This could be the future of fiction
Books are dead, long live books!
I have a dream...
That one day we will be able to find and follow the writers we love—just like we do on Twitter.
That we will be able to subscribe to those writers—just like we do on Substack.
That we will be able to read their books as they come out—just like we do on Wattpad.
That we will read those books in an app on our phone—just like we do on Kindle.
That we will be able to support our favorite authors financially with subscriptions—just like we do on Patreon.
That we will be part of an author’s exclusive community—just like we are on Discord.
It’s kind of happening—in a scattering of places. We can follow an author on Twitter or Medium or Substack, then go read their book on Royal Road or Wattpad or Kindle, then review it on Amazon or Goodreads. We can interact with an author on Discord and support them via Kickstarter or Patreon or Buy Me a Coffee.
But collectively, as a reading community, it’s frustrating. My utopian fiction world quakes with each new addition to an author’s tech stack. It topples when one too many apps make the whole thing too annoying to deal with. What success stories do exist are only because an author used a wad of gum and a paperclip to cobble things together with the starry-eyed ideal that they might one day make it as a full-time fiction author.
It’s not that we don’t have the technologies, we do—look at what Spotify did to music or what Netflix did to movies. The only reason the publishing industry hasn’t been similarly disrupted is thanks to the stranglehold Big Four publishing houses have on the industry and the black box of market data that is Amazon.
More than a few startups have attempted to create a “Spotify for books'' or a “Netflix for books” but everyone has failed—largely because the publishing houses won’t let their books be part of it. The closest we’ve come to such a thing is Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, and that’s only because they became a publishing house in their own right—and the largest one on the market too.
But despite innovation in other creative industries, and despite innovations in self-publishing, there is still no real answer to the question: “what is the future of fiction?”
Allow me to dream it up for us.
The future of fiction will be direct-to-reader
In my utopian fiction world, the obvious answer seems like it should be an app. Something that combines all of the technologies I mentioned at the beginning of this article into one mega publishing platform that allows authors to publish content directly to their readers.
Wattpad probably comes closest, allowing readers to find and follow the authors they love and read and comment on chapters as they come out. The Inkitt app is right behind it, even allowing readers to comment on their “wall” and support them via Patreon, Buy Me a Coffee, or donation platform of the writer’s choice.
In both cases, the interface is beautiful and streamlined and exactly what you’d want in a reading experience so they’re really freaking close to being THE THING. The only problem is authors can’t monetize directly on either platform.
Instead, those who do well on Wattpad get invited to participate in Wattpad Paid, and those who do well on Inkitt get invited to publish their books on the company’s sister app GALATEA which “adapts original Inkitt stories into immersive experiences by enhancing them with chat fiction, sound effects, visual effects, and haptic feedback.”
GALATEA is interesting. It’s definitely set up like a “Netflix of books” with sideways scrolling rows of books in categories like “werewolf romance,” “shifter romance,” and “western romance.” But the experience is more gamified than Inkitt with haptics, vibrations, and sound effects that, as warned by the app, can be embarrassing to listen to in a public setting—at least for the proliferation of romance titles on the platform.
Like Netflix, readers get unlimited access to books and audiobooks for a subscription fee of $4.99/month or $59.99/year—there’s also the option to purchase “points” if the reader prefers to pay on a book-by-book basis. This allows authors like Sapir Alexandra Englard to earn upwards of $10,000/month from the novels they have on the platform.
In my opinion, Wattpad and Inkitt could be pretty great if they start attracting more/varied titles to their platforms (both are highly YA-centric)—but the paid thing gets them off track. In both cases, authors give out their content for free and build a following for it, but only the ones who are good marketers win a publishing contract and monetization strategies. Essentially they recreate Big Publishing by becoming the gatekeeper who decides who is worth monetizing based on audience size.
This isn’t to say the discovery aspect is not great. Wattpad and Inkitt use algorithms to predict books their readers might like and, with 90 million and 2 million users respectively, they have enough of an audience for popular books to reach millions of readers—and that is exactly the strategy Englard used to gain traction for her work. She had her books on Wattpad and Inkitt before Inkitt penned her a publishing deal.
