Some people can’t wait to learn how a novel ends, and skip to the last chapter to find out.
But that’s not possible with Litnet, an online library, where the books are written and read chapter-by-chapter, and the final pages are only in the mind of the author – if they exist at all.
Launched in July 2015, the library (litnet.com) broke even after only a year, and now brings in $230,000 a month in revenues to its Ukrainian owners – project manager Sergiy Grushko and fiction writer Andrey Levytsky (Nechaev).
Together they decided to introduce writers to a new way of book publication: Writers earn money not from royalties on sales after the book is published, or from an advance before the book is written, but in installments, paid by readers, as each chapter is written and put online.
“In Europe there are (similar) platforms, where a customer pays for each new book chapter,” Grushko said.
However, there’s a drawback to that system, he said. “You never know how many chapters there will be in the novel, and how much money you will have to pay to read the full book.”
So, Grushko and Levytsky came up with a new payment system: clients read the first few chapters for free, and if they want to continue reading the novel, they subscribe to the book and pay a fixed price of approximately Hr 40-80 ($1.50 – $3) to read the rest – no matter how long it is. As writers continue working on their stories, they gradually upload them to the Litnet platform, and subscribers get to read the new chapters.
Currently Litnet focuses on the Russian-language market, which has around 154 million native speakers. The library now has around 200,000 readers every day, and in 2017 there were around 920,000 books uploaded on the platform – both finished ones and ones in the process of being written.
The readers are mainly from countries with Russian-speaking populations, as well as those with large Russian-speaking communities, such as Germany and the United States. Twenty-three percent of the readers are from Ukraine.
The library has about 3 percent of the Russian-language online book market, and it is growing. Litnet is now expanding into the Spanish-language market – which has around 437 million native speakers.
While Litnet was originally launched in Ukraine, it is registered in Bulgaria. There are fourteen people working in the company’s Kyiv office, and a few others who work remotely.
As well as moving into the Spanish market, Litnet has now started publishing books in Ukrainian. Yet despite having invested a lot of money into promoting new Ukrainian literature, Grushko says it has yet take off.
“People aren’t used to writing in Ukrainian,” Levytsky adds. “Fifteen, ten, or even five years ago writers had to write in Russian to be published – no one published books in Ukrainian.”
To change that, Litnet is now cooperating with Ukrainian publishing houses, and trying to inspire authors to switch to Ukrainian.
Litnet promotes its authors and guarantees them regular cash payments. But a lot depends on the writers themselves.
“Writers who used to be published on paper don’t understand the importance of self-promotion,” Grushko said. “They think writing a text is enough, but a lot depends on how the writer communicates his audience, and whether he is active on social media.”
The platform provides writers with a direct line of communication with their readership – readers can comment on chapters as they are published, and give their views and suggestions about how the book should continue to the author.
“On Litnet writers get feedback from readers from the moment they published their first chapter, and that inspires them to continue writing,” Grushko said.
According to Grushko and Levytsky, their top writers can earn up to Hr 250, 000, or $9,000 for a book. Books usually take from two to five months to write.
However, money is not the sole attraction of the library for authors.
“Most writers aren’t after money, they’re looking for appreciation and attention,” Grushko says.
But Grushko and Levytsky’s new model shows that there’s still money to be made from the book industry. Litnet also encourages beginners to hone their writing skills by uploading books for free, and learning from readers’ reactions.
The model has another advantage – as an antidote to piracy, which is the plague of the Russian-speaking book market. In traditional publishing, after a novel is finished, pirated versions can appear within only a day or two. But when money is coming in from readers before the book is even finished, writers are protected from intellectual property theft and have a better chance to profit from their work.
Apart from that, many of Litnet’s published works are only available on the site.
“We asked our customers why they buy books on Litnet, “Grushko says. “And the answer was simple: they couldn’t find them anywhere else for free.”
Watch out Amazon
One of Litnet’s future goals is to conquer the U.S. market. Grushko and Levytsky are reinvesting most of the company’s profit into developing the online library, with most of that money going to promoting the site.
Grushko said it would take from 10 to 15 years to achieve a level of success such as that of Amazon, the huge U.S. online retailer, which started out as an online bookstore.
However, he said that the site would stick to developing its new model of book publishing, rather than expanding into other retailing other products like Amazon did.
“On a planet with over seven billion people, it’s not that hard to find at least one million people that like what you do,” Grushko says.