The Variant: How Previews Can Work In Online Fiction

Yesterday screenwriter and director John August released a short story titled The Variant. It’s a spy thriller – 23 pages long, priced at 99 cents for download and available either as a pdf file or as a Kindle ebook. What I found curious about the whole affair was that August had released The Variant along with a 13-page pdf file preview … which was something I couldn’t understand. Not too long ago I talked about why fiction previews (or Pay-Per-Chapter) would not work for online fiction. Was Mr August a dinosaur, unaware of the arguments against this model? I headed over to his site to find out …

… and ended up buying a copy.

Something strange happened then and there. August got me – a person diametrically opposed to the idea of partial previews – to plonk down cash for a 23 page short story. This doesn’t make any sense, not from what we know of the indie online-fiction marketplace. I argued two weeks ago that selling fiction in small, bite-sized pieces did not work online, simply because much of the digital commerce that happens today rely on goodwill and trust between user and creator. In the comments to that same post Pete Tzinsky added the observation that reading fiction demands a significant emotional investment from the reader, and that most people aren’t prepared to make such an investment for an ending they might not even like. Readers don’t want to pay money for short epistolary updates, and even if they do, they certainly won’t pay money to an unknown scribe writing away in the dark corners of the Internet.

And yet … despite all that, despite even the fact that I hated having an ending held from me – John August got my money. And I loved him for it.


There are two differences between my prior argument and what happened with John August. The first was that August’s The Variant was just 23 pages long – the length of a typical New Yorker essay. I was indeed making an emotional investment, but it was considerably less than that of a novel. More importantly, this kind of length enabled me to anticipate the quality of the ending, and in that regard August completely bowed me over. The Variant is a brilliant short story. It is well written, beautifully executed, and entirely suited to on-screen reading. That last comment may not sound like a big compliment … but it is - within the first 13 pargraphs there are two meaty hooks cleverly written so as to compel you to continue reading, to find out what happens next. This is writing tailor-made for the flat screen monitor: fast, frenetic and full of unanswered curiousities, with the promise of answers lying tantalizingly beyond the horizon (or, in this case, the Paypal purchase). John August is one heck of a smart writer, with a deft gift for the grip and the run.

The 2nd difference was that The Variant was cheap. More than cheap, it was easy to buy. Consider: if you were a US citizen your entire transaction experience would be one-click on your iPhone, and in my case it took me less than a minute to have the pdf file delivered to my computer. I finished the story feeling satisfied with my purchase – The Variant was well worth the $.99 I chose to spend on it.

So what can we take away from this particular episode? First, that fiction previews can work, but only under two conditions:

  1. The work must be short
  2. The work must be appropriately priced

Second, that setting up shop by a steady stream of potential readers could be the best way of leveraging the Long Tail to your advantage. This is, after all, a textbook case of obscure writer finding a (paying) audience through the Internet. And that’s no small thing indeed.

So are there drawbacks to this business model? Sure they are. 99 cents for a short story is too little to live on, and I doubt many writers are willing to hop onto this bandwagon for so low a work/pay ratio. But it’s a start, and not a bad one … the only thing left to prove my last posts right would be for some Variant-loving kid to go upload a copy to a torrent site, and have everyone read that for free.

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Category: Making Money · Publishing
  • Nat JM

    I wouldn’t exactly call John August an “obscure writer”. His blog is followed by many writers and fans of his films, so he has a ready audience to market his short story to.

    Agree with the rest of your post.

  • RavenProject

    From the looks of it, August succeeded because he made the purchase into an impulse buy. The low price and ease of transaction smoothed over any barriers — you didn’t have to think about it much, you just did it. It’s a neat trick!

    I’m very curious who he’s using as his payment service, though. PayPal, probably the most ubiquitous system for online payment, would be turning your 99-cent payment into 66-cent income right away. You already expressed concern that he’s not getting much money on the transaction, so processing fees become really important at that level.