But if we’re talking about the future of fiction here, I would love to see those platforms give writers more creative control of their work and how they monetize it. I get the whole “but without the gatekeepers we have to wade through the entire slush pile,” argument, but I disagree with it. I think there are AT LEAST 1,000 readers for EVERY writer (even if I consider that writer bad) simply because, odds are, there are at least a handful of people on the planet who are into reading the same kind of thing someone else is.
That’s why I’m especially enticed by the forthcoming Litty app. From what its founder Dylan Flinn tells me, it’s going to be like Patreon or Substack, but specifically for fiction authors. I was able to get my hands on some screenshots of the prototype, here’s what that looks like (so far).
The erotica author Emilia Rose plans to test it out, moving her entire $10,000+/month empire from Patreon onto the platform this fall. “Every time I upload new chapters, I have to make a new post,” she says. “I update on Patreon chapter-by-chapter, which becomes a mess after a while. Posts are everywhere, and it’s hard to find them.”
Instead, Rose would prefer a platform that was built specifically for fiction—laid out more like a book, with chronological chapters, a table of contents, and an easy reading experience like Kindle—that will allow authors to find, build, and monetize an audience on their own terms. And that very well could be Litty.
“If I could redesign the publishing industry, I would provide authors and aspiring authors with the tools they need to make their own books successful without relying on traditional publishers, agents, or companies,” Rose says. “Authors deserve to be paid for the world, the characters, the plot, the dialogue, and everything that they create.”
There can be no doubt that thus far, the best reading experience is on Kindle—even if it lacks just about everything else on my list. That’s why I got excited when, for a second, it seemed like Medium was going to make a play in this space with the purchase of Glose—a more social version of Kindle where readers can write notes in the margins of books and other people can see or comment on them.
At the time of the purchase, Medium’s founder and CEO Ev Williams commented that “the vast majority of the world’s ideas are stored in books and journals, yet are hardly searchable nor shareable. With Glose, we want to improve that experience within Medium’s large network of engaged readers and writers. We look forward to working with the Glose team on partnering with publishers to help authors reach more readers.”
Glose is particularly awesome. It’s beautiful to read in the app, even more so on a computer, and I love that I can see what other people are putting in the margins—whether that’s highlights, notes, or emoji reactions. I can even choose whether I want to see what everyone says, or just what my friends say. (My account is right here if you want to be friends on Glose.)
While trialing the app, I couldn’t help but imagine what the world would be like if Medium’s “find and follow your favorite writers” feature were paired with Glose’s “beautiful way to read books” feature. In my head I’m imagining Medium, but where the books that are by the authors I follow show up in my feed whenever a new chapter is added—kind of like how new episodes of shows I’m following on Hulu automatically pop up for me to “watch next.”
Unfortunately, no further announcements have been made—though I eagerly anticipate the date they will be. In the meantime, a few other players are vying for the future of fiction including Tales—which is creating an app that “reads like a book, plays like a game,” and Tapas—which is like a shorter-form Inkitt with a comic-leaning bent. And all of the apps I just mentioned are worth downloading and checking out if for no other reason than to try something different and to see what the future of fiction could look like.
The future of fiction will be communal
It’s worth mentioning that all the aforementioned apps are catered to Generation Z, focusing on content like YA, paranormal, romance, action, adventure, and fantasy, as well as webcomics. The only app catering to the Boomers is Kindle, and even they are trying to compete for Generation Z’s fiction dollars with the introduction of Kindle Vella, a serial way to subscribe to your favorite authors on Amazon.
There’s a reason for this. Gen Z grew up on the internet, meeting and following people online—and they are accustomed to reading books on their phones. They might not read a book that was recommended to them by the New York Times bestseller list or buy a book that was hawked to them by Reece Witherspoon’s Instagram account, but they’ll read the web fictions of the people they know and follow online, they’ll be active participants in their Discord servers, and they’ll buy the merch from their Patreon stores.
