Way back in May 2006, I wrote a little piece called “The State of the Furry Zine.” I’m informally revisiting it now.
Has the web won?
This was something I mused on back then, writing:
Whether we like it or not, print periodicals are in decline, and this trend isn’t likely to reverse. This is true for even professional magazines. Fan and “semi-pro” publications have even more motivation to move online: production cost. A 48-page photocopied fanzine with tape or comb binding will run close to $1.50 a copy just for toner and paper alone. A typical fan-level print run of 100 copies would cost more than a year’s worth of web hosting.
While this is an ongoing debate in commercial print media, where the revenue stream tends to be heavily skewed toward advertiser support rather than subscriber support, for small presses this is still basically true.
Even so, as it turns out the print world isn’t dead quite yet, even in furry fandom. Not only is Sofawolf still around, we’ve seen FurPlanet become a little publishing empire, Will Sanborn has published a few short story anthologies of his own, Bad Dog Books is still producing their Fang and Roar titles, and there are even the occasional new entrants, like Pink Fox.
Pink Fox’s Allasso is worth noting not just for being new but for being something of a hybrid: all of its content is available online for free, but you can support the endeavor by buying the printed version. If I’m reading their guidelines correctly, they’re not a paying market, but award prizes every issue, “one work per category for a $50 cash prize” between poetry, fiction, essay, art, and “experimental/other.” (Personally I’d rather they pay everyone a small amount, but that can end up getting very expensive quickly.)
But really, I’m thinking about the all-important question,
Where should I get my stuff published?
First and foremost: don’t expect to make a lot of money, but you can potentially make some money. In fact, I think the market is closer now to being an actual market–tiny though it may be–than it has at any point in the fandom’s history. If you’ve written a novel-length piece of work, or even novella-length, getting it out through FurPlanet is very viable, and Sofawolf and Bad Dog are certainly worth considering. I consider Sofawolf to have the highest quality standards of the three and also the highest production values; FurPlanet may be the lowest of the three in that regard; the quality of the printing itself is on par with the others but from all appearances they do very little editing and layout design work. I think of FP as sort of a hybrid of self-publishing and a normal press. They are selective about what they put out and, all-importantly, they’re not charging authors for the privilege of publishing with them–but you may end up doing a lot of the production/design work yourself if you go with them.
Speaking of self-publishing, the options for that are better now than they ever have been; thanks to companies like Smashwords you don’t need much more than a word processor to make ebooks (albeit often ugly ones). I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances who’ve had great success with this route–and a few who’ve had virtually no success at all. Ebooks seem to be most successful for authors who have built up an audience first, whether or not it’s through traditional publishing means. The big problem right now with ebooks, particularly in “niche” markets like furrydom, tends to be one of discoverability. (I didn’t find out that Will Sanborn had any ebooks out there until starting this article, for instance!)
One other e-caveat: one big knock against self-publishing has always been that the traditional agent-editor-publisher system, for all its faults, tends to be pretty good at keeping the truly unpublishable crap from hitting bookstore shelves, and that one bypasses the gatekeeper at one’s peril. While it’s easy to dismiss this based on all the crap that does make it to bookstore shelves, anyone who has read even a small press publisher’s “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts will back me up when I say that we’re talking about suck at a different order of magnitude.
So, really, if you want to make even a modest amount of money you must either choose one of the print publishers or take your chances with ebooks, and your chances with ebooks will be improved if you’ve gotten at least some name recognition beforehand.
If you don’t really care about making money–if you’d just like to get your stuff out there, that brings us to
The Archive Sites
First, the obvious mea culpa: I’ve been noodling around with my own attempt at an archive site, Claw & Quill, for years. While I haven’t given up, I suspect it’s going to have to be different from what I was originally proposing for it to move forward at this point. While the inestimable balinares provided some actual coding help and a few others expressed active interest, my own enthusiasm flagged considerably. The problem, bluntly, is that I knew in my heart what I was trying to do was essentially to be a story-focused version of ArtSpots, a terrific art archive site which has very few of the issues that people complain about all the time with FA and a lot of spiffy new features–but doesn’t accept writing. (Which is just fine, by the way–focus is a good thing.) We need something like that for writing, right? Right?
Well, I said it was a problem because frankly, the art-focused version of ArtSpots–i.e., ArtSpots–is a site that you are not using. Admit it. You’re not.
The problem here is, of course, the network effect, something that FurAffinity has done a great job building and maintaining. For a while I was of the opinion that FA got that way simply by being in the right place at the right time, and there’s probably something to that–but FA arguably makes it easier than any of the other sites to use the people on your watchlist as recommendation engines, and that’s by far the best way to find new art/writing that you’re going to be interested in. Go to somebody’s user page and you’re going to be able to see the last few things they’ve favorited without another click. For all of the things worth bitching about on FA, its UX design–even if it may be entirely accidental–has affordances for serendipitous discovery that I think all of its competitors are missing.
