Tag Archives: markets

Systematized instrumental rationality

So AI and capitalism are merely two offshoots of something more basic, let՚s call it systematized instrumental rationality, and are now starting to reconverge. Maybe capitalism with AI is going to be far more powerful and dangerous than earlier forms – that՚s certainly a possibility. My only suggestion is that instead of viewing superempowered AIs as some new totally new thing that we can՚t possibly understand (which is what the term “AI singularity” implies), we view it as a next-level extension of processes that are already underway.

This may be getting too abstract and precious, so let me restate the point more bluntly: instead of worrying about hypothetical paperclip maximizers, we should worry about the all too real money and power maximizers that already exist and are going to be the main forces behind further development of AI technologies. That’s where the real risks lie, and so any hope of containing the risks will require grappling with real human institutions.

Mike Travers. Reading this rather wonderfully reframes Elon the Martian’s latest calls for the regulation of artificial intelligence… you’re so right, Elon, but not in quite the way you think you’re right.

Of course, Musk also says the first step in regulating AI is learning as much about it as possible… which seems pretty convenient, given how AI is pretty much the only thing anyone’s spending R&D money on right now. Almost like that thing where you tell someone what they want to hear in a way that convinces them to let you carry on exactly as you are, innit?

Mark my words: the obfuscatory conflation of “artificial intelligence” and algorithmic data manipulation at scale is not accidental. It is in fact very deliberate, and that Musk story shows us its utility: we think we’re letting the experts help us avoid the Terminator future, when in fact we’re green-lighting the further marketisation of absolutely everything.

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.


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.

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”. ]

Online reviews and online submissions

I expect many of you will have already noticed that the guys at SF Signal were short of more erudite commentators, and hence decided to ask me to contribute to their new “Mind Meld” feature. The question was:

“From your point of view, how has the proliferation of online book reviews affected the publishing world?”

The responses are very interesting, actually – quite harmonious in many respects, though with everyone playing their own little melodic riffs on the theme. Go take a look, leave some comments over there.


While we’re on the subject of the effect of the web on genre fiction, here’s an intriguing thinking-out-loud post from Jeremiah Tolbert, who’s wondering where he should be submitting to build up his short fiction career:

“For a while, I decided that I would only submit my work to places that would take electronic submissions. I was making so little off of the sales that I did make that it wasn’t worth the cost of postage and envelopes. I haven’t decided whether I should change that policy yet or not, honestly. So many ‘zines do take electronic submissions now. Which don’t? F&SF, Asimov’s, and Analog. The so-called “Big Three.”

I’m kind of curious to see if I can build a reputation for myself without appearing in those markets. They don’t pay that much better than anyone else, and their circulation isn’t spectacular (although it may be better than just about everyone except Escape Pod). It’s kind of weird, but for the purposes of building an audience, I think making reprint sales to Escape Pod might be the best thing I can do for myself.

That’s a very weird situation, and really represents the state of the industry.”

The man has a point. Your thoughts?

[tags]book, reviews, publishing, short, story, fiction, markets, submissions, electronic[/tags]

Stealth fiction

man sneaking up graffiti'd stairwayOK, thought experiment – imagine a world where the printed word is prohibitively expensive, and where people don’t have time set aside for the pleasures of reading fiction.

Where are fiction writers going to get published, if they want to get noticed, to get their work read?

Stealth fiction

Some might say we’re nearly in that world already, but that’s a different argument. What’s been bugging me as a concept for a few days is the idea of stealth fiction – fiction that doesn’t advertise itself as being such.

When we say ‘fiction’, we mean stories – a form of entertainment where we form a contract with the text, ignoring the fact we know it to be untrue for the sake of the thrill of immersion.

But there are a great many fictions in our media that aren’t what we think of as ‘fiction’ in that way. Adverts are a form of fiction, for example.

