What Writing Online is Good For, October 2005 Edition

This line in this entry over at TechRepublic Site made me twitch a little:

Apparently, the trendy new way to get noticed by book publishers is to serialize your novel online and let the editors find you.

Well, okay, if one defines "trend" as this maneuver working for three speculative fiction authors over three years (actually two-and-a-half, as one of the authors noted was an odd-duck combination, in that portions of her novel were spotted online, and the physical manuscript of her novel was also rescued from the slush pile). Meanwhile, probably more than a thousand books were sold in the spec fic arena in the same timespan by the traditional method of submitting work for editorial consideration. If you’re an aspiring first-time author, I would, you know, look at at the odds involved before making a decision.

The author of the linked article does thankfully note the long odds involved:

every one of the authors discourages people from relying on the tactic as a way to get discovered (sound advice, by my analysis), but do recommend it as a way of getting your writing before an audience and working the kinks out.

To be entirely honest about it, however, if you are going to take the time and effort to put your writing online, I think it’s far less useful to put your fiction online than it is to spend some time creating an interesting blog and cultivating an audience for it. This is not an "either/or" situation, of course, as I have done both. But I will say that one of these you should do first, and that’s to work on your blog.

The reason why should be reasonably obvious if you look at your blog in strict marketing terms (which you shouldn’t do in real life, because no one likes reading a site that is obviously tacked up for marketing purposes. I’ll get to that later). Blogs are fabulous marketing tools because what they’re good for is getting people involved with you as a writer; they’re tuning in to read what’s going on in your head and in your life, and to a very real extent are sharing your life with you. They commiserate when you suffer a setback, and congratulate when you get ahead, and otherwise view you as part of their circle of acquaintances — not just some writer, but someone they know and (provided you have comments and/or answer e-mail) interact with. In other words, at some point some percentage of them stop being merely readers and become fans.

Fans — and again, we’re talking in strict marketing terms — are useful. They’re useful because they’re likely to be proactive not only in buying any non-blog-related writing output you might create, but because they’ll also help you sell your work to others, just like fans of other creative people help those folks as well. They (probably) won’t be able to help you sell a book to a publisher, but once you sell the book, they can be there to help give the book a decent send-off. That in turn will be useful to your publisher.

Indeed, I think as more time goes on, more and more publishers will be looking at first-time authors and asking what sort of "fandom" they already have. If I were an editor and I was presented with two first-time authors, one of whom was not online, and another who was and had a couple thousand people visiting their blog on a daily basis, all other things being equal, I’d go with the writer who is already online. That’s a couple thousand people I don’t have to introduce this writer to, and possibly a couple thousand people who can help me sell that writer as an author. First-time author unit sales are usually low enough that a couple thousand blog readers can make a real and significant impact to a first time author’s sell numbers. 

I don’t expect such considerations will trump competent writing — given the choice between an exquisitely-written novel by a nobody and a crap novel by someone with a popular blog, I would hope an editor and publisher would decide the exquisitely-writing author was worth cultivating. But when the two writers are of equal competence, why wouldn’t an editor go for the one that brings readers to the party? I certainly know the relatively large readership of the Whatever is a selling point in my publishers’ eyes.

Having said all that, I think it’s also true that the moment you start treating your site readership like monkeys to be marketed to, you run the very real risk of losing them. I think one’s readers are happy to celebrate one’s achievements, but they know the difference between you celebrating with them, and you marketing to them. Not every reader wants to be treated as a consumer, and this is even more of the case in the online world. If you’re a writer and you’ve spent the time cultivating a relationship with people (and they with you), they’re going to feel betrayed if the tone of your site devolves purely to "and here’s another thing of mine to buy!" I don’t think people mind when an author says such things — authors write books with the hopes of selling them, and most people get that — as long as it’s not the only thing an author says. Such things need to be part of the conversational and narrative flow of a blog or journal, not a disjointed break from it.

To hammer this point one final time: Yes, a blog is a great way to market yourself. And the minute you think of your blog primarily in marketing terms is the minute you kill its usefulness. People aren’t coming to your site to be marketed to; they’re coming to be entertained and to catch up with you. Be real, or you’re going to lose them.

Now, if you do want to post creative work online, I strongly suspect it helps to have already been engaged in the online world in other means. I posted Old Man’s War on the Whatever after I’d been online for more than four years; by that time I had a couple thousand people a day coming by to see what I was up to. The reaction to OMW was stronger and more immediate than the reaction to Agent to the Stars, which I posted in March of 1999, when I only had a couple hundred people visiting every day (see what I mean about it taking time to cultivate an audience?). No matter how you slice it, if you want whatever fiction you post online to be appreciated and noticed, you need to develop an online presence first.

If you don’t want to bother generating an online presence before posting creative work online, here are some of the problems you can expect: Posting creative writing out of the blue just means you have this big mass of verbiage online; no one knows its provenance, which means they’re less willing to take the time with it, because, after all, who are you? Creative writing is also more difficult to produce on a constant basis (particularly if you’re aiming for quality), meaning that you can’t update on a daily or near-daily basis, which is the most desirable frequency for writing online. Finally, creative writing is something akin to a performance, while blog writing is closer to a conversation. By and large I’ve found people want to talk back when they’re reading online.  Upshot here: If you expect simply posting creative stuff online is going to open doors, you’re probably delusional. It takes time — lots of time.

The good news is that it’s now easier to develop an online presence than it was before. There are more options to do it simply,and  the communities are significantly more developed (particularly in places like LiveJournal and AOL Journals (nb: I work for the latter)). There are also indeed a number of editors and agents online, particularly those focused in genre like SF/F, Horror and Romance, so it’s not entirely inconceivable that you might get to know them and they might see your writing. You might even be asked to send in some writing, even if you haven’t put your fiction online (ask Jo Walton about that). But the real advantage will be that people get to know you, and get to like what you have to say. And that might have useful carryover into the rest of your writing life.

Can you plan on it? No. But you can work with it, if it does happen. And in the meantime, you might just simply enjoy writing online, which is a reward in itself.