Questions for Orbit, Re: Its New Digital Short Fiction Program
Posted on April 15, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 69 Comments
First, for context, this press release, from Orbit (US), the science fiction arm of publisher Hachette:
Orbit, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group, announces a digital short fiction publishing program launching later this year.
Orbit (US) has offered to publish digital editions of all original short fiction written by its authors. The digital editions will be distributed widely through major retail channels, for reading on a variety of devices. Authors will be paid a royalty for each story sold, rather than the flat fee more common in the short story market.
If I were an Orbit author, or were otherwise approached about or interested in participating, here are the questions I would want answered before I would consider the program:
1. Will there be an advance on the proposed royalty, equivalent to at least the minimum professional rate required by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (five cents a word), or will the proposed royalty be the only compensation offered?
2. What is the royalty? How does this royalty compare to what the author could receive if he or she worked directly with the major electronic text retailers to release the work, as is possible?
3. When will this royalty be paid? Will it be accessible on demand, or on the customary schedule of royalty disbursement for publishers (i.e., semiannually or annually, depending on contract), or on some other schedule?
4. Aside from publication, what other services will Orbit/Hachette offer to the author? Will the author’s work be edited and copy-edited by Orbit/Hachette prior to publication, or will the onus be on the author to provide such services? Would Orbit/Hachette exercise editorial judgment and refuse to publish work it found to be unsuitable and/or unprofessional?
5. Will these short stories be offered with DRM attached to them? If so, and if the author chooses, may the story be distributed without DRM?
6. What rights/holdbacks will Orbit/Hachette require of the author? Will this be a non-exclusive publication or will the author be enjoined from finding alternate and additional publication for some term of time? If so, what length of time would that be?
7. Will participation in this program be expected of Orbit authors? Will Orbit/Hachette in any way penalize authors who do not participate?
8. What sort of promotional program will Orbit/Hachette offer for this effort? Will it be ongoing or only an early push?
There are the questions which come up off the top of my head when I think about this particular press release; I’m sure if I thought about it longer there would be others as well.
As I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, I’ll refrain from saying anything about this particular proposed program until I do. However, in a very general sense I can say that proposing writers offer up work uncompensated save for rosy promises of back-end glory is something one shouldn’t tolerate in poorly-funded start-ups done in apartment living rooms. If such a thing were proposed from, say, an arm of the second-largest publisher on the planet, itself an arm of a huge multinational corporation with roughly ten billion dollars in revenue and $180 million in profit in 2009, it should be tolerated even less.
I’d also say, in a very general sense, that most writers are in a position of needing to be paid for their work sooner than later, because most writers don’t make a whole lot of money doing what they do. Today is Tax Day here in the U.S. and even as you read this I suspect a fair number of writers are looking at the checks they have to write to Uncle Sam (not to mention state and local authorities) and wishing they had maybe a little more to get through the rest of the month. I don’t suspect any of them at the moment would be thrilled at the idea of taking no money now for an uncertain amount of money at some unspecified point in the future, were such a thing proposed to them regarding their work.
Basically, I’m hoping that Orbit thought this idea through, and that the program will offer immediate benefits for writers, making them happy and paid, sooner than later. I look forward to hearing more about it, and hopefully having those above questions answered. Soon.
Update, 11:07 am: Tim Holman, Publisher of Orbit, responds in comments.
Update, 2:00 pm: Mr. Holman returns in comments with additional details about the program. One significant point: It’s likely to be royalty-only payment.
Let’s take it from the top:
Orbit is part of Hachette. Hachette’s current policy — dictated from a boardroom high in the stratosphere and divorced from earthly considerations — is that DRM on ebooks is mandatory. This won’t be waived for these stories without a major internal argument; so I’m assuming it’s business as usual for now.
Royalties on ebooks are around 20%; viewing this as a new sales channel, they might go higher (25-30%).
Pricing on short story ebooks … they’ll look like complete tools if they priced short stories at the same level as novels, so I’m betting on a price point in the range $1-5, probably $2.50-5 (the $1-2 price spread would be better for sales but is difficult, because the cost of processing the credit card/paypal transactions puts a floor of around $0.5 under each sale).
Asking $5.00 for a 12,000 word novelette with DRM on top is not going to boost sales relative to the rivalrous goods in the field — say an $8, 120,000 word novel, also with DRM. So I expect sales to be no better than normal for current ebook sales, which is to say, dismal.
Let’s be incredibly optimistic and say they can shift a thousand copies of each short story — 1000 sales via Kindle is enough to put you in the monthly Top Ten Bestsellers on that platform — despite charging 60% of the cover price of a novel for them. That’s revenue of $5000 for a story, of which somewhere in the range $1000-1500 goes to the author. More realistically they’re going to sell 100-250 copies, meaning the author might get $100-250, eventually, after a couple of royalty periods (6-12 months). Compared to the $600 they’d get from Asimov’s SF, for example — with their rights back after 12 months.