    Which brings us back to your comment about whether such small transactions would allow a writer to make a living. The National Writer’s Union recommends journalists charge at least $1 per word in 2001 (, then let’s adjust for inflation and say $1.22 ( Figure 23 pages at 200 words per page. So August should expect to earn $5612 for his story. Again assuming the PayPal-size chunk extracted, that means 8504 people need to buy his story to match that earning level.

    I’m on a roll here, so let’s keep going. ;) Let’s say August charged $1.99 instead of $0.99. PayPal takes a much smaller percentage cut now — August would bring in $1.63 per transaction instead of $0.66. This changes the required number of sales from 8504 to only 3443! The question, of course, is whether he would lose 60% of his customer base to that price difference. Decisions, decisions…

    I’ve looked for a better option than PayPal, and so far failed to find one that’s acceptable for a single operator. If anyone’s got a better idea, I’d love to know about it.


  • Eli James

    I do! It’s called … the credit card. ;-)

    But of course there’s a problem with that – credit card purchases involve a lot more hassle than one click Paypal payments … unless, of course, you’re doing the credit card transaction through your Amazon Kindle account.

    But I’ve a feeling Paypal doesn’t charge a huge cut for this particular purchase (it’s, what 4%, right?) I think we’ll have to check the delivery system (eJunkie) to see if they’ve got special rates via Paypal or something … they do, after all, have integration with the service.

    By the way, out of curiosity … has anyone here bought The Variant yet?

  • Eli James

    @Nat: Forgive me, your comment was caught in Novelr’s spam filter for a bit. On August’s fame: I was just thinking about that – I finished writing this post and was taking a break when I realized that he wasn’t obscure at all, at least not on the Internet.

    Though, comparatively, he’s nowhere near rock star Stephen King/J.K.Rowling/Dan Brown status, so I do suppose this is still true in the broader scale of the publishing industry.

  • RavenProject

    Hmph… silly me should have just looked it up on my own! ;)

    Okay.. August is using eJunkie as a gateway for PayPal Pro.

    eJunkie charges $5/month minimum for their service.

    PayPal charges 2.9% +$0.30 per transaction. So out of his $0.99 he’s keeping $0.66129

    August was kind enough to tell us that The Variant is 7176 words. Let’s be reasonable and say August sells The Variant for six months. He needs to make $8784.72 to match what he “should earn” per the NWU and cover his eJunkie fees — 13285 sales.

    Now August himself is very realistic about his, he admits “I’m lucky to have a career where it doesn’t matter if this generates $15 or $1,500.” Much less $8K+.

    I hope we can discuss this again in a few weeks when August posts his results.


  • Greg Bulmash

    Paypal offers a special commission rate for micropayments. I wish I had the URL handy, because I recently signed up for it for a project I never executed. I know it exists, not just a rumor.

    The way it’s structured is that instead of charging a $0.30 fee + 2.9% (which is how $0.99 becomes $0.66), they charge a $0.05 fee + 5%. So on a $0.99 purchase, you’d see $0.89 instead of $0.66.

    At a $1.99 purchase, you’d see $1.84 of it instead of $1.63. But, as you can see, it’s a sliding scale. When you went up by $1, the total amount saved went down by $0.02. At around $12, the rates even out, and as you go up from there, the micropayment rate costs you more than the regular rate. But PayPal will allow you to have two accounts, one with the micropayment rate, one with the regular rate, so you’re not tied to one for every kind of sale.

    I’m sure you can Google a link for the PayPal micropayment sign-up, or you can e-mail their help department and they’ll give you a link.

    Of course, if you’re selling via Kindle, you’re dealing with Amazon’s rates, and I think they charge 45-55% of your sale price as a flat fee.

  • Greg Bulmash

    BTW, the project I never executed (had to think to remember what it was) would have charged for the end of my online novel. BUT, it was an “early acess” program. That means that instead of having to wait three or four weeks to get to the end, with me doling out chapters on Mondays and Thursdays, the readers who had already stuck with me through over thirty chapters would have been able to read the last 6-8 chapters all at once for $3.

