Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Online Novels: Susan Crealock Creates a Website Listing Books Available in Their Entirety for Free on the Internet

I recently had the pleasure of coming upon the website Online Novels, which provides the titles and links of almost 500 books that can be read in their entirety online for free. The books are listed by category with brief descriptions.

I wanted to know how the creator of this website, Susan Crealock, came up with this idea, which I think is terrific. Susan very graciously agreed to tell her story of the creation of her site. Here’s Susan’s story:

I put my Online Novels site on the web just over two months ago but, in a way, its genesis dates from 1978 – long before personal computers, blogs and browsers – when I started writing a story (the words "novel" or "book" are too pretentious to describe this modest effort) for my own amusement.

Because I didn't own a typewriter, I transcribed the text longhand in a series of notebooks. And when my employer installed computer terminals in its programmers' cubicles, I started inputting the text on the company's mainframe. Certain of my anonymity, I printed copies of the chapters as I progressed, until one day when I received a printout of chapter five covered with exclamation marks and comments.

Years later one of the computer room operators confessed to me that the staff used to rip my chapters off the printer and pass them around for everyone to read! With my cover blown, it was back to writing in longhand.

When the story was close to completion, I got busy with other projects, put the manuscript in a cardboard box, and forgot about it. In 1996 my husband, two cats and I moved aboard our boat. And the box went into storage, where it remained while we wound down our data processing careers, sailed to Mexico and eventually moved to Europe.

Last year we shipped our household goods to Italy and the box caught up with me. In this past March I dug out the manuscript, went into a frenzy of rewriting and committed the text to my PC.

Anyone who works with computers knows the necessity of backing up essential data, and I'm somewhat obsessive in this respect. I printed the story, committed it to a CD, put it on a Palm PDA, and copied the text to a secondary hard drive.

One day when perusing Google I realized I could create a blog from the story, not for others to read but as the ultimate backup. Feeling like a cuckoo laying her eggs in another bird's nest, I created a private blog some time in April.

Several months later, wondering if anyone else would read it, I selected the option to make the blog available on the internet and waited for readers. And waited. With more than 100 million blogs available on the World Wide Web, it's hardly surprising mine went undetected. I needed a strategy. A bit of research turned up a number of sites that list novels available on the internet. I submitted my blog to them, and readers started trickling in.

After this preamble, I'm finally getting to the point. However grateful I was at being included in someone else's list, I didn't want to depend on others. So I decided to create a site of my own – Online Novels – and embed my story within it as one of the offerings.

Initially I felt that 75 novels was a minimum number to be credible. I wanted descriptions for the books, and the novels had to be free and complete. Since the start of the project, Online Novels – now with almost 500 entries – has taken on a life of its own, and the inclusion of my story is merely an afterthought.

The techie stuff: I use two types of tracking software, Sitemeter and Google Analytics, which complement each other. Google Analytics allows one to parse data in countless ways – it's a statistics junkie's dream – while Sitemeter provides detailed information about individual visits. The data for the blog entries themselves reside in several tables of an Access database.

Broken links are a common and annoying feature on many novel sites. I check the links of 60-80 books a day and eliminate those that are M.I.A. or no longer free. Lulu, the self-publishing company, has given me permission to link to their books as well as to use their descriptions and novel covers. This is a great source of material, but since there's no category called "free novels," ferreting out the freebies is very time consuming. Other sources are requests from authors for inclusion and queries that I send out.

Just over half of the traffic to Online Novels comes from search engines while 11 percent is direct, presumably from people bookmarking the blog, and the remainder comes from links on other sites. I can't overemphasize the importance of links, first as sources of traffic in their own right and second because Google uses a link count in determining a website's ranking. You can have the most wonderful site in the world, but if it's languishing on Google page 245 after a search, it might as well not exist.

The most enjoyable aspect of maintaining Online Novels is corresponding with many of the authors whose books are listed in my blog. Their humor and support make even the drudgery of link-checking worthwhile.

Where do I go to find a good free book on the internet? To Project Gutenberg, a priceless collection of classics. I download a book to my Palm, prop myself up in bed, set the screen to autoscroll and watch the immortal words of Conrad, Austen and Thackeray roll by. Now that is bliss!

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