Category Archives: Making Money

Genre as Indicator

Michael Stackpole recently posted this great blog post titled Price Isn’t The Point — an argument that pricing isn’t the most important variable for book sales.

Hidden in that post, however, is an idea that I think is worth examining:

Another monster variable is genre. Romance outsells mystery/thrillers, and mystery/thrillers outsell SF and Fantasy—with huge gaps between them. I know of no pricing experiment that has tried to control for this variable. Heck, if you look at print books, Romance readers are willing to pay full price for a 50,000 novel; whereas an SF/Fantasy reader would get 2-4 times that much wordage for the same price.

Let’s tie that in with this Washington Post article — about romance authors, ebooks, and the same, valuable observation:

E-readers have been around in early formats for nearly two decades, but they have been drastically dropping in price and improving in quality during the past 36 months.

One of the first groups to embrace them were readers of romance fiction. These books were part of larger genre-based markets, such as thrillers and horror, that were populated by avid readers who chain-read books. They were avid fans, communicating with one another in any number of ways, including blogs and book clubs. Romance was tailor-made for the webs of social media.

“Romance novels are leading the way in e-publishing because romance readers are incredibly prolific,” says Malle Vallik, Harlequin’s director of digital publishing. “They understood [e-readers] immediately: ‘Oh, my God, in my purse, I can have 50 books.’ You like one writer, you can get their complete backlist immediately.” [Emphasis mine]

New marketing patterns of lower online prices and impulse buying created a perfect dynamic for authors like Belleville: Genre authors who were prolific but who had not been too successful. This peculiar level of accomplishment meant they had written books for print publishers, seen sales vanish and had the rights revert back to them, and even had completed manuscripts that publishers had rejected.

This left with the writers with just the right recipe: a small but devout core audience; a readily available backlist for new readers to discover; a knack for writing fast; and an inherent appeal to a fan base that read voraciously. [Emphasis mine]

What this means is that genre determines the median (and I suppose the upper-bound) of sales that any one writer might have. This does not mean that you have to switch genres; I wouldn’t be so silly as to propose that. What it does mean, however, is that when you next look at the sales figures of a hotshot indie writer, you should pause to take note of what genre he or she’s writing in.

Amanda Hocking sells thousands of ebooks every month. She also happens to be writing romance.

J.A. Konrath sells a little less. He writes thrillers.

The two demographics are rather different. They exist at different parts of the early-adopter spectrum — and ironically enough, romance readers are ahead.

But there’s another way of looking at this: if you’re in the publishing startup space, like I am, this bit of information implies that it would do to have some part of your service focussed on romance. I’m not exactly sure how I would do it, or how any digital publishing house would do it (have a romance-only spinoff, perhaps?) But it does make sense: romance readers are ahead of the curve with regard to ebooks. They were early-adopters, a result of the embarrassing semi-naked-man-on-book-cover problem, plus their buying habits — buying an entire backlog with one click — are factors worth thinking about.

Sidenote: I realized I haven’t been blogging here for the past 3 months. I’ve been spending that time working on Pandamian. We’ve got free ebook conversions up and running, along with a whole bunch of other features, and I’m eager to talk about them once the new redesign is up. Till then, consider this post an apology, and a signal that I’m back. Sorry about the break, folks. More publishing-related news in a bit.

Sunday, 27 February, 2011

The Very Rich Indie Writer

Meet Amanda Hocking. She’s been in the news for quite a bit now, and I’ve been meaning to write about her since January (or really, to write about the phenomenon she represents – and what it means for web fiction). But if you don’t already know of her, allow me:

Amanda Hocking is 26* years old. She has 9 self-published books to her name, and sells 100,000+ copies of those ebooks per month. She has never been traditionally published. This is her blog. And it’s no stretch to say – at $3 per book1/70% per sale for the Kindle store – that she makes a lot of money from her monthly book sales. (Perhaps more importantly: a publisher on the private Reading2.0 mailing list has said, to effect: there is no traditional publisher in the world right now that can offer Amanda Hocking terms that are better than what she’s currently getting, right now on the Kindle store, all on her own.)

And that is stunning news.

