The (as yet) Unfulfilled Promise of Web Fiction

Posted by Paul Samael on Saturday, November 28, 2020 Under: Self-publishing

Why did ebooks become a thing?  Why didn’t books migrate straight to websites that you could view on any web-enabled device (let’s call this “web fiction”)?  After all, wouldn’t web fiction have been better for all concerned - avoiding the need for extra file formats like .epub or .mobi?

If you Google for “web fiction” you come across quite a few websites from around 2010, with lots of earnest discussion of its potential.  For example there’s lots of talk about a renaissance of the kind of serialised fiction that the Victorians were so fond of and the scope for future instalments to take account of readers’ feedback in the comments section etc.   But many discussions also recognised that it wasn’t really getting much traction with readers and was losing out badly to ebooks.  Here’s one example:   

The reading experience

One explanation for this is technological.  For fiction of any length, a comfortable reading experience is pretty important.   Dedicated e-readers like the Kindle are more pleasant to use as the resolution is about 3 times higher than your average computer monitor.  The e-ink used for the screen is closer to the experience of reading on page, with noticeably less glare.  And of course, there’s the fact that e-readers are very portable, so you can read pretty much wherever you want - you certainly can’t do that with your desktop (and even laptops are considerably less portable than e-readers).  

But the resolution of mobile phones and tablets has been improving to the point where the latest models match or surpass most e-readers - and there are various things you can do to reduce glare from the illuminated screen if that bothers you.  So in terms of technology, there are now few compelling reasons why readers should prefer ebooks to web fiction.  I’ve recently created a website edition of my novel, which I think works reasonably well on mobile devices and gets pretty close to replicating the experience of an e-reader through an ordinary browser - have a look for yourself here.  

Lack of platform

So what’s holding web fiction back?  I think the other explanation for its lack of success - and perhaps the main one - is the absence of widely used platforms where writers can promote their work. There used to be a site called Web Fiction Guide which had a reasonably high profile, but that has recently closed to new submissions.  They say they are switching over to a site called topwebfiction - but getting listed there appears to be by invitation only (and as it appears to be dominated by superhero fiction, I don’t fancy my chances).  So the only place it looks like I'll be able to list the new website for my novel is a site called Muse’s Success, which doesn’t seem to have much profile. 

So why bother with web fiction at all?

Given all this, you might well wonder I bothered to create the website for my novel. I had started the website a couple of years ago as an experiment but never got around to finishing it.  More recently, I noticed that downloads of the novel as an ebook from Smashwords seemed to be tailing off - I’m not sure why.  This prompted me to finish the website so I could submit it to Web Fiction Guide - but of course, I failed to check that it was still open to submissions.  If I had done, I might’ve had second thoughts about finishing the website.  I’m not too downcast though, as I’m pleased with how it’s turned out - and I can think of a few examples of fiction that seems to have been successful in website format (such as this one), so I don't see it as an entirely hopeless endeavour.  

I also took the opportunity to add an updated author’s note together with some bonus material at the end.  Most of this is previously unpublished.  It includes a couple of pieces that wouldn’t really work in ebook format (other than pdf) because they require a very specific typographical layout.

The future

Now that the technological advantage of e-readers is much diminished, it’s possible there could be more of an opening for web fiction.  You could argue that sites like Wattpad are already exploiting that opportunity (and I see that a few new ones are springing up, like Radish).  I guess you could call them web fiction because all the reading is done through the browser on your device - and these sites certainly provide a promotional platform (although you have to upload your material to them - they won’t link to a website that you’ve set up).  They may also attract an audience who would not be inclined to read an ebook - perhaps because they do most of their reading on the web, through a browser.  In fact, it’s possible that some of these readers have moved so far online that the whole idea of a physical thing called a “book” is pretty alien to them.  

As someone who’s pretty into books, I have to admit that I find this last thought slightly horrifying.  But I suppose the key thing is that although words are busily migrating from paper onto screen, it’s not as if people have stopped reading altogether.  Indeed, it’s possible that overall, people spend more time reading than they ever did before - the difficulty is how you draw those people into reading fiction when there is so much other distracting stuff out there.  I don’t have an answer to that, except to hope that there will continue to be demand for a reading experience that is deeper and more satisfying than 240 character social media posts….

In : Self-publishing 

Tags: "web fiction" 
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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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