Profitable post-web publishing: is patronage the answer?

Paul Raven @ 07-09-2009

OK, it may be a little cruel to ask you to do the thinking on a Monday morning (especially as you Statesiders are probably still recovering from Labour Day weekend), but I think it’s high time this one was thrown open to the floor – and by “this one” I mean, of course, the perennial question of how to make fiction publishing a viable business in the internet age.

The trouble is, there’s no shortage of potential business models to choose from. For example, Tor.com is ad-supported, but has the advantage of being associated with a strong publishing brand in its chosen genre; meanwhile, Strange Horizons is a not-for-profit that relies on donations, but even they’ve found it tough to bring in the necessary funds without the welcome publicity and assistance of notables such as John Scalzi. Both of those are purely web-based publications; print brings its own logistical and economic difficulties to the proceedings, as the decline of the “Big Three” and the shuttering of many smaller magazines demonstrates all too clearly.

I’m increasingly coming to believe that visibility is half of the battle, which is why I was intrigued by Cory Doctorow’s latest Locus column, in which – after demolishing many of the standard objection raised against the methodologies of his own success as a novelist – he mentions his “With A Little Help” project, which intends to investigate whether public donations are sufficient to support the writing and publication of a novel, and what degree of work is needed to equal the promotional support of a traditional publisher for such a project.

The results will be interesting regardless, but Doctorow has the advantage of a ready-made audience – one that he has worked hard to build rather than simply blundered into, I might add. But the question remains more open for lesser-known authors… and for fiction magazines, be they dead-tree or digital. The Scalzi/Strange Horizons avalanche shows that people will donate to support short fiction publishing online, but how much of that generosity is due to SH being a not-for-profit organisation? How much is due to them paying professional fees for their stories? How many of the Scalzi donors will donate again if they’re not encouraged by Scalzi or a similar figure?

Only time will answer those questions. But what is becoming obvious is that patronage is crucial to supporting niche publishing – be it direct financial patronage from readers, or the patronage of a vocally supportive figurehead (the patronage of publicity, if you will), or the patronage of an animal further up the publishing foodchain. Underpinning all these is the need to cultivate a supportive audience – turning a percentage of your free readers into donors or buyers, in other words.

What should be equally obvious is that I don’t know how to do it – which is why I think Doctorow’s experiment will be fascinating to watch, as well as projects like Robin Sloan’s New Liberal Arts essay anthology (and his subsequent ongoing novella project), World of Warcraft: the Magazine and a whole raft of wild ideas currently sculling their way out of the boondocks of the independent music scene.

But hey – you guys are readers, right? So, tell me: leaving aside dead-tree or digital books bought in the traditional manner, where do you pay to read fiction, if anywhere? What does it take to get you to pay, and what amount seems reasonable to you for what you’re getting – if anything?

Do you object to advertising on the sites where you read fiction, or are they acceptable so long as you’re not paying for the privilege of seeing them? Would you pay a small premium for an ad-free version of a webzine, or are the mechanics of a paywall off-putting enough to keep you away from a publication you might otherwise click through to regularly?

Yeah, lots of questions, and they’ve all been asked before… but I don’t think I’ve ever collected them all in one post here at Futurismic, and I’d be interested to read your answers – not just for the benefit of this here site, but for the nascent industry of web fiction publishing as a whole. And if there are business models I’ve missed out that you’ve either seen in operation or heard proposed elsewhere, please pipe up and let us know about ’em!

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12 Responses to “Profitable post-web publishing: is patronage the answer?”

  1. ShaneG says:

    Here is how I normally come across new authors (when they have not been previously recommended to me by other readers):

    1/ Browse the $AU 5 bin at the nearest newsagent or book seller.
    2/ Pick something that looks remotely interesting and buy it.
    3/ When the author gets my attention I then go to the ‘normal’ book sellers and start sampling their other works.
    4/ Usually wind up buying all their works if they are any good.

    This is how I discovered Peter F Hamilton, Neal Asher and Alastair Reynolds. I had never heard of John Scalzi until I downloaded ‘Old Mans War’ and ‘After the Siege’ from Tor – since then I’ve bought (and even back ordered) his novels from book shops.

    Baen books has also been an inspiration – I download books from their free library and then buy additional books from the authors I liked.

    Any internet based distribution of fiction (from non-established authors at least) will have to behave the same way – give free (or very cheap) access to non-trivial sample works. Having it available in a number of formats without tethering to a particular hardware system or DRM scheme is also important (if I buy a paper book I can read it anywhere, any time – and paper books have a longer life than most modern electronic devices. I have books that are over 30 years old which are still readable, will a Kindle still be functional in that amount of time?).

