Nitpickery on a Non-Trivial Scale
Over at Tor.com, Jason Henninger interviews Fantasy & Science Fiction editor Gordon Van Gelder about the state of the science fiction market, and my name gets invoked (along with that of Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow) as being one of the “big three” science fiction authors who have figured out how to make this whole Internet thing work for them. This is fine, but Gordon makes a couple of comments that I have quibbles with.
A lot of people try to duplicate what the big three have done and it hasn’t worked, but nobody hears about the cases where it hasn’t worked. A lot of other people have tried to give away their work online and no one’s come and taken it. I know of a case where a publisher made an author’s work available for free online, his first novel. They gave it away as a Scalzi-esque promotion. As I understand it the novel sold less than a thousand copies. It didn’t do anyone any good to give it away. It’s easy to look at Scalzi’s success and say it’s so great to do online marketing but you don’t hear of the author I just mentioned.
I think Gordon (and other people, including many a hopeful author) forgets that when I first posted both Agent to the Stars and Old Man’s War on my personal site, there was no master marketing plan; I put them up because that’s where I intended them to live. I wasn’t attempting to sell them, and that they did sell really had rather more to the initiative of others than of me.
Now, my publisher Tor eventually got around to a limited-time release of OMW as a free eBook, but this was after it’d been nominated for a Hugo and had been a bestseller, and after I had won a Campbell and I had become a known quantity in the SF lit sphere — and after I had three other novels out there that people could then buy. Releasing OMW electronically hasn’t hurt its sales in the least — there hasn’t been a week since the OMW eBook giveaway where the sales of the book have been less than the week prior to the giveaway, according to BookScan — but the release happened when the book was, shall we say, a mature item in the market.
Of the “big three” of Internet presence that Gordon posits, it’s actually Cory and Charlie who have released free electronic editions of their work in conjunction with the physical book release; so properly, a similar tactic is more accurately described as “Doctorow-like” or “Stross-esque.” But even in those cases it’s worth noting that Cory and Charlie were known quantities before their free eBooks — Cory was a Campbell winner and already had a huge online presence before Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and his subsequent works; likewise Charlie had been a multiple Hugo nominee (and a Hugo winner) before Accelerando got its free eBook treatment.
Which is to say that in all cases that the “big three” released a eBook in conjunction with their publishers, each of us already had established ourselves in the market, in sales and/or critical acclaim and/or by generating — over a considerable amount of time in each case — our audiences through our online presences. Certainly there was some amount of risk in putting our work out there for free, but that risk was substantially buffered by other factors.
All of which is why I’m vaguely put off by the idea that a publisher tossing an unknown writer out there for free and expecting sales out of it is something people perceive as “Scalzi-esque.” Because you know what? I wouldn’t do that. It’s one thing for me to put my novels out there on my personal site because I was lazy and had no intent to sell them to publishers, or for a publisher to leverage my existing notoriety through a giveaway. It’s quite another, in my opinion, for a publisher to replace genuine marketing of a debut novel with just chucking its text out there and expecting the ‘net to seize up with joy and sales. That’s the “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” sort of marketing, of which I don’t approve. If you’re going to play with the Internet this way, you have to build an audience first. That’s one reason you have publishers to begin with: They’re supposed to have the resources to at least help do that.
You also have to remember that the big three aren’t really out to do publishers any good; they’re in it for themselves. Most writers are, of course.
Yes, being in it for myself is why I run The Big Idea here (and am soon to spin it off onto its own dedicated site), why I worked really hard to get as many of the Hugo nominees as I could this year into a big fat Hugo Voters Packet, and fairly regularly pimp new books by other writers here and also encourage people to use my site to talk about their latest work (and the works of people who they admire) in the “open pimp” threads. Letting authors talk about their new books in one of the highest trafficked blogs in science fiction, and letting other folks recommend books and stories they love here, certainly does not one damn bit of good to publishers. And fact, I’m sure it does terrible things to their bottom lines. Because I’m a selfish, horrible person, you see.
In a larger sense, one of the nice things about the science fiction genre is that many if not most of the authors do understand that supporting each other is a way of also supporting one’s self — that helping introduce readers to other writers expands the market and accrues good karma toward one’s self. It’s also a manifestation of a concept popularized in science fiction, of “paying it forward” — doing good things for other writers and fans in the hope that when they are in a position of doing good things for still other writers and fans, they will remember your example and do unto others as you did onto them. It’s why I do what I do, and almost certainly why Charlie and Cory do it too.
To be clear, Gordon is very narrowly correct when he says we’re in it for ourselves; we do have spouses and children/pets and nearly debilitating addictions to shiny, shiny tech. We are certainly looking toward the health of our own careers. In a wider sense, however, he’s almost embarrassingly wrong. I want science fiction publishing to succeed, not just because I work in it, but because I have friends who work in it, both as writers and at the publishing houses, and because I am also a big fat fan of the genre (and I have the Hugo to prove it). I’m not the only writer, I suspect, who feels the same way. As noted, that’s one of the genuinely excellent things about this genre.