Kindle Store Economics

Why this is happening, and how it can happen, is a question that’s been explored by other indie writers experimenting with sales on the Kindle store. J.A.Konrath is arguably the best authority on this, and the logic goes roughly as follows:

If you’re an indie writer, you get to sell books at a price way, way lower than what a Traditional Publisher can sell at. And yet you make more money, because your only costs are to an ebook and cover art designer (whereas the traditional publisher has to support a legacy system, plus the traditionally published author gets a 30% cut, while you get 70%).

In the meantime, readers are more inclined to buy your stories, even if you’re an unknown author, simply because your book prices are cheaper. So you get high sales, low ebook prices, but high revenue once you’ve hit sufficient scale. And the best thing is that it’s infinitely scalable: your ebooks are out there, getting sales every single day. No shelf-space, no print runs to worry about.

You’re making a killing, and are able to compete with traditional publishers at their own game.

Well, in the context of an ebook store, that is.

The oft-repeated argument that people use w/r/t Konrath is that he was a traditionally published author before moving to the Kindle store. But Hocking and her peers, who have never been published the traditional route before (who were inspired by Konrath’s exploits, and who are now selling way more than Konrath ever has) are together invalidating that argument. You don’t have to be traditionally published to sell a lot of ebooks, and you don’t have to be A-List famous, either. Take this monthly sales list of top Kindle indie authors, for instance:

Monday, 22 November, 2010

Makers and Money

One of the first things people ask us when we tell them about Pandamian is: “So how are these writers going to make money?”

It’s an obvious question to ask, of course. One of Pandamian’s core features (which – I’ll admit, we’re currently building, and which is turning out to be a huge pain in the ass) is the ability for writers to sell books through their own ebook store, or – if they so choose – to do some sort of automated uploading to the Kindle/Smashwords/Feedbooks stores.

Our answer is unsatisfactory to most of these people: “We’re not sure that they can make enough money to support themselves. We can’t guarantee that.”

And we can’t. But the discussion does lead to an interesting question: can writers make good money if they choose to go down this path of digital/self publishing? Can writers expect to make money?

Good Dreams

I think the short answer to that question is: yes, it’s not inconceivable that some writer, somewhere, would eventually make enough money selling books on the Internet that he or she would be able to quit his/her day job. And that writer should count himself very lucky indeed. The long answer, however, is that it really depends on the number of people who are attempting to do this.

Most writers I know that publish traditionally don’t make enough from their books to write full-time. They work day jobs instead. And they keep at it because publishing – as a field – is validated by the J. K. Rowlings and the Stephen Kings – authors who are able to command an audience large enough to do nothing but write, full-time.

Making enough to write for a living is the dream, and it is a good dream. It’s why so many people keep trying to get published. And aspiring authors know that it is possible – statistically unlikely, but possible – to live this dream through the mechanism of publishing, because there are all these success stories, the kinds you experience when you watch a Harry Potter movie, or when you buy a Twilight book. And while they don’t say this explicitly, they believe alternatives like digital publishing aren’t viable mechanisms for success because there is no proof of success.

But that doesn’t make sense, does it? Because there are so many writers jostling for publication, it becomes increasingly unlikely that none of them would ever become successful. And so when people look at self-publishing and say that it’s rubbish, what they don’t understand is that it doesn’t seem like a viable alternative – because there are comparatively few people doing it.

My contention is that the more writers move to digital publishing (that is – they publish and sell on the Internet before approaching a traditional publisher) the odds that some of them succeed increases proportionately.

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.

Friday, 10 September, 2010

Kickstarter – a New Model for Indie Publishing

Kickstarter is a website for ‘funding and following creativity’. I’d never actually given the site much attention (even if I knew of one or two projects, by acquaintances, funded through the site) until – well, two days ago I stumbled onto a discussion on Kickstarter’s growing influence in the independent book world, and everyone seemed pretty positive about the service. So I decided to check it out.

Kickstarter’s core idea is simple: you post a creative project to their site, put up a description (and very often: a video), and then you set a series of pledge levels that show to the right of your project page. These levels indicate what backers get in return for specific amounts of money. For instance, this book project promises an autographed copy for $20, an 8×10 print (and book!) for $30, and an acknowledgment (plus doodle and print and book!) for $100.

The genius here is that these pledges happen before your book’s published, with absolutely no risk for all involved. Your book will be funded by the usual crowd of backers: mostly your readers, some fans and perhaps several Kickstarter community members. And if you can’t raise the minimum, your project closes, the page disappears, and nobody need pay up.

