I recently received the following question:
“A question on story analytics. Being new on FFnet, I don’t know what to expect. My first 2 stories featuring popular characters have gotten something like 900 views from 800 visitors over 2 days… and 3 reviews each. I’m grateful for the thoughtful and positive feedback. Just wondering if the writing is so meh that the vast majority have no opinion (even negative ones) on it at all. Do you look at your numbers, and how would you interpret them to identify areas for improvement?”
This is a very interesting question, and I’d like to break it down into a few parts:
- What constitutes a “successful” story in terms of hits, reviews, etc.?
- Can you use any of these numbers to help yourself improve, and if so, how?
The first question does not have an easy answer. From what I have observed the numbers that a story does depend on several main factors:
- Which fandom the story belongs to
- Which characters are involved in the story
- What style/genre of story it is
- How long the story is
- How often the story is updated
The more people belong to a particular fandom, the larger your potential audience will be. For example, more people (total) read Naruto fan fiction than read King of Thorn fan fiction. However, this is complicated by the fact that a more popular fandom is also likely to have more stories, meaning there is more competition (assuming that people can only read a limited number of stories each day).
Consider the Naruto fandom. You could have the most brilliant story ever and it is quite possible that most people will never get the chance to read it since it will be buried in amongst all the other (~366,000) stories. In contrast, if you write an absolutely brilliant story for the Madlax fandom, it is highly unlikely that anyone will miss it since there are only 46 other stories for that fandom.
Thus simply writing in a popular fandom does not guarantee that the people who would enjoy your story will actually read it – they might never be able to find it amongst all the others.
A mid-sized fandom offers arguably the most favourable conditions for a budding writer who is eager for feedback since the community is still large enough that there are a lot of potential readers but also still small enough that the story is likely to be seen.
So how do we define a mid-sized fandom? It depends on what classification type is being used. For example, here are the story numbers for the top 5 most popular anime/manga:
- Naruto (366k = 366,000)
- Inuyasha (113k)
- Hetalia Axis Powers (105k)
- Bleach (78.4k)
- Yu-Gi-Oh (64.7k)
Now, let’s look at the top 5 most popular cartoons:
- Avatar: Last Airbender (38.4k)
- Teen Titans (36.9k)
- Transformers/Beast Wars (24.7k)
- My Little Pony (21.1k)
- Danny Phantom (17.9k)
The top 5 cartoons combined do not even add up to the most popular anime, and are not that much higher than the second-most popular anime. Heck the most popular cartoon would only come in at #11 for anime/manga.
The point here is that a mid-sized fandom for cartoons will be much smaller than a mid-sized fandom for anime/manga. As a result, you need to look at what classification you’re using and adjust your expectations accordingly.
To illustrate the potential effect of the size of a fandom on numbers, let’s have a look at the most popular Naruto stories versus the most popular Yu-Gi-Oh stories.
The highest number of reviews for a Naruto story is ~13.9k vs only 4.6k for Yu-Gi-Oh. The highest number of favourites is ~15.1k for Naruto vs 1.4k for Yu-Gi-Oh. And finally, the highest number of follows is 12.6k for Naruto vs 0.7k for Yu-Gi-Oh.
Clearly, the most popular stories from the bigger fandom have much higher numbers that the most popular stories from the smaller fandom. This, in my opinion, speaks to the power of audience size: more people are interested in Naruto fan fiction, hence the popular Naruto stories have more reviews, favourites, and follows.
Keep in mind, however, that these are the most popular stories. The number of Naruto stories with only a handful of reviews or follows vastly outnumbers those of Yu-Gi-Oh simply because a lot of Naruto stories are “lost” amongst all the others.
The characters that are the focus of a story are also important. It is a fact that in any given series, some characters are more interesting or popular with fans than others. In general, fans want to read more stories about these interest/popular characters.
Again the same dilemma emerges. If you write about a popular character, you have a much wider potential audience – but also more competition. However, if you write about a less popular character, you have a smaller audience – but less competition.
