Monthly Archives: April 2009

(My) Problem With Vook

VookThere’s been some hype lately about Vook.tv and the new ebook format they’re putting out (i.e.: vook, as in I’m reading a good vook today … yes I know, the backlash over this name would probably suck). A vook is supposed to be a mixture of video, pictures, text, social media and community features. And while I can’t say that I’ve seen the actual implementation of the platform, I’d like to raise a few questions about the now recurring  idea that ebook formats can and should bring together multiple experiential mediums.

First, however: I’d like to point out that the Vook concept sounds vaguely similar to that of the Sophie project (first covered here and here) – which was originally conceived and produced by the fine people over at the Institute for the Future of the Book. Note the difference: Sophie is currently being developed by a private contractor for the University of South Carolina; Vook is a startup by entrepreneur Bradley Inman. 

There are two reasons why I think Sophie makes sense, and Vook does not. The first is that of reach. Sophie was originally made for educational purposes, with the idea that students in developing countries would be able to benefit from multimedia ‘books’ in easily transferrable, non-OS-specific form. Vook, on the other hand, appears to be aimed at a completely different audience – the about page on the admittedly snazzy Vook site tells us that ‘Authors and Publishers will directly benefit from this new distribution platform’, and that they aim to do everything from ‘creating new sources of revenue’ to providing a ‘turnkey media solution’. (A solution to what they don’t say, though we can assume that it’ll be to the current problems the publishing industry’s got at their doorsteps.)

The chief difference between the two is that the multimedia approach to ebook design only makes sense when you’re talking about education. I won’t mind my kids learning from Sophie ebooks in the future, probably because I think it’s pretty cool to watch a video on polar bears right after you’ve read a bit of text on the North Pole. But Vook is a commercial format, and it’ll be a hard sell convincing book buyers that they have to purchase a multi-sensory product as opposed to their traditional formatted text ebook. I don’t intend to watch video when I’m reading, the same way I don’t like listening to music when I’m curled up with a good non-fiction volume. And even if Vook says it’ll be just like reading blogs (and watching/listening to video/podcasts on said blogs), there is the added problem of perception associated with the ebook tag. Vook will have to single-handedly change the way the world sees digital books for the format to work, and that’s no small task for any company, even one as ambitious and as well-funded as this one appears to be.

The topic of funding brings us to the second problem with Vook: they are, in the end, trying to make money from this. Now leaving aside the obvious question of business model, let’s ask ourselves: how many publishers are willing to opt in to this format, dispensing in the process the traditional way they format and sell ebooks?[1] There aren’t likely to be many, I’d say. The one thing that Sophie has got going for it that Vook doesn’t is that Sophie doesn’t rely on commercial success to last – all they need is mainstream acceptance in educational programs a couple of years down the road – like, say, the One Notebook per Child initiative, and they’re good to go. Vook, on the other hand, would require a user-base and a marketplace for them to be sustainable in the long run, and while they fashion themselves to be the answer to the book-future, I’d rather think that Sophie has a better chance of being the format of choice for multimedia ebooks and for the publishing world at large.

In the end, what I’m trying to say here is that the amount of innovation in the current ebook market is exciting on a good day and crazy on a bad one. But whenever a new startup, like Vook, comes along and announces that the way forward is to combine video and music and whatever into the ebook format … I tend to get skeptical. I think the future of the book is tied to the future of written literature. And I’m inclined to believe that both futures depend largely on the way text is treated today – on the Internet, in our cellphones, and within our ebook readers.

1. i.e.: make digital copies of existing paper books, package them and then sell them to users who want multiple novels in their cellphone, mobile device, etc.

Rethinking 1000 True Fans

1000 True Fans is the idea that any creator on the Internet – be it writer, or artist, or musician, need only 1000 true (or obsessed) fans to make a living. When I first covered it back in 2008 I assumed that this rule would translate as easily to the realm of online literature the same way it had worked for Johnathan Coulton (music) and Jason Kottke (blogs) and Randall Munroe (webcomics), and for at least a dozen other people fortunate enough to have garnered sizable Internet followings around whatever it is that they create.

Late last year, however, some nine months after I first wrote that 1000 True Fans post, Alexandra Erin posted in her blog to say that she was in danger of shutting down. At that moment in time Erin had been making a living from her online fiction for about a year, living off donations and ad revenue from the four serials under her name and having a rather good time of it (for the most part). Her situation was dire. The purpose of that blogpost was to request contributions from her readership, and if you’d go take a look you’d realize that her fanbase responded – and responded beautifully. Together, they donated $5000 or so within the first 24 hours (Erin only required $3000 to get out of trouble); a few days later, she announced that the eventual amount was somewhere in the range of $6000-$7000. 

