100 Fans In the Rain
Over at Novelr, Eli has written yet another brilliant post about the problems facing weblit, insofar as it relates to ebooks and Kindle. In the comments to the post, the Baron of Cleveland posits that weblit is akin to informal work, and ebooks are more formal, which is why it's easier to earn money from them. You'd think I'd disagree with that, but I think there's some merit to the accusation.
First, we need to make a distinction between what I'd call weblit and serialized novels (like The Vector). Serialized novels are like traditional novels, but they're released on a schedule on the web. The audience can write fan mail to the author, but there's no expectation (or possibility) of the story changing because of the readers' feedback. There are a lot of these types of stories out there, and while I hesitate to further segment the writing world, I'd like to say these are not strictly weblit.
Weblit engages readers in an ongoing way. It can be as simple as asking for bonus chapters, all the way to livewriting, but the idea is the same: the audience participates in the fiction in some way. Part of this dynamic results in an agreed trade-off: the reader doesn't expect perfection from weblit, because in many cases, the stories are being done hours or minutes before release. We point out typos and forgive logical gaps that we wouldn't tolerate in a printed book, because part of the art is the act of making the art, imperfections and all. Imperfections are what make weblit interesting... they encourage discussion and can change the course of the predicted story, if only in subtle ways.
By contrast, you expect ebooks to be proofread, edited, massaged and revised. You don't expect them to have been written up an hour before they went live on the Kindle store, and I think you'd count typos as critical flaws that might warrant a refund. If there's an author/audience dynamic, it's completely separate from the work itself, and certainly doesn't influence future chapters (because the chapters are already bought and paid for). Ebooks are not about the process, they're about the product.
This is the trick to the weblit/ebook dynamic: people are more inclined to pay for products than they are for process. Even if you cloak weblit in the trappings of "product", the dynamic nature of the relationship still exists, and I think it undermines your efforts to sell what is essentially a service (and a free one at that). This is why people generally don't monetarily support weblit: it's not a finished product, and there's a reluctance to pay for something intangible like an ongoing story. When do I pay? At the start? How much story does that buy me? A month? A year?
Ebooks are an easier proposition: it's there, you pay, and you get the book. Done and done. It's more formal in that it's a process with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nobody worries they're doing it wrong. It's a natural way of working which requires no instruction.
A good way to look at this dynamic is to think about it as a small, free concert in the rain. When you write weblit, you're hitting a hundred of your core fans who are there more to support you than to read a story. Asking them for donations (whether via PayPal or through merchandise sales) can be a fun exercise, but it will rarely add up to much. The audience for weblit is a special breed that I think will never grow big enough to sustain writers directly. They're standing in the rain because they love what you do, but there aren't that many lunatics in the world :)
Once the story is done and polished, though, you need to package it as a DVD of your quirky concert in the rain. Concentrate your energy on selling the ebook version, because that's where the "product" paradigm kicks in. You're done with the interactivity, so it's time to focus on turning your efforts into cash. The trick is to leverage your weblit community to increase your ebook sales.
In the end, the weblit community shouldn't be seen as a revenue stream: those fans are your development aid, your marketing machine, and your source of mental stability. You shouldn't be aiming for 1,000 True Fans... you need 100 Fans In the Rain Who Don't Buy Anything But Convince Others You're Worth The Money.
I need a catchier title for it, but you get the idea.
Weblit isn't a lesser form of art, it's performance art. And the fans in the audience don't need to pay to be worth their weight in gold: they just need to cheering in the rain.