Monthly Archives: May 2009

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.

Too Many Commas

We interrupt your regular dish of Internet fiction commentary with a brief interlude …

I admit that I’m not happy with the latest writing on Novelr. I feel that it’s starting to become too stuffy; too pedantic. Of the past 7 posts, 3 contain arguments that lack clarity and structure, 1 is a note on a month-long absence, and all involve writing processes that felt much like shitting through a bloody anus.  Moments like these call for a close look at my sentence-level construction … and I realized that I was using far too many long sentences. Dammit! I say. Bad habit of mine … and in front of a live audience, to boot!

On Novelr, I realize that I’ve got periods where I write stuff that I’m happy with – even two years down the road – and I’ve got periods where I just can’t seem to express ideas in a clear, chatty manner. I notice, too, that these writus horribilis periods seem to coincide with the waning of the moon, and are always preceded by a chorus of howling wolves. (I, err, was joking). But allow me to put up a short style guide for future reference, one you can bludgeon me over the head with if I stray too far from the beaten path. Also, feel free to learn from my predicament.

The Novelr Style Guide

The following are several tenets that I shall attempt to maintain over the next couple of months:

  • This writer shall put a lid on multi-clausal, long-winded, over-comma-ed, unstructured, rantish sentences that, added together, create multi-clausal, long-winded, over-comma-ed, unstructured, rantish paragraphs. (Sorry – couldn’t help it … I swear that’s the last!)
  • This writer shall use short paragraphs as much as is feasibly possible.
  • This writer shall stop pretending he is writing for the New York Times. He shall be personal. And chatty. Oh yes, who doesn’t love a chatty writer?
  • This writer shall stop playing casual games whenever he thinks he’s got a massive case of writer’s block.
  • This writer shall ask good questions, and (hopefully) find unexpected answers to those questions.
  • This writer shall attempt to be funny. If he isn’t funny, then he shall at least die trying.

I’m not sure how successful this style guide would be, considering that I’m supposed to have developed a proper style by now. (I have, after all, been writing here for about 3 years already.) But then again I seem to lose my way after every major examination in my academic year. No harm going back to the drawing board, and hashing out that idiot of a writer’s block. I’ll let you know how it goes.

[Update]: Thought I’d add several other things that I’ve been doing here at Novelr. All of the above are writing-related issues, things that I’ve been grappling with ever since I took that study break late last year (yeah, I lost my sense of direction during that period, which should change … in a bit). But the ones below are stylistic decisions I made, on the fly, while producing this blog. See if you’ve noticed any of them:

  • Novelr is referred to as a separate entity. Never my community; always Novelr’s community. Never my writing; always Novelr’s wiritng. This is to remind myself that Novelr is supposed to be community-centric: the ideas and the discussions are Novelr’s, and hence belong to the community clustered around it.
  • There are three kinds of articles in Novelr: Commentary, Ideas, and Bookmarked! posts. Commentary is a post providing in-depth analysis of a 3rd party link; Idea posts are original content written specifically for Novelr’s audience; Bookmarked! posts are collected links that I think you’d find interesting. This is an internal categorization, mind; not something you’d find anywhere in the blog’s archives.
  • All posts must be edited at least twice before publication. Sometimes more after. If a large amount of restructuring is needed, the post will be updated with an (edited) tag attached to the title.
  • I try to respond to all comments all the time. Lately, however, this has been erratic. Sometimes you guys are better at hashing out an issue than I am, and I gladly take a backseat in such situations. 

Living with Piracy (Edited)

Note: this post has been edited. The ideas expressed here remain essentially the same as in the original post, though I’ve now rewritten several paragraphs for better clarity and structure. And, yes, I know – I’m a perfectionist, and this isn’t healthy. But we all have our OCD moments, no?

The New York Times’s got a funny little article about ebook pirating, published 11th May and online long enough to have garnered a respectable amount of blogosphere reactions. Of the authors interviewed for the article I like Stephen King’s the most, who says (in particularly King-ian fashion):

“The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys (…) and to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer.”

You gotta love Mr. King for something like that. His comment underscores a bigger debate that’s beginning to pick up, particularly over the past two weeks: people are sitting up and talking about ebook piracy, especially now that ebooks have become viable merchandise. Reactions differ according to group: most traditionally-published authors see piracy as a threat; newer, younger authors (like old-time blogger Cory Doctorow) think that obscurity is a bigger problem. 

There are better people than me out there who are thinking and grappling with this issue, so let’s take a quick look at who’s saying what in the wild web before we go on:

1. Readers apparently revolted against David Baldacci’s latest novel, after Amazon announced that it would charge $15.00 for the digital version. Reason for the revolt? They thought it was too expensive. Most people, apparently, think that since you no longer need to spend money on printing, marketing, and distributing ebooks you can afford to sell them at cheaper prices. Some publishers are now worried that these reader expectations will ruin them; the others believe that making ebooks cheap will increase the number of purchases, therefore enabling publishers to continue making reasonable money. 

