Sponsored Online Publishing
by Jason K. Chapman
It's the Content, Stupid
Content is King. It's one of the oldest saws in the Web business. It also happens to be true.
No one hangs around a Web site just because the navigation looks cool or because the background GIF is nifty. People go to Web sites for the words, the pictures, the information, the content. They keep coming back because they expect to find more of whatever content attracted them in the first place. If a site doesn't deliver, the surfers won't return.
The Scramble for Content
The deals are flashing back and forth at eSpeed. Amazon.com wants to broaden their product line with "Health and Beauty" content, so they go to Drugstore.com. Microsoft wants computer news on MSN, so they go to C|NET, ZDNet and others. Everybody has everybody else's content popping up in frames and windows everywhere. The "strategic partnership" has become the most valued coin of the realm. All in the name of content.
What's next? What happens when all the megaportals and megamalls have the same content--when the only distinguishing factor is the logo at the top and the arrangement on the screen? What happens when they've run out of content-swapping deals and are back to needing content that's new, fresh, and unique?
Fiction as Content
Magazines, the Web site's closest relatives, have had the solution for years: Fiction. Targeted-interest magazines have been adding related pieces of fiction to their content for a long, long time. Short stories and serialized novels have been published in magazines like The New Yorker, Harper's, Playboy and many others.
These magazines use fiction to help fill their need for fresh, interesting content. The author gets paid for the story and gets the added visibility and respect that comes with appearing in a major magazine. Everyone wins.
Does Online Fiction Work?
Those who have been around the Internet writing communities will be quick to tell you that the answer is "No." They'll point to self-published poetry on a Geocities Web site that gets twenty page views a month. They'll mention fiction-centric sites like Mind's Eye that had trouble making the ad-sponsored concept profitable for short fiction. They'll bring up the difficulty of generating Web traffic for any new site.
Granted. Those models don't work. Draw those same examples back into the magazine analogy and you'll quickly see why. Online fiction needs established traffic and a flowing revenue stream to support it.
Content, Meet Content Provider
When HappyHacker.org arranged to publish THE HERETIC online, the site already had steady traffic, an established following, and an existing advertising revenue stream. The content of the novel and the content of the site are a good match. It seems only natural that a computer security-oriented Web site would be interested in publishing a cyber-thriller. A royalty arrangement based on the ad revenue generated from the novel's pages sealed the deal.
So far, the novel has racked up over 500,000 page views. The royalty model is hurt some by Web cache systems and by readers who choose to surf with images disabled (filtering out the ads), but overall it works. The rest of the Happy Hacker site has maintained it's traffic level, so the novel's readership represents a net gain of 15% to 20% in traffic.
It's not hard to imagine the concept of sponsored online fiction spreading to other kinds of Web sites. Travel-related sites might publish travel-related stories, space-related sites might sponsor science fiction novels, a site about automobiles might publish a novel like The Betsy or a site about dinosaurs might publish something like Jurassic Park.
There are a lot of excellent writers out there producing some really good fiction. It's been proven that surfers can and will read online fiction. Web sites need fresh and stimulating content. It won't be long before the Web industry puts it all together.