Here’s my casual and possibly unduly snarky survey of the contestants for writers.
FA is often thought of as the slow idiot cousin of the archive set that we all keep using only because everybody else is using it. This is mostly true, although it’s probably not as slow in reality as it is in our heads; most pages that I’ve looked at load in 3–10 seconds, which is pretty respectable given that its pages frequently have dozens of images.
For authors, though, FA remains pretty abysmal. It still insists on only displaying thumbnail images when people browse submissions, so you must make such an image if you don’t want a generic icon; to add insult to injury, while FA displays the thumbnails at up to 300×300 px sizes at some points (if it’s your most recent submission), it will resize whatever you upload to 75×&75 and then upscale the thumbnail, the upshot being that it insists you make a cover image for your story and then insists on uglifying it. You can’t edit a story on the site, you can only upload it directly–which I don’t mind, but it can only display an uploaded story if it’s in plain text (
.txt) format. As it turns out, it will interpret BBCode blocks in such a story, so you can still mark things as [I]italic[/I] and [B]bold[/B] as long as you know that. Which you probably didn’t because it’s not documented anywhere. If you upload a story in any other format, then readers get the option to download it. That’s it.
Beyond that, your control over formatting either as a reader or an author is pretty much bupkis. Readers can switch between dark grey text on a pale blue background or pale grey text on a dark blue background (go with the dark text), but in both cases you’re stuck with 10px (about 8 point) Verdana text with borders, borders everywhere. FA’s original designer apparently never met a white space he didn’t want to trap. While I wouldn’t have chosen the borders or that typeface, it’s the type size that annoys me–yes, readers can always just bump up the browser magnification, but that doesn’t excuse you from choosing sane defaults.
Having said that: we all keep using FA because everybody else is using it. Like it or not, if you want your stories to have a chance of being found by the great horde of unshampooed furries, you want them here, period.
During my 2006 survey SoFurry was YiffStar, and I snarkily observed:
It’s about porn. In your face, unabashed porn. Stories are categorized by the genders of the leads and tagged with keywords for fetishes for easy searching. At risk of standing on a soapbox momentarily: YiffStar is the #1 hit on Google for “furry stories.” Don’t blame the mainstream media for the “furry = fetish” image; they’re getting it from us.
At the time I wasn’t sure who ran YiffStar, either. Now I know it was Toumal, and while we don’t really know one another, I like him, and I like the ambition that I see in SoFurry. While I found the original SoFurry to have a confused user experience, the 2.0 version–still in beta–fixes most of that. Not all, but, well: beta. We’ll see how it shakes out. The site, in both standard and beta versions, can sometimes be mind-numbingly slow; I’ve seen pages regularly take 15+ seconds of loading time and one topped out at over two minutes. (Like FA, SF has the peculiar quirk of showing you diagnostic information about the time spent building each page in the footer, but the numbers there have very little to do with the time it will take your browser to actually load the page.)
Unlike FA, SF has no way to upload story files that I see but instead has a rich text editor you can cut and paste into. This is both good and bad. It’s good because if you type directly into that editor you can do anything you want, and I can convert my beloved nerdy Markdown to HTML and paste it directly into the “raw HTML” window of that editor. You can see the results with “The Narrow Road in Morning Light”; it comes out quite well.
The bad is that, well, you can do anything you want. I’ve seen stories there that wreak havoc with the site’s standard style sheets by overriding with their own hardcoded CSS styles, are full of strange Unicode errors, and very frequently have seemingly random amounts of spacing between paragraphs (and sometimes even words, which requires a peculiar talent). While I think “Narrow Road” looks pretty good, I’m a web developer; a typical user writing in a word processor may find it difficult to get their story transferred over in a way that preserves the important formatting while not screwing up the site styles.
The site style, at least in the beta, uses a sensible 15px font size. While I’m not sure I’d have chosen Trebuchet as a body typeface, for screen reading it’s effective.
You can’t browse stories by descriptions, but only by keywords. If you search for
samurai you’ll find “Narrow Road,” but not if you search for
hisae (the main character’s name), and as far as I can tell you can’t actually see the description I wrote for the story–which I think of as the blurb that’s supposed to entice you to click on it–without actually clicking on it. Your list of samurai stories will helpfully inform you that my story is about “Wolf, No-Yiff, Plot Development, Fantasy, Fighting, Character Development, Medieval, , …” (exactly like that, with the comma space comma space ellipsis at the end), whereas “Spread Thy Wings : The Legend of Ro…” informs you that it’s about “Demon, Feudal Japan, Story Series, Near Future, Evil, M/M, japan, naked, fight, Samurai, , …” Right then!
