Kindle, Wattpad, Substack, etc.
"But if science fiction, fantasy, romance, and YA all have devoted audiences on Kickstarter, Royal Road, Wattpad, and Kindle—what about the rest of us? Where do the literary readers read?"
You've hit at the heart of it here—the heart of the problem for literary authors.
It is more straightforward (or there's a known path) for authors of genre fiction to earn a living at writing books/serials because there's incredible market demand for the work (as pointed about above, re: romance) and it's also fairly easy to find the readers for it.
If I had to stereotype the general, educated reader of literary fiction, they read New York Times or LitHub and discover books there (through gatekeepers and influencers), maybe belong to some book clubs, shop at Bookshop or their independent bookstore, and buy a lot of print and are more likely to eschew Amazon and ebooks. They're not "online literature" people ("online literature" = Wattpad, Royal Road, Kindle Vella, Kindle Unlimited, and so on).
When I worked at VQR (a literary journal that publishes journalism, essays, criticism, fiction, and poetry), I learned something very quickly: fiction or poetry sunk like a stone online. Only nonfiction went anywhere in terms of traffic or sharing. And that is directly related to the target audience for the work. They just don't read fiction online. Yet. Or in sufficient quantities to support it commercially. (More on that at the end.)
Complicating matters, the literary writing community (here I'm using "literary" as shorthand for MFA, AWP sorts, the types who read Poets & Writers magazine and not Writer's Digest) is not all that eager to embrace business, entrepreneurship or how art makes money. Building your brand or platform is anathema to many. It's an additional burden that's been foisted on the writer by conglomerate publishers. In this world, writers deserve more support (by publishers, by government, by society) to produce their art free of the burdens of marketing and commerce. Things like the creator economy (Patreon, Kickstarter, and the like) are seen as exploitative, or as Big Tech killing the artist. (See: THE DEATH OF THE ARTIST by William Deresiewicz.)
There can be real derision in the literary community for the kind of writers who use Wattpad/Patreon/etc, as some believe this floods the market with crappy work, leads to piracy, dumbs down literature—all the sorts of arguments that are actually pretty old in publishing: the fear that real art just doesn't matter any more and it's a race to the bottom. (Complaints about too many books being published go back to the days of Gutenberg.)
It can hard to identify literary writers who are able to navigate this minefield, since the literary community is full of status anxiety and writers who chase prestige, where who publishes you matters more than what you earn, and few people talk frankly about the money, at least not as they do in the genre community. But if I had to point to a couple I've discovered in my years of observing the industry: Monica Byrne (doing well on Patreon) and Kelly Link (who has self-published). Kristen Tsetsi and Nicole Dieker have also self-published their work in the literary market, and Nicole especially has talked about the numbers.
Back in ~2012, there was an interesting experiment by some folks who came out of McSweeney's. They published a serial work (speculative fiction) that was collaboratively written and released via iPhone app. It was called THE SILENT HISTORY. It was a beautiful expression of what could happen if the literary market really pursued digital innovation. (There were some other experiments at the time that were exciting, The Atavist among others.) Sadly, THE SILENT HISTORY was way ahead of its time and the project was dropped, and literary startups like The Atavist are no more. But if they launched today, would they be any more successful? I'm not so sure.
Quick correction ... Tefler doesn't post his story ("Three Square Meals") on Royal Road. He posts on SOL and Lit, two erotica fiction sites with large reader bases.
You are brilliant. Can’t wait to see how your novel does. I know I will be a subscriber. And maybe even a kickstart contributor when you get there.
Well, that's the big question isn't it? I guess time will tell. A great newsletter as always, Elle, I appreciate the depth of your research and never miss one.
Another excellent newsletter! As someone who has been writing on Wattpad for several years to some (non-financial) success, Royal Road sounds intriguing. Will have to investigate further...I've dabbled with Tapas.io and inkitt and tablo and none of them have really done much (Tapas being the most interesting, with its built-in monetisation options).
I'm gearing up for my next sci-fi/fantasy serial at the moment, so will need to research Royal Road to see if that might be a good additional venue.
Thanks. As someone trying to figure out how to publish my novel I really appreciate how informative this is. I am pretty sure I could not handle the writing pace these folks are putting in on their Patreon-Royal Road novelizing. I hate to go to Kindle publishing and giving anything up to Amazon.
Very interesting for us writers - it's a challenge to find readers! I share your conviction that Substack could be the place for serialised fiction to thrive, but it's interesting to hear about other platforms - but where's the Royal Road for non-genre stories?!
And a big thank you for the shout out for SPARK!
This is so interesting and so replete with good info, Elle. Just curious: how would you describe the target reader for your book?
I am also considering posting a novel a chapter at a time. But I am still not sure how to get those first readers. Even if I started Twitter or other media, how does anyone find me amid the millions of users?