In one way, at least, this particular episode tells us that the 1000 True Fans hypothesis is correct: make an outright request to your fanbase, and if the fanbase is large enough they’re likely to fulfill that request for you. But look slightly beyond that and we’ll find that there’s a problem with the way the 1000 True Fans theory is applied to blooking. Put simply, there are less established ways to make money from online fiction as compared to blogging, or webcomics, or music.

The Problem With Fiction

The most obvious problem you’ll face as a blooker when you attempt to make money from your fiction writing is that of product. It takes far longer to write a novel than it does to produce a song, or to write a blog post, or even to publish a collection of webcomics. And even if you do, say, write two novels per year, and by some chance you manage to publish them on your website after an impeccable editing process, you still have to live with the fact that books – and in this context self-published books – do not command the same money-to-effort ratio that other types of web-powered media (e.g.: music, for instance) commands. Consider: a self-published book costs about $16.00. An mp3 from Coulton costs $1. At his prime Coulton churned out a song a week, so let’s say for the sake of argument that an mp3 takes him a week to finish. What have we, money-to-effort wise? If we take the number of hours needed to create that book/song, and we divide it by the price of purchase, we’ll find that a self-published book makes you $0.0037 per hour, while a song makes you $0.0060 per hour. Not a big difference, but remember that a song a week results in a lot more product than two books a year. Writing books and banking on book sales surely isn’t the way forward, not unless you’ve got an audience numbering in the thousands.

So the second source of income in your online operation that we have to talk about is that of site revenue – and that includes ads and themed t-shirts and other cutesy stuff like pillows and mugs that people sell through 3rd party websites. And there we have another problem – ads aren’t particularly effective, not in a fiction-based project, and even the small gains you make from selling ad space through programs like Project Wonderful would arguably be offset by the sheer uglyness those ads would bring to your blook (more on this later). Merchandise, on the other hand, does make sense, but I’ve yet to see any web writer take advantage of this by first creating a visual identity for his or her work, and then extending that established visual identity to pillows, mugs, t-shirts, and so on.

The Real Currency Of The Web

But perhaps we’ve been approaching the 1000 True Fans hypothesis all wrong. Perhaps it isn’t so much of getting those 1000 fans for money as it is getting those 1000 true fans in the first place. For the truth here is that the real currency of the Internet is human attention. No matter who you are, or what you do – if you’re on the Internet your first job would be to earn in the one currency that matters, before even thinking about converting that into real-world money. And the paradox is that you often don’t know how these conversions would take place. As Coulton says it:

But somewhere along the way the bottom line started improving, and I became less obsessed with tracking every little thing. Now I sort of think of the whole engine as a special genetically engineered cow who eats music and poops money – I have no idea what’s going on in its gut, and I have the luxury of not really caring that much about the particulars.

The real reason the cash-making cows (for want of a better name for this kind of business model) work is that you don’t really know how you’re going to earn your money in the near future. Productivity guru Merlin Mann remembers releasing a video on a presentation he made in Google called Inbox Zero, and he remembers releasing the whole thing for free instead of charging for it. The video got watched a gazillion times on Youtube, and not long after corporations began contacting him to do the same thing in their in-house workshops, with pay, of course. That simple act of releasing the video for free earned Mann human attention, which in turn converted to lots of real world money over the next few years, but in a way he didn’t expect. Coulton sums it up like this:

… extrapolate (…) across my entire catalog, across all the things sold that make up my income, across the past and present and future, across all the internet radio stations and file sharing networks and Facebook pages and Twitter posts and the whole wild and wooly internet – you will never know HOW it works, but I can tell you that for me it does. The state of the industry makes a lot more sense when you think of it this way, all these new business models rising and falling, internet radio choking on insanely high performance royalties, Radiohead and NIN giving stuff away and making a killing. This is the thing about the new landscape that drives everyone crazy: you can’t see inside the cow; you can only build one, feed it music, and wait for it to poop.

The real lesson you need to take away from the 1000 True Fans hypothesis isn’t that finding 1000 True Fans would guarantee you the ability to quit your day jobs and make a living writing online fiction. The real lesson in it is that human attention is the only measurement of wealth that matters on the Internet, and once you have it – once you’ve got a significant amount of it and you don’t do things to compromise it (like, say, ugly ads) – you’ve got to keep your mind open about how you’re going to convert that currency into real-world dollars and cents. And that open mindedness is the scary bit about the cash-cow business model – for how do you prepare for something that you don’t know? The answer is – you don’t. You find your fans, you write hard, and then you hope for the best.