I got into an argument with John about a year ago. He posted a story on tor.com and within a day was boasting—I think it’s fair to call it boasting—that his story had gotten more hits in a week on tor.com than Asimov, Analog and F&SF’s combined circulations. The number was like forty-two thousand. Maybe he wasn’t boasting. Maybe he was just saying, gosh, look at this number, but it seemed to me there was an element of bragging to it. I looked into it more closely and saw some of the comments on John’s thread, and some people were saying, “Well, I’m five of those hits because I couldn’t figure out how to download it and so I had to keep coming back.” I pointed out that John was treating each magazine sold as the equivalent of one hit, which is not how it works. There are many differences between having forty-two thousand hits and forty-two thousand sales. One of the big differences is that word “sale”. I said to John, there’s a big difference between paying customers and free previews, and John said, “Eyes are eyes.” Meaning, he doesn’t care so long as people are reading his stuff and he gets paid. Perfectly sensible from his point of view, but not from a publishers point of view. I could easily give away forty-two thousand copies of F&SF and lose quite a bit of money at it, and wouldn’t continue to publish for long.
Gordon was going from memory here, I suspect, and so misremembered some of the particulars. Here’s the article I wrote, which he is discussing here. Whether I am bragging or not is going to be a matter of personal interpretation, although on my end of things I’ll just say the reason I noted it was because people asked about it (I’ll also note I didn’t exactly just post a story there; the story was solicited and I got paid quite well for it, and it went up on Tor.com’s schedule, not mine). That said, isn’t it a good thing for me that the piece got as many visits in two weeks as the combined yearly circulation of all three of the major US science fiction magazines? I think so. It’s got even more visits since then — and hey, if I put in another link to it right now, it might get even more.
Moreover, I’m not 100% impressed with Gordon’s logic regarding how giving away 42,000 copies if F&SF would be the financial ruin of the magazine. As it stands now, it almost certainly would be, but that’s because the magazine’s in an ill-advised format for advertising and appears from the outside to rely significantly on its subscription base for revenues. But it’s entirely possible that, in a format that was actually ad-friendly (and with an ad sales staff that knew how to work it) F&SF could give away copies and make revenue in other ways, primarily through ads. Editor Nick Mamatas, in a comment on the interview that takes a look at print magazines, ad revenues and free content, makes this point rather cogently:
many magazines DO give away physical print copies: tons of trade magazines do this (try working in certain fields and getting the trades to STOP sending you their stuff) as do community newspapers, lifestyle magazines with a regional focus, alternative news weeklies, etc. These periodicals are for-profit and even in these days of flat ad revenues and Craigslist, are doing much better than print SF magazines by virtually any metric (profit, circulation, aesthetic appearance, size of paid staff, rates to freelancers) anyone might care to name.
The problem I have with print people blaming the Internet for their troubles is that blaming the Internet allows them to ignore — and indeed, actively avoid — taking responsibility for their own acts that have contributed and are contributing to their current bad times. This happens with all print media, but SF is really hot on it. And it’s bunk. Long before the Internet could have been an active threat, subscriber numbers at the science fiction magazines were dropping. If the Internet is a dire threat to them now, it’s in no small part because they made themselves sick enough to be picked off by one major threat or another, and it just happens it will be the Internet that will deliver the coup de grace (in fact it’s rather more likely it’ll be problems with magazine distributors, but hey, why not blame the Internets anyway?).
I’ve no doubt Gordon will note that his real world issues as a publisher are more complicated than I’ve made them out to be here, and I’ll grant this is almost certainly correct. But at the end of the day SF magazines are where they are today not just because of the Internet but because a series of choices their publishers made, reaching back decades, some of which do involve the Internet but many more of which do not.
Gordon’s correct that my issues as a writer are not his issues as a publisher, but the flip side of this is that his issues as a publisher do not oblige me as a writer to gravely nod with concern about his problems as a publisher if better markets for my work exist. Where I care or not about his issues is to a non-trivial extent immaterial, when it comes to the question of what is the best market for my work. Why did I write a story for Tor.com? Contrary to Gordon’s opinion, it wasn’t because of some grand synergy between the web site and Tor Books to leverage a story into book sales or whatever; it was because they asked me to write a story, paid me a multiple of what I’d get for the story in most other SF markets (including his), and allowed me to submit my story electronically. This is also why I write short fiction for Subterranean Press, both for their online site and as limited edition printed works. Hell, solicit a story, pay me decently and let me send my story as an .rtf file, and maybe I’ll write for you, too. I’m easy that way.
What do we learn in all of this? Basically that the Internet is neither an easy path to riches nor the cause of everything that’s wrong with publishing today, and that I apparently get annoyed when I feel my positions are poorly represented by one of science fiction’s major editors.