Craig Mod's Art Space Tokyo
There have been a number of striking book projects done through Kickstarter. Craig Mod, for instance, has published a run of handcrafted, silkscreened books with Kickstarter fundraising; Robin Sloan (of Snarkmarket fame), managed to get $13,942 to fund the writing of a novel. From his project page:

I’m writing a book: a detective story set halfway between San Francisco and the internet. And the more people who reserve a copy, the better each one will be!

I’m beginning to think that Kickstarter (and websites like it, that I assume will appear in the future) are going to play a prominent role in independent publishing – maybe in one or two years, but certainly for a long time to come. And how can they not? It makes perfect economic sense for both reader and writer. If a writer has to earn the privilege of getting paid for his work, then this model delights in that exchange, and rewards the avid reader. (Imagine: being able to chip in, for your favourite author! How fulfilling! How incredible!)

But I also find it very cool – the very idea that you can help support your favourite writers as they produce and publish good books – books you already love, because you’re reading them online. This idea is wonderful, I think, and brilliant, and so befitting of the kind of closeness the Internet is able to afford its readers; its writers.

Digression: there’s actually a space right now for a service that enables closer reader-writer relationships – the kind of relationships that encourage a ‘you fund me, I’ll make good books for you’ ethos. Current solutions are good, but things can be, and will be, much better, given the right technical backbone. My bet is that Kickstarter has the seed of this in its model. All that remains is to think about this and tease it out a little.

I’ll be looking for a few Kickstarter authors to come write on Novelr in the future – in particular the ones who have successfully funded the publication (and sometimes even the writing) of their books. In the meantime, I’d recommend that you consider Kickstarter for funding. And maybe not for large, $10,000 runs, but it seems perfectly fair to begin with a small print of carefully-bound books, shipped to a loyal pool of delighted readers.

Oh, and a random thought: perhaps – as more web fiction writers stumble onto the idea of publishing with Kickstarter, we’ll begin to see an increasing number of links on Novelr to their respective project pages. Which I look forward to, and – I suppose – can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, 25 August, 2010

“A Small Industry Sitting Atop a Huge Hobby”

Here’s a heretical thought: suppose we never find a way for making money from online fiction?

I was walking back from campus the other day with Yipeng (who’s the technical lead for Pandamian, by the way, and is generally sharp about such things) and he asked me: “Is there any way to make money from … this web fiction thing?”

I paused for a bit, thinking about where to begin. “Well, yes and no.” I said, “There are some ideas floating around. One of them is to release the book for free, in web form, and sell the ebook and dead-tree versions.” – a pause as I think – “And perhaps another one is to sell merchandise around the book. Or sell signings and book tours.” – another pause – “The truth is that we don’t know.”

And we still don’t. Digital content is a chaotic, uncomfortable business to be in. Most working business models in this space have yet to be discovered, and the ones that do work are these odd, vertical stacks that few companies may tap into (e.g.: the iTunes store, and now maybe the Kindle/iBookstore – both with their own devices). Newspapers are feeling the worse of it, but books and music aren’t that far behind.

But I wonder now: suppose the majority of digital, for-entertainment writing is impossible to monetize? Or that – if it were monetizable, the money would go to a small circle of skilled/lucky authors, sitting atop a food chain of other less-profitable, digital writers?

I’m kidding myself, of course – such a future is likely to be inevitable. In all areas of human effort there will be a small number of successful/lucky people, a small number of very unlucky people, and a vast majority of what I shall call – for want of a better term – middleness. Digital publishing seems unlikely to escape the bell-curve that governs everything else.

What interests me is this idea that the bell-curve in publishing, so far, has existed because of the shape of the traditional publishing industry. In other words, the authors that get promoted to the top depend on which authors the publishing houses like the best. This is not true for all cases, and there are market forces to think about, but it is certainly true for many. In digital publishing there are fewer barriers-to-entry for the prospective author. In this version of a bookfuture – what factors determine the kinds of authors that get to the top?

I can hazard only a few guesses. The most successful authors are likely to be the ones who can best create and manage large communities. How they’ll do that is unclear to me, but it’s likely that the author will have some way of gathering his or her audience. It’s also likely that this way would be tied to or enabled by a publishing company.

I’ll also take a stab at it and say that the publishing houses of the future would endorse certain digital writers over others. The good news is that it’s easier to pick the winners in a flat market like the Internet. The bad news is that publisher-support would probably remain the defining factor for whether an author makes it to the big-time. And without such leverage, the rest of the writers would still be left without any way to make significant money from their work.

