Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

Be the Future?

Be the Monkey: Ebooks and Self-Publishing, a Conversation Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath, by Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. Reviewed by John Patrick Tormey.

No question: there’s a revolution going on here.—Barry Eisler

Best-selling spy novelist Barry Eisler and successful thriller novelist and self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath’s ebook Be the Monkey is a sprawling discussion as recorded on GoogleDocs; a loud cheer for what they call “indie-publishing”, and an autopsy of the publishing industry as it transitions from a paper-based model to one dominated by digital texts.

Indie-publishing is an umbrella title for everything from self-publishing to new publishing companies working outside the model established by the “Big 6/Legacy” institutions that have dominated the industry for decades, and how that may be coming to an end.

In the part one, the authors pivot off Eisler’s announcement that he passed on a half-a-million dollar advance from a big name publisher in favor of self publishing, claiming he made the decision for monetary as well as creative reasons, and was inspired in part by Konrath’s move away the world of legacy publishing and his proselytizing to other writers to make the same choice.

Konrath and Eisler argue that the paper book is now on the road to becoming a “niche market,” and writers and readers will be better off in the new world of the ebook. It is a convincing theory, one reinforced by Amazon’s announcement that in 2010 the company sold more books for the Kindle ereader than paper copies, along with the popularity of the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad, a point Eisler highlights early on. This means that writers will make more money while readers will pay less and enjoy access to a wider range of content. The numbers used to support the claim are pretty convincing:

Joe: …the 25% royalty on ebooks [legacy publishers] offer is actually 14.9% after everyone gets their cut. 14.9% on a price the publisher sets.

Barry: …a 25% royalty on the net revenue produced by an ebook equals 17.5% of the retail price after Amazon takes its 30% cut, and 14.9% after the agents takes 15% of the 17.5%.

Think of it this way: by publishing a novel or story collection as an ebook on Smashwords or B&N or Amazon, the author retains 70% of the profit from the sales of his or her work. That is a margin too wide to ignore, or as Konrath puts it, “…in the long run a 70% royalty wins.”

The benefits of circumventing the legacy publishers don’t stop there. From the shortened time between when a book is finished to when it reaches the market, to the unprecedented level of creative control, plus a healthy—and growing—list of the indie-published authors enjoying healthy sales, Be the Monkey does, at times, make a very convincing case for going it alone.

Or as alone as possible. In some of the most informative and forward-thinking sections of the discussion, Konrath and Eisler muse on what the digital revolution in book-making will mean for the industry at large, beyond the realm of writers and readers.  They refuse to glorify or gloss over the substantial workload an author is shouldering by avoiding legacy route. The self-published author assumes the role of writer, editor, and copyeditor. They become responsible for cover art, front and back cover copy, the writer’s biography, formatting text, marketing and promotion…the list goes on.  Konrath believes this space may be filled by what he calls “E-stributors…a combination of publisher and manager…” that will take over these tasks for a one-time fee or a percentage of the book’s profits, leaving the author to concentrate on what is his most important job: writing.

When I used the word “sprawling” to describe Be the Monkey, understand that what Eisler and Konrath have written isn’t an actual book; it is a series of conversations recorded over a long stretch of time that covered a wide swath of subjects.

Thursday, 4 August, 2011

The New Nook

This guest post is written by Jim Zoetewey, author of The Legion Of Nothing (my favourite long-running web fiction work). When I posted about the upcoming Nook, Jim contacted me and said that he’d probably get one. I asked him for a review, and here it is:

So first off, so you know where I’m coming from, I’m a web developer. I do some programming, and a minimal amount of graphic design. I’ve got a long term interest in user-interfaces, and did some coursework in designing and testing them in graduate school.

I’m no expert in usability, however, and so I’ll mostly be coming at this from a reader’s perspective.

The new nook is obviously an attempt at taking a bite out of the cheapest Kindle. While most nooks are $200 and above, the new nook is $139, just above the cost of the Kindle. Unlike other nooks, it’s black and white, Wi-Fi only, can’t be used as a web browser, and can’t use Android apps. In its favor, it’s got a touchscreen, a total of two buttons on the entire device, claims of a two month battery life, and e-ink screen technology.

The Kindle Vs The New Nook Touch

In short, the new nook is built to do only one thing well — read books.

I think it does that. This is mostly because of the touchscreen. All you have to do is click on the right side of the page to go forward, and the left side to go backward. Doing anything other than going forward or backward is done by either clicking on the bottom of the page, or by clicking the “n” below the screen.

Clicking the bottom of the page allows you to go to a book’s table of contents, find bookmarks, or get information about a book. Clicking the “n” allows you to go to your library, change the nook’s settings, or shop for books and magazines.

In short, it’s fairly simple and straightforward. The only complaint I have about readbility of the nook is that when you click the page, there’s a moment where you simultaneously see the last page you read and the next one simultaneously. That’s brief, however, and I only noticed it when I was poking around the device, learning where everything was. I barely noticed it at all when actually reading.

