough) seem over-represented, while some like realistic fiction are barely represented at all. Do you think there’s a reason for this?

CP: It’s not really a new phenomenon. When we started, every other story had a vampire or a magic school. Next it was zombies. Now it’s superheroes. Next year, who knows?

Perhaps more so than with other media, web serialists write what they like to read. Of late, a lot of people who read _Worm_ decided to write their own superhero stories. Before that, _Adrian’s Undead Diary_ (and more generally, things like _The Walking Dead_ and _Left4Dead_) inspired a lot of zombie stories. Before that, it was _Twilight_ and _Harry Potter_. What’s next? If you know, there’s probably a high-paying job waiting for you at a publisher somewhere. 😉

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6 thoughts on “Interview with Chris Poirier

  1. Creating a place for the serialist community to come together and talk about style and structure and marketing in the context of our specific type of writing has been hands down one of the best parts of this amazing site.

    The publicity has been nice, the ability to get reviews and feedback incredibly helpful, but I owe Chris so much for creating a gathering place for some amazing friends and fellow writers!

    Like

  2. Huh, this was a really interesting interview. I would’ve guessed that there were more serials on WFG than a thousand, but that’s probably because I’m somewhat bad with numbers.

    I also ran across God Eaters the other day. Think it showed up on the “Random Editor Pick,” or whatever that section is called. And I remember being so surprised that Chris had written such a long review for it! Put it on my to-read list, of course.

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  3. I think most of us owe Chris, and we so rarely thank him. In the 15 months or so that I have been listed I have received over 3k hits from TWF and 1k from WFG. For purely readership terms we are talking a lot of people. But like Maddi said above, a place where we can go and ask the questions that plague us, to find our peers, and to grow, that is what makes WFG special and what makes us, well me as I cant speak for anyone else, so grateful to him.

    I have made great friends with several authors, that I would have been unlikely to meet otherwise, so Chris, thank you. You make a solitary pursuit less lonely and less bewildering.

    Like

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