Hey readers! Really quick, before I get started on this post, don’t forget that if you’re a Patreon Supporter, there’s a poll going right now to determine the name of a new arms manufacturer in Starforge! Go vote!
Okay, now that you’ve done that … So yesterday someone upon encountering my work for the first time asked a question that I’ve heard before, which goes a bit like this: “Hey, is any of your work on any of those episodic release writing websites where I can just read a chapter a day/week for free?” For those of you who’ve never looked at or for such a thing, yes, these places exist.
And no. None of my work is on any of them (and if it is, it’s been stolen). Nor do I plan on having my work on any of them.
Now, some of you might be asking “Why?” and that’s a fair question. I had one individual (not a writer, imagine that) suggest that all the “real” writers were on Royalroad because that was “where the money was” and if I was ‘serious” about this writing thing, I should look at going there.
Well, they were correct about one thing. That’s where the money is. Just … not for the creator.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with services like RoyalRoad or the newly-arriving Vella (Amazon’s service which they’ve several times begged me to join) they’re basically a serialized story service. Think of the basic setup a bit like a fanfiction site (though with a lot more money at stake) in terms of delivering readers categorized content, easy to search and find.
But now take it one step further. Rather than one-off stories or completed work, the goal here is to hook readers on serialized content that’s produced as rapidly as possible. So a reader comes to the site and finds, for example, a romance story that updates with a new chapter every day or every week. The goal of the site is to get that reader coming back every day or every week and reading the new chapter, which triggers their ad revenue. Or better yet, said reader can become a premium reader and pay a little bit each day to read ahead, as the story itself is usually a couple chapters ahead. As long as the reader is willing to pay a fee (a buck or two, usually) for that story each week, they can read the next chapter “before” the rest of the world.
And when you look at it like that, it doesn’t seem that bad. Not from the reader’s perspective. They can log in, read their new chapter each day on their phone, confirm that they’re paying for it, and come back again the next day.
But here’s the thing … If I wanted to do that system … I could do it right here on my website. In fact, I did, except that it was free entirely, with no fees or ads, with Fireteam Freelance. Of course, it wasn’t identical. People had to load my webpage rather than an app to check the latest chapters, and there was no way to become a “premium” reader and pay money to look ahead.
Outside of me being able to set up the same process on my website, however, there’s another reason you’ll never see me on sites like RoyalRoad or Vella.
They’re made to bleed money to the siteholders. Not to authors/creators.
See, story services like this are based off of similar setups that come from Asia that started with mangas. And from a business perspective, they’re designed to be explotative.
See, the idea is that the site itself exists to gather as many content creators as possible and then create a microcosm of a “free market,” where everyone is competing with everyone else. Except it’s not really that “free” since it’s controlled by a single entity who runs the service. And they can therefore manipulate how it functions to their advantage.
And oh, do they ever. These services are designed to maximize their profits … at the expense of those who flood them with content.
For instance, there’s an upper limit on how much you can release with each post. Vella, for instance, has a limit per chapter of 5000 words. You can’t release anything larger. Why? Because it maximizes the volume of content readers must click through or pay for, increasing ad and subscription revenue. What would be one chapter becomes two or even three, which means 2-3 times the revenue per reader. Tricky … but effective.
But worse, they actively design the system to produce free content the site runners earn revenue off of for free. When you start at these places, you start at “the bottom.” IE for a lot of the founding originators of this idea, you earned nothing. Maybe, from some, company bucks (IE made-up currency) that can be used to get a premium subscription for someone else’s story. But in order for them (or you) to make money, you need to reach a minimum threshold of daily or weekly readers. And then hold that.
Yes, this means that you need to produce content daily or weekly (and the pay is much better for daily) for months, maybe years on end with the hope that you’ll hit enough readership numbers to start making money. Compared to say, anywhere else, even a traditional publisher, where you’d at least be getting an advance or a royalty. So yeah, this is a system designed to flood itself with lots of “free” content that company makes money off of, but the creator does not.
Oh, but if they do? Then things get dangerous. One creator who’d hit it big in Asia related that they were effectively working 12+ hour days every day to deliver new content daily, just to keep in the middle of the pack. If they missed a single day of updates, by contract they switched to a weekly payment rate that week (which as you can imagine paid a lot less), and they couldn’t afford to miss that day. Miss several days, they cautioned, and you could be downgraded even further.
Worse, a lot of those sites made it very clear to the readers that the creator was at fault, and one creator admitted that missing a single day and the backlash from the paying public was enough to end some people.
Oh, but that’s not the worst of it. You’d think it would be, but it gets worse. What happens to the creator that wants to “get out” of one of these services and go off on their own? Say they were actually successfully making some cash on the whole thing, but missed a day, got wrecked, and decided they wanted to strike out on their own with their creation?
Oh, they can’t. Turns out that for most (the majority, really) of these services, if you’re signing up on them at all, you’re signing away all rights to what you’ve created. The site owns it, not you.
See how this is all weighted in the favor of the folks running these sites? They get their hands on massive amounts of content, which they have full control and ownership over, and again, the majority of the people producing this content are by design earning nothing. The site will make them fight amongst themselves to be one of the “chosen few” making money, and all the while they’re collecting all of it. The intellectual property, the ad revenue, the works. There’s literally nothing stopping some of these places from watching a good story die because it didn’t have attention, then seizing it and selling it to someone else to make it big.
Now, not every site that produces serialized content is 100% like the above. Some have even begun backpedaling lately because after the initial “boom” they’ve found people used to a better market eschewing their services (surprise surprise) due to creators angerly reacting to being screwed over. And so we’re seeing kinder, gentler versions of them. Vella, for example, pays per chapter read, no matter how small.
But versions of this model at the end of the day are still based on the same financial model: Churn as much content as possible, as quickly as possible, while raking in cash, rights, and everything else and paying back a small selection of the creators producing all that content. And while they might soften or tweak it, from what I’ve seen so far, I’m still not impressed.
The model varies, but at the end of the day, it’s built on a serialized service designed to, in my opinion, milk creators for minimal return by promising lots of potential even as those promising it are in full control over the odds of said potential (almost like what traditional publishers have been slowly pivoting towar—hey wait a moment).
Me? I’ll stick with an actual free market. And keep my rights. If Netflix ever does an adaptation of Colony, it’ll be me that sees the dimes from it, not someone else I accidentally sold everything to simply by posting on their service.
So yeah, don’t expect to see Colony or Axtara on a serial service anytime soon.
Or ever, really.