Outside of reading, there are a couple other things to consider about it–portability and ease of getting books to read.

It is portable. It’s small enough to fit in the front pocket of some of my pants. I assume it would fit in a purse though I don’t own one. Turning it on to read isn’t hard (click the “n” and then draw your finger across the bottom of the screen), but it does require enough deliberation that random objects in your pockets or purse probably won’t turn it on and lose your place.

Thursday, 24 February, 2011

The Apps Will Not Set Them Free

IsaKft is a writer and entrepreneur who runs fluffy-seme, a web-publishing platform (formerly a digital publishing house: see this guest post for her experiences as a digital publisher). Today she talks about her experiences at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change (aka TOC2011) conference, which concluded last week.

I have never seen so many iPads in one room before in my life.

It was like walking into an Apple store, except the business casual gurus at the podium were not Steve Jobs but representatives from the various factions of digital publishing. I don’t know if tech can save publishing, but looking around the room as the speaker blathers on about ePub3 I can guess what the professionals think.

O’Reilly’s annual Tools of Change conference is all about pushing the boundaries of publishing and applying innovation to tired paradigms and business models. It sounds exciting and certainly many aspects of it were exciting. The Startup Showcase was a room full of interesting ideas (including mine!) for every facet of publishing: community lead storytelling, ultimate dictionaries, digital ‘DVD extras’ for books … there was no shortage of innovation on hand.

But other aspects of the conference were more telling. For example, I arrived at Data-driven Marketing and Product Development eager to pick up some new tricks only to find myself sitting in Design Process 101. I sat through a ten minute explanation of iterative design basics that have been around since the 80ties, while a fascinated audience of publishers took careful notes on their iPads, before I left.

Seriously? Are the leaders of publishing so far behind that methodology that was ground breaking when cellphones were the size of tissue boxes is news?

Moving down the hall I slipped into Can You Afford Not to Consider Accessible Publishing Practices? That I misunderstood what was meant by ‘accessible publishing’ was a happy accident, because this was probably the best lecture I saw. Dave Gunn broke down the technology that is making access to publications for the disabled cheaper and easy to pull off, but what stood out for me was the point he made about how the futuristic tech of today is built on tools originally designed for the disabled. Computers can analyze movies because of Closed Captioning, cars can respond to voice commands because of recognition software, inventions that track eye movement are bringing us closer to machines that we can control with our minds. This was what I came here for. This was really interesting stuff.

This was also the least attended of all the panels and workshops I saw. There were maybe forty of us in a room arranged to hold two hundred.

There’s an old joke about the first web bubble and the death of the business method patent. Once a relatively obscure legal structure, business method patents surged when entrepreneurs found they could use them to patent completely normal transactions simply by adding ‘on the internet’ to the description.

Saturday, 30 October, 2010

Other Sides – A Web Fiction Anthology

Other Sides is an anthology of web fiction published by Ergofiction and supported by Novelr. MCM is one-half of the team responsible for the project, and he’s here to talk about the process and intention behind the book, and why perhaps we should all support them.

One of the biggest problems with web fiction is getting people to give it a try. As soon as you say “it’s available for free on the w—”, half the people tune you out. Available for free? On a website? Ah yes, you mean a BLOG. I’ve heard of those. Other Sides cover, showing shiny pathwork design as background to text.My cousin has one where she posts photos of her kids building forts out of pillows and quilts and dining room chairs. How quaint of you.

Convincing people to invest time in your writing when is always a struggle, but getting them to take web fiction seriously is extra hard, because it plays into every prejudice you can imagine. Self-publishing, the cult of the amateur on the web, free = bad… we’ve got it all, and more! And the tragedy is, there are a lot of great stories on the web that don’t get the recognition they deserve simply because of how they’re presented. It’s not just a tragedy for the writers, it’s a tragedy for the readers, because they’re missing out. But how do you help people take that first step? How do you show them what web fiction has to offer?

Many, many months ago, the ever-sharp Ergofiction editor A.M. (Anna) Harte was having this very discussion with me as I was crumbling under the weight of a truly epic workload. The conversation went something like this:

ME: Pity me, I have no time to finish my work, or eat, or sleep.
ANNA: The best way to spread web fiction is to offer a sampler of some great writers.
ME: I see you are ignoring what I am saying.
ANNA: And we can offer the sampler as an ebook so people more comfortable with Kindles and iPads can partake.
ME: Oh dear, I see spots. Goodbye, cruel world!
ANNA: And when the new readers see how great web fiction is, they will want to read more!
ME: [gurgle]
ANNA: I like this plan. Do you like this plan?
ME: [dies]
ANNA: Excellent! Submit your story by the end of the week!
ME: Yes, master.

