Exploring Modern Pulp: Royal Road and the Web Novel

Exploring Modern Pulp: Royal Road and the Web Novel

Image courtesy Royal Road

“Web novels?” you say. “What are those?”

They’re exactly what you think they are; novels written and published on the internet, free to read. They’re more common than you think. What may surprise you about this community of writers and readers is not only the writers themselves, but the abundance of readers who support them financially.

I think many folks here have probably heard of places like Wattpad, the web publishing platform where writers post their novels — though over in that corner most of the content is YA and romance. I can’t say much about Wattpad because I’m not a reader or writer over there, though I know agents crawl around looking for new authors to publish in traditional media.

I’m here to talk about a different platform, and more specifically, the modern pulp writers who publish there. It’s called Royal Road, where writers publish fantasy novels.

Image courtesy Royal Road

The main genre is LitRPG, or “Literary Role Playing Game,” which combines the conventions of computer RPGs with SF and fantasy. There’s a whole host of other genres as well. Two of the most popular are Xanxia and Wuxia; genres derived from Chinese martial arts. There’s also a lot of isekai, which is a Japanese word to describe a character who is transported to another world, usually by magical or nefarious means. You see this one a lot in anime.

Cultivation and portal fantasies are also very well known, as well as other genres. If you like anime or video games even a little bit, you would probably love to dive into the many stories on Royal Road.

Let’s get further into what I’m really talking about here. If you have trouble with some of the genre terms, go look them up — there are plenty of good sites that dive into the definitions in detail. But worry not, this article is less about genre and more about the wonderful authors; modern pulp writers and their hangout, Royal Road.

Let me get into the comparisons so you understand better why I’m calling these writers modern pulp writers. Obviously that’s a blanket term and it’s not always true.

When we hear “pulp writer,” we  think of an author plugging away at a manual typewriter in the twenties and thirties. “Pulp” as a literary term was derived from the cheap pulp paper used in the penny and dime fiction magazines back in the day. But it’s also a description of a kind of writer, one with an amazing drive and work ethic, capable of producing a lot of content on tight weekly deadlines for publishers.

As for the fiction itself, pulp is a style that concerns itself mostly with entertainment, rather than aiming to be literary or particularly thought provoking. We don’t use the word “pulp” very often these days, but most commercial fiction falls into this category — literature produced for the average reader who just wants to have a fun time.

Image courtesy Royal Road

Back in the day, pulp writers wrote fast and they wrote hard, because they got paid by the word. They rarely rewrote anything, except to editorial demand, and they churned out reams of fiction for a whole slew of fiction houses — most of which were in New York City.

And a few got rich. Some of them got very rich! As an example, and I’m going purely by memory, but Frank Gruber, a pulpster from the 30s, states in his autobiographical book The Pulp Jungle, that the top editor for Black Mask — which in his day was the crème of the pulp magazines — was paid annually at around a third of what he was making writing for the pulps. That was the difference in pay between an editor for a top pulp magazine and a successful pulp writer.

The Pulp Jungle by Frank Gruber (Sherbourne Press, 1967)

Now that’s something, and I say that also to draw a comparison with modern writers at Royal Road. (Do you see how I keep linking it like that? I’m subtly subverting your mental defenses.) There are a lot of folks making a living over there, some of whom are taking in ten, fifteen and twenty grand a month — and that’s just from their Patreon supporters, never mind their income from Amazon and other indie retailers.

But this avenue for modern pulp is really still in its infancy. It’s getting bigger, and has grown enormously in just the last few years. There are more writers than ever pounding away at their keyboards, producing good work where they have a lot of readers and an income. The LitRPG genre has only had a name (coined by a Russian writer, I believe) for around ten years. This form of web fiction is a new breed of prose. It’s gaining traction and readers, but it remains a niche.

In the pulps, with so many writers hustling to make a mark, quality tended to vary widely. And the hustling authors of Royal Road — of which there are many, let me tell you — also tend to be quite variable in style, tone and quality. But don’t forget that the pulps produced many beloved authors we remember and read today (my favorite, personally, is Robert E. Howard).

Image courtesy Royal Road

There are thousands of stories available on Royal Road. Some are very popular, while others are hidden gems just waiting to be found. You may quickly discover certain differences from traditionally published reading material. If you can handle a few extra typos, or grammatical errors here and there, you will do just fine. (To be totally fair, Jonathan Maberry’s new book Kagen the Damned has two typos just in the blurb over on Goodreads…)

In the old days, it was cheap pulp paper, now it is the free internet. (Can we make that an analogy?) A lot of our writers are producing content without editors and proofreaders to go over every line. And I say “our writers” because, though I’m not associated with Royal Road in any manner of speaking, I do write and post stories there.

Royal Road (*nods head suggestively* See how I did it again?) has a nifty rating system where users can rate the overall quality of a story, as well as grade for style, entertainment value, grammar, and even character development. It’s a great feature to help readers find something that matches their reading taste.


