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.

37 Comments on “The Value of (Long) Fiction Online”

  1. Let me anticipate an argument by noting this caveat: I think that short fiction online is different than long fiction online. In particular, I think being published at one of the established online SF fiction markets (Strange Horizons, for example) is likely to be a benefit for one’s reputation as a writer.

  2. For what it’s worth, I downloaded and read OMW during the two weeks that it was online, after Patrick Nielsen Hayden linked to it, and I later bought the hardback edition, which I would have been unlikely to do with a new author had I not already read the electronic version. So you can count me in as one sale that you made due to having it online.

  3. Oh, sure — I definitely sold a few that way (and I’m glad you liked it!).

  4. Wow! This is fascinating to me aas I am wondering if I should put my short stories online for the world to see and hope some big fish takes it up for publishing.

    Um, John, could you briefly answer the question of copywwriting here? I.e. ddid you do the ol’ Library of Congress route of Creatiivr Commons? If this is not the forum for myu quesiton to be answered, I understand.

  5. I don’t do Creative Commons. I have no objection to it, I just don’t feel it’s necessary.

  6. Ok. Well, since you answered, then why? I am personally paranoid about my stuff winding up in someone else’s book. Yeah, it’s that good!

  7. I address the topic here.

    This is a good time to note that the search engine here works swimmingly. If you wonder what I think about a topic, it’s a good place to check if I’ve written about it before.

  8. Sweet! Okay, no more pestering you then. For now.

    And it’s nice how you wrote that article for my mom’s birthday. She’d like that.

  9. No worries.

    Incidentally, I’d note that what I write there — about how having the fiction online has helped sales — might seem to contradict what I write here. I don’t think it does. I think having Agent online has helped sales of my work, since people who think they might be interested in my novels are going to be interested in a free sample thereof (I think Agent is a fine promotional item for my other novels, which are not online, to be sure). Be that as it may, one of the primary reasons people give the long-form writing a chance at all is because of the other writing on the site.

  10. Well, I know for a fact — from emails received — that having AGENT online for free sold a number of copies for us. It’s an avenue — via a serialized novella by Cherie Priest — that we’re going to explore a bit further this fall.

    Bill Schafer

  11. Bill Schafer:

    “Well, I know for a fact — from emails received — that having AGENT online for free sold a number of copies for us.”

    Yup. I don’t dispute that having the text online does sell copies. I wonder how many as a proportion of total sales, however.

  12. Thanks for the link back to my blog, John! It is an endlessly fascinating topic. In addition to the specific entry in my blog you linked to, in which the conversation with Evo Terra began, the conversation continues on my blog in two other entries: this one and then this one. Enjoy.

  13. I hauled a copy to the pub so I could read while waiting for my friends to show up. Sold a few copies over beers and bourbon.

  14. I agree. An unknown writer is deluded if they think a few chapters on their website is going to generate readership. First, nobody will know it’s there, and second, if the writer spams mailing lists and blogs with urls, everyone will assume it’s another deluded unknown writer trying to generate readership.
    To me, the overriding response from jaded web citizens seems to be ‘You get it published, and then we might look at it … if we happen to see it in the shops and once we’ve read everything else from authors we actually trust.’

  15. Well, my self-published novel has been up on the web since early April 2006, and the world is NOT beating a path to my door. The days of “put it on the web and they’ll find it” are over (and have been since about 1999).

    However, if you DO get somebody interested in your stuff, allowing them to read it for free can convert people from tire-kickers to purchasers.

  16. Hey John,
    I just thought I’d realte what brought me to your work. Orson Scott Card’s Intergalacatic Medicine Show (http:// ) The book reviewer reviewed Agent in his column. I said “Humm…free book, I’m at work, I’m burned out on this project right now, sounds interesting”. I read Agent then discovered the Whatever, realized you had more works, had to drive my wife to a Test (to become a school teacher) and wait for her, ended up a B&N…found OMW on the shelf had it half read before I had to go get the wife, decided I should probably buy it.

    I’m not sure how it fits into the conversation in this article, however perhaps its a datapoint.

  17. Well pointed, Mr. Scalzi. I’m the idiot whom you “noted before” and soundly eviscerated in 2005, disabusing me of the notion of publishing my writing online. I have in the interim followed your advice, and worked on making my primary blog a more interesting place for people to visit and get to know me better.

    I do not, as yet, having a fiction writing career to speak of, but it’s been a learning experience nonetheless, and it certainly hasn’t hurt my non-fiction column (though, in a pervserse way, my column does a great deal to promote my blog, rather than the reverse).

