Tag Archives: publishing

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”. ]

That long-awaited announcement

OK, ladies and gents; the cat is out of the bag.

Yours truly is now publisher and editor-in-chief of Futurismic.

This is a very big deal for me, and also more than a trifle scary. But I’ve been talking the talk about web publishing for a long time – so when the opportunity arose to take the wheel at Futurismic I figured it was high time I walked the walk as well.

I hope those of you who’ve been following Futurismic for a while will stay on-board – we’re going to start publishing fiction again next month, and non-fiction columns will follow shortly after that.

Those of you who don’t already follow Futurismic, I hope you’ll subscribe and come along for the ride.

Thanks for reading, folks.

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]

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.

Is Harry Potter hype bad for the book industry?

I’m allergic to hype of all kinds, but experience seems to show that it’s a fairly rare condition. Most people seem to enjoy the crescendo of excitement as a much-anticipated event approaches (Christmas, the HP7 launch, &c), and lap up the associated press coverage. Personally, the more I hear about something the more put off the entire idea I become.

But my curmudgeonly attitude is not the focus here. I instead want to argue that intense hyping of any book to this degree is quite possibly damaging to the long term health of the industry as a whole. But first …

An example of peripherary Potter bandwagonning

There’s just no escape, you see. Because of the way the media works, a hot topic gets leaped upon by all and sundry, no matter how tenuous the connection. Witness, for example, a social work researcher using the opportunity to plug the idea of discussing death with young kids. OK, it’s a laudable aim, I guess, but talk about blatant opportunism.

Of course, this is exacerbated by the way internet search engine optimisation works – everyone with a website wants a slice of the inevitable barrage of Harry Potter search traffic. Of course, there is no such cynical motivation behind this post. *cough* 😉

Signal and noise – items of genuine interest amongst the cruft

Along with the bandwagonners, there’s some pretty interesting articles riding on the coat-tails (or should that be cloak-tails?) of the Harry Potter hype-wave:

The spoilers issue

A great deal of the concern about the leaked copies and early reviews comes from readers concerned about ‘spoilers’. As I think I’ve said before, I agree with a number of other reviewers of my acquaintance in that, if a book can be ‘spoiled’ by a plot denouement ahead of reading it, it’s probably not much worth reading anyway.

That said, people do seem to have worked themselves up into paroxysms of angst over the possibility of finding out which character (or characters) die within the course of the story, regardless of how ambivalent and vague the alleged spoilers are.

But even this is baffling – if your enjoyment of a book is going to be spoiled by reading a review of it, then why the hell did you read a review of it? Maybe its just me, but that’s just bloody daft.

The perils of consistant overhyping

But I promised you a proclamation, and here it is – this degree of global frenzy over the release of a single book is really not a good sign for the health of the publishing industry.

“Oh, come on,” I hear you cry. “It’s getting kids into books!”

Well, it’s getting kids into Harry Potter books, certainly; but there’s little evidence to suggest that items outside the franchise (which probably come with a lot less hype and merchandising attached) have the same ability to capture the interest of kids who weren’t interested in reading beforehand.

“Well, it’s selling a lot of volumes, so Bloomsbury and Rowling are getting some good dollar. Surely you don’t begrudge them that?”

I begrudge them nothing. I think it’s great, in fact – I’d say that Rowling herself, a single mum who worked damn hard while on a benefits-level income to fulfill her dreams and write her books, is a far better role model than Harry himself, to be honest.

As for Bloomsbury – well, good for them, too. But they’ve gone and raised investor expectations. They’d better be able to keep on bringing out books that shift as well as the Potter saga, though – business is all about momentum, after all, and last year’s balance sheet only means anything when held up to this year’s.

Which brings us finally to …

“Well, what does the hype matter? If the books weren’t good, they wouldn’t sell, surely?”

Well, that’s a hard one to defy with facts and figures (though I suspect that’s more because I don’t have tham rather than that they don’t exist), so I’ll draw a comparison to another industry that fell into the hype cycle and bargained its future on relentless promotion of sequels of declining quality – hello, Hollywood.

The Hollywood Syndrome

Hollywood cinema is (literally) a text-book example of Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’ economic hypothesis, and he’s got plenty of facts and figures to show that Hollywood movie viewing is in a steady decline. I think all but the least critical movie-goer might agree that the increasing desperation and shoddy quality of Hollywood product may have soimething to do with it.

[Personal anecdotal aside – walked past Blockbusters last night, and saw the cardboard promo-plinth thingy for some movie whose title now escapes me. Which isn’t surprising – the best blurb they could find to put on the thing was “dazzling special effects”. Wow.]

Of course, technological factors are at play with the Hollywood model – but as I’ve discussed here at length before, the publishing industry is approaching its very own technological singularity. It would be hoped that the industry will look at what’s happening to Hollywood, and realise that relentless hype is self-defeating, unless you can guarantee that the product will meet the expectations you generate for it.

Furthermore, publishing is already deep into the “play it safe with known successes” business model, which has been a Hollywood watchword for far too long.

Big hype is bad news

And therein lies my hypothesis – nothing flags up concern about product quality worse than relentless hype. If the book’s really that good, it’s going to sell just fine anyway, though maybe not at such a rapid rate on the week of release.

The content of the new Harry Potter bothers me not in the slightest – I have no interest in reading it (the first three were not my slice of pavlova, darling), and don’t really care whether it’s any good or not. But I do worry that the industry is far too desperate to make hay while the sun shines to think about tilling the land for future harvests.