It’s a wild world writers live in today, and it’s not getting any tamer. Once upon a time, an aspiring writer would toil away in obscurity and send off copy after (printed) copy of his or her submissions to publishing houses and pray that the Great Black Box of Marketing would smile upon them, and they would get an agent and a deal, and thereafter be a backed writer. Somewhere along the line, publishers tricked agents into becoming the slush readers of first resort, which only resulted in a less regulated submission market for all involved. To the lonely writer, nothing changed except the addresses on the envelopes.
When that whole “internet” thing happened to the music industry, the powers that be failed miserably at adapting. Instead, the world adapted around them, and today nobody buys like the RIAA wanted them to buy. People rarely buy whole albums. Music videos went from TV-worthy to extended internet promos. MTV realized that it was more profitable to make the “M” part of their name a bit more figurative, and gave us Snooki instead of Michael Jackson. Verily, when the internet giveth, it also taketh away (our collective taste).
With this backdrop, the publishers and bookstores didn’t panic. They didn’t have to. Computers suck as reading devices, and so long as we all sat at monitors stuffed chock-full of stolen music and bizarre pornography, there was nothing for them to worry about. Then Apple made something that changed the world of telephony, and we all realized that screens don’t have to be big to be useful. And even though e-ink wasn’t new, Amazon did something amazing: they made eBooks easily available to everybody, on the same platform that many of us were using to read our books to begin with. Then, things changed in a hurry. And they haven’t stopped.
Today, the question is where we are, where we’re going, and how our goal—having a successful, published set of stories out there to connect with readers—is harder and easier than it ever was. It’s worth looking at the music industry, if only to see where it went and how we’re different.
I have a bit of a unique perspective on the current state of the digital music industry (i.e., the whole music industry), as I’m a software developer for a new music media company. (Like most of you, my writing has yet to pay all of the bills.)
We all know about the Napster wars and the (much) later spread of mostly legitimately sold digital music. CD stores dropped left and right, and today you can barely find the “music” section of stores that used to have massive selections, like Best Buy. Despite text being much better suited for the web than music (from a file-size and bandwidth perspective), music went digital first. That was all about the mode of consumption. Headphones are a great way to listen to music, and headphones positively begged to be attached to digital music. Large form factor was all that was holding digital music back before the iPod. By contrast, it took us a while to realize that we could read digital text on a screen that didn’t suck.
The fact that music went digital first meant two important things: one is that the “massive piracy” phase of music came and went before digital books achieved maturity, and the second is that the market was ready to be digital by the time books got around to it. Napster predated iTunes (in any recognizable form), so we had a public yearning for the mp3 without a ready supplier. By contrast, digital books really only got big when they had big corporate backing in the form of everyone’s favorite 500-pound gorilla, Amazon. E-Readers existed before the Kindle, but they were fringe products. I remember when a colleague of mine first showed me his Sony eReader. I thought it was cool, but that it wouldn’t do much good if you couldn’t get all the books you wanted on it. Amazon solved that problem in one fell swoop.
Lacking a piracy phase (though books definitely get pirated) was the original difference, and perhaps a more intransigent corporate structure made music develop in a different way. Prior to digitization, there was one and only one model for how to become a successful musician. You starve for years, playing little gigs that you get through word of mouth, tireless badgering of small club owners, and personal recommendations. You spend money to record a single or two, and you just keep plugging, hoping that one day, a Big Deal Person will hear your stuff and you’ll blow up. There were mid-level versions of this, bands who made a career out of touring small places, but the market wasn’t that big. It was hard to coordinate gigs across the country in small venues without the help of an industry pro. It wasn’t all that different from how to become a successful writer. You toil in obscurity, submitting queries and samples, all the while churning out short stories aimed at the small magazine market, and hope that somewhere, somehow, a Big Deal Person at a publishing house says, “Yes. This writer is going to be featured in Barnes and Noble.”
Today, the Big Deal Person still has a heavy hand in the music and publishing industries, but the world is flatter, particularly on the “indie” end. For artists, that means that there are now tools (that I write) to book your own gigs, find places to play, and get your name out there that an artist can use whether or not they have major representation (or any representation). Music as a whole has decentralized, and the indie scene is a lot bigger than it used to be. Radio is more diverse than ever before, and I’m listening to Spotify as I write this. Few people reading a blog haven’t cranked the tunes on Pandora, Rdio, or Spotify.
