Electronic fiction is booming, says Andy Oldfield
The effects of the demise of the Net Book Agreement on sales of fiction may still be open to debate, but on the Net, fiction is booming. There's predictable material in newsgroups such as alt.stories.erotic; earnest fan fiction in the likes of alt.drwho. creative; and professional- quality material, too. So far it's free, as publishers establish a foothold on the Web.

Nicholas Royle, who edits the Net Book pages on Time Out's site, welcomes the opportunity to stake a literary claim on the Web. "Although I've no budget," he says, "I've more freedom than the magazine books editor has. I've electronically published 16 new short stories since Net Books went online; that's 15 more than the magazine in that period."

With advances in secure online transactions, things may not remain freely available. "I don't know how long the Net can retain the spirit it has had since its inception ... but the longer the better," Royle says.

While Time Out's authors aren't paid for their Web fiction, Omni's contributors are. This American science magazine used to pay better rates than the competition for literary science fiction and fantasy short stories; it was a strategy that made them first port of call for many award-winning authors and carved out a name for the magazine in the process. They now publish fiction online and still beat their paper-based competitors on payments - up to $2,500 for stories of up to 10,000 words.

Advertising is seen as the main way to earn revenue. Ellen Datlow, Omni's fiction editor, recognises that to attract advertisers, traffic on the site has to be high. "That's why we're doing a lot of interactive events as well as articles, columns, fiction, and art," she says.

Besides traditionally crafted fiction, there are also attempts at using the new medium for new forms of story-telling. More accurately, there are a lot of treatises on the concept of hypertext fiction and a few attempts at it which do the emerging genre little credit. And then there's something that is both innovative and engrossing - 253 Tube Theatre: A Novel for the Internet about London Underground in Seven Cars and a Crash, by Geoff Ryman, an award-winning author, and new media manager at the Central Office of Information.

It's the story of 253 passengers on the Tube, each described in 253 words. These characters are linked in ways they are unaware of, but which God and the author know and maybe, with a little hypertext help, the reader can explore. "What I wanted to do was use the Web to explore modern London through its people," Ryman says. "A man sitting on the train may have told his wife he's leaving her for another woman. Two cars along, the other woman is just making up her mind to end the relationship. Hyperlinks make that kind of irony very easy."

"The great pleasure of doing 253 was the links," says Ryman. "The need to have links started generating new characters, new ironies. The guy filling in the Time Out personal ads suddenly created, through the link, the lady he was going to reply to, two cars down. The links also started generating footnotes, which are where I drop the traditional authorial distance and use the word 'I'. It lets me talk about my personal connections to London or to the text."

Going back to old fiction technology, a "remix" of 253, to be published in February next year, has been sold to HarperCollins. Because of its structure, its message differs from the online version: "With the hyperlinks," Ryman explains, "253 says, look at all the links we have we don't know about. Without the links, the message becomes: look at God's infinite variety."

Ryman is now inviting online contributions for a similar novel, Another One Along in a Minute. Reader and writer, both free to collaborate on the text? It could be the start of a new cycle of growth for fiction on the Web.

'Time Out': http://www.timeout.co.uk

'Omni': http://www.omnimag.com

'253 Tube Theatre': http://www.ryman-novel.com