The emphasis on keywords sends a message–intentional or not–that SoFurry, just like its predecessor, assumes your primary interest in stories is… ah… keyword matching. Yes. Good euphemism. This euphemism is reinforced throughout the interface: you can filter new submissions on your watchlist by adult/clean rating, sexual orientation, and gender; creator profiles include sexual preference and relationship status, and you can elect to turn on the hardly euphemistic “CumCounter” to “let viewers tell you if they’ve been naughty.” Even though the YiffStar-to-SoFurry name change was made explicitly (ha!) to reduce the adults-only air, the assumption that you’re there to be titillated is woven pretty deeply into the site’s design.
Bottom line: it’s got some definite strengths compared to the competition, but be aware of its quirks, understand that the majority of your potential furry readers are still on FA whether you like it or not–and without at least a few UX changes, SF is probably going to keep its “premiere site for porn” reputation.
Also, the name gives me hives. Sorry.
Incidentally, SoFurry is the #1 hit on Google for “furry stories.”
Opening in 2010, Inkbunny was born surrounded by controversy, as it shares some staff with a now-defunct “cub porn” fanzine. Combine that with FA’s (seemingly somewhat reluctant) crackdown on that particular fetish, and IB has quickly become the archive you want to go to if you want to draw or view underage furries in ways that would likely be illegal were they humans.
Inkbunny is accepting of all furries with different interests, fetishes, and philias and it does not allow discrimination against others for those interests. The site has a built in keyword blocker that allows filtering of specific types of art, in order to suit each user’s tastes.
This is part of “The Inkbunny Philosophy,” which takes the tone of a revolutionary manifesto. “People want to buy your work even if they can get it free elsewhere, and that you should not worry too much about piracy of your work,” they proclaim, with the admonition that “making a spectacle out of legal action relating to piracy is not welcome here.” Everything is welcome except for value judgements–and humans having sex with non-humans. “Human characters are permitted in stories,” their Acceptable Content Policy reads, “only so long as they are not involved in sexual situations of any kind.”
IB requires you to opt-in to “adult” content viewing, and you can block certain keywords from showing up in your results. While IB has a concept of assigning content star ratings, they’re on a per-user, per-favorite basis: when you favorite something you can assign it one to three stars. But one star is still a favorite, and stars don’t affect how popular an image is. You can fairly easily find a user’s favorites, though, which gives it some of the “old-school” advantage that FA has.
On a technical level InkBunny has the most unusual presentation for stories that I’ve seen. It uses a fixed-width display, and stories are displayed in a 640×640px box with page-like margins, making them look a lot like ebooks, complete with next/previous page buttons–although the story is loaded completely, so the buttons respond instantly for paging, and you can also scroll if you prefer. The formatting of the story is entirely under your control, as far as I can tell, but its default typeface seems to be the stalwart Times New Roman at a readable size.
You can upload a Word or RTF file from your desktop and it will let users download that, but you have to create a separate BBCode version of the story in IB’s editor for the paging display–however, if you upload a Word version of the story, it will create the BBCode version initially from that. (Peculiarly, it won’t do that for an RTF version of the story.)
Browsing stories on IB, though, is poor: you get the thumbnail image, story title and author, and a few icons indicating rating (general/mature/adult), type (always “Writing - Document”) and whether a digital version is available (I presume for sale as an ebook, although I’m not sure). And that’s it. Again, we don’t seem to be able to see story descriptions until we actually click on the story.
Why does this bother me? Because blurbs are to stories what thumbnails are to images: they’re what makes you want to see the whole thing. A thumbnail of an image is the image, scaled down. That’s all you need to know whether you want to click on the image to see the full version, right? But a “thumbnail” of a story on one of these archives sites isn’t a thumbnail, it’s a cover image. On a paperback (remember those?) you turn it over to read the back cover blurb to see if it sounds interesting, right? Give us the goddamn blurbs, site designers.
Beyond that, IB’s interface is probably the best of the sites I’ve seen; it’s pretty easy to figure out how to do what you want to do and it can actually (gasp) search story text, not just keywords and titles. It’s very fast. The site defaults to having background art behind its main content area, which strikes me as absolutely bonkers on a site whose main content is going to be other art, but you can turn that off.
The downsides to IB are the smaller audience and, of course, the politics of porn. There will always be drama associated with this site as long as there’s substantial perception of it as The One Stop Shop For Cub Sex.
This is pretty much the same site as it was in 2006 on the technical side. Like SoFurry 2, it uses Trebuchet as its body size, although on FR it’s a little smaller and has leading a little too tight for my tastes.