And that, in a nutshell, is how “Other Sides” came about. And once you get over the initial shock of reanimating corpses, it’s actually quite genius. We have a book of some really great web fiction writing, wrapped in a tidy package and distributed in ways that will not scare the average reader. We have print, even! Real people can browse Amazon, come across “Other Sides”, and say: “Hey, that looks like a nice collection of short stories! I will buy that for only $6!” And when they read it, at the end of every story, there is a little blurb that tells them more about the author, with a link to more of their writing. And when they visit that link… they are partaking in web fiction. And it won’t seem so bad.

The great thing about web fiction is that it’s addictive and personal, like a massive bowl of candies right next to your workspace. A bowl of candies that nobody can eat but you. Mmm, candy. Strandline is like the caramel-filled ones, and… sorry, what was I saying? Oh, right: once someone becomes aware web fiction exists, they almost never leave. Just like the bowl of candy. “Other Sides” is what I hope to be the first step of a bigger campaign to bring our little community to the rest of the world. It’s the thin end of the wedge, if you will. A wedge of chocolate.

So if you haven’t already, please go read “Other Sides”, and leave a review on Amazon. And tell your friends about it. And make your family buy you copies for Christmas. Because the more people that discover web fiction, the stronger the community will be, which will energize our writers and make our stories even better, and eventually, “web fiction” will be a label to aspire to.

Also, if we hit 10,000 downloads, Anna will give me my soul back.

MCM is the technical half of the team behind Other Sides. (Anna does the editorial work). He writes at 1889.ca, and is currently the lead for the creation of a Web Fiction Writers Guild. Go download Other Sides today – he’d really like his soul back.

Thursday, 28 October, 2010

Passing the Hat: Soliciting Donations in Web Fiction

Cecilia Tan is the editor of Circlet Press, and a couple of other things besides (psst – I’ll let her introduce herself, in a bit!) Today, she’s going to share with you several things she’s learnt about making a donation model work in web fiction.

Hello, everyone. I’m Cecilia Tan, writer and editor. For those who don’t know me, I’ve been publishing fiction professionally for almost 20 years. Short stories, novels, magazine serials, microfictions, you name it. Last year I started my own web fiction serial, Daron’s Guitar Chronicles, and I’m here today to tell you how my donation model has evolved over time from a passive “tip jar” approach to actively “passing the hat.”

The street musician analogy is an apt one, as the novel is about a rock musician coming out in the 1980s. Daron’s Guitar Chronicles turns one year old next week, but the novel that is its source was written when I was in grad school 16 years ago.

What I didn’t know then, in my MFA writing classes, was that I had no clue how to write a novel. I dove into writing DGC without realizing that the writing workshop format of five pages per week would push me unconsciously to create a story told not in traditional-length chapters but in 1000-1250 word episodes. I also had no idea how to wrestle a plot to the ground and simple kept writing until I had tripled the length of a typical commercial novel and forced myself to stop at 300,000 words.

In the meanwhile I had made a name for myself as a short story writer. HarperCollins published my first collection of short stories. The “novel” made the rounds of literary editors, pop culture editors (the book has a rock and roll theme), as well as the gay publishing houses (the protagonist is gay). All said the same thing: we love it, but we can’t publish something that huge.

A few said they might be able to “take a chance” on it if I were willing to take a $2,000 (or lower!) advance.

I had a strong feeling that for $2,000 I could do better than a place that would “take a chance.” I put the novel in a drawer and waited.

What I was waiting for was the perfect medium to present the work. As it turns out, a web serial is just about perfect! What were too short to be “chapters” are now “posts.” The pop culture aspect of the work is easily added through embeddable Youtube videos. And, serendipitously, the first person style of narration turned out to lend itself perfectly to reader engagement. Readers, it turned out, more often left comments addressed to my protagonist than to me. So I created him an account and let him answer them. This has only made regular commenters on the site even more invested in his character development and the details of his life, which after all is what the book is about.

The next step for me, though, was how to turn that reader engagement into dollars. When I launched the site in November 2009, I put up a “tip jar” and a Paypal “donate” button and wondered what would happen. I couldn’t run Project Wonderful ads until the site had been up for three months, so there was no income there. And my first “over the transom” donation didn’t come until the end of January 2010, and it was for $20. If my goal was to top the $2,000 that a publisher would have given me to orphan my book in literary first novel obscurity… well, at that rate it would take me 25 years.

I changed my strategy then, following a tactic that I had seen on many webcomics sites. Instead of posting three episodes a week, I cut back to two, promising a third episode any week when donations reached the threshold of $25. After that, I saw a tiny uptick in donations that was probably less about the “incentive” and more that readership was increasing, and donations were increasing proportionally. I could see through my Google analytics that every week I had more readers than the previous, on a fairly slow but steady increase. The uptick was to the tune of about $25 per month.