One exception to this is the rare story about a less popular character (or pairing) that is so brilliant that it becomes highly influential even amongst people who do not like that character/pairing. Indeed, some of the most popular stories are those that lay the foundations for non-canon pairings. For example, the popular Hermione/Draco pairing exists only in fan fiction – there is virtually no evidence whatsoever in canon to support it, but the pairing rapidly became popular and stories supporting it are amongst the most reviewed/followed/favourited in Harry Potter fandom.
To see how dramatic an effect the choice of characters can be, let’s pick the genre where it makes the most difference: the romantic genre. Shipping wars (relationship wars) are a notorious part of fandom wherein fans grab their proverbial stakes and pitchforks and attempt to enforce their chosen OTP (One True Pairing) upon the rest of the world. I will, once again, use Naruto as an example because it is the largest fandom with which I am reasonably familiar (Harry Potter with 690k is actually larger, but I’m not particularly familiar with the shipping wars over there).
The most popular Naruto/Hinata story has a staggering set of statistics 12.9k/15.1k/12.6k (reviews/favourites/follows).
The most popular Naruto/Tenten story has a much less impressive set of statistics: 1.9k/2.5k/1.3k.
As you can see shipping has a very real influence – the most popular Naruto/Hinata story crushes its Naruto/Tenten counterpart. But this is where things get interesting. There are only ~500 stories classified as Naruto/Tenten vs ~13.8k stories classified as Naruto/Hinata. A Naruto/Tenten story thus has a much better chance of not being lost in the crowd and can still garner significant numbers. This kind of discrepancy means that a newer writer, eager for feedback and notice, might want to consider a slightly less popular pairing – provided that it still has an audience of a reasonable size.
Turning to the question of genre, there is no doubt in my mind that some genres are more popular than others. In Naruto, the most popular stories by review/favourite/follows tend to be adventure or romance (or have no genre listed). I suspect that this varies slightly from fandom to fandom, but a lot of fan fiction stems from a kind of wish-fulfilment. For instance, if a pairing is heavily hinted at during a series but never taken to fruition, fan fiction can fill that void.
The Naruto/Hinata pairing is an example of this wish-fulfilment although perhaps the most dominant non-canon pairing I’ve ever seen (as a percentage) is the Maura/Jane pairing from Rizzoli and Isles which permeates the fandom despite it not being canon. Indeed, I would estimate that around 90% of all Rizzoli and Isles stories feature this pairing in some fashion.
In other words, the most popular genres are either those that extend what makes a series great (e.g., adventure for series like Naruto) or address things that the series does not (e.g., romance in Naruto).
However, this doesn’t mean that other genres cannot succeed. Every fandom has certain stories that are considered by the majority of fans as “good”. These are the stories that new fans are told about and encouraged to read by more experienced fans. Invariably some of these stories are the tear-jerkers (e.g., angst/tragedy), and while they do not seem to gather the massive numbers of the aforementioned genres, they can do very good numbers nonetheless.
Furthermore, it is also possible to identify areas of the fandom that are not getting the stories they want. A fandom is, in general, a collection of diverse individuals (diverse with regards to temperament, personality, etc.). As such, many fans will have tastes that are not being sated by the most common stories. If, for example, a fandom ceases to write angst/tragedy then the door is wide open for someone to write those things because there absolutely will be someone who will read and appreciate them. Likewise, if a fandom has been overrun by dark/broody stories, some of the most popular stories are those that focus on fluff/romance, serving needs that have gone unmet.
The length of a story can also impact what kind of numbers it does. In general, longer stories tend to do better numbers than shorter stories. This stems from a number of possible factors:
- There is more content, which makes people like the story more
- The story is updated multiple times (i.e., has multiple chapters), making it visible more often so that people can find it more easily
- The story is long enough that readers require multiple visits to finish it (and multiple chapters opens the possibility for multiple reviews)
- The story has enough going on that the reader wants to revisit it from time to time and read their favourite bits, much the same way that someone might pick out the favourite parts of a movie to watch over and over
This isn’t to say that shorter stories cannot do big numbers. Some can and do, but a causal perusal of the most popular stories in most fandoms shows that they are of above average length.