Wizard’s First Rule*

And in our wired-for-memes world, adverts are not only ubiquitous, but an accepted part of the furniture, and increasingly indistinguishable from official corporate announcements and ‘free’ information. Even so, people are very trusting, and it’s easy enough to pull the wool over their eyes if you know the sort of story they want to hear.

Point in case – the fake website that claimed to be announcing the release date and title of the new Weezer album. This spoof was taken hook line and sinker, not only by Weezer fans but by members of the music press (who should have known better, or at least dug a little deeper).

That website was a work of fiction.

Classified flash – fiction on Craigslist

Scalzi pointed out the growing trend of fictional pieces appearing in Craigslist.** As he observes, this isn’t going to be an effective route to fame and fortune (and I expect that the quality is probably very poor), but those people have realised something important – fiction doesn’t have to be in a book, magazine, or PDF. It can be in any or all of those places, or anywhere else – but it’s easier to get it in front of Joe Average by not slapping a big sticker saying “hey, work of fiction, right here!”

Interstitial experiments

I can see other people working towards a realisation (conscious or unconscious) of something similar – which doesn’t surprise me at all, as they’re at least equally as smart as I am, if not more so (and almost certainly less prone to meandering thought-trains such as this one).

Some of these experiments are knowingly post-modern about the whole thing, like Jeremiah Tolbert’s Dr Julius Roundbottom site – the format is new, but the implicit disbelief-suspension contract with the reader still remains.

But this strikes me as the true definition of interstitial fiction – not fiction that doesn’t fit into accepted genres (though that may be a part of it), but fiction that doesn’t fit into the standard containers we expect to find fiction in.

I’m sure we all know what happened when Orson Welles broadcast War Of The Worlds as a radio drama, don’t we?

Memetic fiction

Fellow Friday Flash Fictioneer Gareth D Jones tried an experiment last week that illuminated the other side of the problem – how to raise the chance of Joe Average stumbling across your piece of stealth fiction?

What Gareth did was to seed his story with popular search terms for the day, the theory being that they’d raise the chance of the piece appearing in search returns.

Results were inconclusive, but it was the idea that really made me think – it’s like SEO for fiction! If you know what people are looking for, why not deliver it, and slip your fictional medicine in with the sugar coating? If it goes viral, your story is everywhere – you just found yourself an audience!

Fictioneer or marketeer?

OK, I can hear you saying “Well, that’s a bit crass, isn’t it? A bit sneaky and underhanded?” And yes, it is. Certainly from our point of view, right here right now.

But give it five, ten years – and I’m not so sure. After all, any aspiring writer with savvy has a website these days – that’s a form of self-marketing, albeit a less deceitful one. So marketing your own work isn’t inherently morally repulsive (at least, not to most authors).

So it must be the deceit element, the stealth of the fiction, that we find objectionable. But once it’s happened more often, and people are more aware that these deceits and spoofs occur on the wild uncharted waves of the internet, will they not develop a certain expectation? An implicit contract with everything they read, an admission that any and all media may be trying to trick them?

Everybody loves ninjas, right?

And once people have that implicit contract with the web, wouldn’t that make it quite the ideal place to put your fiction? To sneak it out under people’s radar? Furthermore, wouldn’t this reinstate works of fiction as a way of inoculating people against the more vicious deceits of advertising and politics? Or am I just overtired with a major structural screw loose?

[* Yeah, sorry, Terry Goodkind reference. I was reading from the bookshelves of friends during my wilderness years, and a Goodkind would kill an afternoon in the same way as daytime TV or a bag of grass – eight hours of cliche with a few tiny gems of food for thought. For those that don’t know, the Wizard’s First Rule is something along the lines of “people will believe anything you tell them, provided they wish it to be true, or they fear that it already is”.]

[** This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon either; back in the nineties I encountered a strange emergent subculture of people who were essentially playing role-playing games through the medium of the ‘Miscellaneous’ section of the free classified ads papers, which strikes me as being similar in essence – if not in form – to the Craigslist writers.]

[Image by GypsyRock]

[tags]stealth, fiction, markets, media, future, internet[/tags]