There’s been much in the way of writerly foresight from Jason Stoddard in recent months; plenty of people have been willing to suggest the novel will die (and less people are willing to contest the proposition as time goes by), but Jason is the only person that I’m aware of who is doing concrete thinking about future markets for creative writing from the POV of the writer.
Dude, where’s my market?
Additionally, he’s revived his popular metafiction theme. Popular metawhuta? In a nutshell, BoingBoing and io9 are popular metafiction … as well as proof that people are more than willing to read if you just put the right stuff in front of them. As Jason says himself:
“Iâ€™d like to see the science fiction magazines succeed. Iâ€™d like to see science fiction become more relevant. Iâ€™d like to see it come back to genre that is actively leading us forward, instead of telling us â€œthereâ€™s no use, weâ€™re all going to die anyway.â€ Unfortunately, thereâ€™s little I can do to help the publications directly, so maybe this, in some small manner, will help point the way.
After all, BoingBoing grew organically. It didnâ€™t take millions of dollars in advertising or the combined might of a television network to launch. It occupies a space where science fiction could be.”
Right; I know this first-hand. Now that I’m running Futurismic, thoughts like this weigh heavily on me – how the hell am I going to get that site to pay for the fiction and its hosting fees (let alone make anything on top)? There’s masses of traffic out there, after all; you just have to attract it to your content.
As is probably plain from my rather bitter comment on Jason’s post, I kind of resent the fact that io9 can post 90% fluff and 10% substance and still pay the payroll; it says sad things about the state of the market for fiction, and makes me wonder if I’m barking up the wrong tree entirely.
The readers are out there, they just don’t know where the good writing is
But then I look at the OMFG-Zerg-rush!!!1 we had on Leonard Richardson’s story when Cory Doctorow gave at the thumbs-up at BoingBoing – over 7000 page views within the space of a week, and a forty-deep comment thread of people raving about how awesome the story is. Some people obviously do want to read good fiction, and really enjoy it when they do so.
Hell, look at this item I included in last week’s Friday Free Fiction round-up at Futurismic – a busy gaming and media webzine is doing what its paper equivalents say is pointless, and experimenting with publishing fiction. Fiction that they’re paying the writers for. But they can do that – they have traffic, they have budget, they have leeway. They have the opportunity to throw sh*t at the wall and see if it sticks. I really hope it does, too – more paying markets can only be a good thing, I reckon.
So, where do I go from here? Arguably Futurismic is way closer to the contemporary metafiction model than most other genre webzines out there, and it also has the advantage of domain longevity – it’s a brand that has lasted a while. We’ve got a strong RSS subscriber base, too, and I’m doing my best to grow it further by expanding what we offer – a new non-fiction column goes up later today, as it happens.
But how can I turn that traffic into enough dollar to pay the fiction writers, cover the server bills and possibly throw a bit of cash at my non-fiction contributors too*?
There are options, sure, but they’re mostly not pretty.
Text Link Ads
There’s a couple of direct text-link ad companies who would pay pretty decent money for ads on Futurismic, but they have been proven to be a fast route to a Google blacklisting as they’re essentially a way of selling on PageRank to sites who are, shall we say, “not entirely deserving of it”. Ethically, I’m unwilling to cross that particular Rubicon – sure, there’d be enough money to pay pro rates for fiction, a reasonable column fee and chuck my blog team a bone or two, but what if I ended up boosting the online profile of some hate-group or snake-oil pharma company? Not on my watch, Admiral.
Google AdSense offers me little control over what sort of ads are displayed (how often do you see vanity press ads on genre blogs with AdSense? – too often), and I know for a fact I’ve not clicked on an AdSense box in years; I’m not going to patronise my readers by assuming that they will do something I wouldn’t. Same applies to similar contextual ad platforms; the amount of actual clicks and/or impressions we’ll get just isn’t enough to make it worthwhile without crowding out the content with a bad signal-to-noise ratio. We’re too damn niche.
Funnelling traffic to Amazon or similar might work if we accrue more organic click through, but isn’t going to pay the bills at current traffic rates; see above, essentially.
I’d be willing to look into this, but I have no idea how I’d go about doing it, short of a hefty barrage of very polite cold emailing to publishers. I’d also insist on a made-public declaration from both parties that there would be no preferential coverage or favouritism. Independence and transparency is crucial for credibility, AFAIC.
Alternative ad networks
The current solution, namely Project Wonderful, has everything a niche scene like genre publishing should want out of an ad brokerage system. Seriously – I really can’t overstate the potential I see in this system, not just for Futurismic but for the whole industry’s online marketing business. Total control for advertisers and publishers; fine grain locational selection; precise budgeting, flexible low-scale payment options … it ticks all my boxes. The only problem – there’s not enough advertisers of the right type using it yet.
That last point is a shame – I think about small press publishers with a tight budget, and I know they must want to be able to target their online ads more effectively than paying for some keywords. They want to know what sort of audience those ads are going to, what those eyeballs are used to seeing and what they think is cool – they need demographic precision.
I can offer them that with Futurismic – 7000 views of one page over a week by people who expressly have an interest in written science fiction has to be worth something, right? – and so could a score of other sf webzines and blogs. But they don’t know it’s there yet – most internet ad platforms are aimed at traffic sources an order of magnitude larger than Futurismic.
So I guess yours truly has to go and be an evangelist on Project Wonderful‘s behalf … which makes you realise just how crafty a business model they actually have!
But I’m kind of digressing from my original point, which is that there’s definitely a market for fiction as long as you aren’t charging the reader for it directly. Jason also has things to say about how freeconomics effects you as a writer (in a nutshell: play the long game outside the box and you’ll be fine), but it’s us publishers that are caught in the middle. It’s our business model that’s dying, and hence the onus is on us to find a new one that works.
And this ain’t no violin solo, either – this is me thinking out loud, basically, but doing so in front of an audience I hope might chime in with some thoughts of their own. But to boil down my current thinking to the nugget – there’s enough money in genre publishing ad budgets to support the short fiction market in webzine form. I really believe this, and until I see concrete figures to the contrary I’m not going to abandon that belief – because webzines don’t need a lot of money beyond the fiction fees.
The problem is the book publishers are currently throwing their money at ineffective and imprecise advertising channels, and probably only because they don’t know the alternatives are there. If I can get them to a better channel that sends them actual interested buyers and exploits my currently under-used eyeball share, I’ve killed two birds with one stone and solidified the future of what I believe is a worthwhile short fiction market.
So, I have a strategy. What I don’t have are the tactics; I get the feeling the only way I’m going to find those is by getting muddy in the trenches and seeing what works. But if y’all have some advice (or have noticed the inevitable gaping hole in my tapestry of logic), my ears are wide open.
[ * Just to be perfectly clear, I was resigned to the idea that Futurismic will never pay me a red cent long before I took the plunge to take control of it. I am willing to subsidise it out of my earnings as a freelance for the foreseeable future … which is a lot easier to say now that there actually are some freelance earnings on the horizon. But that’s another post entirely; what I mean to say is “this is not a greed post”. ]