How To Prepare For A Digital Shift

I’ve spent the last couple of posts at Novelr speculating on the future of web fiction – which as an activity, I must admit, was very fun to do. But it wasn’t a very useful one for the writers who read this blog. The essential questions remain unanswered: what do you do when the publishers finally wake up to the Internet? What can you do to prepare for a digital book future? 

Before I go into specifics, understand that you should take this article with a pinch of salt. These are steps that I believe aren’t too far off, and ones that I think can go a long way in preparing your writing for a more vigorous, more competitive online fiction sphere. On the flip side, however, I may also be completely wrong, and I’m obliged to warn you now that while this is a post that deals with practical steps, it’s also a post that deals with uncertainties. It is a first attempt in telling you what to do to get ahead in a place that doesn’t exist yet. If I’m wrong – and there’s a good chance that I am – then I suppose we can meet up 10 years from now and laugh at my stupidity. 

A Summary

Before we begin it’ll do to recap what exactly it is we’re preparing for. I’ve talked about this in the past, but for those of you who don’t have the time to dig into Novelr’s archives:

  1. Publishers are exploring digital alternatives to books, and are currently figuring out how to distribute, market, and deliver them to the consumer. They’re forced to do so by the current recession, which is hitting the people in the publishing industry harder than most.
  2. Printed books will not go away, but they’ll be staying on as ‘bespoke, art-directed paper packages’ – the top of a piramid of consumed fiction.
  3. Self publishing, and by extension self-funded writing efforts like blooks and web fiction are going to become ‘tryouts’ for publishing houses. Publishers will look closely at the comments surrounding a self-published piece, and if it’s mostly good, and they think they can sell it, they then pick it up and sign-on the author for a traditional book deal. Haper Collins’s has tried to centralize these efforts – they’ve started a website called Authonomy and are hoping unpublished writers come to them with their manuscripts.
  4. Writers will flock to the Internet in the sudden realization that there’re more ways to get published than just the agency/slush pile. We will be swamped with online manuscripts. Readers will go to certain filter sites, or perhaps stores, to find good things to read online.
  5. Or not. They may want to put these stories in iPhones, Kindles, or one of the many portable device options poppig up today. They will want to read, and they will want to read away from the computer.

I’m not sure of the degree to which these predictions will come true, but for the sake of this article we’ll pretend that it’s a future we’ll have to prepare for. Which leads us to the focus of this piece: what can we do, now, to prepare for it?

Blogs Are Dead

I will be approaching this article with one assumption in mind: that blogs, as a form of presenting fiction, have failed. Which is rather ironic, considering the amount of fiction blogs I’m reading today, both for pleasure and for work (I have an obligation to review for WFG); and also ironic because my usage of the term ‘blook’ may have to be revised, and for good. But I believe we’re looking at a future where blogs aren’t going to be the main form of Internet fiction consumption, and here’s why.

The first thing we have to think about is the nature of the blog. Blogs are time-intensive things, and they require constant and consistent updating to be of any attraction to the reader. I once spoke of this as a good thing: that blogs force writers to perform on-the-fly writing, and I still do believe that the form has some unparelled attractions, attractions that cannot be found in books or even in writing magazines. But let’s ask ourselves a question: if we accept that publishers are moving onto the Internet, and we accept that they’re going to be finding the best ways to present fiction online, then what are the odds that blogs will be their medium of choice? What are the odds that of the majority of novels put on the Internet would be in blog form, and that the readers will be most used to consuming their online fiction via blogs? Not much, I’d expect – publishers aren’t going to invest so much of their time and energy into a medium that requires just that – lots of time and energy. And to back that up – take a look at the experiments we’ve seen conducted by the big wigs – how many of them are in blog form? We Tell Stories and The Golden Notebook and Tor.com are all beautifully designed websites; websites designed with only one purpose in mind: to be read.[1]

That is not to say that blogs are not designed to be read. But we have to admit that we’re facing a structural problem when we try to tell stories with blogs – there is a wealth of information we have to design around, and most writers don’t bother to design at all. Many of a blog’s original features were not built with storytelling in mind. When I see things like reverse-chronological archives and trackbacks and comments I think of diary writing and community, not books and paper. And while some of these blog features can be adapted to storytelling, most of them remain deadweight; obstacles that get in the way of the actual jumping into the story that we want readers to experience.

