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