The Dangers of Being Indie

MCMWednesday, June 2, 2010

The ever-wonderful Jan Oda has an excellent post up at ErgoFiction that describes the conundrum for indie writers in this day and age (by which I mean the middle of 2010). Eli grabbed this same quote for Novelr, but it's because it's so absolutely true. I want to start off with it:

If you browse around webfiction stories you’ll see the same tricks and ideas almost everywhere. Donation buttons, incentives ranging from becoming a fan on Facebook to tweeting about the story and so on. If you’ve been around the block a while, like I have, that becomes repetitive. And it stops working.

This is a question of saturation, and as Jan points out, it's not a question of whether or not you personally use a trick too often, it's a question of whether the entire weblit community does, too. We can collectively over-do things and sink all our ships at once.

Last year, I wrote often about the nitty gritty numbers related to running my business. This year, I haven't done it yet, and while some of that can be attributed to having an insane work schedule (in and out of writing), the bigger reason is that things are not going well, and I can't figure out why. Somewhere along the way, I got shy about admitting to imperfection. I'll try and fix that now.

On the surface, 2010 has been not too shabby. We saw a big drop in visitors during and after the Big Mistake Web Revision of January 2010, but those numbers are starting to climb back into something I'd call "acceptable". Last May, I was averaging well over 3,0000 uniques a day, but the peak in May 2010 has been 850. But compared to the rest of the year, that's actually very good. We have spikes for livewriting, of course, but things have been very weak thus far. We've been repairing the damage done by a major revamp.

Which kinda brings me to my first point: we've gone through a lot of tricks and cool ideas to help build community in the last 6-9 months, but almost none of them have done us any good. The Stream, while really wonderful from some angles, was a major timesuck for me, and even when I put as much time into it as I could afford, it never managed to become GOOD, just buggy and adequate. That's a big reason why I went back to Disqus, and tried to emulate some of the functionality with Facebook widgets etc. I realize these widgets don't stand out, and that to some people, they're just wasted space on the page... but lacking an alternative, I have to go with what's easiest.

Here is where we tie into the "everyone does it" idea: any investment in the site needs to be balanced against the possible return. We measure success by readers and money (in that order, assuming that a happy reader will be more valuable than a one-time donation). The crazy ideas I've put into play have been popular with the core fans, but haven't brought in anyone new. Worse yet, they seem to have discouraged the casual fans, actually shrinking our numbers instead of growing them. Given this dynamic, we've had to pull back to something "safe", and try to get a better grip on what to do next. As Jan says, it's becomes repetitive and boring... but the alternative seems dangerous.

Switching back to stats a bit: our newest series, Tori's Row, has been doing pretty good numbers in terms of readership. It's lower than I would have expected a year ago, but it's still the top product on our roster right now. Serial+, as you may recall, did great business for The Vector last year. This time around, it's doing almost nothing. One would expect that if people didn't value the series, they wouldn't keep coming back, and the numbers would drop off. But the numbers have held steady (and increased) over the run, so it's not that people don't like it, it's that they don't want to pay for it. We saw the same thing with The New Real 2... big audience, virtually no donations at all. The first in the series, last year, did great numbers on both fronts.

There are lots of reasons this could be happening. It's a generally sucky economy worldwide, we were dealing with the aftermath of the Christmas holidays (and winter heating bills), and truthfully, I don't have stats from the first months of 2009 to compare to, because I was mostly focused on kids' books back then. But just looking at the numbers, and getting a sense they seem to hold true across the board, I think there's at least a subtle trend towards NOT supporting weblit authors. Not in a vindictive way, but in a "I just can't, right now" sort of way. And if enough people feel that way, weblit authors are looking at tough decisions about how to proceed.

And herein lies the danger, I think, for the weblit community: Kindle is easy for writers to use. It's a massive crapshoot, but if you get a reader, you get a sale. Self-publishing used to require proofs and shipping and all that jazz, but now it's just "upload a file and wait." It's like weblit, only with a searchable catalogue. And if the numbers in "free to access and depend on donations" continue the way they're going, I think we'll see a massive shift away from true weblit, into something akin to serialized e-book publishing. Not EVERYONE, but enough that you'll have the inevitable "next generation" of weblit authors stumbling into the fold, thinking they're the pioneers all over again, not realizing their predecessors just left the building. I don't want that to happen, personally. I want this generation to be the first to successfully bridge the gap between weblit and publishing... doing both without giving up either. But it's looking a bit hazy right now.

That's not to say that 1889 will do that. Livewriting depends on the weblit interactivity, and as fast as Kindle pubbing may be, it's never going to be fast enough for what we do here. But we ARE planning some experiments in that space to see what happens. We'll be having our first eBook-only release in a few months (Kindle or iPad or Smashwords, $2.99), where the only "free" elements will be sample chapters we post on the site. It goes against instinct for us, but we've never had a non-free title before, and you can't make judgements about business plans until you try them. There will be other not-really-free titles, too, and I guess the message is: if you prefer Free, you need to pay for it.

Actually, let me get sidetracked one last time: paying for weblit isn't just a question of donations. Donations are a one-time event, and while that's appreciated, it's not the best thing in the world. Reviews are positively wonderful. Not even complex reviews, either. Go to our titles on Amazon and give us some stars, and we'll sell more copies. Costs you nothing, but it brings in money for us. Maybe the business plan of the future is this: write it for free online, sell it on Kindle for revenue. If you don't have cash, rate it and consider it a fair trade. If you DO have cash, buy it (and actually, we're toying with the idea of nixing PayPal on the site entirely, because an Amazon purchase, while netting less profit, raises our ranking and brings in new readers). Maybe THAT'S how we make weblit really work.

1889 isn't giving up on weblit, and we're certainly not giving up on innovation in this space. But at the same time, the readers out there need to realize it can't be a one-way street... we're not the big companies charging absurd prices for limited-use mass media; we're the little guys, trying to make you happy by doing cool stuff for free. The big guys don't need your help to be successful, but to us, support is the difference between life and death.

Final note: this is not a guilt-trippy post meant to pressure you into giving us donations. I will refund any money that comes in via PayPal for the next few days. Don't do it. But if you want to help, again, please, visit our Kindle page, drop by the titles you know, and rate, review or tag them. And then go and do it for your other favourite weblit authors. Seriously. A tiny investment of time for a whole lot of good karma.

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