On a side note, I wonder if this is one of the reasons why online fiction has taken so long to get off the ground. A reader comes to a blog with a set of expectations in mind, expectations that they have to overcome when they’re dealing with a serialized fiction blog (not so with short stories, or flash fiction – for these, blogs are extremely well suited as a presentation form). Note that online comics are not posted in the blog format, they’re presented in specially designed websites that are built around the expected interaction between reader and comic. There are no deadweights; no obstacles. No unnecessary fluff.

The bottom line here is that readers will eventually get used to a form of digital prose presentation, and that form will probably not be blogs. And that leads us to the next question – what to change into?

Novel Plus, not Blog Plus

Here we enter rather sketchy territory. The idea of Novel Plus (or Novel+, if you prefer) was first mentioned to me in conversation by James Smythe, who completed a PhD thesis on online fiction two years ago. I think James makes a point when he says publishers will eventually have to move into cross-platform publishing, and Novel+ is his name for it. What it is, really, is this: imagine buying a book, and then finding inside a little card granting you access to free digital downloads – ebooks, podcasts, inside areas of the writer’s site, perhaps. Now I’m not sure how much of this will come true, and the specifics are all still up in the air, but these are ideas that I believe are really cool and (I hope) will be inevitable. 

So what can you do? Quite a lot, actually.

A Suggestion List (Don’t We All Just Love ‘Em?)

1. Don’t kill your blog; split it up. Chris Al-Aswad (a.k.a. Lethe Bashar) wrote sometime ago that you should keep two blogs for your web novel: one to contain the work in progress, and another to present the completed work. It’s a fantastic article, and I think you should  check it out because Chris provides several examples of his own fiction where he has applied this split. But I’d like to make an adjustment to that suggestion: keep your ongoing blook the same way a writer would keep a manusript (or a moleskin notebook, for that matter), but present the completed portions of your story in a strong, beautifully-designed, visually-oriented ‘front-end’. A good example of this ‘front-end’ idea is The Golden Notebook project – it’s not a blog, for starters, so I suggest you take a look at the home page to see how the designers have incorporated book, forum and blog into an easily understandable package. 

2. Go cross platform. The future of the novel won’t be about the computer screen. It’ll be about the mobile phone, the Kindle, the Sony Reader, as well as a few other formats that I’m sure will pop up sooner or later. Your job as an independent writer will be to provide readers with a multi-platform selection of your works: pdf files, paper book, websites, yes; but also Kindle format, .mobi and phone-optimized sites. I’ll be keeping tabs on up and coming formats here on Novelr, and I’ll recommend them if I think they’re worth your time. But by and large you’ll be the ones putting the platforms together – get my self-published book on Lulu, email me the invoice and I’ll send you something cool? The applications are endless. I’m expecting a future where publishers will provide multiple formats for purchase – maybe the full text will be available online and for free, but other take-away-to-read formats will need to be paid for. And this is a business model you can emulate as well.

3. Polish, polish, polish. An as-yet-unmentioned condition about presenting your work on a ‘front-end’ site is the amount of polish you’ll have to put into it before launching anything. No grammatical errors; no revisions. You are presenting your work on multiple platforms, after all – if you make a change you’re going to have to answer to the readers who’ve already downloaded your ebooks and paid for your self-published paper versions. It’s a stage not everyone has reached, but one that you’ll eventually get to. Prepare for that eventuality.

Looking Forward

Now you’re probably asking why should you do this, and what’s in it for you. And that answer, I believe, hinges on why you’re writing online fiction in the first place. If you see this as your ticket to the publishing industry, then you should change – and change soon – because all indicators point to publishers sourcing material from the self-published pool. This is your chance to stand-out, at a time when nobody else is doing anything about the digital shift. But on the other hand: if you’re writing online fiction for fun, or if you’re writing to escape the editorial confinements of the traditional book-world, then you’re not likely to want to change so fast. And that’s fine too, as long as you realize when and what new formats are available to you in the future.

1.N.B. I’m talking about the blog format here – the one where posts are presented in reverse chronological order, with sidebar, widgets, etc. I still believe that the blogging engine is the only viable publishing tool available for writers at the moment, though however they present their fiction, it better not look like a traditional blog.

[Update]: I’ve edited the sections where it seems that I’m linking the current lack of online fiction interest to the blog format. Chris Poirier is right – the sections exploring the causal relationship between the two were too strongly worded.

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Category: Publishing · Writing Web Fiction