Does this mean that longer and longer is better? Absolutely not. Above a certain word length, increased length does not seem to help (indeed it may actually hinder since it becomes a huge investment of time that some are unwilling to make). From what I’ve seen, anything over 50,000 words is long enough for most of these effects to set in. Certainly, anything over 200,000 words is long enough to squeeze every possible ounce of the “length-effect” out of the story.
Closely related to story length is updating. In general, readers love having ready access to the story of their choice. Most of the highly popular stories either update frequently or, at least at one point, had a regular updating schedule. Stories that update very infrequently or sporadically can leave readers feeling frustrated and uncertain as to whether the story will ever finish. That said, this effect is not nearly as strong as some of the others I’ve mentioned. Indeed, I’ve noticed that readers will wait years (actual years) for an update to a story they love and then return in droves when the author begins updating again.
So what does this all mean? How do you judge if a story is successful or not? Well, let’s take a case study with the fanfiction.net fandom that I am most familiar with, the Final Fantasy XIII fandom.
Final Fantasy XIII is what I would call a mid-sized fandom. It ranks outside the top 20 in terms of popularity for games and features 3.4k stories (versus the 74k stories for Pokemon, the most popular game fandom).
The most highest number of reviews for any Final Fantasy XIII story is ~1000, the highest number of favourites is ~500, and the highest number of follows is ~350. These numbers are all, I would suggest, in line with a mid-sized fandom (adjusting for the smaller size of game fandoms relative to manga/anime).
So what would constitute a successful story? Well, what becomes clear from even a cursory examination of the statistics is that things are very top heavy. If we sort via review, there are 121 pages of stories. The 61st page should thus give us some idea of what the median number of reviews are (the average being a horrible way to measure central tendency in a distribution this heavily skewed).
The answer is actually pretty surprising. Every single story on 61st page has 7 reviews. Seven. What about if we do the same with favourites and follows? Well, here are the numbers. For favourites: 10. For follows: 4.
If we compare the top 10 stories in reviews/favourites/follows the trend that emerges is quite striking: the system is top heavy. If you look at just the first page of stories (sorted by review), you find that the difference between the ones at the top and at the bottom of just the first page is dramatic. The most popular stories are the most popular by a considerable margin.
So, what can I say about Final Fantasy XIII fan fiction? If your story has done better than 7/10/4 (reviews/favourites/followers) across its entire lifetime, then you are doing better than the median across all categories (a good thing). In the second part of this, I’ll talk more about what those numbers mean in terms of improvement, but here, I’ll leave it at that.
However, there is one factor that I haven’t considered yet, and it is a big one: the lifetime of a fandom. It is a sad fact that every fandom has ups and downs in popularity. In general, a fandom goes through four main stages:
- Initial foundation
The first stage describes when a fandom is very small. During the initial foundation, only those who are heavily invested in the fandom participate. It is not unusual for all members of the fandom who post on fanfiction.net to actually know each other and communicate regularly. These individuals will also typically provide leadership as the group expands.
The second stage describes the time when the fandom becomes increasingly popular as knowledge of the series/game/manga/etc permeates the public consciousness and strikes a chord. A classic example of this would be the effect of the Marvel movies on the Marvel fandom – few people (relatively speaking) knew who the Avengers were until the movie turned the Avengers into a fandom phenomenon. For video games, this is usually the period when the game is still new and exciting and everyone else is buying it. Fan fiction becomes far more popular at this stage, with many scrambling to become involved.