For a tenth of the words that go into a novel that would earn them $10,000.
Does Not Compute, does it?
(FWIW, my last two fiction sales — this past 6 months — netted me $1800 and $400 respectively. And the latter was partly a charity case insofar as I like the editor in question and wanted his anthology to succeed, and so sold it for less money than I’d usually be looking for.)
My take is, if they want to make it work they will have to start paying the authors an advance against future earnings, or run it like tor.com (at a stonking loss for the first couple of years as they build their audience).
Really? I talk about it on a frequent basis, you know. So does much of the rest of the world. It’s not an unknown term. I do assume some familiarity with the term at this point.
Folks, if you don’t know a term I’m using, open up a tab and use Google. It really does work. If you can’t find it in Google, then ask what it is.
Thanks for porting over that comment. I was going to link to it, but I didn’t know whether you would want a comment from another conversation linked to with possible lack of context.
John, no bother. (I haven’t heard from my editor directly, and I’m not going to open this can of worms on my own blog — especially not when I’m staring some very long bandwidth-free flight delays in the teeth early next week!).
Leave it to Stross to give us the gritty truth.
While not entirely well thought out, is it not encouraging that a company is attempting to develop a new market for short fiction when other avenues are rapidly disappearing?
James @6: No, I’m afraid it’s not encouraging unless Orbit has thought it out to the extent that it’s of benefit to the writers as well as the company.
James King @ 6:
It depends on the answers to the questions posed. If it’s a good new market, then yes, that would be encouraging. If it turns out to be a new take on the old fleece-the-newbie-writers market, then the word I’d use would be discouraging.
John, clearly you are performing a service by advocating for financially vulnerable authors from your position of market strength. Is that because the SFWA doesn’t actively take positions on programs like this, or are you trying to give us a preview of the types of stands the SFWA will take once you are elected?
I guess I am saying that you are clearly outspoken on the issue of how publishers pay/don’t pay strugling authors (see Harlequin Horizons/DellArte), and you are continuing to make those positions know, and you’ll be president of the SFWA soon (I can say that, right, since you are, like, unopposed?). Clearly these issues are very important to you, and you’re about to be in a position of power where your impact could go beyond the readers of your blog. What should we expect once you take office?
I’ll be encouraged if authors are paid well and not taken advantage of, yes. Otherwise, not so much.
Matthew in Austin:
I prefer not to speculate on the outcome of the SFWA elections until we have results. That said, SFWA already does a lot of advocating on behalf of authors (the Harlequin episode is an example), so I expect it to continue doing so if I am president.
Well, that was an uncharacteristically restrained response… I was hoping for a publishing-industry equivalent of “bomb bomb Iran”.
One more thing…If the publishers were publicly owned, then stock holders could (depending on their rights as share holders) demand to see the numbers. As it is now, the publishers can tell you anything they want, and the writers can eat it. I tend to think the authors (for the most part) are the ones getting screwed. That’s because rich boys with their publishing house collection don’t share like they should. Because they’re greedy SOBs. Not Bill at SubPress, but the Giants.
John: I can confirm that we did think this program through at great length, that we do indeed feel that it offers potential benefit to our writers, and we are equally keen for them to be happy and paid.
All of the questions you asked have been addressed in the communication we sent to authors published by Orbit US, and of course I am happy to answer any subsequent questions there might be from our authors and their agents. We also explained exactly why we have taken those decisions, and made it clear that it is entirely up to individual authors to decide whether or not they would like to participate. I would like to specifically pick up on your question 7, however, in which you ask whether participation will be expected and whether there will be a penalty to authors who do not participate. Absolutely no and no. Our authors can publish short fiction wherever they like.
Tim Holman (Publisher, Orbit)
Thanks for the response, and specifically as regards question 7; that’s reassuring to hear. I’ll be interested to learn more details of the program as they circulate about the Internets.
So if I read that correctly, it sounds like this is something they expect to do with authors that they already publish, and not a skunk-works program to get new unpublished authors into the game.
Seems like it will be a harder sell for established authors to accept this new program rather than whatever short fiction arrangements they had previously unless the terms are more generous(I’m pessimistic). That makes it seem like the thinking by Orbit is probably more “This way lies the future.” rather than “Who wants to give this a try?”
Matthew in Austin @ 11:
Ah, but the niceties must be observed. We shall have to wait for the inauguration.
Besides, I think John is more of a “don’t make me release the flying monkeys” sort. And we all know he would release them, if he needed to.
Well, I think it is probably more of a “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. I have grievances against my employer, but I always try to work them out in a polite, rational fashion, because I like being employed. I imagine John does too.
But I was still hoping for fireworks!
The right retailers should be able to handle $1 transactions easily enough; digital music has been selling around that price point for individual songs for years. From the consumer side this feels like being able to buy individual tracks as opposed to full albums. I don’t know what the retailer’s cut of a dollar song is, but apparently it’s enough to cover the credit card processing fee.