In other words, to get to my $2,000 goal, it was now going to take… 80 months, or 6+ years. I didn’t have 6 years worth of content, and if I slowed my burn rate any more, I feared I’d lose readers’ interest. Even accounting for a steady but slow increase in readership and donations, the rate of increase was still quite low. The “bonus post for money” incentive never really caught fire.

Then a miracle happened.

Tuesday, 28 September, 2010

Nina Lassam on Wattpad: the Youtube of eBooks

Nina Lassam works at Wattpad, the ‘the world’s most popular eBook community’. Today I’ve asked her to share on the platform – what it is, how it works, and how you may benefit from it.
Wattpad Logo
The way I often explain Wattpad to people who are not familiar with who we are or how we fit into web fiction, is that Wattpad is “YouTube for eBooks + Facebook/Twitter for Authors”. The content on Wattpad is user generated by writers who range from teenaged hobbyists to self-published authors to established writers looking to promote and market their work to a targeted reading community.

Over 10 millions readers and writers visit Wattpad every month, spending half an hour each visit with an average of two visits a day. Like the viral videos that dominate the YouTube homepage, many writers can claim outstanding success with millions of reads and thousands of comments from fans who use Wattpad to find new works to read.

Where Wattpad has shown to be very different from YouTube is in the community-minded nature of the site. A reader comments on a story once every seven seconds on Wattpad, and writers and readers engage in discussions, provide feedback and recommend other works on the site.

There’s an App for That

One of the most common ways people find Wattpad is through their mobile phones. Wattpad is consistently among the top eReader apps in the Apple Store and BlackBerry App World. For authors who want their fiction to reach a mobile audience, Wattpad is available on over 1,000 different mobile devices and eReaders and provides a direct connection with reader.

Mobile is a large area of focus for Wattpad: we see thousands of our apps downloaded everyday and we are continuing to add more and more of the social features that are native to the website. Wattpad is not just a way to read and discover or a spot to upload fiction and poetry, but a platform that bridges both and enables authors to connect with readers in online space.

Who Uses Wattpad

The demography of Wattpad users has changed so much in the past twelve months. From a core group of young adults, we now see mature and experienced authors joining the site. The majority of members are from English speaking countries; the United States, UK, Canada and Australia and English remains the dominant language found on the site. Wattpad also sees a sizable number of readers from Asia and South America and we receive emails everyday from readers who say that Wattpad has helped their ESL skills tremendously.

Since partnering with self-publishing companies; Lulu, Smashwords, and Bubok, our presence in this community of authors has grown considerably. During the summer, we launched a program specifically for self-published writers and have opened a writing contest with literary magazine Shelf Unbound to provide self-published authors on Wattpad an opportunity for additional exposure. There is so much great fiction being self-published, but the struggle is to find readers to enjoy it. Wattpad has been able to fill an important role this way.

Sunday, 19 September, 2010

Matt Blackwood on MyStory

Matt Blackwood is the creator and project lead for MyStory – a location-based fiction project funded and hosted in Melbourne. Here he talks about MyStory’s origins – how they got started with it, and why he’s doing the project:

They say it’s all about the details; the minutiae, the flecks of paint, the beads of sweat, the congealed Chupa Chups sticks, the smiles, the snarls and the occasional gleam – and you know what – ‘they’ were right.

The small things have always intrigued me. That’s not to say I don’t dig Space Odyssey 2001 or The Vidiot from UHF, but everyday humanity is something I’ve always cherished. It might have something to do with my background: not having much money, I spent more time staring at Lego catalogues than piecing together choke-sized blocks for spaceships.

And sure, it might not be trendy to be interested in the small and everyday when Sexagenarian in the City and Warepires are ruling the popular mindset, but the way I look at it, it’s now more important than ever to look at the everyday, to assess where we are, where we’ve been and where we are headed.

So these were the thoughts that spun around my head some 12 months ago; thoughts of how being a writer in a City of Literature didn’t automatically make my writing appear in the city. Thoughts wanting more people to read my work, wanting more support as a writer, and wanting to feel more connected with my fellow Melbournians, and so the framework for MyStory began.

In essence I was interested in location based stories.

I started by looking at different ways to combine the surging uptake in smartphones, mobile internet and the human desire to be told stories one-on-one. I wanted people to reconsider spaces they might have already walked down a thousand times before, or take a chance and venture down somewhere new. I wanted to peel back some of the layers, and perhaps even pre-conceptions about some of these spaces, while spinning tales that were true and truish. All this meant creating an interactive database where writing could be easily accessed in a form that made the most of mobile technologies, but also didn’t exclude people without smartphones or laptops. And I wanted to take it a step further, so that people with vision impairments could also access the content.

Then came the realities.

I knew that people weren’t going to stand and experience a story for a huge amount of time, even if they did happen to love the space they were in. The spaces were always going to be dynamic. This dynamism would obviously affect the experience of the literature; if the spaces were too loud or too busy, raining or sunny, busy or quiet, dark or midday bright; it was all going to impact the interpretation of MyStory.

