Subscription Based Serial Fiction: The Technical Problems

bluefirereaderWhen it comes to delivering serial fiction directly to the reader, Amazon has set the bar high. By operating the Kindle Serial Store, creating the Kindle device and rendering their branded ereading app ubiquitous across multiple platforms (iOS, Droid, etc.), they can take your money and deliver the product to your reading device of choice with one click. Booyah. And they will continue to deliver the serial installments every two weeks until the story has run its course. (Pay once, ie. subscribe, and the rest takes care of itself.)

If any storyteller is serious about monetizing serial fiction outside of the Kindle Serial Store, this high bar has to be the goal. Readers will demand it.

One Click Must Do it All! (But How?)

How does an indie writer attempt such a monumental technical and organizational feat? The most obvious solution to me was also the least practical: Create a specialized app of my own that will bridge my fiction onto every smartphone and tablet out there with access to Droid, Windows, or iOS app stores.

Since this requires a chunk of change upfront, as well as the determination to update the application continuously across all platforms… I quickly crossed this off the list of personal options. I don’t want to go into app development. I want to write stories from which I generate a living wage.

That leaves the indie writer/entrepreneur shopping for go-between services and trying to piece together a network to mimic the one Amazon has built. Let’s break down the necessary pieces: (and my preferences so far)

Website (Content Access)

For my professional website, I use WordPress.org (self-hosted with a paid domain name) combined with the Genesis framework by StudioPress. I’m a major fan of these platforms. They are flexible and powerful and cheap. (A domain name is around $10 a year and the Genesis framework is $60 while WordPress is free.) With this combo I can easily set up landing pages, call-to-action boxes, sign-up forms, etc. (Oh, and I use Mail Chimp for email campaigns. They integrate nicely with WordPress as well.)

While some would downplay WordPress as a blogging platform, (as opposed to a website) I fail to see the importance of this distinction in today’s market. While WordPress isn’t completely dummy-proof, most indie authors can learn their way around the platform with a little advice and help from those who have gone before them.

Most importantly, WordPress has a nearly inexhaustible pool of plugins that can provide your site with any capability you can think up. I’ve literally never thought of something I wanted my website to do without quickly (google search) finding a plugin to do just that. (Warning: not all the plugins work, or work together. And some are poorly updated.) Anyway, without WordPress none of the rest of this will work.

Ebook Creation/Formatting

My plans for ebook formatting might change depending on whether I can tame my wild confluence of WordPress Plugins. But I’m guessing this is the one cherry I won’t throw out–PressBooks.

Okay, for all you savvy readers out there who know of PressBooks as a self-publishing and content distribution platform, hold onto your hats. What you may not realize (I’m still shocked I didn’t know this until a few weeks ago) is that PressBooks has created an open-source WordPress plugin to perform much of its paid services for those willing to take the plunge without guardrails or floaties.

It takes a little finagling, but a standard WordPress install can be tweaked to a WordPress Multisite. The PressBooks plugin can then be installed on a fresh WordPress multisite (it’s got to be a fresh install without previous content). Once this is done, a very simple process creates webbooks like this. (Please understand that this link shows you a mock up, rather than the real deal. Still, it blew my mind.)

The PressBooks plugin can be used to create a separate site for each book you choose to upload. It can export .epub, .mobi and PDF as well as the webbook format. It sets the stage for everything else.

Shopping Cart/eCommerce

The eCommerce aspect can be pretty straight forward these days. For my purposes, Paypal is a no-brainer. It integrates easily with WordPress (my blogging platform) and gives me the ability to sell my subscriptions. (Tons of WordPress plugins have Paypal gateways built in.) Since most everyone these days has a Paypal account, it is a low hurdle similar to the hurdle Amazon users experience the first time they sign up. Paypal charges 3% for transactions like this, so for a $0.99 episode I pay them $0.03. Not bad.

Oh, the PressBooks plugin also generates a catalogue page for all the products you upload to the multisite. Click on a product, pay via Paypal. This is getting good, right?

Membership/Subscription Service

When it comes to membership, WordPress really pays off. The first and easy step: Find a membership/paid content plugin for WordPress you like. There are several good ones that do all the basics, so your preference will come down to the details. I think this blog post lays it out pretty well.

In short, the membership plugin allows the indie author/publisher to publish some content via WordPress for free (the teaser stuff and buy links) while requiring payment, free subscription or paid subscription for the rest. Flexibility is king in all this. For instance, I can run a drip subscription during which a reader subscribes upfront, receives the first installment immediately, receives a second installment 7 days later, a third installment a month later (or whatever) and is then prompted to pay in order to finish the serial.

