The Value of (Long) Fiction Online

Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer and science fiction commentator Evo Terra are having a rather lengthy discussion on their Web sites about whether e-books are really a way to get one’s self known as a science fiction author. This particular conversation began when Sawyer, who has his own book line in Canada, rejected a book from an author who had submitted a book, but then asked Sawyer to hurry making up his mind. Apparently the author had another offer on the table from a publish-on-demand publisher and interest from Web site which wanted to serialize the book. Sawyer passed on the book and futher noted that he believed the author was being foolish, because in his opinion neither PoD or Web serializing was likely to get this author any serious number of readers. Terra, who runs a site which serializes books as podcasts, disputed that serialization was not a useful way of getting one’s name out there. Sawyer followed up in the comments and in a couple of additional posts on his own Web site, in which he and Terra dug into the numbers of who was listening to what and what the numbers meant.

Along the way the discussion turned toward the more general topic of selling and promoting one’s writing online, and the names of myself and of Cory Doctorow were invoked, because Cory and I are arguably the best known examples in science fiction of people who have distributed texts online that have also been available in print (although I would argue that Charlie Stross deserves recognition in this arena as well). Sawyer argues, however, that Cory and I should be thrown out as data points in this discussion, because we are extreme outliers — and anyway, there are no hard public numbers for how Cory and I are selling, so it’s hard to discuss the topic in anything more than generalities.

Since my name was invoked, and since I have some thoughts on this topic, allow me to add my own commentary to this matter, some of which will echo what has been previously written by Misters Sawyer and Terra, and some of which will be new information.

To begin, everyone so far agrees that this unnamed author was a bit of a fool to try to rush Sawyer into making an editorial decision, and I agree with that. A first-time, unknown, unagented author really is in no position to push along the editorial process like that, especially when the manuscript has been at the editor’s desk for only three months; response times for unagented manuscripts at publishers are often a year and sometimes longer. And simultaneous submissions are generally a no-no as it is, so Sawyer was being nice to this guy to begin with.

As a writer, I certainly agree it sucks that the submission process takes so damn long — indeed, the lameness of the submission process in general was one of the major reasons I decided to serialize Old Man’s War online in the first place — but writers have to remember that the submission process is not for their benefit, it’s for the benefit of the editor. And anyway, if you’re annoying an editor at the submission stage, you’re not making an argument for yourself being easy to work with at any other stage. So, in sum: don’t piss off the editor.

Second, not only do I agree that Cory Doctorow and I are outliers, but we also exemplify one big problem with talking about the utility of putting writing online: there is no standard way of doing it, so relating the results to each other is not really meaningful. For example, Cory releases his novels online for free simultaneous to their release in bound format in the bookstore. In my case, I serialized my novel Old Man’s War online, but after it was sold, I took it down. It was only available online for about a month, and in its entirety for less than two weeks. Cory uses his text as a way to sell the physical manifestation of the novel; I put my novel online because I didn’t expect to sell it, and when I did, I took it offline. These are not equivalent methods; it’s not useful to suggest they are.

To go further on this, I’m skeptical you can make much of an argument that the text of OMW being online did much to sell the book to readers. There was a two-year gap between when the book sold and when it was published; during that time the readership of the my site more than tripled, and has tripled again since then. Which is to say the number of people who could have read the novel when it was online is a number less than 2,000, and the number who did read it was probably less; not everyone who visited my site probably read the whole thing. To date, Old Man’s War has sold about 20,000 copies (and we’ve yet to go to mass-market paperback, so the end number will — cross fingers, knock on wood — hopefully be a bit higher), so even if we assume that everyone who read my site in December of 2002 bought a copy (which would be a silly assumption), the vast majority of the people who have bought the book still simply could not have read it in online form.

What did sell OMW online? This site itself, for one, since I know anecdotally that many readers here who had not seen the novel online were curious to see if I could write one well. But the good reviews the novel got on sites like Instapundit and BoingBoing were critical too — and those reviews came via the physical copies of the book, not the online version. After this, word of mouth kicked in, online as well as offline. But again, all of that was based on the printed, published book, not the online version.