    The last thing to consider is quality and market demand – just because someone spent two years writing a book doesn’t mean it is worth $AU 30. To get to a dead tree edition that effort will go through editors, marketing, distribution, etc. Publishing an electronic version is as simple as running a spell checker over it and running it through a DRM encoder, far less cost and far less effort required or applied. I have read better fan fiction than some novels published as ‘digital only’.

  2. Elroy Jetson says:

    One thing that articles such as this one fails to point out is just how poorly designed magazine websites are today. They spend little time making the site easy and appealing to readers as well as easy to find in search engines. They are poorly marketed online and that marketing equates to visibility. Look at tor.com, clearly they have enough money to spend a little time in developing a usable design and a little marketing. Heaven forbid you look at Asimov’s Science Fiction which is certainly in the running for one of the poorest designed websites.

    It seems that most SF online publications are an after thought at best. Even Strange Horizons is relatively poorly designed and laid out. If you don’t make it easy to find the stories online and make it an enjoyable experience, why would anyone show up.

    While I think the efforts of Scalzi and even Tor are great, before the flag goes up that they can’t make it online they should at least attempt to make it online. Build it and they will come may work in the movies but for a site online it’s old fashioned good design and marketing that makes or breaks a website.

  3. John Scalzi says:

    “but even they’ve found it tough to bring in the necessary funds without the welcome publicity and assistance of notables such as John Scalzi.”

    I don’t know that this is an entirely fair or accurate statement, however. SH is on its ninth year of publication and has done several successful annual fundraisers without such an intervention on my part. I think this year may have been a tougher year than usual to draw donations, thanks to the rather precarious nature of the US economy — some folks who usually donated may have delayed sending money, or worried about sending less this year than last year, etc. I think what one of the things my donation matching thing did was simply to mostly focus and remind previous donors that now was a good time to get in their donations, rather than to wait for the end of the month, or worry about the specific amount they could give.

    That said, your observation that “visibility is half of the battle” is directly on point. It’s very difficult online both to attract attention and then to sustain it for any period of time, above and beyond one’s own native audience; the art of PR is difficult online first because so many folks online aren’t natural promoters and second because people online get annoyed when they see folks actively and obviously promoting themselves or their projects. The solution there is having friends and others link to your doings on their own accord, but that’s not a reliable form of promotion, nor does it generally last for a sufficient amount of time for a long-term project (serialization, for example).

    So visibility online — of the sort that doesn’t eventually annoy the crap out of the people you’re trying to attract — is a hard nut to crack. I think there are probably solutions, but they require at least a little understanding of marketing and promotion beyond “let me ask my friends to link,” and that’s sort of specialized knowledge.

  4. Bradley W. Schenck says:

    I agree with Shane that reading short fiction on the web is mainly a way to browse unknown authors, in which it’s a bit like traditional magazines – which are mainly ad supported.

    One way to tie into that type of reading would be for the fiction site to include easy ways to search and purchase full novels at Amazon (or elsewhere, but let’s be real). It’s a shame that Amazon’s “astore” program isn’t a better way to provide that.

    What I think may be the closest analogue, though, is the webcomic sites. They typically give away the web versions of their content and are profitable (when they are profitable) only through sales of print versions of the comics and through merchandising. Merchandising seems to be the best income stream for most of them, with t-shirts and other items.

    The way their business works is that the free content draws readers in, and a small percentage of those readers purchase books or other merchandise through the site. You need very large numbers of visitors to make that work, though, because of the low conversion rates that are usual with web traffic.

    It’s similar to an ad-driven model except that the web site itself is the only, or at least the major, advertiser.

    While it’s hard to get detailed information on how well these sites do there is actually one book on the subject – “The Economics of Webcomics” – which has real numbers for some of its examples.

    And I’m all in favor of sites like yours being ad supported if only because from time to time, I’m one of your advertisers :).

  5. Paul Raven says:

    Thanks for the input, Mr Scalzi – I meant no insult to SH (for whom occasionally write reviews) with that point, and certainly didn’t mean to portray them as a troubled property in any sense of the word. Poor wording on my part, really; the point I meant to make was that the swiftness and visibility that your offer brought to the process surely made the experience much easier, work-wise, than before.

    Your point about marketing knowledge is pertinent, though. Perhaps patronage and PR are two extremes of a single variable for success, and a blend of the two will become the norm? Though paid-for-patronage would be a horrible thing to behold… much like the relentless self-spamming types you mention. 🙂

  6. James says:

    I used to subscribe to Interzone, now I don’t subscribe to any fiction magazines. I feel a little bit guilty about it but there’s more than enough good free fiction online to keep me busy. Add on top of that the free online copies of the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA nominees and the anthologies I irregularly get and it’s actually too much.