@17 – Orbit doesn’t publish John though. And, while The Scalzi can snark with the best of them his posts like this are usually well thought out and restrained in their language. Sometimes they seem brutal because he lays out very plainly the stupidity inherent in a situation. This time there’s not really stupidity, just perfectly reasonable questions, so it seems… nice.
Tim Holman – would it be possible to post the answers here? I know, I know, if you posted on ever blog… But we’re SPECIAL! No, not THAT kind of special…
It sure sounds like there won’t be an advance. Are there advances for publishing in an anthology? If so, I would think they are small, since there are alot of writers.
Do you know any of these guys? They would probably know more
Kim Stanley Robinson rocks…
“Launched in 2007, Orbit (US) is the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint at Hachette Book Group. Its authors include Joe Abercrombie, Iain M. Banks, Greg Bear, Gail Carriger, Karen Miller, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Brent Weeks.”
Having recently rediscovered the joy of reading good short fiction any system that promotes it is definitely welcomed. However, I’ll still prefer some sort of pre-selection or bundling by an editor/… to increase the chance for me (at lower risk) to discover novel work.
I am not attracted to short fiction. In fact, I tend to avoid reading any new fiction that doesn’t have sequels or other novels set in the same universe. Why? Because I hate the feeling I get when I invest myself in the characters, and the novel comes to an end, and there is nothing else. I get a sense of mourning, instead of the satisfaction that the author typically intends.
I didn’t read OMW until after Ghost Brigades came out. I’m sure most of you think I’m ridiculous, and that I severely limit myself from some great stuff out there, and I can’t really argue…
Quoted from Charlie Stross
“More realistically they’re going to sell 100-250 copies, meaning the author might get $100-250, eventually, after a couple of royalty periods (6-12 months). Compared to the $600 they’d get from Asimov’s SF, for example — with their rights back after 12 months.”
This leads me to think that authors will sell stories to Orbit that are not good enough to make it into Aasimov.
Is it even worth writing a story if it will only net you $250? You might as well take a part time job and make money, in less time than it takes to write the story, and you get paid faster.
Writers must really love what they do to work for $250 and only get that after a year.
I read this a little differently, I thought this referred to Authors who already have an existing relationship with Orbitz, possible for existing previously published short fiction, as opposed to a public offering..
I base this on:
“Orbit (US) has offered to publish digital editions of all original short fiction written by its authors.”
If that’s the case this makes more sense, as an option for Orbitz to increase sales without significant capital expenditure for authors who presumably have been vetted for prior publication. And if it works, it provides an introduction to sell items that may be on the backlist.
Depending on the terms (as John noted), if kept to a discrete set of established authors, this might be a good thing.
“This leads me to think that authors will sell stories to Orbit that are not good enough to make it into Aasimov.”
Asimov’s has limited space, as do all magazines, whether print or online. It’s not necessarily a given that Orbit will only get second-tier stories from its authors.
@19: Thanks for your consideration, and special, “special,” or not I’m very happy to respond on a few of these questions even though some of them do seem rather pointed.
The program is likely to be royalty-only. This might not be attractive to some, but I believe it may well be beneficial to authors. Again, perhaps not all authors, but that’s what can happen in a marketplace. I like the principle of creating a direct relationship between the popularity of a story and the revenues received by author and publisher. I also like the idea of giving readers the opportunity to pay for short fiction if they are prepared to do so, and think that doing so adds an interesting dimension to the short fiction market.
Orbit will be handling editorial and marketing for the stories. We like to work with our authors on some aspects of marketing, but there will be no onus on any author to provide any service related to this publishing program.
DRM-free is unlikely.
Matters relating to royalty rates and accounting, and the grant of rights, have been outlined to our authors and their agents, but before we make any final decisions we are giving ourselves the opportunity to process feedback from them. If this publishing venture doesn’t make good sense to enough of our authors, it won’t make good publishing sense for us.
It wasn’t asked, but I can also say that we’re expecting individual stories to be priced at $1.99.
Guess@23 Asimov’s has a type story that they buy (generally) and a type of story they don’t (also generally). While there are certainly exceptions, all magazines have editorial views and choose their stories to fit those criteria. An editor might get an absolutely amazing story that just doesn’t fit in any way with their publication. Despite its quality, they probably won’t buy it. So what’s more likely to happen is that some great stories that weren’t suitable for publication because they were too outside what some markets might want to publish, may see the light of day. Lesser works? Not so much, because writers mostly don’t like to send crap with their name on it out into the world. It dilutes the brand, so to speak.
Thanks for the additional information on the program; it’s very helpful, and I applaud your willingness to chat about it.
“The program is likely to be royalty-only. This might not be attractive to some, but I believe it may well be beneficial to authors. Again, perhaps not all authors, but that’s what can happen in a marketplace.”