2. So what happens if publishers refuse to lower their prices? The Freakonomics people weigh in

When digital music fans were confronted with this problem, they just made illegal copies. If Amazon keeps prices above $10, might we soon see a spate of e-book piracy? Or perhaps people simply don’t care enough about books to steal them.

3. Textbook author Peter Wayner confesses in a Nytimes blog post that he’s not sure what he should do, after discovering a pirated copy of one of his books online. He also talked about the issue in his personal blog, where he appears bemused by the whole episode. What I find particularly interesting here isn’t the post itself … it’s the reader reactions to Wayner’s predicament. Here are some choice responses:

“It’s not piracy. It’s re-tweeting.” –DH94114

“Sorry you feel the need to be paid for your ideas. I write poems and share them all the time, like most every poet I’ve known, with little hope or expectation of payment.” – Jed Brandt

Why not stop calling these people ‘pirates’? There’s nothing romantic about them — they are just thieves. – SB

“Personally, I am happy to pay for music and books, or if not I don’t buy them. I like that the Beatles sold enough records to stop performing and produce work like “Sgt Pepper’s.” I like reading books that clearly took a long time to write. I like The New York Times. Yes, we need a new revenue model. But only because technology and greed have made it newly easy to steal with low likelihood of prosecution, not because there’s been some marvelous and freeing change in the philosophy of information.” – Josh

Piracy Makes Sense … And It Can’t Be Killed

Digital piracy is as old as the Internet itself, and I’m pretty certain we’ve all come across piracy in some form or another in all the time we’ve spent online. If you’re like me, you’ve probably touched or used something counterfeit in your life, at least once – whether it’s a cracked copy of Halo or a bootlegged version of Word, or even a burnt CD of favourite songs passed from friend to friend. The truth about piracy is that we’ve all grown used to it. We may not agree with it, and we may not download illegal copies of books, movies or music. But most of us do recognize that pirated work is but a Google search away, and so we carry out our Internet activities around this the same way pedestrians on their way to work may avert their eyes from the homeless inebriate sleeping on a bench by the coffee shop.

I believe that it is wrong to steal, particularly when the work you’re stealing is the result of so much effort by the author concerned. But while I think that, I also believe that piracy is not preventable; and that it cannot be stopped. I say that any effort to destroy piracy on the Internet is doomed to failure simply because piracy – on the Internet, at least – makes so much sense. And so it does – to the students and the USENET users; to the fans and the media bloggers – piracy is a way of life. It is a logical end-point of the democracy and the anonymity of the web, two things that today’s Internet citizenry have grown up with. I believe that it’s not so much a result of human failure as it is a result of the systems that power the web: systems that just coincidentally fit the requirements for a good pirating operation to a tee. Stopping piracy would mean changing the very way the Internet works – which is absolutely crazy, not to mention entirely impossible. Till that (or some external change) happens we’ll have to live with semi-anonymous downloaders, with torrent files, and with an ubiquitous network of USENET servers.

But living with piracy isn’t as bad as you might suppose. Let’s indulge in a thought experiment: suppose we have to prove that piracy is a bad thing, but instead of making it a matter of ownership and principle, let us say that piracy is only bad if there is a proven harm effect. So then the next question to ask would be: what percentage of sales is lost to piracy? This is the only quantifiable measurement that hurts producers, frankly, and it is unfortunate that this very measurement is impossibly difficult to record. A certain portion of book/album sales may well be lost to piracy, but over time these lost sales usually contribute to something equally important in the online sphere – human attention. People who might not have otherwise heard of you would now be able to sample your work, if only through the bootlegged copies of your work floating around the Internet, and there’s a possibility that a portion of them later become fans and evangelists.[1] Similarly, people who are happy to ‘steal’ from you are likely to be equally happy with buying t-shirts and attending concerts and helping out with financial contributions over the same period of time … all this resulting in you eventually making money from your work.

The proactive approach to piracy

Piracy isn’t all bad. Quite a number of people in more matured online marketplaces (i.e., software and music) have survived and profited in an environment that favours piracy. The first step to dealing with it – as an online writer – is to take piracy as a given. If you’re producing content on the Internet, expect some piracy, particularly so if you’re good. The second step, however, is harder: you’ll have to walk a fine line between what you’re willing to give away and what you’d like your readers to pay for. How you communicate this is tricky. Let’ s take a look at two examples (both of which have appeared on Novelr before):

Johnathan Coulton, the web musician, is up-front about piracy: on his site, above his store, is the following note:

Lots of (music) is freely available depending on how technical you are – you can get all of it for free if you really try. But please remember I do make a living this way, so you like what you hear I’d certainly appreciate you throwing a little payment or donation my way. If you can’t afford it, for goodness sake please send copies of everything to all of your friends.

He also has a ‘Already Stole It?’ subheader above his mp3 page, which says:

No problem. If you’d like to donate some cash, you can do so through Amazon or Paypal. Or for something slightly more fun, purchase a robot, monkey or banana that will be displayed here with your message.

