First, some good news coming up! The Wuxiaworld app is almost finished and fully functional. While we're doing some final testing, it's basically ready-to-go once we get our corporate accounts up and running for Google Play and the App Store. We took a lot more time than anticipated because the original plan was to work with Zongheng and use their Chinese app and development team as our skeleton; however, their business model of pay-per-chapter (and thus the underlying code) proved so different from theirs that in the end, we decided to junk it and redo the app backend from scratch. Technomancer Mitch has done wonders, and while our Zongheng partners may be helping us with UI design and coding later on, this first version will be purely homegrown! It'll also have long-requested features, like the ability for VIP subscribers to download chapters.
However, now that we're getting ready to launch the app, I can no longer put off something I've been loath to make a decision on; namely, completed novels, of which there are more and more these days.
Get ready for a massive post, but one which I do want everyone's input on, because it is going to have a major impact on how things will be going forward. No decisions at all have been made yet, but I want everyone to think about this stuff with me as we wrestle with the issue and everything it entails.
By any measure, the advance chapter system has been a huge success, as evinced by the fact that it's enabled almost all of our translators to go full-time (hence our novels are almost all at 2 chapters/day now). Our licensing partners have been mostly happy with it as well, as they're finally seeing a fairly steady (and reliable) source of revenue. There are, however, two problems with it. The first is that it relies on a tiny amount of super-fans to support the vast majority of readers; for example, a novel that has 20,000 readers might only have 100 supporters. In other words, 0.5% of the readers is supporting 99.5% of them, and as a result the prices have to be really high for the 'paid' advance chapters. There's a fairness issue here and also a sustainability issue here that I am concerned about. More importantly, however, is the second problem; how do you make money from completed novels?
Now, I personally have no problems with not making money from completed novels; I've made it clear starting years ago that my goal is to have these novels available for everyone to read. But, that also means I have no good answer for this question from our licensing partners:
"Wait, we licensed these novels to you for ten years, many exclusively. Are you telling me that for the next seven years, we're going to make almost NO money at all from some of our most popular novels just because they are finished? Well, why should we even offer you ten year licenses if you are only going to make money for three of those years? Yeah, you'll be getting traffic for your site by keeping the books up there for free, but what are WE getting out of it?"
This is a problem, one I've been kicking down the can but can't afford to do so for much longer, because as more and more novels are finished, we have to go back to the licensing partners to ask for more and more novels, and I need an answer to this question. Some of our partners have found their own 'answer' in the interim, by asking us for very large sums of money upfront; for example, one partner asked us for an upfront payment of $100,000 for just five books, and then there's the ongoing royalty payments! Obviously, this is not a sustainable thing to do.
THE OLD PLAN
The original plan I had was the ebook system, which is going to continue; in fact, a large number is in the works and has been edited (with covers ready) and are going to be 'go-time' soon. The idea was to edit and publish more completed novels as ebooks on Kindle and on Kindle Unlimited (which is theoretically a great fit for us) and then remove them from Wuxiaworld for a period of time, which was the plan for Coiling Dragon. The reason why we use Kindle Unlimited while removing the novels from Wuxiaworld is because Kindle Unlimited requires exclusivity, but makes much more for us than 'pure' sales, due to the length of these novels and Kindle Unlimited paying out based on how many pages a reader reads. This, however, has a number of issues, some of which I knew about at the beginning, some of which I know about now.
1) This means a continually decreasing number of books on the Wuxiaworld site itself, and a loss of a lot of history as well as community interaction.
2) Editing ebooks to Kindle standards and generating covers is very slow work (and expensive! covers often run $400-$800 each, and we are looking at upwards of 10 covers per book series), and it also can require a lot of input from translators who themselves might not remember things clearly from 2-3 years ago, especially when they are on a new novel.
3) We have very limited control over doing stuff like promotions; for example, Kindle doesn't even let us hand out coupons for free copies of our own books! We can only either make the book completely free for everyone for a period of time, or BUY OUR OWN BOOKS and send them as gifts, with Amazon taking its normal cut. In other words, whenever we've done 'free ebook promotions' or rewards, we're actually losing money on every single book we hand out. *facepalm* And we can't even really distribute via our own pdf's or something like that, because that'd nominally be a violation of KUP's exclusivity rules.