Bookmarked! 12th April

  • Never suffer from a bad blook design again – Readability is a button that makes use of a nifty bit of javascript … you drag into your browser bookmark bar, and it transform any page you’re looking at into something readable in just one click. Gone with the ads, bigger fonts in a font of your choice, plus new background to boot. Go check it out.
  • Writing for a living – a joy or a chore? The Guardian online asks a couple of authors what they think of their chosen vocation … “The joy of writing for a living is that you get to do it all the time. The misery is that you have to, whether you’re in the mood or not.” - from A.L. Kennedy, who looks like she’s stoned.
  • Ira Glass on Effective Storytelling
  • Here’s an interview with film critic Glenn Kenny about David Foster Wallace. Yes, I’m including this only because DFW is my current non-fiction idol.
  • How the Web Made Me a Better Copywriter – lots of stuff I never even thought about; look out for the pointer about odd-numbered bulleted lists being more readable than even numbered ones.
  • First, Use Plain English. William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well, recalls how he taught Yale students to cut through the clutter. Brilliant piece I say.
  • This is the proper way to format a short story manuscript for submission to a publisher. It’s bloody good stuff. Read it.

Last, but not least: see this collection of grown up Calvin and Hobbes. I think the last one was downright depressing.

A Note On The Month-Long Absence

I think I owe everyone both an explanation and an apology at the month-long absence I took in-between the last two posts. I was working, for starters, and I had only nights to come back home and go online and do proper, web-fiction related work. But the real reason for not blogging at Novelr was because I was struggling with a couple of things that I’d like to share with you today, for luck. The short of it was that I was sick and tired of writing, and for awhile I was adrift in the sea of ideas that Novelr comes across for a day-to-day basis. But consider, for a moment, the fact that I think of myself as a fiction writer, and consider too the immutable reality that Novelr (and all of blogging) is an inherently non-fiction job. This might not seem like a major problem, not at first glance, but think awhile and you’ll realize that non-fiction is not the other side of the writing coin; it is a very attractive escape, especially for the fiction writer suffering from major writer’s block.

When I first started writing, I reasoned that the blank page was a beautiful thing; an invention that gave the outside world the inner workings of my head. I could give a gift of imagination – my imagination – to others; to allow them a smell of the flowers planted outside the palace of Samarkand, to give them a taste of stolen cloud, taken from underneath a flying monkey God. And indeed that was the ideal that I strove for, that little imagined place where both writer and reader could meet; not over ideas, but over stories and shared experiences.

But then take non-fiction, where you’re still writing, and you’re still using the same tools of the craft, but you’re not actually telling any story. I find that non-fiction is often a weaker substitute for fiction, in the same way some people may chew gum to make up for an addiction to nicotene; or watch porn to make up for a lack of human love. Writing essays and blog posts are easier; they’re instant gratification to the slow-release pleasure of writing a novel; they make you feel as if you’re still engaged in the act of writing, with one crucial difference: you’re not actually doing any storytelling. And we all know how much harder storytelling really is, compared to the direct, non-fiction electricity of ideas from head to hand. This could be one reason why so many novelists turn to essays in their downtime, between books. It could also be one reason why I’d been writing so little fiction over the past 6 months. And it was true, and it was painful – the crux of the matter was that between Novelr and my blog I didn’t feel any need to ease myself into the hard grind of crafting and telling a good story. And that was sad indeed.

I wonder now if writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin write non-fiction because they believe in this lie. Or if they’d examined themselves as fiction writers, found themselves wanting, and settled for the still-respectable, instantly-gratifying joy of non-fiction. Because to me it suddenly seemed that if you were not writing fiction you weren’t partaking of the most powerful thing writing had on offer: the ability to take yourself out of time, to live beyond your years in the curls of your letters and the ozone of your paragraphs. I believe now that stories last forever; that only ideas grow old and die. And what I was doing, I found, was that I was writing so much non-fiction that I was putting aside almost nothing of myself for the timeless craft of the fiction writer.

So what made me come back? Two things, I suppose. The first was a 43 folders podcast, How To (…) Turbocharge your blog with Credibility!, a punchy, inspiring chat between two old-time bloggers that reminded me of everything I had started out to do when I first launched Novelr. But that’s personal, and you aren’t likely to identify with me on my reasons. It’s the solution to my second problem that I find worthy of sharing: I decided that no matter how much work I was going to do on Novelr, or how many essays I wrote for myself, I would always, always set aside some time for wrtiting fiction.

And the thought of this – the very idea of it – made me instantly happier. I’m sorry for the hiatus. But I’m back now, and writing again. Thank you for sticking with me.

N.B.: Have any of you struggled with this? Or has fiction/non-fiction been your one and only calling? I’m interested to know if anyone’s had similar doubts, and similar blocks. Drop me a line in the comments section; I’d be delighted to hear from you.