As a proof point, the web communities Gen Z frequent are skyrocketing. Discord, for one, has 140 million monthly active users—with 140,000+ communities devoted to anime, 24,000 devoted to manga, and 10,000 to fantasy. Wattpad has 90 million users who spend close to an hour a day reading YA fiction on the platform and they’re merging with WEBTOON who has another 64 million monthly active users.
And Gen Z actively publish web fictions directly in these communities. Take r/redditserials, for example, where 73,000 members read and publish serial book chapters directly on Reddit. Or what about Shadows, which published web series directly on Instagram—@livinthefuture, for one, followed the fictional life of an animated teenager who falls into a surreal future. And she had 173,000 followers by the end of it!
To me, these are hints that, in the future, fiction will not be confined to the bindings of a book that are then marketed to the masses, but will be broadened to include everything teenagers like me used to write in a notebook and never share, but can now be shared with a community of likeminded friends online. And this is where Twitter’s Super Follow seems like it could be a thing.
From early snapshots released by Twitter, the new platform could allow users to find and follow their favorite writers, be part of exclusive Twitter communities with those writers, subscribe to their newsletters directly from Twitter (and read them on Twitter), attend live audio events on Twitter, and even pay one of several pricing tiers to have access to some/all of those features.
And Twitter has been making moves in that direction, buying up the newsletter platform Revue and integrating it into their platform, adding Twitter spaces where select groups are already hosting audio chats, and leaking previews of what Twitter communities could look like via investor calls. But we’re still a ways out, and a prototype has yet to be seen.
The other social media platforms have plans to follow suit, empowering the creators on their platforms to be able to earn a living from them, but as I’m not much of a social media fan to begin with and I’m only on Twitter because it is “the writing one,” I have no plans to look into the others with any level of seriousness.
As it is, I much prefer Substack, which allows me to do all the same things as Twitter but with long-form content like this which is much more my speed—and certainly a better medium for publishing a novel. This brings me to my next point...
The future of fiction will be interactive
When I start thinking about this future, I feel like anything is possible.
Like I don’t have to spend years writing a book alone in my house, keeping my book idea secret because I’m afraid that someone else will steal it.
Like I don’t have to pitch it to agents and publishing houses who will not market it but will leave me only 15 percent of the earnings of it.
Like I don’t have to hope a couple hundred strangers I’ve never met will read it, and then never even tell me if they liked it.
I did all that for my first book, but now that I know I’m going to publish it as a serial to my newsletter subscribers I wonder how I would have written it differently knowing that I would not be throwing it into the void, but would instead be publishing it alongside a community of peers online.
For instance: My novel takes place in 1792 New Orleans. To research it, I toured the convent in New Orleans, kayaked through alligator-infested bayous, read books about West African spiritualism and voodoo, had several sessions with psychics, and met with a historian from Tulane weekly to make sure I knew what oysters everyone was slurping and what cocktails everyone was drinking.
But what if I was doing that research live, right alongside my readers, and shared the whole experience with them via private Discord community? And what if that becomes part of what makes people want to read the book? Because they are very into the whole aesthetic I am creating and they want to become immersed in it, just as I was?
In chapter 20, I mention a portrait of the Virgin Mary that goes missing from a Moorish cathedral in Spain—but that was inspired by a real painting and apparition that I studied as part of my graduate studies in Mariology, the study of the Virgin Mary. And what if, as I’m publishing that chapter on Substack, I also shared some of what inspired it in our Discord community as a supplement to the story?
And what if I took pictures of the apothecaries I shopped at? What if I shared the recipes of the 1790s tinctures I made for myself as I researched what might have been served at the opium den I wrote about in chapter 29 where we discover “tassels frayed, wine glasses half drunk, untethered limbs draped from bedposts, and unmoored minds sleeping sleeplessly.”