Wednesday, 15 September, 2010

The First Conversation

MCM is likely the most experimental author in the web fiction sphere. He writes (and blogs!) at 1889.ca, does crazy online livewriting events, and has a whole host of books available, for free, at his site. Here he talks about his experience at FanExpo Toronto: in particular, how it’s like talking to web fiction outsiders about the medium for the very first time.

IMG_0015-724px.jpg

A few weeks ago, I was at FanExpo in Toronto, pitching 1889 Labs to anyone and everyone that came by my table. It was an enlightening experience, and one that’s given me a lot to think about, particularly as it relates to web fiction. See, when I went there, I didn’t really appreciate how to talk to people about what I do. Turns out, it’s not a pitch, it’s a conversation. But the conversation is more nuanced than you might expect.

There’s a type of reader that most of us know already: they’ll visit your site regularly, they know the Web Fiction Guide inside out, and if your navigation to Chapter Two isn’t up to their standards, they’ll give you holy hell for it. They’re the key to success and happiness, and when you talk to them, you talk to them about the finer details of what you do, about the pros and cons of Disqus or WordPress or Drupal, or about how your update schedule is killing you. They’re not necessarily writers themselves, but they’re deep enough in the web fiction world that they appreciate what it’s like to be a writer, and they’re supportive and fantastic and keep you alive.

These are the people we’re going to ignore today.

The other type of reader is the outsider. They know nothing about web fiction (except maybe peripheral negative impressions). They may not even realize they can access great content for free on the web. They’re coming to you completely blind to what you do, and it could very well be your responsibility present their very first experience with web fiction. No pressure, right? You’ve just bumped into them at a party or a convention, and they want to know more about you… what do you say? How do you start that conversation?

Here’s the thing about these readers: they very likely won’t be excited by the idea of a full free book online. They might even be turned off by it. I mean, they’d love to get it for free, but if you lead your conversation with “hey! My book is free online!” I think you’ll find the average reader is going to wonder what’s wrong with you. You’re worth what you charge, and if you’re giving yourself away for free, you must not be worth much. It may seem heretical, but volunteering the best aspects of web fiction are the worst possible idea. You need to work your way there.

Monday, 12 April, 2010

Paper Houses

Diana Kimball is a writer, thinker, and all-round enthusiast. Paper Houses was originally written as a research paper, on the problem of credibility in self-publishing. She has kindly allowed me to republish the entire essay here, on Novelr.

Early in autumn, in the year 2000, members of the American Printing History Association gathered at the Rochester Institute of Technology to consider the precipice between centuries. The conference: “On the Digital Brink.” Among the figures invited to address the assembly, Robert Bringhurst stood apart. As a typographer and poet, Bringhurst was intimately acquainted with the forms words take, and the ache that accompanies shepherding one’s own work toward print. Asked to issue an epitaph for the twentieth-century book, Bringhurst approached its apparent demise with caution; sensible, for at the turn of the twenty-first century, the book in its familiar form retained a certain indeterminate allure.

On a Friday evening in October, Bringhurst issued a forecast. “The book,” he first said, “is poised to move, in the coming century, from its familiar paper house to a kind of handheld movie screen.” But, he continued, “I assure you that I see no reason to be worried by any of this. For while it does look to me like a part of our future, I expect that part to be short-lived. Wherever human beings live their own lives instead of somebody else’s, stories form in their hearts and in their heads.” Finally: “stories and people nourish each other. Where that occurs are the seeds of the book, some of which are certain to sprout.” Expressing sympathy for the impulse to publish while remaining vague about what form that impulse would come to inhabit in the future, Bringhurst drew his epitaph to a close. Stories, he suggested, were going nowhere. But nowhere did he promise that the houses they inhabit would not change.

Tradition

In 2005, a scandal broke. At issue was the definition of “tradition”; the controversy involved a print-on-demand publishing outfit called PublishAmerica, a mass of frustrated authors, and the troubled state of the novel in a digital age. PublishAmerica, The Washington Post reported, had lured authors to sign over rights to their manuscripts with the assurance that their work would be produced by a “traditional” publishing house. PublishAmerica identified itself as “traditional” to distinguish itself from vanity presses, which—historically—charged authors for the privilege of seeing their work in print, rather than paying authors for the privilege of publishing it.

PublishAmerica did not charge, but it barely paid, either; worst of all, authors who believed they were legitimizing their work quickly discovered that they had instead condemned their manuscripts to collective disdain. When one PublishAmerica author stopped by a local bookstore to schedule a book-signing, “an assistant manager checked her computer, ‘looked at [the author] and said, “That’s POD,”’” a compact and often derisive acronym for print-on-demand. The author was told that the bookstore did not do signings for POD authors. She was devastated.

