Ignition failure

Storytelling platform Curious Fictions is shutting down. It filled a unique need for writers: hosting their short fiction backlist.

Ignition failure
Image: Curious Fictions

In the lifecycle of a star, there's a point where the nuclear fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining: ignition. The same can be said for any social media platform that's ever existed: a moment where just enough people jump onboard to ensure that the site will be able to sustain its own momentum based on the content that its users are creation. When a social media site ignites, you get something like Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter, which attract people by the very virtue that that's where everyone is.

For every success, there are those sites that launch with plenty of promise: a new way of facilitating social interaction, or a unique hook that'll make it attractive to a particular audience, but which fail to gain that critical mass of users. A couple of years ago, I came across an intriguing platform: Curious Fictions, which held itself up as an outlet for authors to make their short fiction available for readers online.

At the end of July, founder Tanya Breshears announced some bad news: the site would be winding down. "I’m sorry to say that I’ve made the difficult decision to put Curious Fictions on indefinite hiatus," she wrote in a blog post on the site. "As much as I love this site, the stories you’ve published, and the wonderful people I’ve met through it, keeping it going is no longer sustainable."

When the site closes down on August 27th, it'll be a sad moment, because the site provided a unique solution to an intractable problem for writers: a way to showcase their long backlist of short fiction, in some cases, for the first time since their original publication.

Image: Andrew Liptak

For decades, writers have toiled away building their careers with countless short stories in the pages of magazines like Amazing Stories, Analog Science Fact and Fiction, Asimovs', Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons. Those publications have long provided authors with the space to experiment with form, new characters, themes, and style. Short fiction might not be the most lucrative vocation, but it's an environment where the genre's ideas flourish.

Adam Roberts recently noted that throughout science fiction's history, the shorter form "remains the Platonic form of SF," for some readers, even as the outlets changed as publishing evolved. Those stories have opened up countless new worlds for readers in short bites, sometimes leading to bigger and greater stories and worlds. But while short stories have their advantages and appeal, there are plenty of barriers between those stories and readers.

What often happens is that that a story's original publication is often the only time that that story sees print. A smaller fraction of those stories might go on to appear in an annual best of the year anthology or end up reprinted in other magazines, themed anthologies, or in author collections. In rarer cases, a story might get picked up for an award nomination and get a bit more visibility for readers who didn't catch it the first time around. And in even rarer instances, a story might get picked up for a film or TV adaptation.

But for most? They end up locked away on shelves or hard drives, never to be read beyond one or two curious readers who happen upon it. Author (and former colleague of mine), Barbara Krasnoff explained that looking over her career, she's published more than 45 short stories. Some went into her recent collection, The History of Soul 2065, but most didn't. "I realized I hadn't been tracking them the way I should have," she explained to me. "Many of which are no longer available, either because they were published in a print publication or because they were published online by a site that has since disappeared." In some cases, she had to go hunting through the Internet Archive to retrieve them, and in a couple of instances, had to reconstruct them.

Enter Curious Fictions, which provided a useful solution to well-published authors by providing a platform for authors to republish their short stories. Krasnoff explained that it was the perfect place to store her fiction backlist, surfacing those stories that had gone largely unseen for so long.

The site provided some useful tools for authors: it would allow them to not only publish those short stories, but add on art, companion blog posts about their creation, and provide links to the original publication and any audio versions that might exist. They could charge readers to access stories, either by story or with a broader subscription fee. Users could follow authors and get notifications whenever a new story was published, like or leave comments on the stories they read. "The interface was great and very easy to navigate," Krasnoff said. "It was also nice that it was extremely easy to monetize my work; although I never made more than a couple of dollars a month, it was still lovely to think that there were people out there willing to pay to read my stuff."

In many ways, the site was part of a wider trend towards creative hustle online: a platform from which authors could build a following and earn money directly from their fans, much like Patreon or Substack have been doing in the last couple of years.

Breshears explained that the original idea of the site came out of her design work at Airbnb and her love of writing: she had experience designing and engineering sites, and "I had experiences with communities and two-sided online marketplaces," she told me." When she left Airbnb, she had an idea that would eventually become the site: "wouldn’t it be cool if there was a place authors could publish their reprints and collect payments from readers?"

