The State of Web Fiction #1

As a web serial author who also writes a blog that, so far, mostly talks about about web serials, the world of web serials is kind of close to my heart. For me, my introduction was Worm. For others, it was Legion of Nothing or Interviewing Leather or any other of a number web serials.

Being as involved as I am in the web serial world, I would just like to share a few of my thoughts on this. I’m not going to lie, a lot of it is negative. If we want to go mainstream, we’re going to need to make a lot of changes.

The Community

First, the good part. Web Fiction Guide and Top Web Fiction are amazing sources to promote your serial with, there’s no denying that. For just hanging out with authors (and the occasional fan) the WFG Forum is also an amazing place, and /r/webfiction, while still not great, has improved dramatically since I started going there.

Among the authors, we have this amazing DIY work ethic and a Good Samaritan feel to the community. I am proud to be among a group of people who are so energetic, resourceful and giving. From things like April Fools shenanigans, to what looks to be the first WFG Workshop, there is this wonderful sense of community, and I want it to continue.

Now, let’s get to the bad stuff. (Hoooo boy, please don’t get mad.)

A little while back, Lifesharpener made a note about why he or she thought some serials didn’t get reviews. I responded with this:

There’s one thing you got wrong: people actually do read negative reviews. Take, for example, Nerd^3, a gaming personality on YouTube. He has several series called Nerd’s Hell where he plays awful, awful games, such as Sonic ’06 and Grass Simulator. Now, you might say, “Well, that’s the one people complain about the most, so that proves my point.” However, according to Nerd^3, that’s the series that gets the most views, and consequently, makes the most money. This pattern also repeats for other internet personalities so much that they almost always review complete and utter crap. Jim Sterling, The Nostalgia Critic, Linkara,… I’m willing to bet that you’ve heard of at least one of these people.

However, it does prove very few of them like having to wade through something the devil pooped out. It is not fun to sit through Jason Derulo’s Wiggle until your ears bleed and you start losing IQ points. But Todd in the Shadows does it because he knows he’ll get a paycheck. However, I suppose he isn’t writing music. When we review another person’s story, we know we’ll probably meet that person in the WFG forums at some point, and we’re all friends so we’re worried about offending someone.

Therefore, what we need is either more people who aren’t authors or someone like Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation, who literally does not care what you think of him.

In this, we should note one sentence:  When we review another person’s story, we know we’ll probably meet that person in the WFG forums at some point, and we’re all friends so we’re worried about offending someone. Think about that for a second. Now consider that this has made me worry about giving out three-star ratings. Then we have this. While I love Worm, if Michelle feels like its overrated, she should be able to say so.

However, she feels like she can’t because Wildbow will see it or (even more disturbingly) she fears that because of giving a bad review, her own work will get reviewed harshly. The only reason her review should cause a backlash is if the review itself was shit.

And now, let us talk about review swaps. Yes, I have been involved in a review swap. In exchange for reviewing Interviewing Leather, BillyHiggins would review Nowhere Island University. It would be foolish to deny this, the evidence is right here. However, this fact was not properly disclosed in the reviews themselves. Any fan of web serials would rightly be disturbed by this practice.

The thing is, review swaps aren’t completely evil. All it takes is a simple message in brackets like [Disclaimer: this is a review swap with BillyHiggins] and it becomes passably moral. It still is a bit of a gray area, as we have become further inclined to give a positive review. It still reduces the risk of scandal and helps the reader of a review judge the serial better.

[Edit: I am not saying that review swaps are inherently evil, and the one I mentioned was actually one of the better ones. I’m just worried that this might get out of hand if we don’t check ourselves. Also, BillyHiggins, you’re cool and I like you.]

Flying Blind

The thing about making a web serial is that we rely on stats and comments to determine how well our serial is doing. The problem with that is due to the number of bots out on the internet, we have no clear picture if the stats are accurate. Also, most of us don’t get comments, so we have no clue what people think about our work. To further complicate matters, we rarely get to compare numbers with other authors.