    I have, however, dumped some of my old fiction work online–mostly because my blog readers asked to see it. I maintain a separate Blogger account so I can use the Blogger/Word plugin to archive documents online (sort of like a virtual drive, via Google), and the really horrible early work I have no intention of ever publishing…well, I flipped that to a Web published view just so people would quit bugging me. For what it’s worth, I haven’t gotten any useful feedback from the effort (though I wasn’t really trying to), and I wouldn’t expect to get any serious criticism–constructive or otherwise–by posting online. The unwashed masses are patently uncooperative that way. I get *much* more mileage out of my local writers group.

    In sum: You were right, I was wrong. Between this and the guerilla marketing apology, well, I guess this is your day for ego affirmation. Enjoy.

  18. I’ve been talking about this with my friend Jason Stoddard for a while: what’s the future like for genre writers? On the one hand, you’ve got new mags like the Medicine Show popping up; on the other, mags like Talebones have to struggle to keep afloat. SciFiction closed despite its Hugos and readership. And more and more people are going online to get their entertainment.

    I think Simon Haynes and Chris Gerrib are right that just putting your story online in order to find an audience isn’t going to work; the web’s too damn big, and mass email will only backfire.

    But the thing about genre fiction is that you’ve got a hungry audience that loves to share new stuff. Their interests are focused to the point of obsession. That’s the kind of stuff that work to a writer’s advantage if he a) has a good story and b) markets it in a smart way.

    And I think John’s point of building a kick-ass website is a key part of this, because that website provides conversation, the one thing the tv doesn’t give. And it’s not necessarily conversation with the site’s owner (though I think it’s pretty cool that John comments here); as long as you’ve got an interested, intelligent audience (and someway to weed out the spambots and trolls), people are going to come back and talk with each other.

    So, what does a writer do today? He writes, he submits, he either gets published (huzzah!) or he amasses rejection slips. Then what? I think that if you’ve got a work that keeps getting the “this is good, but not for us” kind of rejections and crosses a threshold of rejections, then put the damn thing online. Make a section of your website (which you, the forward-thinking, ever-marketing writer will have whipped up and maintained) devoted to stories that haven’t found a home, put that sucker up there, make it easy for people to pass it around, and add a few strips of ads.

    I think that last step might turn off a lot of people, but isn’t a magazine publisher doing the same thing? The publisher of Astounding Space Monkey Tales! bought your story because she thinks it’ll sell enough copies to justify her ad rates. And you might not pull in ASMT! levels of readers, but your story will never go out of print, will never be hard to find, and will always be pulling in a little bit of cash. I think, in the longer term, that’s going to be a good thing for a writerly career.

    On preview: of course, I could be completely full of crap.

  19. Jay Garmon:

    “Well pointed, Mr. Scalzi. I’m the idiot whom you ‘noted before’ and soundly eviscerated in 2005…”

    Hmmmm. Well, I don’t recall saying you were an idiot, and it wasn’t my desire to eviscerate you, merely to point out some things I thought needed to be pointed out. So if you felt it was particularly directed toward you in a negative way, I do apologize.

  20. No apology necessary. Just the tender slap of wisened sage-dom. Heck, I bragged about getting disabused by a really real writer in my very next blog post. (God, I’m such a fanboy.)

  21. “…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…”

    What about all the books at Baen including the free library?

  22. Thanks for the link to the conversation on my site and Rob’s, John. More importantly, thanks for you insights “from the trenches” as it were. I especially enjoyed your comments about reputation. Very, very true.

  23. Joel Tone:

    Baen? Oh, well, they don’t count.


    Excellent point, Joel. And more to the point, Baen’s program is making money in itself as well as (so says Baen, and I don’t doubt it) working to the advantage of its backlist.

  24. I would agree with much of what has been said – a brand spanking new author probably does not benefit from posting work online. However, one who has columns or blogs published in other places might prompt me to google them and see if online novels or such exist.

    If you care to know (and even if you do not), I got my copy of OMW after reading Whatever for a few weeks, and I was pointed towards Whatever after buying OPM just for John’s DVD reviews. Also, it didn’t hurt that he is a fellow graduate of U of C.

  25. Funnily enough, I just did an interview with Cory for the CBA. Some hard numbers.

    His first novel, DOWN AND OUT:
    – had 6 printings in hardcover
    – has sold more than 50 000 copies trade paper so far (and continues to sell briskly)
    – was downloaded more than 650 000 times from his site.

    He pointed out that he gave blanket permission for people to post it wherever, and has no way of measuring how many downloads/reads may have occured on other sites.

    ‘Course, it also pays to remember that he’s Cory Doctorow. BoingBoing has a mighty reach.

  26. Chris, did you and Cory talk about how the free downloads helped his other books? It’d be interesting to see if Down and Out did so well because of the novelty of downloading or it’s been the start of a trend for his sales.

  27. re:Baen’s free library

    The biggest difference between Baen putting its backlist on the web, and an author self-publishing, is the whole editorial process.