This isn’t a bad thing, really. Writer V. J. Chambers left a comment in an earlier Novelr post that struck me as true:

… I want to scream at people, “Getting paid for making art is not a right. It is a privilege.”

I’m beginning to think that this is the right way of looking at things. If you’re a writer, and you publish good stuff online, and you get paid huge sums of money for it, you’re a lucky (nay, privileged) person indeed. And if you’re not – so what? You’re still doing what you love. Maybe the money’s just enough to cover your server costs. Maybe it’s enough to buy you an occasional t-shirt. It shouldn’t matter, because that isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Richard Nash argued that publishing is a ‘small industry sitting atop a huge hobby’. If we take that hobby to be writing, then what you have in the Internet is a tool that enables you to find people who love your writing, and who would love to talk about it with you. Never before in the history of publishing has this level of interaction been so attainable. And as a writer, I find this idea to be incredibly fulfilling.

If not being able to make money means I can talk to more readers … well maybe that’s not such a bad trade-off after all.

Wednesday, 2 June, 2010

The Adams Theory Of Content Value

Scott Adams (yes – the same guy who does the Dilbert comic strips) wrote a blog post yesterday titled The Adams Theory of Content Value. He asserts that: “as our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.” Which is a fancy way of saying things will become free because people will be better able to find good alternatives to the current non-free stuff. To wit:

At the moment, plenty of people still pay for media content. Those reasons will evaporate. Let’s consider books. Most people still prefer old-timey tree-based books, but the Kindle and other ebook readers are eating into that preference quickly. I haven’t yet heard of anyone buying a Kindle and later returning to a preference for regular paper books. It appears to be a one way ride. The Kindle, and similar devices, are designed for buying legal copies of books, which is a doomed attempt to forestall the inevitability of all media content becoming free.

I’m not sure why this notion makes me so uncomfortable. It could be because I’m supportive of writers making money off of their content, or it could be because I’m also building something that may go that way.

My immediate, almost visceral reaction to this is to argue that there is value in commercially-created content. I think of software when I make this argument: free, open-source software has existed for years, and yet consumers have historically opted to buy closed-source products over free, open source ones (e.g: the iPad, and the variant of OSX that runs on it).

But that doesn’t make sense. Software isn’t exactly the kind of content we’re talking about – people don’t need a book or a game or a song the same way they need Microsoft Office. And I suspect open-source software isn’t as widely adopted simply because its creators (i.e.: bored geeks) don’t spend enough time optimizing for non-geek users. So this is one argument that’s fairly easy to discredit.

But then where does this leave us? It leaves me with my original discomfort, certainly. It is true lately that content is a bad business to be in, and whatever business models there are that are working are vastly different from merely ‘selling’ content. iTunes works, but then they’re not really a store – some have described it as a tollbooth; a gateway that charges you at a rate below your threshold of attention. And even if that were not true, iTunes still sells its albums at a price-point lower than albums were sold pre-Internet. If we extrapolate this, we’d probably have to accept Adams’s theory as the logical end-point for the value of content.

I’m still not sure if he’s right, because the argument sounds a little odd to me. And I can’t figure that out. It’s simple, but is it too simplistic? I’d like your help here. What do you think?

PS: Sorry for the lack of updates. I’ve been spending the last three weeks programming (and all the learning that goes with that) for Pandamian. This post is my way of easing out of code and into the text editor – updates are forthcoming, I assure you.

Tuesday, 21 July, 2009

Making Money From Online Fiction – I’ve Done It, So Can You

Nobody in the online fiction sphere has experimented with business models as much as MCM has. Originally the creator of childrens’ TV series RollBots, he writes (and sometimes illustrates) books for kids like TorrentBoy and The Pig and the Box. His latest work/experiment is an adult novel called The Vector, which runs on a format he calls ‘Serial+’ (continue reading, he’ll explain). Here he talks about how he’s experimented with the medium, and what you can learn from that experience.

Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Also, some are mentally unstable, and actively seek out disaster. That, in a nutshell, is me and publishing.