Luckily, recently I have been given access to a treasure trove of raw data. Now, a few of you might know that I did an interview with Wildbow recently. What you might not know is that I posted it on /r/Parahumans to generate publicity. Not only did I get that, but I also got a snapshot of Wildbow’s readership.

Now, for Nowhere Island University, stats stayed pretty much unchanged. In fact, there was a slight drop in views that day. Note that only one visitor came from my blog.

NIU's stats. We're looking at July 2nd, the day highlighted in orange.
NIU’s stats. We’re looking at July 2nd, the day highlighted in orange.

Appart from the fact that Singapore is in second place (normally its Britain or Canada,)  Now, let’s see how well my blog did that day.

My blog, Wildbow's fans. Instead of noticing the differences of magnitude, let's focus on the similarities in kind.
My blog, Wildbow’s fans. Instead of noticing the differences of magnitude, let’s focus on the similarities in kind.

Now, if this is representative of Wildbow’s fanbase, there are some similarities. For instance, the top four countries are all English-speaking. Again, America is an order of magnitude higher than the next three most prolific countries combined. Then Tempest posted data from his site.

Temepest's data. I'm not sure of the time frame, and it would be nice to get referrers.
Temepest’s visitors by country. Note the amount of people from the US as opposed to from, well, anywhere else.

The top 25% of Tempest’s referrer sites. Note where the hits come from.

Already, we get some useful information. The time period is different (a year versus a day,) but we get some very useful information. Again, the US, the UK, Austrailia and Canada take the top spots with America generating around sixty-five thousand more views than the next-highest. America, fuck yeah indeed.

We also see that he’s also getting a more healthy set of referrers. While TWF and WFG are still generating his top amount of hits, Tempest seems to be benefiting from a social media presence. Ideally, though, more people would have been referred through Reddit, Batot or TV Tropes. That is good for the community because you’ve brought in new readers who might then go on to read other stories and good for Tempest as these new readers aren’t splitting their attention between two or more serials. The more varied your sources of viewers, the better.

In the same thread, Patrick Rochefort posted some very useful information:

I track my statistics pretty closely, but I also weight them monthly. I’ve done in a past career-life, market research statistical analysis, and in the land of webserials, you can pretty safely throw out anything more granular than weekly unless you’re doing something special like an advertising campaign or promotion.

For certain, there’s nothing quite like front-page exposure on WFG to get you a big spike.

WordPress gives you some useful stats too. A few I recommend paying special attention to:

1. Your conversion rate going from your first chapter to your second. That tells you how many people are washing out of your story before or at the end of chapter 1.

2. Your conversion rate going from second chapter to third, and then third to fourth. These, to lesser degrees, are your indicators of people who are going to go on reading. Some folks might give you more than one chapter to make that impression, but most will wash out in the first entry.

3. Views per visitor. That’s a good indication both of spiders crawling your site (common) and binge readers (also common).

4. Direct hits on whatever your latest chapter is. This tells you how many folks are actively *reading* your webserial, post-to-post, and hanging on your next chapter.

USA will represent the majority of your readership. Combination of english language fluency, literacy, internet pervasiveness, and leisure time. Canada will present at similar levels but scaled down to the population. England and Ireland to the same dwindling tails. If I take the month of June for example, about 45% of my unique visitors were American, 10% Canadian, 10% United Kingdom, 8% Australia. So that’s just shy of 75% of my readership right there.

Demographics are a sore point for me right now, as I haven’t been able to source any firm demographic data. And I’d like to know my audience. Extrapolating from other online media sources: Chances are very good over 70% of your readership is a white person between the ages of 18 and 25. Your genre will strongly skew the gender ratio of your audience. Your average webfiction reader is probably a college kid reading when they should be studying. The majority will be full-time students, with another large demographic chunk being full-time employed at a junior level.

