It’s been more than a month since I posted the final installment of my short story, The Stars That Sing. Now that the dust has settled, I thought it would be fun to do a quick retrospective. What went well? What went poorly? What is the sure-fire secret to overnight internet fame and success? I might not be able to help on that last one, but here are 5 things I learned from posting my fiction online:
1: “If you post it, they will come” isn’t just a misquote from Field of Dreams…
…it’s also factually incorrect. Unless it’s a cat video or some sort of political (or anti-political) rant, the chances of a post going viral by itself are practically non-existent. Getting any traffic at all requires consistent effort; Facebook shares, Twitter links, anonymous, vaguely foreboding texts at 2 A.M., and the calling-upon of ancestral debts to force your friends and family to just click the damn link.1
Even with all of these actions taken, chances are your click-through rate will be abysmal. Mine certainly was. As much “fun” as social media can be, interaction rarely goes beyond a ‘like’ or ‘retweet’, because those require way less investment than actually following a link or (the horror!) reading fiction that may or may not be any good in the first place. That’s true of author-Twitter too; everyone is busy trying to build their own brand (in addition to, you know, actually writing), and very few people take the time to click through to read someone else’s work.
I’m still figuring out how best to deal with all of that. Far more successful writers than I–with actual published series–experience the same struggles, so it’s clearly not an easy nut to crack. SEO (search engine optimizations) can help funnel traffic to your site after the fact, but it’s a lot easier to do SEO for a blog post like this one2 than for a short story… even if the latter is (presumably) more engaging.
2: There’s a big difference in writing a traditional short story and a serialized one
Serialized fiction was originally designed to be published in recurring magazines, pamphlets, and trade journals. Each fragment needed to both be compelling on its own and have a hook (often a cliffhanger ending) that would encourage the reader to buy the next installment. It’s very different from other types of fiction, which often have more freedom in pace and flow. Just compare and contrast comics to novels or traditional episodic television storytelling to what we’re starting to see from shows designed for Netflix-style binge-watching. The lesson is simple; how your content will be consumed must inform how that same content is constructed.
The problem is, I wrote The Stars That Sing as a traditional short story. As a result, it wasn’t serialized at all. There are surprises, cliff-hangers, and (hopefully) a handful of ‘oh shit!’ moments sprinkled throughout, but they don’t correspond to the two-chapter fragments into which I somewhat arbitrarily split my postings. I could have re-written it to better suit the format, but instead I opted to just post it as-is. The results were uneven. Some installments were more exciting than others, but none of them were explicitly designed to compel the reader to come back the following week for the subsequent post. It turns out trying to retrofit an existing story into a serialized format is a low-percentage play.
As a result, I saw my readership dwindle with each successive post. Which brings me to my next point…
3: Reader attrition is inevitable and will haunt you forever
Without delving into the actual numbers3, I want to take a quick look at the general traffic trends. The initial post for The Stars That Sing4 is my third most seen post ever, behind only the Home and About Me pages. The actual numbers are fairly anemic, but ranking-wise, that’s pretty damn good.
Unfortunately, below is the trend for subsequent postings:
That’s… not good. Only half of the people who read The Stars That Sing: Chapters 1-2 continued on to Chapters 3-4. I wasn’t that surprised to see a dip–not everyone is going to like the story, the setting, the writing style, or my face5–but 50%?!? To me, that’s an indicator that I did something wrong. Maybe the introduction started off too slowly, maybe the lack of a cliffhanger caused readers to forget the story entirely, or maybe people just started muting my social media posts to avoid the spam.
The attrition slowed, but it never stopped entirely. The drop-off from Chapters 3-4 to Chapters 5-6 was satisfyingly small. I assumed any readers who had made it that far would stick it out for the remaining three posts. Instead, the numbers continued to dwindle. When all was said and done, I had lost 75% of my original audience over the course of six posts.
Those are the sort of read-through rates that can kill a career. I need to identify the problems in my approach and address them in future posts. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as an exit survey for lost readers, (and if there was, it’s unlikely readers would answer it), so I can’t know exactly what went wrong. Instead, I will have to iterate on the process with my next story. If there’s a magic formula, it’s going to take me a while to find it.
Having said that… if anyone does have feedback on what they liked, did not like, and where and why they abandoned ship, I’d love to hear it! Please just click either the Contact Me link or, if you’re okay with the criticism being public, comment directly on this post. I don’t bite!
And speaking of comments…
4: Comments are the white whale of author sites
If page visits are rare, comments are the mythological creatures of the author site world. I know some extremely capable authors with significant readerships whose posts still only generate a few dozen comments. Expecting any feedback at all on my far less popular posts may have been asking too much. What readers may not realize, however, is that comments, (and reviews), are hugely important to authors. That goes double for independent authors who are just starting out. I have a handful of beta readers6, but there’s an obvious difference between ten people’s feedback and a hundred’s. Additionally, a person who comments is a person who is actually invested in the story. And from a purely commercial and selfish viewpoint, a person who is invested is a person who might be converted to a paying reader somewhere down the line.7
I do think there are ways to engage the reader more than I have done to this point, such as posing questions in an attempt to start a dialogue rather than delivering a sermon or lecture. Shorter posts probably wouldn’t hurt either. But if Twitter has taught me anything8, it’s that actual interaction remains frustratingly rare and you often just need to hit a critical mass before conversations will become the norm rather than the exception.
5: Figure out exactly what you want to get out of the process
Maybe this one should have been obvious. My only real goal with sharing The Stars That Sing was expanding my readership. I didn’t have any concrete numbers to aim for. I didn’t have a plan to convert those free readers into book-buying fans. I didn’t even have any books available to buy at all.
This is what right-minded entrepeneurs call a shitty business model.
I could have waited to post the story until one of my series was available for purchase. The Stars That Sing ties directly into the world of See These Bones, and could have been that book’s entry-point. Instead, it will likely have been forgotten long before the actual novel is published. I’ll be building my audience from scratch. Again.
Does all of the above mean I regret sharing the story? Not at all! I didn’t become a writer with the expectation of getting rich9. I did it because I enjoy writing and wanted to share my stories. From that perspective, posting anything at all is a positive step. A week ago, someone randomly found my site and read the whole story in one sitting. How cool is that?!10 The idea that perfect strangers can stumble into my work is exciting. It’s gratifying to have something of mine living forever on the internet11! Maybe this will will one day translate into actual sales. Maybe it will just introduce a handful of penniless people to my writing. Either way, I consider this experiment a successful first attempt…
…which doesn’t mean I won’t do everything I can to make the next story even more successful.
- I’ve been told that dark sorcery can also be a big help, but we’re working under budget constraints here.
- There’s a reason I chose a fairly click-baity title for the post!
- In order to keep from weeping into my keyboard.
- I’m secretly trying to break a private record for how many times I include the story’s title in a single post
- Believe me; I know how you feel. I have to look at this thing every day.
- All of whom are amazing, generous, and frequently opinionated people!
- Unless their comment is just that they have a spectacular new pill specifically designed to combat erectile dysfunction, in which case, they might be invested in something other than my writing.
- And I’m still not convinced that it has!
- Good thing, too!
- Answer: It’s very cool.
- That isn’t a photo/selfie of a questionable decision or moment in time