Amazon’s “Kindle Singles”: saviour of the genre short fiction scene?

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

Hard to say for sure, really, given that it hasn’t even launched yet, but Amazon’s plans for the “Kindle Singles” service – which in essence appears to be ebooks of the long short-story to novella length – certainly has the potential to put money in the pockets of genre fiction’s clade of short story writers. The shrinking circulations of the Dead-Tree Big Three aren’t looking like a long-term prospect for the short form’s survival, and hell knows that recent experiences right here have demonstrated that making the free-to-read webzine model sustainable is no picnic, either (though I hold hope for better-funded projects such as Lightspeed and Tor.com going the distance, alongside established non-profit outfits like Strange Horizons).

The real (and as yet unanswered) question is whether people would read (and pay for) short stories if they knew where to find them; the search-term browsability of a platform like Amazon certainly offers the potential to put short stories by known names in front of potential readers who might otherwise be ignorant of the form, and there’s plenty of good (albeit as yet entirely theoretical) arguments that short stories are better suited to the when-you-get-a-moment reading habits of the modern reader. I suspect the most important factor will be pricing, with a splash of gatekeepering and/or curating to filter for quality; if a writer hits the right price point and has a bit of luck with word-of-mouth, the potential is there to cut out the magazine middle-men and reach an untapped audience.

My concern (as a fussy reader and a critic) is that the market’s definition of quality will probably differ wildly from my own; the success of Dan Brown is a clear indication that this is inevitable. But if big digital sales of awful literature support an ecosystem that lets the little guys make a living, well, I think I’ll be able to live with it. Plus ça change, non?


Booker Prize longlist snubs genre fiction (again); should we give a damn?

Paul Raven @ 28-07-2010

It’s that time of year once again where Britain’s booklovers (and others around the world) get to see and discuss the longlist of nominations for the prestigious Booker Prize. And, as is traditional, there’s a complete lack of genre fiction on it; cue much kvetching from the genre fiction scene. (Like we need an excuse, right?)

At the risk of sounding contrarian, I really don’t think it matters. Sure, there’s the argument that genre titles and authors would benefit from the prestige and exposure, but in response I’d say you can’t miss what you’ve never had, and Dan Brown’s certainly not suffering from lack of acclaim by juried prizes (more’s the pity).

What we love to read just isn’t widely appreciated; perhaps it could be (if we assume that the sort of person who consciously chooses “literary” fiction over any other sort is no more picky or prejudiced than someone who consciously expresses a preference for “genre” fiction, and that they would be influenced toward something they previously turned their noses up at because of an award nomination, which are pretty big assumptions, not to mention ones that probably wouldn’t wash if you reversed the polarity of the preferences in question), but it’s not. And while I’d love for the authors I most enjoy to be rich, successful and still cranking out great books, I really struggle to care that they’re not on that list.

As a cautionary parable, I’d point out that this reminds me of the way I and my fellow thrash metal fans at college used to bemoan the lack of mainstream exposure and appreciation for our chosen genres. If only people had the opportunity and encouragement give this stuff a chance, they’d be able to appreciate the musicianship, give the imagery and symbolism a chance to sink in properly, understand that there’s more to it than studs, leather and album covers with demons on them. Wind forward a decade an a half, and we got our wish: MTV and daytime radio is full of watered-down imitations and knock-offs of authentic and innovative rock and metal music, enthusiastically and uncritically consumed by people to whom it’s nothing more than three minute chunks of momentary audio diversion. And so the subgenres move on and progress, continuing to develop new ideas (or new takes on old ideas, perhaps), pushing at the boundaries of expectation and possibility, and selling their work to a handful of thousand people worldwide; meanwhile, mass-market cookie-cutter product makes millions for middlemen and elevates talentless hacks to superstar status, simultaneously providing a whole new bunch of tired cliches for everyone outside your fandom to assume must apply to everything within it.

Be careful what you wish for, in other words; an explosion of public recognition for the obscure cultural product you love rarely works out the way you want it to. And every time we moan that prizes like the Booker don’t recognise the genius that resides within our ghetto, we confirm the opinion we assume that they hold of us: provincial geeks with marginal interests and a persecution complex. We wear the bruised vanity of the snubbed underdog like sackcloth and ashes, and it does us a disservice far greater than being passed over by a prize that – by its own implications and history, if not outright admission – is just as focussed on a small (if ill-defined) set of aesthetic criteria as our own in-ghetto awards.