(If anyone can source firmer figures on reader demographics, I will give you a slice of chocolate cake*.)
(*: lies)

Particularly of use is the idea of conversions. How many people go from chapter one to chapter two, how many go from chapter two to chapter three, etc, etc. This technique is honestly very helpful, as it tells you what the fucking numbers mean.

The next problem I have with Tempest’s data is that it doesn’t show referrers. Which brings us nicely to my next point…

Marketing and Publicity

Ok, I love Chris Poirier, Web Fiction Guide and Top Web Fiction. However, I’ve been writing NIU since February, and as of now Top Web Fiction has given NIU 582 hits and Web Fiction Guide has given me 281 hits. In one day, due to placing the right link in the right sub, Reddit was able to give this blog six hundred and forty-six hits in a single day. Think about that for a minute.

Another thing about this is if you look at the various people who frequent /r/Parahumans, you will find that very few of them came to Wildbow’s stories via WFG or TWF. They discovered them through Let’s Reads, interesting fan art, TV Tropes, or other subreddits. Hell, a while back, Tartra noted how her TV Tropes page was starting to refer more readers.

My conclusion? WFG is amazing for a fledgling serialist. It is low-effort to submit a serial, and the gains, as Chris suggested in his interview with me, are too great to pass up. However, these gains are only attractive because they take so little effort to achieve.

TV Tropes and Reddit, on the other hand, have the tendency to snowball. All it takes is for one other person besides the author to decide to talk about a serial, and all of a sudden it seems like everyone is talking about it. The badass character is suddenly fighting The Punisher on /r/WhoWouldWin. Quotes and trope examples are popping up all over TV Tropes. Spacebattles suddenly can’t shut up about it.

The problem is, that one guy doesn’t exist until hours, possibly years, of work later. You have to be on the social media of your choice every day until your work clicks with someone. Then you have to keep doing it until you realize that your efforts would be better served managing your community.

What we need is people like TotalBiscuit or Angry Joe. People who make money off of promoting our work. The thing is, the infrastructure is already in place. Currently, there are many people who write about literature, just waiting to stumble upon our scene. The problem is, we don’t know how to contact them and they don’t know we exist. To do that, one of our workshops should focus on how to get literary talking heads to read our books or something.

Preserving our History

As an amateur historian, I’m disturbed at how little information we have on our past. For example, this Reddit thread turned into a historical goldmine. Before I saw it, I had no clue that there was a time people were using less than virtuous methods to get votes on TWF and there was a period when everyone was writing about magic schools.

I’ve also heard stories of another author (this was before my time, and maybe before Wildbow’s as well) who got big. She did so by advertising on the Penny Arcade forums. After a while, it turned out she was developing too many projects at once, then her health took a turn for the worse. The result was a web serial crash.

The thing that disturbs my inner historian is not that they happened, but how I heard about it. Instead of finding articles about them, I found comments in forums that had nothing to do with web serial history. This means that our history is kept by a digitized version of oral history, passed down from one author to the next, with fans almost never hearing about it because they’re fans of the individual work, not the form.

This means that our history is easily lost. The bare minimum is very simple: archive the monthly results of TWF. We should be able to go back and see what the top serial of… let’s say, May 2011 was. (For those of you who don’t know, May 2011 is the moth before the first chapter of Worm was posted. It wouldn’t become a hit until seven months later.) Similar features for WFG proper would be nice as well. It would be nice to see what was introduced when.

However, ideally, more people would put out more articles like this. I kind of already volunteered (God help me) but if this blog ends up going kaput for some reason, I’d like there to be other people who’ll carry on this work. Also, if there are more people out there working on this, I’d like them to be able to call bullshit if I mess up. For instance, I’m worried that this is the first time anyone’s talked about preserving our history. Can someone please prove me wrong?