Novels by Dean Wesley Smith: The High Edge (WMG Publishing, 2014), Star Trek: The Original Series: The Rings of Taute
(Pocket Books, 2000) and Vor The Maelstrom: Island of Power (Warner Aspect, 200, cover by Donato)

Modern pulp writers are out there, and more numerous than you think. Isaac Asimov was a modern pulp writer. (Retro pulp writer? Bah! He produced five-hundred books!)

A more traditional writer and pulpster of today is Dean Wesley Smith. He writes everything; westerns, fantasy, science fiction and beyond. He’s mostly known for his Star Wars, The X-Files, Men in Black, and Star Trek tie-in fiction. On his blog, he says that a pulp writer must write at least a million words a year, and he bases this assertion upon the output of writers from the past. I’m not certain that word-count criteria is entirely necessary, though it is certainly a good benchmark.

Image courtesy Royal Road

There are a lot of writers on Royal Road (Perception check; do my readers know I’m attempting to control their minds?) writing upwards of a million or more words a year. I’m one of them. I write 3,000 words a day, seven days a week. That’s over a million words a year. I guess according to Dean Wesley Smith, I’m writing at pulp speed! I just… don’t make any money.

If our primary benchmark is output, I think we can make a solid analogy. But to really do that, we have to go over a few writers on Royal Road and see what they’re up to. We can get a nice sense of the style that we typically find there, but I have also contacted several writers to get their own words to help you better understand.

Let’s begin!

Stray Cat Strut by RavensDagger

So, RavensDagger is successful at Royal Road. He writes things such as Stray Cat Strut ⁠— A Young Lady’s Journey to Becoming a Pop-Up Samurai, Cinnamon Bun and Dreamer’s Ten-tea-cle Café, just to name a few. This author has just under 15,000 followers, 2,000,000 words of published fiction in fifteen separate titles (yeah, that’s a lot), and over 700 patrons on Patreon.

According to a heavy hitter whom I will not name, ninety patrons roughly translates to $720 a month, give or take, though a little bit better for established writers, of which RavensDagger is one. I would guess that RavensDagger is making at least $5k a month on the low side, but probably more like $7.5k a month. That’s via Patreon alone. If you want to dig into this in a lot more detail have a look at a few Patreon pages, where writers have their figures displayed.

Cinnamon Bun by RavensDagger

Back to the modern pulp writer angle. Here’s what RavensDagger had to say to me:

So, I suppose my schedule would be a good place to start.

I don’t have one. I tried having working around a schedule for a while — wake up at 7, eat and shower, then sit down to write — but it never quite works out. Every night, I have a bit more work to do. I never finish at a reasonable time, so by the time I’m done working, it’s several hours past when I should go to bed. Which of course means I’ll be tired in the morning.

Writing is one of those things that become exponentially more difficult to do when you’re unable to focus.

So I did away with schedules and instead focus on just getting work done sometime during the day. Usually that’s about 3,000 words a day. About a chapter and a half.

Because of a lot of fan insistences, I now only work six days a week, with Sunday as a half-day so that I have time to edit. A normal day usually includes about 6 hours of writing, an hour or two of editing, then a bunch of little time-wasters like formatting and research and plotting.

Basically, if you want to see results, you need to put in the hours. If you’re not treating writing like a job — albeit, a fun job! — then you’re never going to succeed.

Now that’s a pulp writer’s work ethic right there. Okay, so 3,000 words a day. Like me. That’s over a million words a year. That’s a lot of output!

And I have to say, RavensDagger’s titles are delightful. I’m very intrigued by Stray Cat Strut: A Young Lady’s Journey to Becoming a Pop-Up Samurai. I love synth wave and I see some definite influences here, if the cover art is anything to go by. RavensDagger’s description reads as thus:

A cyberpunk magical-girl alien-invasion LitRPG. It’s exactly as wild as it sounds.

I’m sitting here writing this article and I’m laughing with delight. Where else can you enjoy something like this? That is quite wacky and fun. But what really catches my eye is the word count, and the time spent writing. RavensDagger is without doubt a pulp writer for our modern era. A “working writer.”

Dreamer’s Ten-tea-cle Café by RavensDagger

I really like RavensDagger’s covers as well. Notice the pun in the title above. Hilarious. As you can see, comedy is also a mainstay on Royal Road.

Okay, let’s check out our next writer.

The Path of Ascension by C. Mantis

C. Mantis is certainly a one of the bigger fish. He has a grand total of one story on Royal Road, The Path of Ascension.

As for word output, Mantis might not be in the pulp category, but he’s pretty close. His story has 9,800 followers, and his Patreon shows over 1,400 patrons and an income of just over $10,600 a month. Very nice.

I consider Mantis a pulp writer, though he’s not quite clipping that million words a year mark. But who’s to say it has to be a million? Frank Gruber said one of his greatest years was around eight-hundred thousand words.

Here’s what C. Mantis had to say:

My writing output is about 11k to 17k words a week with two chapters dropped to my Patreon and RR Monday and Friday. My goal is to write two chapters one week then the next write three chapters, going back and forth. I usually dedicate an entire day to writing a full chapter 5-7k then give it to my beta readers the next day and edit after they have gone through.