This is where it gets complicated, because the model is totally up to you. Have people pay for the entirety up front, or have them pay a dollar an episode. Deliver content daily, weekly, or monthly. Will every reader start with the first episode according to when he/she subscribes? Or will there be an official upload day during which everyone will be sent the episode at the same time? There are a few examples out there for each of these models. But the harsh reality is that this is an untamed jungle. It’s the wild west of the wild west of ebooks. And there just ain’t a lot of precedent. (I’ll post more on my model when I figure it out.)

On a final note, I’ve only tried one membership plugin in combination with PressBooks. It worked mildly well (only a few strange error codes and broken links). The membership plugin I end up using might be the one able to provide the best support (by providing some custom code work arounds).

Content Delivery

Content Delivery gets sticky. First off, anyone serious about doing this has to avoid the dreaded “side-load” in which a consumer is forced to drag and drop content from their computer to their docked device or sync the content via wireless network. This is a step too far. The content needs to appear magically and instantly on the consumer’s ereading device (just like it does when a consumer purchases from the Amazon Kindle Store).

1.) A service such as Fetch is able to deliver content via the ReadMill app (a fairly new ereading application that most consumers would need to go download for free from their app store of choice). This requires the additional step of downloading an app, but the Kindle app has to be downloaded as well, and this is a one-time affair. With each new installment of fiction, the consumer would open Readmill and start reading. This option wouldn’t allow for push notifications, so the means of alerting the reader they have new content would be email (a service like MailChimp).

2.) Another option for delivery is an application developing service such as Conduit Mobil. Several services exist to help you create your own application. This one seems to be the most “out of the box” ready. In this scenario, consumers would first need to download your personal application from their app store of choice. Then they could receive push notifications of new installments via your personal app.

Pretty sharp. But, the app won’t include a built in ereader. So consumers will be given the option to open the epub/mobi file in the ereader app of their choice (Kindle/Kobo/iBooks/ReadMill, etc.) Or they could read a webbook inside the application. This would require being tethered to the internet.

Also, services like Mobile by Conduit can be pricey. Depending on your needs, it could cost upwards of $100 a month.

I’ve discussed options with a Conduit representative, and he seemed optimistic about the ability to address my concerns. Those concerns are namely: the security of using RSS to import my webbooks and links into the application, the need for readers to download the content to their device so they can continue reading while offline, and keeping payment of of the application (so I don’t have to pay the app stores a percentage).

3.) BlueFire white label apps is currently my top option. The main question mark is price. I haven’t heard back from them yet on the fiscal feasibility of my needs. These guys specialize in ereaders. Basically they offer a brandable version of their ereader for a price. This would allow for push notifications, top-notch reading environment, link for sales, the whole bit.

Going this route would put the indie author almost on level with Amazon as far as ease/convenience of delivering serial fiction via subscription. Sign up at my awesome WordPress Website, enter your financials once via Paypal (or just confirm if you’ve already set up an account), be redirected to my website where you can either begin reading online or go download the application where your first installment will be awaiting you. After that, each new installment/episode will show up within the native application on your phone/tablet and send you a push notification of its arrival.

4.) If there is another option I’ve yet to imagine, please share!

That’s it for now!

Slide by Benedict Evans

Slide by Benedict Evans

That wraps it up my efforts thus far to solve the technical problem. The solution isn’t perfect. Readers who prefer using their Kindle or Nook or Kobo devices are pretty much tethered to those stores. It’s unlikely any effort to wrangle them onto an author’s site will work. The good news is that such dedicated ereaders are on the decline while the rise of smart phones and tablets continue.

Hopefully (with your help) I’ll be able to update soon with a final solution. Then it will be time to delve into the marketing problem: How can an individual indie author secure enough eyeballs to make real money? (I’ll address my plans for that in a future post.)

About David Mark Brown

Writer. Novelist. Redneck. Granola. Raised on a Texas cattle ranch and schooled at the U of Montana (Berkeley of the Rockies), I am the world’s most self-proclaimed redneck granola and author of optimistic-dystopian dieselpunk, sci-fi thrillers and young adult literature.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this excellent step-by-step guide. It’s very helpful.

    • Hey, Scott. Thanks for reading. I have some updates I need to make on all this subscription stuff. I’m going to wait a week or so for it to all shake out, and then I’ll be writing on it again. I think it is all doable with some determination.

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