    I ended up not doing it because I decided I wanted more time to hone and polish those chapters. But I think an “early access” program like that is just fine. You’ve already given away 75-80% for free, and the rest will be available for free to those with patience, but those who are really digging on the story and want to read the rest *now* pay a small fee to get early access to it.

    You can also do a “fan flow” like Scott Kurtz does with, charging “true fans” a monthly fee to get special access to author’s notes, short stories, deleted scenes, Q&A, fan art, etc. Depends on whether you have those 1,000 true fans who love your stuff enough to go for it. 1,000 true fans at $1.99 a month, minus fees and costs, is putting around $20,000 a year in your pocket on top of book sales, ad revenues, etc.

  • RavenProject

    @Greg: Whadyaknow, found it:

    I’m surprised they don’t make that information available on their standard fees page. Thanks for bringing this to our attention… this changes things a lot!

    (Oh, and since you’re probably expecting me to recalculate: 9871. :))

    As for the assetbar FanFlow… I signed up for the PvP FanFlow to see how it works while I was considering options, and took a stab at setting up my own site. The “affiliate system” isn’t bad, but using the service is pretty clunky. You’d be better off setting up a “members only” section on your own site with its own RSS feed.


  • John August

    Saw this article in the Technorati feed, and thought I’d answer what questions I could.

    Greg Bulmash is right — the standard PayPal fees eat up 33 that 99 cents. Yesterday, I switched to the micropayments version, which should get me 89 cents.

    Amazon eats a lot more than that. But people feel so confident buying through Amazon, I think there are lot more impulse what-the-heck buyers. Right now I’m #22 on Kindle, which is bizarre.

  • Eli James

    @Greg: Nicely done on the calculations. August says that the pdfs are currently outselling the Kindle downloads, but he’ll post actual figures in a bit.

    On your project – first question: is it long? Or is it short enough so that there wouldn’t be too huge an emotional investment … a.k.a. it can be turned into an impulse buy?

    @Raven: $9871 is a decent amount, isn’t it? But only if the sales keep coming in for a long-enough period of time. Still, the question I’m interested in is how much work he put into this, so we can calculate roughly the effort/reward ratio.

    @John August: Hello there! Welcome to Novelr. You’ve given us quite a lot to think and talk about – are you, by any chance, going to write more of these stories? Loved this one, wish you’d do more.

  • RavenProject

    @Eli “@Raven: $9871 is a decent amount, isn’t it?”

    9871 is the number of buyers required for August (hi, John!) to earn what the NWU says he “should” for his work as a professional writer. Sorry if I wasn’t clear.

    Let’s turn this around: Say an author found his “1000 True Fans,” and can produce a $0.99 story once a month. After fees, that’s $885.50 a month, $10626 a year. At $1.99, that’s $1835.50/month, $22026/year.

    If you’re looking at writing as a part-time job, it’s actually not that bad….

    (Okay, I really need to stop doing math and get back to writing. ;))


  • Eli James

    @Raven: Forgive me, I didn’t realize you were talking about buyers (that’s a crazy amount of people/downloads!) But August does have one great advantage – so long as he leaves the download available on the Internet for an indefinite period of time there’s the chance that he’ll recoup that same amount of money, though maybe over the span of a couple of years. There isn’t a deadline – after all – his online store doesn’t have to do turnovers and move merchandise out and away from public view. In fact, the amount of money he makes from Variant may well increase should he continue to release short stories in this manner (he’ll attract new readers/buyers, who would then have an incentive to purchase other works of the same type).

  • Greg Bulmash

    @Eli – The project would have only tapped the people who were following the novel as it published on the blog and wanted early access to the end. So there would only be a couple-week-long window in which anyone would want or need to make the purchase, impulse priced or not. It was going to be an experiment more than a grand money-making venture.

  • Eli James

    Well, tell me how that goes, if you decide to go on with it. We’ll probably learn a few things from your experiment, regardless of what eventually happens. I wish you the best. =)