What if you could even buy the paintings of Andrew LaMar Hopkins, whose art inspired the epilogue of my book? Or purchase bottles of rum from the Domaine de l’Acajou in Le François, the plantation in Martinique that inspired the Plantation St. Vincent where my mysterious heiress lives? Or stay at the Nottoway Resort, which I designed her Estate after?
I could design my next novel this way. I could move to Silverton, Colorado for three months to write a gothic western novel and people who were into that sort of aesthetic could “come along with me” as I did it. I could wander around the town square and share pictures of it with my Discord server in the morning, then write a chapter inspired by the massacre that occurred there in the afternoon and share it with my readers the next morning.
It would be like an interactive experience, happening in real-time. With the readers suggesting ideas based on the lore of the town and adding context by researching the things that took place there. Maybe we’re all writing chapters at the same time, inspired by the same thing, as if the experience of this town were a writing prompt and I’m only one harbinger who's sharing my experience of it.
After we were finished writing our books, there could be cowboy hats and silver stars and a wrap party at a saloon in Silverton for everyone who was following along. We could sign leather-bound books and drink rusty spurs and hang fan art on the walls and have a dinner party that very much feels like that one scene from the book.
Or what if I designed a fictional story especially for the newsletter format: Like a real live version of Gossip Girl or Bridgerton’s Lady Whistledown where I play the role of a gossip columnist reporting on the fictional happenings of a made-up, upper-crust society? Or what if my newsletter contained the post-humous will of a mysterious gold baron, whose last requests (and instructions to find his gold) have been meted out to his survivors in the form of a weekly newsletter?
As my dad said when I told him all of this: “you think differently than most people,”—and maybe I do. But the future of fiction hasn’t been written yet, and I’m very excited by the possibilities.
Thank you so much for reading.
P.S. Last week I hosted a Substack workshop for fiction authors. In case you missed it, you can find the video and transcript here.
After hosting a Substack workshop for fiction authors last week, I met so many amazing writers who are publishing all sorts of things on Substack. Here are a few of them:
The Weirdy Wordy is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say the “future of fiction.” His newspaper covering the fictional town of Oddland was designed for the newsletter format—and is one of the most ingenious things I’ve ever read.
Mark Starlin writes humor, comics, and fiction—and is also serializing a trilogy of adventure novels about the adventures of Baron Britpop Blastfurnace and Elise Boissonneau. His newsletter Monday Morning Mark is full of absurdity like when a trip to the planet Somnium (see The Thinning) doesn’t turn out so well….
Innocently Macabre is an interplay of worldly merriment and twisted secrets, distilling the horrors and wonders of the cosmos for your kind perusal. Take a look. Have your pick. Enjoy.
The Girl from Galax is a serialized novel by Corinne Litchfield about a fiddle-playing waitress plagued with lingering guilt over her role in her mother’s deadly car accident thirteen years earlier.
In the literary nonfiction category, Alex Olshonsky writes Deep Fix, which is exactly what it sounds like. I especially love his thoughts about the mythology around drug-fueled authors.
Countdown to Obscurity: 8 Weeks
I know, I know. I already told you my gothic novel was publishing in 8 weeks—but then the formally canceled vacation my husband and I planned to the French Alps suddenly became possible again. And we’re taking it!
So I am re-starting the countdown to my book and will now be publishing my first chapter on September 5th, the day after we make it out of the mountains. I CAN’T WAIT (for both the vacation and the book). Merci pour votre patience!
Very insightful and inspiring as usual. You are truly a visionary, Elle. Looking forward to read your novel. Thanks for sharing. I learned a lot and got very excited about the future. Thomas J Bevan’s Soaring Twenties are real.
P.S. I have started thinking of novelising a screenplay I have been writing for some time, which I had never thought of before. Thanks for this also.🙏
Update: I have now begun to serialize my thrillers on Patreon.
Downside? The site doesn't promote your page, having a fanbase is pretty much a prerequisite. I'm doing it anyway and promoting it wherever I can.
Question: Should I also serialize the book here for free?