Technology complicates tradition. The publishing industry as it existed in the twentieth century was a masterpiece of systematized inefficiency. Publishing houses routinely printed thousands of copies of a book so that enough people would see it that a few might choose to buy or read it. The enterprise was, of necessity, surrounded by an ecosystem of quality control and promotion devoted to recouping the massive cost of that inefficiency. This ecosystem included the apparatus of the book review, the role of the editor, and the specialty of creating cover art. Bookstores, given limited shelf real estate, carefully chose which books to stock; publishers, given the tremendous cost of publishing a volume in quantities that would enable certain economies of scale, took great care to bet only on books they thought bookstores might stock. The advent of online merchants such as Amazon.com altered the equation slightly, offering a new outlet for books unconstrained by the limitations of physical display space. The ease of desktop publishing, and the undeniable efficiency of print-on-demand technology at managing supply and demand, hold the potential to alter the equation further.

Thursday, 18 March, 2010

Reinventing the Novel

This guest post is written by Pamela Redmond Satran, New York Times bestselling author, ninja web developer, and one-time magazine editor. Here she talks about her jump to writing digital fiction, and how she’s found it so far.

Ho SpringTwo things inspired me to write my new novel, Ho Springs, online, day by day, instead of writing it for a conventional publisher the way I did my first five novels.  Well, two things that are easy to explain.

The first was my husband, after watching the DVD of American Gangster, telling me he found the movie good enough but ultimately unsatisfying.   “It was a movie,” he explained, “so you knew from the beginning that everything really interesting was going to happen to Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and that it was going to build to this big climax at the end.”

That was the problem with conventional novels too, I thought.  They were predictable, limited and finite in form and scope.  Wouldn’t it be more interesting to write – and read – a novel that unfolded in a way that was both more leisurely and more compelling, the way TV shows like Mad Men and The Wire did?

The second influence was creating my blog How Not To Act Old after no one wanted to buy it as a magazine article, turning it into a book and making that book a New York Times bestseller.  That experience taught me that not only was it more fun and exciting to write without an editor between me and my readers, but my own creative instincts were often better than those of the traditional publishing world.

My experience writing five “real” novels and developing two big websites – I’m also a partner in the site nameberry.com, based on the ten baby name books I coauthored with Linda Rosenkrantz – put me in a unique position to create a piece of digital fiction that would combine the best of both worlds.  Rather than writing episodic pieces, I wanted to create a novel that included such conventional elements as a character-driven story, causally-related scenes, and an extended plot that would unspool in unexpected ways, but in a form that could exist only online.

My blueprint was a television series I’d created (but hadn’t sold) a few years ago, set in a fictionalized version of Hot Springs, Arkansas.   A place-based story was perfect for an online novel, I thought, offering a wide range of characters and settings and the potential for stories to expand in an unlimited number of directions.

The big problem was the name, Hot Springs.  The url hotsprings.com was obviously taken.  And then, driving one day, I had a eureka moment: hosprings.com, or Ho Springs.  I was so excited I did a u-turn and drove right back home to track down and reserve the name.

From that moment on, I knew the idea was right.  I wanted to create the site in wordpress, so it would be free and I’d have total creative control, but I couldn’t find a theme that included all the elements – videos, graphic windows that opened to places in the town and story, room for a big block of text.

I needed a designer – or, as it turned out, three designers.  I had a vision for a logo that would look like all the letters were in realistic flames, with the T up in smoke, which called for a photoshop expert.  My budget was zero, or as close to that as I could get.  I was lucky to find Katie Mancine who built me an amazing logo.

The only problem was, Katie said, she couldn’t design a good-looking site to go with that logo.  Rather, she sold me on the concept “Vintage Tourist Guide,” which was great, but in the end that didn’t work out either.  Katie finally ended up with the design you see now on the site, and my friend Dennis Tobenski, who’s really a composer, made the whole thing dance.  Combined cost: under $1500, and several hundred gray hairs.

Weeks and then months were passing, during which I found a musician, Matt Michael, to write and record two original songs for the site, and also drafted several writer friends to create independent blogs from the characters’ viewpoints.  But the only writing I was doing during this time was putting together the static content describing the characters and the settings.

A novelist creating a work for the web is not, then, just a writer, but a designer, a logician, a manager, a tech guy, a producer.

And then, once you do start writing – or at least, once I did – the process is different too.  I suppose you could write one long story and parcel it out day by day, but the whole point for me was to create it as I went along, publish it immediately, to swing by the crook of my knees with no net below.

That’s the only way to feel the wind on your face, which is something you rarely feel when you’re writing a conventional novel, one that won’t be published for two years or maybe five, that no other person may even see for all that time, or maybe ever.  Writing all my other novels, I’m a big planner, outlining the big story and even each individual scene, revising and reimagining, working on the same piece until I lose sight of where I started and when it will ever end.