Accessibility

In 2014, I discovered Worm. Like Patrick said earlier, I was a kid in college who should have been studying. But who the fuck cared? College was awful and Worm was wonderful. I would spend all the time I could reading it. Eventually, due to the fact that it remembered where I was, I switched from my laptop to my iTouch. This had the advantage of allowing me to read everywhere I went. Suddenly, I was in fourth grade again, reading while the teacher was talking.

However, this did not allow me to read Worm on the bus between campuses. If I timed it right, I could read a section while listening to my music. If I timed it wrong, that was just one less barrier between a happy journey and being driven insane by bro country.

Other people have this problem as well. One person on Reddit I talked to goes to work by train every morning. For most of the ride, there is no internet access. At least there are some ways to get around this, such as saving the chapter to your device or apps like this. However, we will always be limited to people with net access.

The Future

As a community, our future is very fragile. Is this our golden age, or are we still struggling out of the primordial ooze? Will we blossom into something that traditional press and self-publishing houses will have to take seriously, or will we get swept up into the dustbin of history? Or will we just continue scraping by?

In my opinion, at the moment it could still go any of those three ways, but it is slowly moving towards the good one with choclate cake for everyone. Why do I think this? Because as time goes on, more people in Top Web Fiction are getting votes in the hundreds. As time goes on, we’re getting authors who are both talented writers and talented marketers. If we get more people like Jim Zoetewey, Wildbow, Unililustrated, and Drew Hayes, and if they direct more traffic to WFG, then we all benefit.

So those are my two thousand six hundred plus words on the subject. Hope you agree, or at least got to thinking.

An Interview with @TheSeeker

As a follower of Tara Strong on Twitter, you see a lot of fan art. Sometimes, something just stands out. Below is one of them.

The image that started it all
The image that started it all

Naturally, being interested in Trollface Gunsmoke as I call her, I asked the person who had posted it where he had gotten it. He said he didn’t know. A short while later, I got this message:

Thus began a guided tour through where fan-made content is produced and how one solitary image became a meme. Starting out as a screen cap from Season 2 of My Little Pony (which I’ve never watched,) to a Full Metal Jacket reference by OoOYahikoOoO, to a sillier version by an unknown Imgurian. A little digging by TheSeeker showed it to possibly be from a deleted Reddit account. Finally, a possible creator of the final image was found: ReBolutioN of FIMFiction.net.

However, despite this mystery seemingly being solved, I still had questions. Not about the picture, but about the person who had answered my previous questions. The best source to answer them? Well, he was right there and already seemed willing to talk. (Note: If you want a more annoying version of the interview, here is the link to the Twitter conversation.)

T4nky: Just wondering, how often do you do stuff like track down photoshopped MLP pictures?The reason I ask is because I’m planning on starting a blog, and doing an interview with you seems like an interesting way to kick it off .

TheSeeker: It wouldn’t be an interesting interview. 98% of the time it’s just “paste into Google Image Search and find Deviantart link”

Usually whenever I’m actually paying attention to Twitter and see an unattributed picture on my feed. It’s an OCD thing.

T4nky:  Just a few questions, and if you still think its boring, I’ll leave you alone. First off, how long does it usually take you to find an origin for one of these images? How deep do you have to go to find an origin, usually?

The Seeker: Maybe 30 seconds. Usually really good art gets posted, and good artists usually have deviantart accounts crawled by Google.

T4nky: Are there any other people who do this on a regular basis?

The Seeker: Other people on some boorus, e.g. , are a bit OCD about sources too, but I’m not part of a team.

T4nky: How long have you been doing this for? Did you start before you got on Twitter?

The Seeker: I’ve been collecting art in the real world for decades, and just hate to see artists not getting recognition for their work.

Update: One of my questions was a little late in being answered. At the time there was going to be another. It was forgotten and never will be remembered. I r professional.

T4nky: I think this might actually be enough for a decent interview. Just two final questions: Do you exclusively focus on MLP fanart? 

The Seeker: Sorry, went to work. The art I collect IRL is anthropomorphic. MLP is a small subset of that universe. (sapient animals)