I’ve been writing fiction online for over three years now, and I’ve tried countless publishing business models, with some great successes and horrible failures. I endeavour to be the guinea pig for authors everywhere, testing the theories others are too scared to try. It takes a lot of patience, but it’s very rewarding. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned…

Find Your Niche

This is fairly obvious, but I think it’s greatly overlooked. Possibly the most important thing you can do when starting a project is to know who your audience is, and what they’re looking for. Taken to an extreme, this could be called pandering, but that’s not what you’re trying to do. You know that expression that goes “you can’t break the rules until you know what they are”? Same idea. You can’t push the boundaries of a sub-genre unless you know which sub-genre you’re writing.

But it’s more than substance. Certain niches don’t work in certain media, and can spell disaster for your release plans. One of my series, The SteamDuck Chronicles, sold in amazing volume in e-book format, but bombed badly in print. If I’d taken the time to really understand how my niche audience worked, I would have known they weren’t interested in paper, and saved myself some money. Ignoring that tiny bit of research meant my first 30 sales went to offsetting the Print on Demand set-up costs. You don’t want to do that to yourself.

Free Works

One of my most popular titles is “TorrentBoy: Zombie World!”. It’s available in print and e-book, and just like all my other projects, it’s completely free. You can read from start to finish on my website without any obstacles, and over 250,000 people have already done so. Obviously, I’m losing lots of money on it, right? Wrong.

In the three months since it was released, TorrentBoy has earned over $9,700 in profit, almost entirely from donations. In fact, even though 99.8% of my readers don’t pay a thing for the experience, the ones that do are spending more than I would have earned from royalties under any conventional model. And the only reason they donate is because they can see the whole picture. You can’t count the non-payers as lost income, because in all likelihood, they wouldn’t pay anyway. Worse yet, if you obsess on them too much, you’re going to scare away your true customers. They’re an endangered species, and you can’t afford to mess around with their generosity.

Focus Efforts

When you’re building your website, it’s easy succumb to what developers call “feature creep.” Every new widget or feature or side-issue that you come across gets squeezed into your page design, often at the expense of the content itself. You have to make sure nothing is distracting from the text. Hosting may be expensive, and ads may pave the way to stability, but if you overload the reader’s senses when they’re trying to browse, you’re losing business.

To help test these theories, I created a special Reader site, which lets you read any of my books in whatever languages they’re available in. The design removes everything but the content from immediate view, with chapter navigation and title information one click away. Since the switch, my “rate of completion” (how many people actually finish the book) has jumped from around 40% to 98%, and both donations and sales are up (230% and 180% respectively). As a trial, I create a parallel version of the site, adding a right-hand column with navigation and tombstone information, and made it display for a random subset of visitors. The result? Smaller gains over the traditional model: 10% for donations and 0.3% for sales. The fewer distractions, the better off you’ll be.

Streamline Donations

I’ve tried PayPal buttons in various places around my sites, and this is what I know: a link in the right sidebar gets clicked 0.21% of the time. The same button in the left sidebar gets clicked 0.01% of the time. The link can be “below the fold” (not visible when the page first loads), but too far down and your click rate drops to zero. Putting the link inline almost never works (0.002%), and at the start of the text, it’s utterly useless (0%). Placing a link at the bottom of a chapter or page often works, but you need to be careful that the reader feels a sense of closure when they see that link. Cliffhangers and wrap-ups work nicely (1.1%), but if you’re just arbitrarily cutting the text mid-stream, those links never get clicked. And sometimes you get hate mail.

Another thing to consider is not using the PayPal icons at all. If you create your own button, or apply the “email link” code to plain text, those tend to outperform the branded icons 2:1. Again, don’t overwhelm readers with too many options in too many places. My Reader site places a “thanks!” page at the end of each book, with several donation options to choose from. Since it went live, donations have increased to almost 3% across the board. It’s simple, inoffensive, but blunt, and it does far better business than overcrowding ever did.

Consider a Serial, or Serial+

Serializing a novel is a great way to build brand loyalty (where the brand is you). It’s largely psychological, but I’ve found that readers who come back to you regularly for two or three months will tend to convert from “casual observer” to something approaching “fan”. But the interesting thing is, they don’t need to be coming back for new stuff, just more of the same. Serializing creates an artificial need to return to your site, thereby boosting your fan levels. For my serialized novel Fission Chips, I’ve seen a great shift in the profile of my readership over the last month and a half. Of my 10,000+ readers, 814 are now in the category I’d call “dedicated fans”, visiting not just that site, but reading my other titles as well. After the first two weeks, that number was only 12.

