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!