    What would it take for me to pay? Stories by Gibson, Stephenson and Sterling maybe. What would I pay? Not sure, but I think I’d rather pay for one off issues than have to subscribe. I’d also want to see a portion of what I’m buying to make sure the quality of the presentation is good.

    And that’s another topic, presentation. It would have to be good.

    Do I object to advertising? No. Would I pay to get rid of ads? No. Because I tend to be oblivious to ads when they are there. Or if they’re really annoying I can get a plugin to block them. (Not that I do these days because I tend to use Chrome instead of Firefox.)

    The problem with all of the new models that are being touted is that only already successful people are making money off them, be it merchandise, advertising, limited editions etc. So how do you become successful? Bands do it by gigging endlessly, what do writers do?

    Wish I knew the answers!

  7. Paul Raven says:

    It’s finding that writerly equivalent to pounding around the toilet-venue circuit in an MOT-failed Transit van that may be the key, I think. 🙂

  8. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says:

    “his ‘With A Little Help’ project, which intends to investigate whether public donations are sufficient to support the writing and publication of a novel”

    Exactly how carefully did you read Cory’s description of his project? It has nothing to do with the publication of a novel.

  9. Paul Raven says:

    Ah, my bad: I was thinking of this part near the end of the article:

    Here are some things I’d really like to find out:

    • Will people donate to support a free book? How much? Will they donate more to support an audiobook or a print edition?
    • How much work does it take to replicate a professional publisher’s contribution to publicizing and distributing your book?
    • How much demand is there for premium editions, and what characteristics make those premium editions more valuable?

    This is the kind of thing I hope to explore in the With a Little Help project.

    I read “book” as “novel”, given that Cory seemed to be talking predominantly about his successes in that format, but I see now that the project is referred to as a short story collection near the head of the piece. Apologies for any confusion. 🙂

  10. Ace says:

    “…I’d be interested to read your answers – not just for the benefit of this here site, but for the nascent industry of web fiction publishing as a whole.”

    I’m also interested in reading answers to this post. I’m coming at this from the other side–as the creator and writer of an online web fiction serial.

    Looking forward to hear what others in the SF community have to say about the patronage concept.

    Great post, Paul!

  11. Tom Hunter says:

    Nice and timely post Paul, I’m increasingly finding myself in conversations like these and would love to post some full thoughts as soon as I have a proper keyboard to help compile them.
    Before I do though, will you delete my posts if I start using the B word / Branding?

    Strikes me that a lot of your questions come back to that. Nit branding as in logos but branding as in who am I / we and why are we doing this online publishing project thingie in the first place. You’ve cited a bunch of good examples above , but all of them are very different business models for pretty different reasons. Some people give things away for free and tuck their business models elsewhere, others erect paywalls, and if the stuff behind them has sufficient appeal and scarcity might do very well, but it all cones down to what you’re aiming to achieve in the first place and what kind of return you consider an indicator of success.

    With particular reference to Futurismic if you’d be happy to share some google analytics data with me I could reciprocate with a freebie consult. After all you were going to walk me through that anyway, right, so how about a live case study?

  12. Sue Lange says:

    Interesting post. Book View Cafe (BVC) is experimenting with these very questions. Because there’s so many BVC authors participating in the project, it takes a while for us to come to decisions on trying new things. I think that’s a good thing for Internet work because it gives us time to really assess the results of action we take. There are so many new ideas, so many new social platforms floating around on the Internet that content providers are being run ragged trying to follow the trends.

    What conclusions have we come to? Making money via the Internet is hard. (We’ve only just now starting to try some things, so we don’t really have any conclusions there.)

    Personal conclusions I’ve come to? As a former gigging band member, I can tell you that gigging constantly can result in burnout. It’s physically taxing to be on the road. Writing constantly doesn’t do that, but doing it as we do at Book View Cafe–for no pay–can be exhausting, especially since we are all also producing work for our traditional publishers. The hard part of our experiment is knowing what types of online activities will actually result in increased visibility for our free content. How to get the most bang for the virtual buck. Gaining that knowledge takes a lot of watching. We, the BVC authors, all been turned into marketers. Authors have been marketers for quite a while, but I think we are now much more intimately involved with that end of the business because statistics are at our fingertips. What happens then is we respond with content when our content gets a response. In other words we’re starting to chase our tails.

    The only thing I can say for certain is that although the Internet is touted as leveling the playing field, really what sells is a name. A name is the only surefire way of drawing attention. Even out in the real world a name does not guarantee as much attention as it does on the Internet. Out in the world most people are not readers. On the Internet, everyone is a reader or, rather, a content consumer. Because of this fact those of us without a name are chasing after the branding concept Mr. Hunter mentions above. Is that good for art? Certainly not. Is that good for selling. Of course.