Now, the fact I sold the book after I serialized it online is a great story, and God knows I’ve used it enough in interviews and articles. It’s a grabber, something that sets the book apart from other books and gives reporters something for their lede. But again, the story of how I sold the book is different from having the actual text online.

A somewhat more useful set of data as to whether having the text online can help sell one’s book can be seen by looking at Agent to the Stars, which is available online, and was so simultaneous to the book being out in hardcover form. I also, from 1999 through 2004, had the book available as “shareware,” which is to say I let people know that if they liked it, they should send me a dollar. Now let’s look at some numbers.

Between ’99 and ’04 I received about $4,000 from folks who read Agent, which is as anyone will tell you, a nice and tidy sum for anything written online. Since I asked folks to send me $1 if they liked it, you might assume that means I got 4,000 readers to pony up. In fact, the average person sent in something like $3.70 (which is to say most people sent $5 or $1, and clearly more people sent $5 than $1; this number doesn’t count the guy who sent me $200, which still boggles my mind). So, more or less, about 1,080 folks forked over the dough. Over those five years, I estimate about 25,000 people looked at the Agent pages online or downloaded the text file. So we’re talking about about a 4-5% conversion rate for people looking to people paying.

I sold Agent to the Stars into a limited hardcover edition in early 2005 and it became available for pre-order in late February; it came out in August and officially sold out its 1,500-copy print run in January 2006 (although Amazon claims it can still get it for you, if you’re willing to wait 4-6 weeks). Between January 2005 and this moment, the Agent page on this site was visited about 60,000 times, so you could say there was a 2.5% reader-to-buyer conversion rate there, if you believe that the only way people found out about the book was through the Agent pages of this site…

… which would be silly. For one thing, I got Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade to do the cover of the book, not only because I knew he’d make a cool cover but because I knew PA fans would be interested in the book just because Mike did the cover, and I’m not too proud to bask in a little reflected PA glory. For another thing, people who had read Old Man’s War and liked it hit Amazon or SF speciality sites to see what else I’d written and picked up Agent that way. For yet another thing, Subterranean Press, the book’s publisher, promoted the book via its site and mailing list. And of course I chatted it up here on the Whatever. It’s fair to suggest that some of the Agent copies were sold by having the text online, but most? I have my reservations.

(Did having Agent online for three years before I sold Old Man’s War do anything for my profile as an SF writer? In a word: No. When OMW sold, the vast majority of SF fandom and SF publishing hadn’t the slightest clue who I was, and those who did, knew me as a blogger. Which dovetails into the next point:)

Third, as I’ve noted before, given the choice between placing or serializing one’s work online, and creating a kickass blog/Web site that draws people in and has them returning on a repeat basis, I think it’s much smarter to build that kickass Web site. No one would have read either Agent or Old Man’s War if I had simply put them up cold; the people who read them when they were online (and before I became known for any other sort of writing) were the people who were already reading me because of my site. They already knew they liked my writing. Overall, I feel very confident in saying that it is the blog writing, not the fiction writing, that draws people here. This is changing somewhat as I become better known as a novelist (people read the books and then come here), but even so, if all I had here was fiction, I can pretty much guarantee you that the number of people who visit here regularly would be a small fraction of what the site gets now. If you want to get your name out online, focus on regular, interesting slice-of-life writing, not fiction.

Having said all of the above, I do wonder what would happen now if I offered up a novel or novella as shareware, a la what I originally did for Agent. Part of me thinks I could do pretty well with it financially (because instead of being an anonymous schmoe with a blog, I’m a Hugo and Campbell nominated schmoe with a blog), and part of me thinks it would be a bust (because, after all, what does a Hugo and Campbell nominee need with money? He’s rolling in it, right? Ah, if only they knew). Either way, however, whatever attention the novel/novella would get would be based on my existing notoriety, both as a blogger and as an SF writer.

And this is the real take home point, boys and girls: Online, your fiction writing doesn’t increase your reputation; it relies on the reputation you already have.