    From selection through copy editing.

    My writing gig used to be tech writing. I have a nice pile of rejection slips for fiction. But I did learn enough selling non-fiction to find out how valuable editors are. What came out in print was definitely mine, but better, in measureable ways. Ways that I reviewed carefully, and attempted not to repeat. Although I would usually find new and creative mistakes to make.

    In any case, it’s always been my take that Baen putting their books online is closer to effective advertising than self publishing. I know I’ve bought more than one book that I first downloaded, and explored a few authors that I might have otherwise passed over.



    P.S. “FREE” – I’m pretty sure the free library has cost me about $200 this year, counting the authors or collections I might not have bought otherwise.

  28. I don’t know much, but I would say that what little you shared about yourself, made reading “Old Mans War” Much easier for me. I felt as though I connected, not just with the protagonist, but with the author.

    That doesn’t give me a piece of you, but make it easier to think of ME while I’m reading your novel. I don’t know how great serializing on the net is.

    I do, however; think that when an author shares a bit of themselves, no matter the medium, allows the reader to invest themselves into the written novel.

    Random example, the prelude for “speaker of the dead” kinda killed Orson Scott Carde for me. His goal was the CRAPPY follow-ups of Enders Game? Enders Game was an afterthought?

    Orson said that, but, “Speaker” and “children” SUCKED next to the shear brilliance of “Enders Game”

    Knowing what little that Orson shared, I’m less impressed by the following books (though Enders Game is still one of the Greatest Sci-Fi Books ever written) Yet, knowing as little as I know of you and your daughter, and your wife, I LOVE! OLD MANS WAR that much war. Every time John Perry says to “kathy” “I Love You” is THAT much more powerful, because I believe that you are telling your actual wife how much you love her, every time you have John Perry say “I Love You” to Kathy, or to Jane.

    Complete stream of conc, sorry.

  29. 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.

    That sounds right. I think the absence of a standard is problematic for would-be writers making their work available for free on the internet in another sense too: without a standard, there’s no mechanism by which different freely available works are aggregated into a corpus or library that readers can navigate, to select reading material.

    To illustrate what I mean, consider practically any fanfiction writing community, whether it’s Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or some flavour of anime. With almost all of these (well, to the extent I can tell — I don’t read fanfiction as much today as I did 10 years ago) there’s a coherent community organised in some way, such that a new reader can quickly find what fanfiction is considered the highest quality, and even get third party evaluations and reviews, so that not everything is the fan-author tooting his own horn. Like with blogs, certain authors emerge with a reputation for quality. And sub-genres proliferate and are categorised, so that someone searching for a humorous or a dramatic cross-over or an alternate-universe set after such and such an event can find exactly what he wants.

    I haven’t seen anything like that for long-form original fiction on the internet. I’ve tried to wade into it from time to time, over the past few years, but every time, I have been confronted with nothing but endless, unreadable dreck. I have been unable to find any resources to locate (free) original works that are genuinely entertaining.

    In the case of your (John Scalzi’s) free online work, I’d never have come across it if I hadn’t already seen your blog. I found Agent to the Stars a fun read. But I happened upon it entirely randomly, and probably wouldn’t have bothered to read it if I hadn’t already enjoyed your blog.

    In that sense, advice to make an interesting blog site probably helps in developing a kind of community, the way mailing lists or BBS’s have done for fanfiction. But for me as a reader, mailing lists, blogs, and BBS’s are largely beside the point — I just want to be able to go somewhere (maybe even just an aggregator), see what’s new, or what gem has been pulled out of the dim recesses of the internet, and give that a read. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. For free novels on the internet to attract enough readers to matter, I think there needs to be a lot more connectedness between the novelists than there is today. Maybe online magazines and serials could help. I don’t think they’re big enough, though.

    On the other hand, part of the problem for original fiction is probably that people who are good enough to publish professionally (and most people who aren’t) are also probably paranoid about having their ideas “stolen,” or spoiling their chances of publishing at all (first publication problems). So there may be an inherent reason all the fiction writing communities I’ve seen on the internet have tended towards insularity and password protection. I don’t know. But thinking back to my cheapskate high school self, I do have to say that it’s awfully frustrating.

    So really, I can imagine a world in which posting your early work online for free can help build your reputation and support an eventual transition to professional status. It’s just nothing like the situation with original fiction I’ve come across on the internet.

  30. I was expecting this post to look at another question than it did, which is does putting your writing online help you get published in the first place, rather than let you sell more books once you are published.

    Because if I’m not mistaken, that is what happened to you, has it not, with PNH discovering you that way?

  31. It did, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume it’s an effective method. In the four years since I sold OMW, the number of SF/F novels sold off blogs can still be counted on your fingers, while the number of SF/F novels sold the old-fashioned way is in the hundreds.

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