Her central goal with the platform from the start was to "help authors get paid for their work," she says. Initially, the site was open only to reprints of previously-published stories, but she eventually added in additional features: the ability to publish new, original work, serialized stories, author profiles, for readers to follow authors, add comments to their stories, and so forth.

One eventual destination for the platform was "an alternative to Amazon," she says, one "that would enable digital distribution for authors and indie publishers and bookstores. A place that gave authors more control over their work and livelihood, a better connection to their fans, and a way to avoid the social media circus and growing expectations from publishers to market their own work." She notes that she built in functionality to eventually allow magazines to come onboard the platform — particularly if they didn't have the capability to process payments themselves.

It was an ambitious roadmap, one that has some precedence: Archive of Our Own (AO3), has become renowned for hosting fan fiction stories, but also for its organizational structure, while Wattpad has become a huge success since it launched in 2006 as a place for users to publish their own stories.

Screenshot: Andrew Liptak

Over the course of its run, Curious Fictions attracted hundreds of authors to showcase some of their back catalog of short stories — myself included. I have a single professional story to my name — 'Fragmented', as well as a handful of stories that I published here on Transfer Orbit, and like Krasnoff and others discovered, there are limits to print and digital publishing, and that Curious Fictions was an ideal spot to host my story.

Other authors found it to be useful for the same reasons. Matthew Claxton, a Canadian author who's had stories in places like Analog, Asimovs, Podcastle, SciFiction, and others, (and writer for the excellent newsletter Unsettling Futures) explained that he saw the platform as a "huge archive or recent short fiction and fantasy."

"Beyond the big names like Asimov's or Clarkesworld or Uncanny," he told me in an email "there are so many small, short lived magazines and anthologies that publish some great work and vanish quickly. There's always good stuff, even from an author you're a fan of, that you miss. Having a central place where authors could host all their stories was tremendously valuable."

Premee Mohamed, author of Beneath the Ring and A Broken Darkness, and who's seen her fiction published in places like Pantheon Magazine, Drabblecast, Pseudopod, and others, also published a handful of stories on the site. (It selected two, 'Four Hours of a Revolution' and 'The Moving Stars' as "Featured Story".) She noted that while she didn't have a ton of subscribers, what she liked about the site was it was a place "to put older stories that had been (for example) locked up in print venues or anthologies ."

"I think we all know that unless it's a 'really big' name (like Analog, etc) everybody expects to be able to read short spec fic for free and so if you have a story in an anthology or print magazine, you feel like nobody will read it," she observed. "I also liked that it was a kind of clearing-house for posts and stories. I liked having my craft posts and stories together and searchable and taggable, rather than constantly shifted down a chronological timeline like my blog on my website."

Another part of the site's appeal was that it warehoused a ton of content all in one place: you didn't have to click "around to thirty different websites to read short stories or posts about writing and publishing." She noted that she hopes that a replacement platform will materialize eventually, "someplace that a lot of venues could join up, where people could search for stories by subject or tag, and pay for subscriptions/tips if they wanted to."

That large collection of stories was beneficial in other ways, notes author Susan Forest. Not only was she able to host most of her hard-to-find backlist of short fiction, but it helped with the elusive discoverability issue that plagues almost all writers: "Being listed with some truly awesome talents allowed me to benefit from being exposed to those readers who were impressed and curious to explore the rest of the site's offerings."

Green Bone Saga author Fonda Lee noted that the site's closure was blow: she appreciated the site's ability to "consolidate my short fiction, essays, guest posts, and novel excerpts," and noted that she was planning to use the site to release a handful of short Green Bone Saga prequel stories this fall ahead of the release of her next book, Jade Legacy. With the site's closure, she's opted to move over to Patreon.

But it's also clear to see what challenges Curious Fictions was up against. Questland author Carrie Vaughn explained that while she thought it was a worthwhile experiment and appreciated the opportunity to get her fiction out there, "finding different and new ways of crowdfunding for artists is such a challenge," and that there's the "eternal issue: it's just tough finding and keeping that audience." Curtis C. Chen echoed those sentiments: "how does anyone on the internet compete with attention-grabbing clickbait videos these days? I know the audience for short fiction is out there, but reaching readers seems to get tougher all the time."