We see similar trends in publishing, but there are key differences. The first is the barrier to entry. If we took a poll of non-musicians, relatively few of them would have musical instruments lying around the house. A musical instrument has no purpose other than to be played, and if you don’t play, why spend the money? It takes years of practice on an expensive instrument before even the untrained ear will think you don’t suck at the guitar. That’s what I mean by barrier to entry. It means that the set of people on the low end of the market, the “indie” artists representing themselves, have a huge investment in time and money to even get to that level. It also means that if a band has a gig, even at just a bar, they tend not to be terrible. They’re certainly not all good, and there’s a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat, but it’s at least chaff, not… let’s say… fertilizer.
By contrast, if we took a poll of non-writers, damn near 100% have a computer with a word processing program at home. Moreover, the cost of publishing your own work is pretty close to zero. As an indie author myself, I would never trivialize the tremendous amount of time and effort that goes into putting together a professional work of fiction, polishing it to a shine, and putting it out there. But if you don’t care so much about the “professional” part, it’s not that hard to publish on Kindle. Such a low barrier to entry has the nice effect of putting power in the hands of the authors, but it also means that in addition to separating the wheat from the chaff, you’ve got to find a way to get noticed among the fertilizer. And there is a lot of fertilizer in the self-published world.
Big Deal People love the fertilizer. It’s really the only thing that still makes having one of them a big deal. A major publishing house doesn’t put out all hits, but they certainly don’t publish fertilizer. One area that is getting democratized quite effectively is that we’re starting to see a lot more small-house publishers, so Big Deal People are becoming just big deal people, and there are a lot more “okay deal people” out there who are far more accessible than ever before.
So, as indie authors—who presumably don’t write books that fit into the fertilizer category—this is our dilemma. Do we pine and pine for the attention of a Big Deal Person, or do we wade through the muck ourselves and make it our job to convince people that our works are worth reading? There are advantages and disadvantages to both strategies, and the answer isn’t the same for all people. It’s an issue I’ve struggled with myself.
I have six major works complete, two of which I’m actively shopping in the traditional world, and I stand on the precipice, wondering about my others. I categorize them internally as to which are the most “marketable,” which doesn’t necessarily mean they are the ones I consider my best. I wonder about putting the ones I’m shopping around out on the Kindle market instead, eschewing any sort of BDPs and going it alone. The market for long-form fiction is both mature and adolescent, and there are very few easy answers without breaking into new forms. But what new forms of fiction, one of the oldest ‘products’ still around, can there be?
There was one work that I never for a minute considered going traditional with, though, and that was because I deliberately crafted it to test a market that can only exist in the world of online publishing, and I wanted to explore the market with that form factor—the long form serial. I have long had a self-centered grudge against short fiction, largely due to my own desire to expand every story I write to a minimum of 10,000 words. If you ask me, every story has more to tell. Because of that, I never truly looked into the short fiction markets. Almost all of them cap at 5,000–7,000, with a preference for under 5,000. My mind was always drawn to full novels, both as a consumer and as a producer.
I wondered, though, about a story that didn’t have to be told all at once. Selling myself as a little-known author to a major short story magazine on the basis of a long serial was a near-impossible feat, so I allowed myself to think around that. What about a story that you didn’t read all in one sitting, but still wasn’t a full-on book? I’ve watched and enjoyed TV mini-series like the Sci Fi channel’s version of Dune for a long time. Could I create the same thing in electronic format? Freed of the need to make each story about exactly one thing, and given the task of weaving together multi-story arcs with periodic climaxes, cliffhangers, and resolutions, I set to work, and the result was my serial Those Who Die Young (available on Kindle, including the Kindle Lending Library). It is still the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and it was the first thing I ever put out on the market.
Now, I still struggled with the things every self-published author does: promotion, pricing quandaries, and soliciting artwork for the covers. There was the inevitable overload as I struggled to get involved in every book contest on the internet at once, my rise to faithfully blogging about something interesting every week, and then the fall-off as I simply couldn’t keep up with blogging when combined with my more aggressive publishing, writing, and work schedule. I could write a novelette about what worked, what didn’t, and what I’d do differently if I had only known about X at the time, but most germane to this article is the advantages and pitfalls of the form itself.
First and foremost, it was exactly what I had hoped for with regards to the length, the fun of putting together arcs, and the episodic nature of the story with a grand plot tying them all together. I saw every issue as an episode of an HBO series in my head, something I would have enjoyed even more if I hadn’t written most of it before the meteoric success of Game of Thrones as a show. Once I had a working relationship with an artist, it was also easy to get covers quickly produced. Working in Scrivener made it easy to compile my books for e-reading and get them to look the way I wanted to. It got me familiar with the “launch” process of a new book.