4) We are at the complete mercy of Amazon, which dominates the ebook market, and that's never a good thing; while they are great for consumers, they can be less so for publishers, especially small ones. For an example, on multiple occasions, we had something like this happen to us: Amazon pays out 60 days after the end of each month. At the end of January, it looks like we earned (hypothetically) $10,000 USD from the Kindle Unlimited Program. On March 15, just a week or two before we're going to be paid, I suddenly get an automated email from them saying that they've discovered a lot of our reads were 'fraudulent', and as a result we're only going to be paid $3000 after they deduct all the fraudulent stuff. No recourse, no appeal, not even any evidence; just a notification, done and done. That SUCKS, and it's happened multiple times. The numbers are made-up, but the proportions are real, ie us getting paid 1/3 of what we were originally told we were going to be paid. Sucks, sucks, sucks!
There's more issues here, but those were some of the biggest ones for me.
There's a number of solutions here that I've considered, none of which I like perfectly, but each have their merits, and who knows, we might end up doing a Frankenstein zombie of them in a mishmash.
Solution 1: No change - Continue doing what we're currently doing with Kindle Unlimited, removing novels from Wuxiaworld as they go on KUP and hope the ebooks will REALLY take off and Amazon will stop cutting our legs off right before payout and (eventually) also let us do stuff as basic as sending out books without paying for it ourselves. This is the path of least resistance, but it's least likely to be successful and will be the slowest. Meanwhile, we'll be bleeding as licensors increasingly start to require large up-front payments.
Solution 2: Bundles - Switch from Kindle Unlimited to regular Kindle. Remove all ads from completed novels, but switch completed novels to VIP subscribers only (as well as those who sponsored the novel in the past). We'd probably have to change VIP a bit to account for this, as VIP was designed really as a way to just offset ad revenue, with perhaps 'VIP Silver' as just no-ads and 'VIP Gold' as no-ads + read all completed novels, but this shouldn't be hard.
Solution 3: A La Carte - Switch from selling on Kindle Unlimited to regular Kindle. Remove all ads from completed novels, and after say 100 free chapters of a completed novel, the next 101-1000 chapters have to be purchased individually at a super-low price of 2 or 3 cents a chapter, with a massive discount if you buy the entire book. This makes it so that you'd only be paying for things you actually like, and can drop it if the book gets boring. Again, those who sponsored the novel in the past will get life-time free access to said completed novels.
Solution 4: The Full Monty - We switch the entire system, not just completed novels, to either solution 2 or solution 3 (probably at an even cheaper price point), so that the burden of supporting translations no longer falls on the shoulders of just 0.5% of the readers, while also drastically lowering the cost of advance chapters. This would be the fairest in many ways, but it would also be the most disruptive and pose the most risk, and I also worry that even at super cheap levels, it would shut-out those from lower-income countries (or households), unless we tear everything apart and start messing around with methods for allowing people to 'earn' currency by watching videos, etc., but that comes with other problems; for example, the more ads you watch a day, the less it is 'worth' to advertisers and the less they pay, but when you are reading a completed novel, you want to BINGE, dammit! I don't want to force people to watch like 50 video ads a day if they want to binge 200 chapters, and it probably wouldn't pay that well either. As a result, I'm very much opposed to this notion, even though it's the most equitable, because it's against what we've always wanted from this site.
Each solution has its pluses and its minuses. Either way, we have to have a good answer when licensors ask us, "Are you basically saying we won't get any more money for the next 7 years?" Thus far, my answer has been 'wait a year or two for ebooks and hope they all do well', but now that the response is now turning into, 'sure, no problem, but hand over $100,000 first', we have an issue.
Looking forward to everyone's input. No decisions have been made at all, and I'm genuinely interested to see if there are any really good ideas that I haven't thought of. Wuxiaworld's been around for almost five years now, which is a pretty damn good track record; a LOT of businesses, especially internet ones, fold in shorter periods of time. I'm thinking about what is needed for the next five or ten years, and I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts on this.
Oh - and wait for the app announcement! :)