The third stage, stabilisation, refers to when the fandom has reached its zenith in terms of popularity and begins to plateau. This maturation phase typically involves the writing of the vast majority of fan fiction as the fandom stabilises and begin to look toward fan fiction and fan art to meet any needs that have not been met by the original source material (e.g., the desire for Fang/Lightning in the Final Fantasy XIII fandom).
The fourth stage, contraction, refers to the general tendency of fandoms to grow smaller again as they pass their zenith of popularity. However, this does not spell the death of the fandom. In any fandom, there are a certain portion of fans who remain interested, and many more who will continue to read fan fiction (but not write it). Depending on the specifics of the fandom, the contraction can be larger or smaller. Some fandoms may die, but others will stabilise at a smaller size (see e.g., the Harry Potter fandom which has retained much of its strength despite the series being over). The fan fiction produced during this phase is often of high quality as those writing are genuinely engaged with the source material and not simply trying to piggyback on the popularity of the source material.
This has consequences for the numbers that a story does because the numbers (reviews/favourites/follows) are cumulative. That is, they aggregate over time. Thus a story that has been out twice as long as another has had twice the time to accumulate numbers. Hence, if both stories are equally popular, then the older story will appear to have better numbers.
Here’s an interesting fact. Of the top 10 Final Fantasy XIII stories (as sorted by reviews) only one was started in the last 2 years (Lightning and Fang Sitting in a Tree, #6 at 462 reviews). Of that top 10, only four have been updated in the past year. Older stories appear to have a significant advantage, which I believe operates in the following manner:
- The story is initially published and proves to be popular
- The story is completed
- The story becomes part of the accepted collection of “good stories” by the fandom, meaning new fans are directed toward that story by other fans
- New fans use fanfiction.net’s search engine to look for the most popular stories (assuming those are the good ones), which leads them to these stories, thereby reinforcing their popularity (since if they are genuinely good AND highly visible, they should do great numbers)
This effect is not unlike that which applies to the “classics”. For instance, everyone knows about Lord of the Rings, and everyone knows that it is supposed to be good. Hence, everyone seeks it out to read it. Because it actually is good, these people then leave lots of favourable reviews about Lord of the Rings. In other words, a story, having established itself as a “classic” of the fandom, is at a tremendous advantage since it constitutes “required reading” for the fandom, thereby bolstering its numbers. Of course becoming a “classic” is not easy – having read the stories in the top 10, I will readily agree that all of them have their merits and deserve the attention they’ve gotten. Naturally, we can quibble about which story is the best, but it is easy to see why each of them has been popular (and it’s largely a matter of personal taste anyway).
Another factor, which I’ll talk about in more detail in the next part, is the impact that name recognition can have on numbers. To put it simply, if you’ve written good stories before, people are more willing to read any new stories that you have. If we look at the first page of stories (sorted by review), we find that of the top 25 most popular stories (by review) several authors appear multiple times. One author appears three times, and another appears four times.
Anyway, I’ll continue this in another post since this is already getting monstrously long.
*Note: The statistics cited in this post have all been gathered using fanfiction.net’s in-built search function and sorting function. I am very much aware that these engine have their flaws, but they remains good instruments for gauging rough trends. Furthermore, I also acknowledge that one particular problem is that many old stories have not been updated to include character/pairing information. However, I do not believe that these substantially change the overall picture presented by the data. I have also chosen to include all languages in the analysis since it should be obvious that my points about audience size apply to foreign languages (all of which have a smaller audience than English). Finally, stories are removed from fanfiction.net for a variety of reasons, and there have been several purges throughout the sites history (perhaps the most famous being the removal of stories featuring heavy hard-core explicit content). Such stories have not been included in this analysis.
*Note: I am also aware of the growing popularity of AO3. However, I am not familiar enough with trends on the site to comment on it in the manner that I have commented here. Furthermore, there also appear to be significant differences in the popularity of fandoms between fanfiction.net and AO3, which complicate the analysis. Indeed, I suspect that the demographics of the two websites have significant differences.