The authors for whom it will be attractive are likely those for whom money is not an immediate and pressing concern, and who can wait however long it takes for story payment to percolate through they royalty chain. This is a relatively high and thin stratum of writers, I’d have to say.
At first blush I’m not entirely sure if that’s likely to be of benefit to most of Orbit’s writers or to Orbit. If only the authors who can afford to wait to get paid participate, Orbit might not get a desirable spread of product; if Orbit authors who cannot afford to participate do so because they feel obliged in some way, then there’s the possibility of doing your writers economic harm in the short term.
In the latter case, of course, I am absolutely heartened by your earlier comment that participation is entirely optional and Orbit authors may publish short fiction wherever they like. That is the right signal to send to your authors and I’m glad you said it here. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest authors may still feel it’s in their long-term interest to participate, as a way of showing their willingness to promote via Orbit-approved channels.
As you note there is to be editorial involvement (and thus, I assume some editorial selection) one thing I would suggest to you if you move forward is to offer your authors who participate a choice of advance payment at some fair price, to be applied against royalties, or of the revenue sharing plan you currently suggest. That way authors who can benefit from immediate payment will receive it, while those who can afford a long term investment can take it. And Orbit will likely receive a better mix of bestsellers and up-and-comers for its initiative.
In any event if Orbit is willing to make the financial investment of editorial oversight and retail placement, I’m not entirely sure why it wouldn’t make the additional financial investment in paying advances to those of its authors who would best benefit from that option.
Tim Holman@26: Thanks for the additional information. I understand if you don’t want to engage in conjecture (or if you’re tired of all the pointy questions), but do you think this program might lead to short works being published more quickly? Or would there be a production schedule similar to that in magazines, where stories will be assigned to a (virtual) issue and released in groups periodically?
Given that authors can publish stories for Kindle on their own, with not too much effort, and that in July the rate of their cut from Amazon increases to 70%, it is hard to see how the deal from Orbit could be more profitable from a writer’s perspective. Especially as a writer could sell to another market first and gain the benefits of a professional editor, then after the 12 months or whatever specified in the contract, sell again electronically.
However, at least their price point is low enough to encourage sales.
Not being a writer, while all of this is interesting to me, I can’t really ‘pick a side’ in regards to the preferability of advance vs. royalty, for example.
However, there is one important takeaway here for me as strictly a short fiction consumer: The availability of new fiction on a number of devices for ~$1.99. This is a win!
Good luck to Orbit and their authors to come to mutually beneficial terms and crank me out some Two Buck Skiffy.
Tim – pointy questions and the lions den go hand in hand. But, top marks to you for coming in to chat anyways. Thanks very much for the time.
It sounds like Orbit is going on expedition and they’re looking for volunteers to help minimize Orbit’s risk.
“The program is likely to be royalty-only. This might not be attractive to some, but I believe it may well be beneficial to authors. Again, perhaps not all authors, but that’s what can happen in a marketplace.”
So, Orbit is looking to try out the idea of being a deliverer of individual short fiction from it’s more popular authors. Because, the sales pitch here isndirected at authors who might be interested in converting their great selling rates into a better deal for short fiction than they would get at a magazine.
And these authors theoretically already earn enough that they wouldn’t mind a deffered payment on their investment of time.
And, Orbit wants to investigate the market, not make any long term promises it might have to change once they get an idea of the scope. So, strongly selling authors who already tend to make money are again a group of volunteers who might prove ammenable. But, if it has such great potential, why wouldn’t Orbit pony up a reasonable advance?
I think it is because you have only so many best sellers at any one group and Orbit wants to diversify it’s offerings in case the short story market favors the work of up and comers just getting started. But, if that isn’t correct, paying an advance to all the writers would fiddle with the numbers.
“I like the principle of creating a direct relationship between the popularity of a story and the revenues received by author and publisher.”
I don’t think most people would particularly question that. And that is largely how the market works now, except a book has to earn out before an author is solely accountable to a story’s popularity.
But, isn’t the only party being asked to change it’s role in that equation not Orbit?
“I also like the idea of giving readers the opportunity to pay for short fiction if they are prepared to do so, and think that doing so adds an interesting dimension to the short fiction market.”
I think it’s interesting too. In a good way. If Orbit weren’t giving an opportunity to its customers to buy items that they would if only they were offered, Orbit wouldn’t be doing it’s job.
But I wonder why some simple market research into short stories couldn’t have generated a reasonable point for an advance. I understand we’re talking about e stories at the moment and that this is a new market. But, the form and model are only slightly different from what has been generating sales numbers for more than century.
Are publishers really that terrified of the e market?
@amy – I would imagine the additional exposure would be a main reason. Same story, same author, it’s likely that the story published via Orbit’s channel will be seen by more people that a story converted into Kindle format and posted by an author unless that author already has a substantial following and can create their own demand. TLDR… odds are the author will sell more ‘copies’ of the story via Orbit.
