Tag Archives: genre

Gary Gibson – the state of the debate

Richard Morgan‘s recently-posted essay about the bitchiness and infighting of the sf/f fiction scene caused a flurry of reactions, some sympathetic, others less so.

Gary Gibson‘s response chimes best with my own feelings on the matter, though:

“To me, I’d say all the bitchiness is a sign that things aren’t nearly so moribund within the genre as some have claimed. I’m not saying the arguments and fighting are always healthy, or necessarily mature; but I am saying it feels more alive than some genteel, mannered alternative. At least the way things are, it feels like people give a damn.”

Indeed. I mean, sure, sf people can get pretty entrenched in things, and rather more emotionally attached or opposed to certain words and definitions than really makes much sense (cough *mundane-sf* cough).

But if I’d stumbled into fandom as I did and found it to be an echo chamber … well, I’d probably be more focused on writing about music, I guess. The ability to debate the merits of a piece of art without resorting to fists, name-calling and hissy-fits is rare enough in my daily life that I’d rather not lose it.

That said – live and let live, eh? Maybe it’s just my nature as supreme wishy-washy diplomat of compromise, but I’ve always found the best way to get anyone to respect my opinion (even if they don’t agree with it) is to respect theirs. As my mother used to remind me at the end of every school sports day – it’s not the winning, it’s the taking-part.

[Disclosure- Richard Morgan is one of my clients.]

Monetising the short fiction webzine market

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:

“I’d like to see the science fiction magazines succeed. I’d like to see science fiction become more relevant. I’d like to see it come back to genre that is actively leading us forward, instead of telling us “there’s no use, we’re all going to die anyway.” Unfortunately, there’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 didn’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 BoingBoingover 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 Futurismica 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.

Orienteering

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.

Adsense

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.

Affiliate marketing

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.

Direct sponsorship

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!

The thesis

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”. ]

Vampire-shaggers redux

JF Lewis's Staked - cover art A chap called J F Lewis is guest-posting at Scalzi’s Whatever today. He claims he’s written a totally new take on the modern vampire novel, but looking at the cover art supplied (which isn’t merely cheesy as all hell but also looks like a bad eighties hair-metal album cover) reminds me why I instinctively recoil from the thought of going near this genre as a reader, new take or not.

This is why book marketing is such a fascinating subject. Yes, I’m aware that many readers would have a similar reaction to the covers of books (and albums) I love dearly. No, I’m not being elitist. This is just another example of why genre fiction is like rock music.

What do you hate most about science fiction short stories?

Stoddard’s Two Cents

Here’s an intentionally provocative post from Jason Stoddard*, who suggests that we might get some interesting ideas about improving genre short fiction by saying what we hate about it:

“Back in my audio days, we used to ask our dealers and our customers a simple question: “What do you hate most about your gear?” And, based on the answers to this question, we’d frequently create products that drove stunning business growth.

Because it really isn’t important what they’re thrilled with. What matters is what they hate. Hate is a red-hot emotion that drives change.”

An interesting idea – there are already some stimulating comments on Jason’s post that are well worth a read, if only as a demonstration of how various the range of attitudes really is.

My Two Cents

I’m not going to go overboard here, because I’m a comparative newcomer to short fiction, and I don’t feel I have the same degree of emotional connection to (or experience with) it that a lot of longer-standing fans do. But here’s a few little nuggets:

  • Heinlein’s Capable Men – they may have made sense in Heinlein’s era, but these stories just rub me up wrong when done by modern writers.
  • The PKD rewrites – great stories in their day. Leave them be and write your own.
  • The Hollywood screenplay – I know it’s a short story, but a soupcon of description and depth wouldn’t go amiss. My imagination loves a workout, but it needs calories before it can exercise.

Your Two Cents

What do you hate about the short fiction you read? Or is it all just fine, thankyouverymuch?


[* I’m late out of the gate with this one, I know; I have a mass of things to post about that other commitments have held me back from covering, and this is me beginning to catch up on the backlog.]

[tags]genre, short, fiction, stories, problems, dislikes[/tags]

What can writers learn from Radiohead?

The news that UK band Radiohead have chosen to release their new album independently of record label support using an ‘honour box’ pricing scheme has set the internet alight. Is this a phenomenon that writers of fiction should be paying close attention to?

Thom Yorke of Radiohead

Lucky

The standard first response to this story has been “oh, but Radiohead are big enough (and rich enough) to be able to do this and not lose out financially.” That’s true enough, but the same model will (and indeed already does) still work for smaller artists.

The only overheads Radiohead have on that album is the money it cost to record and master it. No duplication, no distribution, no advertising, and no middlemen raking out the lion’s share of the revenue – which, believe it or not, shows signs of being quite considerable already, despite the fact that the option to get the download for free was available with the band’s blessing.

Now, granted, Radiohead have a strong brand already. None of the local bands in my town are going to make the same amount of news (or money) by releasing an album in the same way, because not enough people know who they are. But all bands make more money from touring (and selling merchandise at the same time) than they do from records, be they big or small.

Nice dream?

What Radiohead (and Prince, and others) have realised is that in a world where it’s impossible to stop people passing your music from person to person, you might as well accept it and use it to your advantage – let your music be a loss-leader advert for your other services, which in the case of musicians is live performances. If you can make some money back on the recordings, all well and good – and if you treat your fans with respect, they’ll be more willing to pay you.

So what does this mean for writers of fiction? Well, the publishing industry is not identical to the music industry, but there are similarities – especially when you look at the “play it safe” approach to developing new talent, leading to bookshops full of more of the same.

The big difference is that the “book experience” isn’t quite so readily reproduced electronically, and it will be some time before it can be, for various reasons. In other words, I’m not suggesting that fiction writers should abandon all desire to be published as novelists. But what I am suggesting is that new writers (and old ones) should be giving away snippets to build up their reputations and create a market for themselves.

No surprises

Publishers, as much as they may be sincerely interested in bringing great writing into the public eye, have a bottom line to look after. I don’t think it’s over cynical of me to suggest that, if given the choice between two debut novels of equal quality, a publisher is going to feel better about taking the gamble on the author whose name turns up more often in blogs, forums and webzines. That author has done part of the publisher’s job for them; he or she has demonstrated not just a competence at writing, but the will and drive to get out there and sell themselves.

Of course, I’m largely preaching to the converted here. But there’s still plenty of misunderstanding about these issues, particularly from the old guard of publishers and authors – witness the SFWA/Scribd spat, which I believe to have been done with the best of intentions, but on the basis of a decades-old understanding of the writer’s place in the modern market.

Optimistic

And, much as I hoped and called for (but am not taking any credit for), the genre scene is adapting to the new economics. Much as in music, it’s the fringe cultures that can afford to try out new models, because their communities are bound by loyalty and a sense of identity, and because the artists are going to keep on creating even if they can’t make much money out of it.

Hence the ongoing short fiction revolution – I was absolutely stoked to catch the news that Fantasy Magazine is giving up dead-tree magazine publishing, and moving instead to a weekly free-to-read online magazine model with occasional printed anthologies … and they’re increasing their per-word price for fiction at the same time!

Anyone can play guitar

So, what can writers learn from Radiohead? They can learn that things are changing, and where the big boys lead, they shouldn’t be afraid to follow.

OK, so you’re not Charlie Stross or Cory Doctorow – the Radioheads of sf, if I might mangle the metaphor – but Stross and Doctorow are breaking the trail ahead of you, making it progressively easier to follow in their wake.

Radiohead’s best advert for themselves is their music. As a writer, yours is your writing. So set it free – if people want to pass it around on your behalf, they’re doing you a favour.