I write a character driven cultivation novel, the genre is often called progression fantasy or Xianxia. I try to lean more into character driven story beats than the typical save the world rescue the princess tropes. My goal is to write the story I want to read which means avoiding most of the tropes of the genre.

I can’t say I was good at avoiding those things at the beginning of my story but I’ve learned a lot in the last year of writing professionally. With what I’ve learned I have edited the first book heavily, at least the first half, for prose without touching general content. That has let me see my own progression as an author and all I can say is I’m lucky people read my word vomit.

If Mantis doesn’t produce — he doesn’t get paid. Very pulpy. Simple as that.

There’s no advance on his writing. No deadline to finish a manuscript a year from now. If he slacks off, his readers are going to be screaming, and in this form of pulp writing, the readers are the editors.

Don’t get fired, Mantis.

Okay, one more!

Salvos by Melas D

MelasD is another moderately heavy hitter on Royal Road. He has several ongoing stories, the most popular of which is Salvos (A Monster Evolution LitRPG). I didn’t post the current cover image because he told me he doesn’t have permission to do so, but if you want to see the more current cover, go check him out.

He has over 13,000 followers and just under a million words published. On Patreon he’s got a thousand followers, and he’s making just under $5k a month. Pretty nice, and speaking of nice, he’s a cool guy. He tossed me a shout out to my own writing for no other reason than that I asked. As a reader, he’s a great author to interact with.

Let’s see what he has to say about his writing process!

MelasD? MelasD, are you there?

Ahem! It’s crickets out here.

The pulp writer seems to be untraceable, folks.

We could probably make some genre comparisons between old-school pulp and some of this stuff over on Royal Road. I write sword-and-sorcery and post it on there because I love the genre.

The latest of which is — well, I hope you indulge me in a big of shameless self promotion: The Princess of Malik’Dar.

The Princess of Malik’Dar by Lawrence Caldwell

I do have to say, sword-and-sorcery isn’t really what people are looking for on Royal Road. In fact, the genre tags aren’t even on the platform. (Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Wiiing!)

So you probably shouldn’t go to Royal Road expecting traditional-style pulp, or sword-and-sorcery either. This is certainly a new form of pulp. Perhaps we should call it “new pulp.” It has its own distinctive flair and style, but most of all, it’s variable in genre, quality and voice, because the only gatekeepers are the readers.

This is what has allowed these writers to flourish creatively, and sure, they’re still hemmed in by the community, who ultimately decide what becomes popular, but that’s not to say that new stories don’t break the mold all the time. And popularity isn’t everything.

Speaking of that different flair, right now I’m working on a story called ONI RŌKURA: LitRPG no sekai ni? and yes, there’s a question in the title! In the last fifteen days, I’ve written 101,000 words. I’ve doubled my daily word-count for Royal Road‘s Writathon challenge, which runs concurrently with National Novel Writing Month. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a lot just participating.

ONI RŌKURA: LitRPG no sekai ni? by Lawrence Caldwell

To cap this all off, I want to say that these guys and girls are so humble about what they do, and most of them — or all of them — you’ve never heard of, and yet they’re out there writing away, making entertaining fiction for anyone to just pick up and read for free. You can be a “patron” like in the days of old. How artsy is that!

There’s a vibrant community of writers and readers on Royal Road and a great rating and review system to help you find what you’re looking for. If you haven’t taken the dive into web fiction, I suggest you do. What are you waiting for?


Lawrence Caldwell is believed by some to be a wandering samurai, or a vagrant, or possibly a ninja — though perhaps in his infinite mystery, he is none of these things. Whichever the case, he wanders home as Odysseus did after the great Trojan War in some realm unbeknownst to our world (or was that Elric of Melniboné?) It matters not. Finally, and — by direct theft of a quote from a certain dwarf named Varric Tethras — he “occasionally writes books.” You can find him here on Royal Road.

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silentdante

wow, this is quitew interesting, maybe i might try my hand at some things here, i feel like it might be a good place to grow as a buddin writer with an audience that acknowledges the fact you might not be great with grammer but also offerdecent criticism if they enjoy the ideas presented.

also a perk, i had no clue they made VOR fiction, i rather liked that mini’s game though it didnt last long at all.

Josh Hauck

“And a few got rich. Some of them got very rich!”

My favorite is Frederick Schiller Faust, AKA Max Brand and a dozen other pen names. Made enough to buy a villa in Italy.

“A lot of our writers are producing content without editors and proofreaders to go over every line.”

I think that’s the main difference between the old pulps and the new digital pulps, be they Royal Road or ebooks. The old pulps had editors who curated the stories that went into the magazine. They frequently offered advice and guidance to promising authors. You mentioned Asimov, but it was John W. Campbell who made him what he became. Asimov even credited Campbell with creating the three laws of robotics.

To be blunt, this means that the quality level of a pulp magazine is going to be higher than a random sampling of Wattpad or AO3. I think the old pulps tried for a broader audience, and that meant stronger writing without becoming self-indulgent.

Jeremy Erman

Fascinating! I was also wondering who does the artwork: a lot of the provided illustrations are clearly in the same style, if not done by the same artist.

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