Let it go, people. Let it go.


Juggling Reality: An interview with Keith Brooke

Paul Raven @ 16-06-2010

[ This interview was done for Futurismic by Mike Revell, and sent in literally about three months ago; thanks to the chaotic events of my personal life around that time, it never got added to the publication schedule when it should have been. I present it now with my thanks – and profound apologies – to Mike, and to Keith as well. Thanks for your patience, gents. ]

Thirteen months ago, in a creative writing seminar at the University of Essex, Keith Brooke walked into the room dressed in jeans and a faded shirt, and sat behind his desk at the head of the class. The murmur of idle student chatter fizzled and faded at a brief smile, a ruffling of notes.

He didn’t look the sort of man to have invented a time machine. But now, one year and two novels later, it would certainly explain a lot if he had done.

As well as teaching at the university, Keith runs their website, too; he created, and for many years maintained and edited infinity plus, a vast online home for speculative fiction that has since spawned a number of printed anthologies; and he has written a plethora of short stories and novels. His most recent book, The Accord, was published in March last year and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, while the eagerly anticipated The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie is due out was published in April.

I caught up with him last week and talked the internet, storytelling, and managing a myriad of different realities. Continue reading “Juggling Reality: An interview with Keith Brooke”


More on the Orbit digital short fiction offer

Paul Raven @ 16-04-2010

In the wake of yesterday’s announcement that Orbit US will be publishing short genre fiction in a digital format, The Scalzi weighs in with some pertinent questions from the authorial side of the fence:

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.

And gets answers, straight from the horse’s mouth. Or rather, from the keyboard of Tim Holman, Orbit Publisher:

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.

[…]

It wasn’t asked, but I can also say that we’re expecting individual stories to be priced at $1.99.

Not as pretty a picture as many might like, but Holman’s being refreshingly open about it all; if Orbit are wise, they’ll keep the conversation public and listen to feedback, even if they’re determined to go with their existing plan.

At any rate, I think we’re looking at the new genre lit blogosphere topic de la semaine here.


Orbit to take short fiction to the digital market

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2010

From the press release:

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.

Tim Holman, Orbit VP & Publisher, said: “We know that writing short fiction is important for many of our authors. By offering to publish their short fiction – and to publish it quickly – we will be providing a new way for them to connect with readers. The initial response from our authors has been great, and we are looking forward to launching the first stories later this year.”

Maja Thomas, SVP Hachette Digital, said: “Publishing timely and well-priced short fiction has long been one of HBG’s goals. The digital reading revolution and the proliferation of new devices and mobile platforms now make this possible.”

Interesting. Here’s Nick Mamatas’ initial assessment:

Why, you ask? My theory:

To train the audience to associate digital purchasing with publisher rather than author or the (online) bookstore, thus allowing HBG to more easily sell ebooks direct to the consumer without having to cut in Amazon, Apple, etc. (This can also lead to cheaper ebooks, once one can keep much of what otherwise would be the discount to the trade.) That part of the idea isn’t even a bad one.

And Charlie Stross’ response to such:

If approached, I shall politely tell them what I get paid for my short fiction sales elsewhere, and offer them the opportunity to compete.

[…]

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’d 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, say, $8 for a 120,000 word novel, also with DRM. So I expect sales to be no better than their current ebook sales, which is to say, dismal. Let’s be optimistic and say they can shift a thousand copies of each story — 1000 sales via Kindle is enough to put you in the monthly Top Ten Bestsellers on that platform. 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?

[…]

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).

That last bit is quite telling, really. I used to hear a timespan of five years bandied around as the duration a print mag needed to survive before it would start making a profit; it’ll be interesting to see how Tor.com makes out over the next few years. But then they were lucky to have had that initial investment behind ’em… I could do amazing thigs with Futurismic if someone would just lend me ten grand… 🙂

It’s also nice to see a major genre publisher realising that not only is there a market for short fiction, but that their writers want to produce it. Common sense would dictate that the lesser-known writers will see the most advantage in pumping out the short stuff, which should maintain the idea that short stories are the genre’s proving grounds.

What do you reckon – can Orbit make digital short fiction work on the royalties model at a price point that keeps both writers and readers happy?


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