Another variation on this theme is what I call Serial+. In it, you release your book on a schedule (new chapters every Monday and Wednesday, for example), but put a footnote after the latest chapter informing the readers that at this rate, it will take them until some distant date to finish the story. If they want to skip ahead, they can donate a reasonable sum, and get the full story unlocked right away. In early testing, this model has an astounding conversion rate of 72%. If your writing is compelling, people will probably “upgrade” when they can’t take waiting anymore.

Be Nimble

The biggest handicap for major publishing companies is their inability to react to subtle shifts in the marketplace. Strangely, most indie authors actively emulate this mindset, even when they have no reason to. Never get stuck in one mode for too long. If you’re seeing resistance to a certain approach, look at ways to change. You’re writing fiction online here: tradition already says you’re the scum of the Earth. Don’t feel beholden to it for any reason. Do what needs to be done, and be prepared to shift your weight when the time comes.

MCM writes at, and he’s also heavily invested in the future of online fiction. See a full collection of his works here.

Monday, 13 July, 2009

Why Free Isn’t Free – Or At Least, Not Really

Chris Anderson announced two days ago that his new book, Free, would be released free to the unwashed masses, beginning with an upload to the online document site Scribd. When I first linked to it two days ago the Scribd site worked fine and I was able to read it all the way through to page 23 on the site’s online reader. That experience is no longer possible. As of yesterday Free is no longer free for all: it is currently available in the US and to US citizens only; other people, like me, from countries outside the US will have to make-do with a most unwelcoming Free page from Scribd:

Free, by Chris Anderson, on Scribd

I don’t like this, of course, though I don’t think Anderson’s got any say in the matter: he blogged recently to confess that he’s limited by the way global book-rights work, and that there’s nothing he can do about it at the moment. Here’s a thought, though: why not publish the digital versions of Free under a Creative Commons license, distribute that through as many publisher-sanctioned channels as possible, and then reap the benefits this liberalization would bring to both him and his publisher? I cannot answer that question, nor can I profess to know the minds of the publishing people behind Hyperion … but it’s worked for several books published by (now defunct) The Friday Project, and I’m sure it can work for Free.

But … Why Publisher Sanctioned?

Notice that I suggested publisher sanctioned channels of distribution, and not JUST channels of distribution. This slight distinction brings us to the topic of today’s post, which is, namely: if you make something free, and you allow users access to downloaded copies of your work, should you encourage file sharing between users and prospective new readers? Should you mind, even if you’re not in this for the money?

The short answer to that is yes, you should; but the long answer is no, you shouldn’t. And I think it’s pretty obvious, what I’m going to tell you today, but the right answer to the above question also depends on why you’re writing and publishing on the Internet. Let’s begin with the basics: the first thing that springs to mind when we’re talking about file sharing is piracy, and recently Gavin Williams and John/RavenProject had a discussion on Novelr about whether sharing an already free file was considered piracy.

I didn’t have a good answer back then, but I do have one now – and the answer is yes. Let’s face it: why are things free on the Internet? Things are free on the Internet because people expect things to be free, and because they expect things to be free you get more eyeballs whenever you meet this expectation. This is a remarkably old economic truth, to be honest: people are attracted to free things regardless of whether you’re talking about baubles or condoms, and free things on the Internet are, quite frankly, irresistible. (I’ve lost track of the number of ebooks I’ve downloaded as a direct result of the writer making it a limited-time offer, so go figure).

But the thing about offering free products is that you’re not really expecting zero returns. Free downloads earn you human attention, and human attention is the real currency of the Internet. You may not consider it particularly valuable, nor may you consider it particularly helpful when the landlord comes knocking for the rent, but publishers and independent content producers would do well to sit up and take notice of this untapped resource – human attention usually leads to community, and community in turn leads to a captive audience … always a good thing to have on hand if and when you finally decide to monetize your online efforts.

If you’re a one-man show it would make sense to distribute things for free and remain ambivalent to torrenting/filesharing amongst your users. You will, after all, gain hopeful readers. But if you’re a publisher, or if you’re in this for the long-run – serious no shit I want to make money kinda long run – then controlling your free distribution matters as much as making your products free in the first place. File sharing builds no community. Stay away from it.

Saturday, 23 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.

Tuesday, 19 May, 2009

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.

Friday, 1 May, 2009

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.