Unlike any of the other sites, FurRag understands that blurbs (story descriptions) are important and understands the concept of chapters, as well as the concept of “collections,” which can link books or stories into series. FR also displays aggregate star ratings for stories. They use TinyMCE now for editing (I don’t think they did back then). Their story entry form is ugly (I do not understand the site’s obsession with centering everything in a sea of white space), but serviceable.
Since my initial review, they’ve changed the ratings to “PG–13”, “Mature,” “Erotica” and “Private,” so I no longer have to carp about having “X”, “XXX” and “NC–17” like they used to. Now I have to carp about why there’s no “General.”
While FR comes in third in this list in terms of presentation aesthetics behind SoFurry and Inkbunny (but well ahead of FurAffinity), in many ways it’s the best site in the list for authors. Writing is their primary focus, not an afterthought, and while you can list a story with multiple genres, they don’t have the obsessiveness over categories that the other sites do. Bluntly, FurRag doesn’t make you feel like non-fetish stories are kind of out of place.
FR’s big knock, of course, is that it’s like ArtSpots: it’s a really good archive site that you still aren’t using, are you? Right. Having said that, it’s not uncommon for stories there to get several hundred views, which is frankly nothing to sneeze at. Its big advantage over the other sites is that because it is focused on writing, the community that’s developed, while small, is a community of people who are willing to read.
Along with Pink Fox’s magazine mentioned above, this is the only magazine-style web site that I know of doing specifically furry things. Basically, go back and re-read my original piece on that because it all still applies. Anthro is still an interesting magazine in some respects, still looks like a web site from 1997, and still tends to have a vague feeling of being a club for a small number of people.
First: regardless of what site or sites you use, take a few minutes to learn how to do the best formatting you can on it without overriding its native styles. My suggestion? Upload plain text with BBCode on FurAffinity, paste plain text with BBCode on Inkbunny, and paste clean, unstyled HTML on FurRag and SoFurry. (If you’re pasting in HTML generated by Microsoft Word, use the special “paste stuff from Word” button on the site’s editor toolbar.)
Presentation matters. None of these sites are really great at it, but most are serviceable. My ranking from best to worst:
- Inkbunny (albeit with quirks)
- SoFurry 2.0
- SoFurry 1.0
- Magenta crayon on toilet paper
Presentation isn’t all that matters. For all of the mostly-deserved guff FurAffinity gets, it’s got an awful lot of users, and if you’re trying to build a furry audience that’s important.
On all of these sites, your visibility–and the discoverability of your content–is pretty much directly tied to your participation. If you want more page views, there’s a straightforward formula. (You will notice I do not practice what I preach, which is why my “chipotle” FA account is essentially invisible.)
- regularly add new people to your watchlist
- regularly add things to your favorites
- regularly leave comments
- regularly add things to your gallery
While all of these sites accommodate erotic material, there’s a noticeable division between FurRag on one side and SoFurry and Inkbunny on the other. FR treats erotica as both a rating category and a genre, but there’s no implicit suggestion that erotica is the norm. But the entire user experience on SF and IB, from setting the metadata of uploaded material through browsing and searching, implicitly sends the message that if you’re not there looking for (or creating) fetish material you’re kind of a weirdo.
Also: dating site or archive? Pick one, guys.
What’s my final recommendation? I think having a presence on FA is important, whether you particularly like the site or not. Beyond that, it’s murkier. My favorite of the other three–despite the fact that I have no presence at all there (yet)–is FurRag. It’s the smallest, but it’s by far the most dedicated to writing. While SoFurry and Inkbunny are both pretty good at displaying text stories, they’re not so good for browsing, both falling back on the ol’ thumbnail grid. And–besides the notes about the erotica focus–Inkbunny in particular comes across as more art-focused, despite having the best text upload conversion. (SoFurry 2 is experimenting with ePub creation and Readability integration, a pretty clear sign that they are taking writing seriously, for which you can probably credit Alex Vance.)
Explaining how a new conception for Claw & Quill will be different is, as Alton Brown would say, another show. In part that’s because I’m still working it out myself, I’ll admit. ↩
A comment I’ve seen from Inkbunny staff confirmed my suspicion that this has to do with worries about running afoul of bestiality laws. This strongly suggests Inkbunny is taking the position that furries are a safe harbor against anti-pornography statutes–as long as none of the characters are human, laws against sexual depictions involving humans don’t apply. While I’m not a lawyer blah blah etc., I find this logic dubious. At any rate, it creates the very curious situation that–if we take their ACP strictly–my story “Travelling Music,” which might well pass muster as late-teen YA appropriate by today’s standards, is too hot for Inkbunny to handle. ↩