@Tim – Thanks for adding detail. As a reader but not writer I don’t have a direct interest in this, but I do think it’s important to explore additional new ways of getting fiction from writers to readers. It’s particularly encouraging to see you here, engaging with feedback from people who are interested but not your writers – kudos.
John: thanks for your comments and ideas, all of which are valued. The feedback we’ve had from authors does not suggest that it is only those who can “afford to wait to get paid” who are enthusiastic, but we’ll see in due course.
I’m very happy to emphasize that none of our authors is obliged in any way to participate – this program provides a publishing option that for some might not appeal but for others clearly does.
A quick check shows that _Asimov’s_ is ten issues per year, two year sub for $60 US, so $3/issue. An issue typically contains a novella, 3-4 short stories, a book review and an editorial column, and a minimal quantity of advertising which is almost always well-focused — i.e., SF-related.
Meanwhile, Dozois’s _Year’s Best SF_ clocks in at $14 paperback and contains something over 20 short stories, generally of very high quality indeed. I note that past editions are available on Kindle for similar prices to the paperback.
What am I getting at? Well, that $2 per short story isn’t a great deal for the reader, unless they already have a high degree of assurance that they will enjoy it. No author gets rich on short stories in today’s market, so they have to be primarily seen as advertisements for novels. Widespread distribution is a boon, locking them behind overpriced paywalls and restrictive DRM is laughable.
@dsr…. but that values stories equally and assumes that quantity is what the reader is after. What if I pick up a year’s best but out of the 20 I like 4 stories? What if I like only 1/4th of what comes in Asimov’s in the typical year? Unbundling and paying per story has the advantage to the reader that they can buy just what they want. I don’t have to buy the entire issue of Asimov’s to get that one Ted Chiang story (hypothetical example!), I can buy it directly. In that case I’ve spent $2 vs $3…. which means I’m better off.
As with virtually everything in life there’s no absolute right or wrong here – some people will find enough value in a magazine that the sub is very much worth it, others will want to buy individual stories, others will mix and match both approaches. Orbit could even offer a subscription to this program – a kind of virtual magazine where stories are delivered over time rather than in issue bundles.
The point? Experimentation is good.
Dave H@29: Excellent point, and yes, we intend to take advantage of the ability we have to publish each story quickly. Stories are likely to be released individually within a few months of them being delivered and edited.
Other Bill@32: To your main point: we are not targeting our most popular authors. We are offering all our authors, equally, the opportunity to have their short fiction published digitally. It would be quite exciting, I think, for any of our authors to find success with their short fiction – whether or not they already have a substantial readership.
Tim Holman @ 37 –
“We are offering all our authors, equally, the opportunity to have their short fiction published digitally.”
I think that not all of them are equally able to accept. Please note, I am not implying nefarious intentions on Orbits part here. As you say, that’s the market.
“It would be quite exciting, I think, for any of our authors to find success with their short fiction – whether or not they already have a substantial readership.”
I’m all for anything that spurs the development of a solid emarket for fiction of any flavor. And, I support approval for Orbit approaching this in a voluntary fashion.
I’ve made some guesses at motives for why Orbit might approach this venture in such a way. On the other side of the coin, if Orbit doesn’t offer some upfront motive, I don’t think too many of the authors with smaller readerships will be able to do the calculus in a way that justifies their participation financially.
Which I think is what leads to the concern that a massive group would hope for those same authors to kick against their financial motive to help spur the growth of the new market: a few hundred up front is worth more to them than it is to Orbit. I would be concerned that this strategy might hamstring the ability to get this offering deep enough to spur market development.
As a reader, I don’t get it. I sometimes like to read short fiction, but if I’m paying for it I want someone knowledgeable to curate a book sized chunk of it for me.
Tor.com is nice, but I don’t think I’d pay for it.
If the undertaking is not so bound by a single editorial viewpoint that restricts the range of stories, but is more an opportunity for Orbit authors to explore the range of what can be done in genre short form, I think that even authors who haven’t yet established a steady income stream from their long form work might find it attractive for a couple of reasons.
First, it can give a story that’s more outside a chance to grow an audience by being present not in just a single issue of a magazine or in a single anthology edition, but by always being available on a website with other stories. If one of your later stories clicks, people will find it easier to go back and explore your earlier work.
Second, if a story does well and has some legs, it becomes somewhat of an annuity. Constant small sales means a constant small income stream. Get enough of those out there and suddenly you have a constant mid-size income stream. Maybe not enough to live off of, but enough to be a nice supplement to whatever your day job is (because, face it, most writers have day jobs).
Third, having a ready market for short pieces is good. I’m of the opinion that short fiction is where writers learn to write, because the brevity of the form requires learning to write more concisely and how to form more distinct story arcs. Long form is a different animal, but compare the work of someone who does only long form with somebody who does both long and short, and you can tell the difference.