The second example I’d like to talk about is that of Panic, the makers of ‘shockingly good Mac software’. They’ve been doing it for the good part of 10 years now, and the best way they’ve found to tackle piracy has been to pop up a gentle reminder whenever a user enters a pirated product code, explaining to them that a) their code is from a pirated source, and b) Panic is a small, independent company, and it’d help them very much if you head over to the site and purchase one of your own. 

Most of the time, they say, the user does just that.

1.Incidentally, some forward-thinking publishers have learnt to boost book sales by releasing a digital version for free, online. These promotions only happen for select titles, however, and for select periods (plus they’re usually for genre fiction and genre fiction only). The logic is that people getting free books online will buy paper versions because paper is more preferable (they last longer, they don’t suffer from battery issues and they’re easier to read). And indeed this has proven to be true, at least for the time being.

Bookmarked! 5th May

The New Plastic Logic ereader, due out soonLots of good book stuff happening the past couple of days:

  • Most of you have probably heard by now that Amazon’s releasing a new big-screen Kindle for newspapers, and that they’re working closely with a select group of dailies and news organizations. For those of you who haven’t, see: the New York Times,
  • Busy week for Amazon: they’ve also acquired the Stanza ebook reader for the iPhone. I find it very interesting that more and more publishers are releasing books in print and for Stanza at the same time. And now Amazon’s got their grubby paws on this small company, which probably means that a) Stanza is going to become huge; b) the Kindle app is going to become huge. Stanza uses the ePub ebook format. Watch that: it may well be the ebook format of the future.
  • Locus Novus is a superb multimedia fiction site. I agree with Lee – go read (watch?) Hotel Rot and wait for the message in the last slide … fantastic.
  • Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has a surprisingly good video over at TED on creativity. QFT: ‘to be fair, chemical engineers, as a group, haven’t earned a reputation over the years for being alcoholic manic depressives … and we writers do.’
  • Talent is overrated. Practice isn’t.
  • Steven Johnson on the Wall Street Journal: how the ebook will change the way we read and write (watch out for the writing for Google section; also, I call bullshit on the Paying Per Chapter section)
  • Here’s a handy link to the Economist Style Guide. Pretty useful, regardless of what kind of writing you do.

Why Pay-Per-Chapter Sucks

I’m surprised at the number of people who still sell their fiction with a pay-by-installment model. The format is  pretty simple to understand: I’ll give you a free first chapter, and then you need to pay me small amounts of money to read the subsequent ones. Some variations, however, are a lot nastier than you’d suppose: the writer puts 30 out of 35 chapters online, and then they spring a nasty surprise on everyone at the very end of their project: you need to pay $1 per chapter for the last 5 chapters! The ending’s not free, you suckers!

And I hate this. I think it’s stupid, and it’s ignorant, and that it does little for both the writer’s reputation and the good reader’s trust. The truth is that the Internet simply cannot tolerate pay-by-installment methods … and the one or two writers who think otherwise better get used to that, and quick. It’s been 9 years since Stephen King failed to get his readers to pay for The Plant. It’s about time people stop thinking they can sell their work like this.

But what are the problems with this format, and why? Apart from the obvious arrogance (how good do you think you are, to deserve my money?) I’m beginning to think that this model is but a mistaken carry-over from the software world – you know, the one where you download a trial edition and you pay to unlock the full version. But let’s be honest, shall we? Nobody – and I really mean nobody – previews a novel for a 30 day period. The parallels between software and writing vanish when we’re talking about business model, because they simply don’t share the same preconceptions. We don’t bat an eyelid when we’re asked to fork out for an unlock key, especially when we’ve tried out our preview version and we like what we see. But ask the same question after a first chapter? Forget about it, pal – I’m more likely to close the window and roll my eyes than I am to pay you. The only thing such a request accomplishes is that it tells me just how web-savvy you are … and I’m not likely to respect you for it.

The strange thing about the Internet, however, is that the preview idea works when you release the whole book – for free – online. You can then ask for financial contributions, or sell them paper/pdf versions of your book, and you’ll find that people will pay up when you do. There’s a principle at work here, one that works only on the Internet: the more you’re willing to give things out for free, the more likely people are to reward you.

I am now sick of online writers emailing and offering me previews of their work … but only after a small payment. The last one who did had a Flash website – a Flash website! – and a badly designed one at that. It was bad enough to demand $1 payments for chapters 2 onwards … but to sell his work in Flash? That meant he didn’t trust me – or any of his potential readers – with copyable, piratable html. I closed his site within 30 seconds and deleted the email soon after.

The Internet’s an exciting place to write, really. You’ll meet amazing people, you’ll find new things to do, and there’s a boatload more new business models just waiting to be discovered. Just – please, you know? Don’t be selfish.

Note: if you want payment models that work, try reading up on MCM’s Novel+ format or John August’s Variant model.