That's something that Breshears echoed: while authors were enthusiastic, readers were "never as motivated as the [authors], and very very few people made payments for stories." She noted that that's understandable: there's a lot out there that's already competing for attention and money.

Ultimately, Curious Fiction was a platform with both an excellent idea and solid execution, but never reached the point where it could become a self-sustaining entity: its pool of authors numbered only in the hundreds — a small fraction of the working writers out there, and Breshears noted in her announcement post that user "subscriptions and payments never got to the point of allowing the site to pay for itself, or to justify more funding."

Its closure is a stark reminder of the fragility of our online infrastructure. Privately-run companies offer little or no guarantee of longevity or usability: the closure of platforms like Yahoo Answers or Yahoo Groups saw the erasure of years of work by users, while Photobucket's decision to disallow image embedding without a paid subscription reduced the usability of innumerable forum posts and websites.

My own story 'Fragmented' is a useful example of this: it was first published in the Galaxy's' Edge Magazine's May 2014 issue, and after that, the Atlantic Council reprinted it for its Art of Future Warfare project. The story was only online for a few months on Galaxy's Edge's website, and I recently discovered that the Atlantic Council had taken down the website for the project.

Small, online magazines aren't immune to this: Magazines and sites like Electric Velocipede (which ran from 2001 through 2013), Ideomancer (2001-2015), the SCI FI Channel's Sci Fiction (2000-2005), Pantechnicon (2006-2010), Omni Online (1995-1998), Starwars.com's Holonet News (2002), and others no longer maintain their websites, and unless the authors involved have republished their stories elsewhere, they're no longer available, save for searching around through resources like the Wayback Machine. That's not optimal: as Krasnoff noted, isn't always a reliable method for recovering them. As a platform, Curious Fictions was uniquely situated to solve that problem.

For authors with only a handful of stories on the platform, migrating their stories to a new platform might be fairly simple, but it's a time-consuming process to investigate the viability of a new platform, transfer those stories, and work to build up a new base of followers. Vaughn noted that she doesn't have any plans to migrate, citing other projects that are currently demanding her attention. Claxton noted that he was going to "bite the bullet" and set up his own website to store his content, while Forest says that while she hasn't figured out a strategy yet, she'll likely end up putting the stories on her website. Chen noted that he'll go back to hosting stories on his website.

There are other options out there for authors that want to monetize their backlist. Lee noted that she set up a Patreon page to publish her work. That platform is one of the bigger ones for creatives, because it allows for them to not only collect subscription dollars from fans, and in separate tiers.

But, Patreon has its own headaches, is a major time commitment, and it's set up to deliver new content to fans, rather than an author's backlist. "I think that short fiction writers in particular need more author-centered venues for their backlist work to be discovered," Lee observed. "I think Tanya was definitely onto something when she founded Curious Fictions, and I hope that need in the community is able to be filled in some sustainable incarnation in the future."

Krasnoff noted that she was looking into a recently-launched storytelling website called Simily as a potential successor. "I haven't decided yet whether that's a good solution for me," she explained. "It works on a subscription basis, rather than on contributions, which may be more financially viable, but I don't know whether that will work for me or not."

As for the future of the site, Breshears noted that she just couldn't keep the site going as a labor of love any longer. On the 27th, it'll become inaccessible, and will go into hibernation mode — an indefinite hiatus. She explained that what she'll miss the most is the customer service aspect of the job and getting to chat with them.

Moving forward, she'll return to doing freelance design work, and will take some time to write on her own again. "For four years, every week I’d skim through the latest stories to pick the featured story. So I’ve probably read thousands of wonderful stories, and featured close to two hundred, and I’m sure that’ll make me a better writer, if I can get that spark back."

This type of feature involves a ton of research and interviews, and I think it's the types of stories that are important to readers. If you liked this story, please consider signing up as a member or paid subscriber for Transfer Orbit those subscribers have access to the full interview that I conducted with Breshears about how she built her platform.

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