One of the most difficult things to figure out, however, was the thorny issue of pricing. There are tons of articles on the internet about the optimum price for ebooks. Perhaps most prominent among them is J.A. Konrath, who writes at length about the “value” of an ebook. The more interesting statistical studies show that $2.99 is something of a sweet spot, and conveniently that is the value at which you can get the 70% royalty option on Amazon. It sounds like a reasonable price for a book.
My problem, of course, was that I wasn’t selling a book, or not a full one. I looked at what I had written with the first few issues of TWDY, and I asked myself what I thought I would pay for something like that. $2.99 didn’t spring to mind. It wasn’t a book, but it wasn’t a short story either. Each of them was around 25,000 words, or the equivalent of 100 ‘pages’ of traditional paperback. I felt like that was worth more than $0.99, but less than $2.99, so for a long time I had them priced at $1.99. The failed genius of this would only become apparent to me later, when I would discover the great black hole that is the $1.99 price point for ebooks. My own sales at the $1.99 price point versus all others is an anecdotal example of exactly the principle in the linked article—people just don’t buy at $1.99. I have no idea why.
Pricing quandary aside, I had a great time putting out the first four (and now five) issues of TWDY in a serial format. The format itself was perfect for the story, even if I had to fight the perception that I was selling chapters of a book. Chapters aren’t stories unto themselves. You can’t read just chapter 17 of A Storm of Swords and feel entertained. You can, however, watch one episode of Community and love it, and I believe you can read one issue of Those Who Die Young and truly enjoy it as a standalone story. At the same time, there was one long thread tying everything together, and you always want to know what’s going to happen next.
The format was perfect for me. So of course I recently pulled them all together into a compendium, and that’s the only one on the market now. Why? Because the nature of going it alone is that you never know the right answers. You make your decisions and see how the market reacts, and I’m trying out Kindle Select (which means that if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can get the Compendium, all five issues for free, and I still get paid for your downloads. Just saying.) Will that generate more buzz for my series, even though I have to take the early episodes down from Smashwords and Kindle? That’s an excellent question. I do know that there is a preference for longer works (and the Compendium clocks in at approximately 125K) in digital markets, and I have had a lot of people ask me if the story would work read as just one item. According to my test readers, yes it does, and I’m happy to put it out there. We’ll see what the future holds.
My experience with Those Who Die Young has included a lot of mistakes and a lot of successes. I’ll never forget the moment when I first broke even on sales versus the amount of money spent on the covers and advertising (On a side note, I won’t be doing a Facebook campaign again any time soon). I also won’t forget the heartbreak when I went through three months without a sale of my first two issues… right up until I increased the price by a dollar and saw sales spike the next week. Seriously, don’t do $1.99.
The ups and downs are the very nature of the wild world today’s indie authors live in. Wading out into self-publishing is not for the faint of heart, nor those who are hurting for time. A smart publisher can be worth his or her weight in gold, even if that smart publisher isn’t a name you’d recognize. At the same time, there’s a satisfaction to seeing reader feedback from a story you crafted out there in the wild, knowing that it sprang forth from your head and into theirs without the layers of marketing in between.
I’ve written over 2500 words of a rambling guest blog post and still don’t honestly know where I’m going with my other six books. But I know it’ll be a long, fun journey to get there. At the end of the day, if people are reading my stories, then it was all worthwhile.
– Michael McDuffee
Thanks to Richard Flores for giving me a platform on which to ramble and shamelessly plug my book, and thanks to all of you for reading my ramblings.
Michael McDuffee is a science fiction and fantasy author from Raleigh, North Carolina. He moved around the United States long after his formative years and spent time in Philadelphia, Seattle, and DC before settling with his family. When not writing, Michael is a mobile app developer and avid marathon runner.
His first series, Those Who Die Young, was designed and conceived to be published exclusively online, utilizing the freedom of the new distribution network to explore a story that would never have been possible before—the long-form serial. He also writes novels and short stories in the traditional style, including high fantasy epics (Those Who Die Young, City of Magi), urban fantasy thrillers (Blackout, Nightlives), and hard science fiction (Time and Time Again).
Thank you to Michael McDuffee for stopping by. If you would like to write a guest post or have your work featured on my blog, visit the Author Feature page for all the details.