As an addendum –
I think the short fiction market moves on the up and coming authors. They are the ones who are currently financially and professionally incentivized to push the envelope and really get their short fiction out there.
So, I would worry that doing a depth sounding on a new market with out financially incentivizing the up and coming authors is to cut out a focus on what is currently the market.
I don’t think that this current market focus will necessarily drive their individual sales in this format because by defintion they are less known, and readership building is a campaign not a battle.
But, royalty returns on individual short fiction stories may change the calculus for established and well selling authors to incentivize them to indulge in some rewarding short fiction crafting.
It’s a very interesting experiment, though. Very.
Michael @39 –
I think this will appeal less to people who want to read a book’s worth of targeted SF, and more to either (i) people who want to sample a new author to determine whether that author’s novel is a good time/money investment, or (ii) fans of an author who want to read something new by that author between books.
Other Bill@38: Regarding “motive”, we have explained to our authors why we think it’s a decent publishing idea, but in a nutshell our motive is that we are a publisher, and as such we are keen to pursue publishing opportunities that we feel have the potential to work well for ourselves and our authors.
Taken as a whole, this is a smart move for Orbit. As fiction moves to electronic delivery systems, there’s no need for NY publishers to feel restricted to 80,000 words or more.
If the details sour the deal, someone else will try it with tweaks, but it’s unavoidable that big publishers will expand their offerings to longer and shorter works.
From my point of view, having digital versions of short fiction is a bonus, by giving me a way to easily access fiction from authors that I already know that I like. I particularly hope that the stories can be reprints- allowing authors to earn first rights sales from one market, and royalties from continued sales through Orbit.
The primary point of reading book sized packages of short fiction (at least to me) is to be exposed to a bunch of authors I might not otherwise be, and/or to get something from an author I particularly like.
While I might seek out a single piece of short fiction from an author I particularly like, the hassle of micropayments would likely outweigh it’s worth. I’d rather it as part of a collection.
Just my 2 cents.
Tim Holman @ 43:
Of course. To clarify: I said
“I’ve made some guesses at motives for why Orbit might approach this venture in such a way. On the other side of the coin, if Orbit doesn’t offer some upfront **motive,** I don’t think too many of the authors with smaller readerships will be able to do the calculus in a way that justifies their participation financially.”
The asteriked “motive” should have been “incentive”. I think that the wording as is implies something that I didn’t mean to.
And I think it may have changed the gist of the comment. In effect, I think up and coming authors who may not be incentivized by a royalties only deal should be thoroughly engaged, as I think they, as a demographic, are driving the short story market.
I think their express involvment will help this experiment compete directly with magazines.
If it trends toward bigger authors putting the occassional story out between books, I think it will be less of market and become more of a promotional tool for the book market of the same publishing house.
And if that were to happen, I think it would still be interesting. I’m concerned that the approach may unnaturally limit the scope of the success.
@ Tim #26:
“DRM-free is unlikely.”
You’ve lost me as a client, then. And I do buy short fiction in digital form (at Fictionwise, for instance).
Michael Kirkland @46: I don’t see why micropayments (say $1.99) would be any different that paying for a regular book (say $14.99). At least on Amazon, it’s just another charge on your credit/debit card.
Given that Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Subterranean, ChiZine, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and a number of other venues already offer short speculative fiction for free online—and if one feels generous one can click on an ad or purchase something from a related store—why would I as a reader pay two bucks a pop for the same sort of thing? It’s not like Orbit authors are so much better than all the other authors who are publishing regularly in online magazines, anyway.
I think I’d rather sell my story to a regular paying venue, get that guaranteed level of distribution and a guaranteed paycheck, and then sell the story off my own website after exclusivity ends. I mean, a basic web storefront and digital downloads isn’t exactly rocket science to set up these days. And you get keep 100% of what you sell. Or, if I’m looking to hook new readers, I would just offer stories for free in the hopes that they’ll try my novels, next.
I’m having a hard time seeing how much extra leverage you’re going to get from being thrown into a mass of other short stories without some sort of marketing push behind your stories, otherwise you’re just a name in mass of names. $1.99 is a high enough price that I assume people would already have to know my name to be willing to pony up for a story. Which means they could probably find me, anyway. Just not quite seeing the advantage of writing an original story for no guaranteed cash upside, and no guaranteed distribution.
If you were talking non-exclusive reprints, on the other hand, it would be another venue to place and distribute your stories, and it might make more sense.
Michael Kirkland@46: I’m sure you’re not alone. We’re certainly going to be looking at the possibility of bundling stories together into collections or anthologies in due course.
Other Bill@47: Sorry for the misunderstanding and thanks for the clarification.
Nick@50: Even if I were to accept the outrageous claim that Orbit authors are not better than all the others, I don’t think the availability of free short fiction online precludes the possibility that some readers will find it in their hearts (or wallets) to pay for it.