With Ho Springs, I get up in the morning, having a vague sense of what I’m going to write about, from which character’s viewpoint, but letting myself be swayed by whatever I encounter between brushing my teeth and opening my computer.  A David Sedaris story in an old New Yorker got one of my characters beaten one morning; an email from a writer friend inspired me to make a video of myself talking about what had influenced me that day.

It wasn’t until after I launched the site that I looked at what anyone else was doing in this arena.  The only site I’ve found that’s similar is All’s Fair in Love and War, Texas, by the brilliant Amber Simmons, which makes me believe God saved me from that Vintage Tourist Guide idea.  Penguin’s We Tell Stories is brilliant, but much more expensively and expertly produced than I could hope for, and more limited in writerly ambition.  Visually-based web fictions that blow me away include Unknown Territories and The Flat on Dreaming Methods.  But they’re movies, really, not novels.

Where is this project going?  My ideal vision is that someone like HBO or a publisher with a production arm will buy it and produce it as a multimedia property, with a television and a web and a book element working together.  I believe that this is how fiction will be written and published in the future, that this will become the new standard long after anyone remembers that Ho Springs ever existed.

Or I may take it down tomorrow and build something else.  The excitement is in creating something.  Holding it in your hands, or staring at it on a screen, holds so much less satisfaction.

Pamela’s personal site may be found here; with Ho Springs just around the corner.

Wednesday, 2 December, 2009

Please Don’t Pay Me: Dispatches from a Digital Publishing House

Isa is the president, founder, and all-around person in charge of digital publishing house fluffy-seme. Here she talks about the continued relevance of publishing houses to web fiction.

About four months ago I got an email from a writer asking if fluffy-seme would be interested in publishing her work. The timing couldn’t have been more wrong. Although fluffy-seme had been “publishing” for a few months, we’d only just decided to throw caution to the wind and just make it official and incorporate. We had started the pilot run of Hyperlocal (a scavenger hunt where players solve clues to collect pieces of an on-going story), and that program had just been featured in TimeOut New York under their 75 Things To Do Before Summer Ends cover story. The competitive environment of Hyperlocal turned out to be more competitive than I ever imagined it would be: clues were released at midnight and most of them were solved before 9am. On top of that, Split-Self had only just started publication and it needed a lot of tender love and care to help it find fans. On top of that I was also writing two other serials for a grand total of three serials at roughly 4,000 words each part … about 12,000 words a week.

Nevertheless, despite completely overcommitting myself … we were a publishing company and I was itching to start recruiting writers (mainly so that I did not have to write 12,000 words a week). So I said okay, send me something to look at.

What she sent me wasn’t going to win any Pulitzer’s, but it was serviceable and marketable. A little polishing and I could see it being a series that attracted an audience. There was just one problem…

“Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to pay writers right now.” I explained.

“Oh, that’s alright … you don’t have to pay me.”

At first I kind of assumed this was just naiveté, and so I explained to her that yes … in fact we do have to pay you. In order for us to publish you, you have to sign a contract giving us the right to reproduce your content and to profit from said content. You should never sign away those kind of rights without some compensation. So I suggested … “How about this? I can draw up a temporary three month contract at a low rate and then when it expires we’ll renegotiate.”

“Oh … no … really that’s okay, I really don’t feel comfortable getting paid for my work. It’s not that good.”

Negotiations actually stalled and inevitably fell apart over this unbelievable problem: she really didn’t want me to pay her for her writing.

Because to me when you’re selling something: $$ > $ and $ > free I assumed that this encounter was merely an anomaly … instead it foreshadowed the hair pulling frustration that was to come in October when fluffy-seme opened up for submissions and went about trying to recruit writers. Nearly every single time I started negotiations with a writer discussions would come to a dead stop as soon as the fact that I actually intended to pay them became clear. Once I spelled that out one of two things would happen: either the writer would suddenly have a crisis of confidence like the encounter described above, or the exact opposite, the writer would turn around and declare (some more subtly than others) that since I was willing to pay, then maybe a BETTER publishing company would also be willing to pay. Or better yet, maybe the author could go out on their own and get to keep 100% of the profits.

Thursday, 5 November, 2009

A Very Basic Introduction To Twitter For #WebFiction

This guest post is written by webfiction reader Jan Oda (@janoda), who writes one of the best Twitter streams covering online fiction. Many of the things I’ve linked to in the past have come from her , and if you’re not already following her account … well, you should. She finds the coolest things in the strangest places, and should be part of any webfiction writer’s reading list.Even plushies tweet!

I’ve been using Twitter for a bit now, and while I’m by no means an expert, Eli has asked me to write an article on the usefulness of the network for web fiction writers, and so here I am.

A rough idea of what I use Twitter for: in the past couple of days I’ve discovered a great poem, found out about a Webfiction Podcast, voted for my favorite contestant in a literary reality show and almost became MCM’s marketing agent for The Vector.

On a more personal note I learned that one of the authors of the Peacock King just found her first grey hair at the age of 28, that Lord Likely is getting married (no matter how much I protest) and I’ve organized a sleepover party, pillow-fight included, with The Dispatch crew. And these things are only the tip of the iceberg.

For me Twitter has been a revelation. I have made contacts with web-fiction authors I would never have found otherwise, I have discovered great short-stories, poems and other digital art, and I got to take part in #3D1D, which really deserves it’s own article on the technologies MCM used.

These are my personal benefits, but I believe Twitter could be a real asset to all web-fiction authors, and I’ll try to explain how and why in this post. There really is no limit to the possibilities of the use of the medium, but I’ll try to cover the basics at least. If you don’t know what Twitter is and how it works, I’d suggest reading the TwiTip Starters Guide and Inkygirl’s Writer’s Guide to Twitter.

How it Works

Twitter defines itself as a microblogging system in which people can post short updates (there is a max. of 140 characters per update), and other people can subscribe to their feeds. 140 characters sounds very limiting, but you can say more than you think you can, and there is a subtle art in being brief and to the point. As far as I can see it there are 3 kinds of authors on Twitter.

  1. The Personal Account
  2. The RSS Author
  3. The Balanced One

Until recently Eli himself was a good example of the first type. He didn’t use Twitter frequently, but when he did he tweeted personal thoughts. There weren’t any references to Novelr, and not many references to anything web-fiction related in general. He also didn’t really connect with people (because he didn’t know how to reply to them), so his Twitter feed resembled a stream of consciousness. Other variants of this are authors using Twitter as a chatbox with their personal friends, taking the “What Are You Doing Question?” to an extreme and posting everything they eat and do. There is nothing wrong with that, but in my opinion this isn’t using Twitter to its full potential.

The RSS Author is on the other extreme of the spectrum; there is nothing personal in these accounts. RSS Authors simply attach their RSS feeds to their Twitter account, and let it run on auto-pilot from there on. No interaction whatsoever. A variant of this, and probably more annoying, are the marketeering authors, who only use Twitter to promote themselves and their books. Both types aren’t using Twitter to connect, which is a big loss, because, since their streams aren’t very interesting, they probably won’t gain many followers.

The Balanced One is the ideal Twitter-using author. He varies personal updates with updates on his writing, publishing and other professional updates, promotes (through the art of retweeting) interesting content of fellow authors and contacts and interacts with his followers. The really cool authors take this interaction to a new level and come up with stuff like #3D1D. Off course there isn’t such a thing as a perfect twitterer, but aiming for a mix between personal, professional and peers should get you close.

Useful Features

Twitter has implemented a couple of nice features to make connecting with interesting people and content easier. The most important one is probably the hashtag. Each term that starts with a # is converted into a hashtag. These hashtags are searchable, which means you can easily find all tweets mentioning the topic. A lot of web-fiction authors are adding #weblit to their tweets concerning their web-fiction, or web-fiction in general. Some of them also use a hashtag for their stories, so people can easily find updates. MCM even named his project after the hashtag he used for it, #3D1D.

Some people organize chats around these hashtags, using a twitterclient like tweetchat, or the Twitter search function (search.twitter.com) on a set day of the week. The most interesting ones for web-fiction authors are #writechat, #dnchat and #wnchat, but there are a lot of others as well.

Another great side effect of the hashtags are the hashtags projects. A prime example of this is #fridayflash, where every Friday authors publish a Flash Fiction Piece, and tweet about it using the #fridayflash hashtag. J.M. Strother posts a weekly roundup on his blog of all stories published each week, and an Anthology is in the making.

On your profile you can easily save searches, so you can check your favorite topics with one easy click. My personal saved searches include ‘Online Novel’, ‘Online Fiction’, Web-Fiction and others, and by checking them daily I found authors publishing online that weren’t on the WFG, Muse’s Success or other Web-Fiction Directories.

Some authors have been creating characters accounts, and are tweeting in character. I find this a great way of connecting with fans and readers, and that it greatly adds to the web-fiction experience. Reading the adventures of Lord Likely is twice as fun since I’ve been following his twitter account and I’m sure other readers feel the same.

A final great feature are Twitter Lists. These lists are used to organize the people you follow into categories, so people can easily find people with similar interests. I have made one for web-fiction authors, which currently lists 124 tweeting authors of web-fiction. Once you’ve subscribed to a list, it only takes one click to subscribe, and the tweets of all those listed are within reach from your Twitter sidebar. Nancy Brauer of Strange Little Band has also made a Twitter list of fictional characters tweeting.

Last but not least I’d like to mention @onlinefiction, a Twitter account created by Naomi of Nomesque Fiction, which tweets and promotes various web-fiction on hourly intervals.

I have by no means mentioned everything there is to do on and with Twitter, so please do comment with your favorite accounts, hashtags or anecdotes.

Jan Oda tweets at @janoda, and presents her followers with a LOT of good links. (Image at top sourced from Flickr)