Paolo@51: As previously mentioned, there will be “some sort of marketing push” (and I am hopeful that our publishing might elevate our authors above the mass of names you see). Also, we are guaranteeing distribution – we’d be in serious trouble if that weren’t the case. All that aside, I completely understand that other publishing options might be more appealing to some.
And many thanks to all for the great feedback and particularly the words of encouragement.
On one hand, I can definitely understand the concerns that JohnS raises regarding this program.
OTOH, I’m thinking about two Orbit authors I know — one electronically, one geographically local to me. I am thinking about the relationships they have with their (fairly large) online fans. I am thinking about the kinds of things they write, short- and long-form.
And it seems to me that for an author who (a) has a sizeable existing online fan base, and (b) tends by nature to write a fair amount of “apocrypha” anyway (that is, short works that are either related to their novels, and/or quirky offbeat things that just sort of burble up between projects), this program might well generate a sizeable amount of revenue and serve as good promotion for both the author and her book-length work.
Which is to say, I think I look at this particular program less as a “market for short fiction” and more as a way for a novelist to actually get paid for his/her promotional activities. If you are an author with a loyal and completist-minded fan base (and we’ll stipulate that not all authors have this kind of following), this kind of deal looks like a potential win/win to me.
It sounds like a fairly neutral thing for the authors, but it’s not going to get me reading short fiction again–especially not if I have to buy an e-reader and if the stories are $1.99 each.
Bundling would be nice. They could sell packages of stories by the same author, or lump together stories of similar genre. It’d be easier to get a reader to pay 4.99 for a package deal than 1.99 for a single story. (It’s a monkey-brain thing: Whether or not the price point is lower or higher per item, it’s easier to get people to purchase a bundle.)
Apropos @50 and @52, it’s worth noting that stories by different writers are non-rivalrous goods — they’re not interchangable. If you want a John Scalzi story and only a Charlie Stross one is available, you won’t buy the Charlie Stross story instead; you’ll mutter darkly and do without. (And vice versa.) So if you want a story by a particular Orbit author who the editors of Asimov’s SF don’t like, you’ll end up looking at Orbit’s store.
(I’m going to shut up for now, but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. And readers should note that this is quite obviously an experiment — Orbit are trying something which, to them, is new, in the hope of bringing new fiction to their readers — and this is praiseworthy, even if you think they’ve got some of the details wrong.)
@John and others: Is there a real concern that publishers can force midlist authors to participate in a short story program? If they have decent sales can’t they just switch publishers? The top sellers (like Kim Stanley Robinson) can just ignore any pressure since they can always switch publishers.
My understanding is that authors do NOT work for publishers and just have a business relationship. The authors can drop the publisher if they don’t like the relationship and go with someone else.
If they have very low sales, why would Orbit pressure them to sell them short stories? Those probably would not sell well anyway.
@Tim Holman:Thanks for the details. two questions:
1) Will there be a bundling possibility by amount?ie just “bulk discount” rather then anthology-like bundles culled by knowledgeable people? I like short stories, but in almost any anthology I invariably dislike around half the stories, so either a “frequent buyer” program or prepaid bundles might suit people like me better.
2)What kind of DRM is under discussion?anything that limits readers and/or amount of computers/copies will probably lose me as buyer, something like the RPGnow version(were your name gets added as footnote) won’t.
Charlie@55: Excellently put, and just to add that the same principle applies even when availability is not an issue. Story A is cheaper than Story B (or even free); this doesn’t mean that nobody will purchase Story B.
Nick@50: “Given that Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Subterranean, ChiZine, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and a number of other venues already offer short speculative fiction for free online—and if one feels generous one can click on an ad or purchase something from a related store—why would I as a reader pay two bucks a pop for the same sort of thing?”
So I can use it in the same reader as all my other fiction, read it in a standardized format and not the site’s idiosyncratic typesetting, and keep it on my own device if/when the originating site goes belly-up. For starters.
Paolo@51: “I mean, a basic web storefront and digital downloads isn’t exactly rocket science to set up these days.”
In my two weeks as an iPad owner and ebook buyer, I can tell you that it’s incredibly tedious to deal with a different storefront, payment system, and ebook format for every author I’m interested in — and apparently setting up a good one is well beyond their capabilities, generally speaking. Some shopping carts just don’t work very well. Some take PayPal; others require a credit card. Some require different credit card details than the last shop I used. Once, I ended up with a PDF that was, without warning, DRMed in a way none of my ereader apps could decipher, which means I’m relegated to reading that novel on my desktop until I find the time to crack the damn thing.
Apple already has my credit card. Their storefront works. Their format works. I don’t have to search fifty different websites to find fifty stories; everything is in one place. Faced with paying $2 a pop vs. getting up*, crossing the house to locate my credit card, punching all that crap in, all for uncertain results… I’ll happily pay the $2.
This is how iTunes became successful despite filesharing: by making it easier to pay for the content than to locate the free version.
Don’t overlook the advantage of having your work *in the store.* If your story is on your site only, I’d pretty much have to be seeking you out in order to find it. If it’s in the store, I might stumble across it while browsing, or it might pop up as a recommendation after I’ve bought something else.
* I’m not THAT lazy; I’m dealing with intermittently debilitating back pain.
So I can use it in the same reader as all my other fiction, read it in a standardized format and not the site’s idiosyncratic typesetting, and keep it on my own device if/when the originating site goes belly-up. For starters.
Hmm, I can do that already with a copy and paste. For free.
So can I. I have become very good friends with the Calibre application in the last two weeks.
However, if I could save myself the time and trouble and give money to the authors by doing so, I would.
This sounds a lot like the model that’s being used by some romance e-publishers. My understanding is that those publishers pay a higher-than-average royalty (30% or more), though, to make up for the lack of an advance.
Another advantage of a storefront that aggregates content and provides a number of authors and stories is that they can get the readers to provide ratings and use the sales data much like Amazon does. If I can go on a short story site and see what the highest user rated stories are, I’m much more likely to check those out and purchase them. Similarly, if they can categorize stories so that if I’m in the mood for a time travel story I can search for those easily, there’s another reason I’d use the site and pay for stories.
hmm, i think a lot of folk are missing a big point with their maths; if Asimov’s give authors the rights back after 12 months, then surely the authors can write a short story for Asimov’s, wait 12 months and then publish with orbit’s online offering? Surely a great benefit to the authors is creating a market for short fiction that’s otherwise not easily available to the consumer and which they’ve already invested time in.
The romance epublishers do indeed typically pay a higher amount (the one I write for pays 35% on direct sales, and 50% of net through distributors). They also typically pay on a more frequent schedule — I get a royalty statement and payment every month. One of the reasons I decided not to write something specifically to submit to Harlequin’s new ebook imprint was that they were using the mothership’s royalty payment schedule of twice-yearly (the other reason was Harlequin’s forced marriage with a vanity press outfit). If I’m not getting an advance, I want my money the month after publication, not six months and then some afterwards.
The SFWA list 23 short fiction markets, (they actually list more defunct markets than living ones!) Say each market publishes 4 short stories per month, (probably high, but let’s overshoot the mark to be safe.) That means around 100 short stories will be published annually. Taking Charlie’s $600 figure for the value of a story at Asimov’s, that means the entire sff short fiction market generates around $60,000 a year. Oh wait, anthologies. Let’s double it: $120,000 annually. Better hope nobody tries to improve on that! It’s such a rich vein of opportunity!
Oh wait I am an idiot that can’t do maths. As you were.
First, this is a great discussion of the pros and cons of this type of e-pub. (I know I’m late to the conversation). I’m a reader, not a writer, and I enjoy both short and long fiction across a host of styles and genres. From my POV this idea is at the very least interesting.
If authors I enjoy (K.S.R. for example) published new or previously published/anthologized work this way I’d jump at the chance to buy it. I have often found anthologies to be expensive when I only enjoy one of two of the stories. There are some editors who seem to publish work I enjoy consistently, and a lot more who don’t, so I see this as a way to read new things.
But by and large, if I enjoy a lot of the author’s longer works I’ll jump at the chance to get short stories – for example Caitlin Kiernan’s Sirena Digest (Subpress) gives me new work by an author I adore monthly, which makes me happy. This seems a slightly different take on that model, in that the publications aren’t monthly, they are whenever the author has something new to offer through the service.
It would seem to be beneficial to the authors as well if the stories get professional editing and marketing and are available for sale to other markets (such as Asimov’s or an anthology or a podcast) after a short time period.
The more there is easily available and in e-pub formats the better as far as this voracious reader is concerned. Especially since I’ll never be wealthy enough to buy every book I want (or to build the floor to ceiling rolling bookshelves to house my endlessly growing library) the less expensive e-pub forms are a great boon.
I am happy to see Orbit doing this. I think it’s clear this is the way short fiction will be published in the future (much like songs on iTunes), and it’s nice to see a forward-looking publisher taking some steps in this direction.
I’m concerned about the details, though.
To be honest, the no-advance thing does not bother me. I realize many modern-day authors depend on advances, but I see them as a relic of old-style publishing, similar to the returns policy at bookstores where stores can return unsold books to the publisher. I think advances are on their way out, but the lack of an advance–which transfers risk from the publisher to the author–should certainly be compensated for by a higher royalty rate for the author. Greater risk, greater reward.
DRM and price point, though–those are troublesome. Why would I pay $2 for a 5000-word short story when I can buy a 90,000-word novel for $10? The math doesn’t add up. And the problem with DRM is that it devalues the product further by placing restrictions on its use.