The Business Rusch: Experiments
This morning, on my Twitter feed, a kind gentleman tweeted me with the news that he had just bought the first volume of Fiction River on Smashwords. Then he thanked me for “having good sense to make it easy not to steal.”
I know what he meant, even though the tweet was oddly phrased: WMG Publishing has published DRM-free editions of Fiction River, in addition to editions that are specific to devices that require DRM, like Kindle and Nook. I never really thought of that as “making it easy not to steal,” though, although that is the end result.
The BBC was, perhaps, the most high-profile entertainment company to learn make-things-easy-not-to-steal lesson, and to do so quickly.
In 2011, Doctor Who had the dubious distinction of being one of the most illegally downloaded shows in the world, “with as many as 200,000 illegal downloads the week new episodes air, many of those coming from the U.S. and Australia.”
So, in those two countries in particular, the BBC decided to air Doctor Who’s episode within hours of the airing in England. In Australia, in fact, the BBC put some episodes up on their streaming service at the same time as the British broadcast. Piracy has gone down, although I can’t, on a quick search, find out by how much.
There will always be a hard-core online that will pirate the episodes, and I doubt that they will ever go away. But by going for the low hanging fruit of the people who just want to watch the episode as soon as possible, and making sure that the easiest way for them to get that episode is through an official source, the broadcasters are doing themselves a service, they are supporting fans, and it feels the right thing to do.
If you look at the top illegally downloaded television shows worldwide, you’ll see that most of the downloads occur in countries where the shows don’t air, or don’t air in a timely fashion. Right now, Game of Thrones is the show with the most illegal downloads in the country in which it does initially air, the United States, because the show is on HBO, and HBO has a pay wall. It’s a premium service in which its subscribers get the product first.
Rather like, ahem, Kindle Select. You need a Kindle (or a Kindle app), and you need to buy from Amazon to get the book product. I know that some magazines, like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, are only available on Kindle, and I believe that to be a mistake.
I think that readers, no matter what their device or preferred method of reading, should be able to get the reading material—book, magazine, anthology, or whatever—that they want, in the way that they want it. Dean agrees with me, and so does the staff at WMG Publishing. That’s why Fiction River is available on as many e-book platforms as we can find, why it has a trade paper edition, and why the audio edition will be out before the end of May.
I try to do this with my books as well. I’ve suffered the frustration of the unavailable book from both sides, as a writer and as a reader. As a reader, it’s rather nightmarish and stupid. You want to give someone your money for something you desperately want, and no one wants your cash. I’ve purchased pee-stained used copies of books and held them gingerly while trying to read them, just to find out what happens next in some series.
The advent of ebooks and available backlist and reissues in a variety of formats is slowly changing that.
But it doesn’t change easily. Throughout my career, books of mine have gone out of print for stupid reasons (Book 4 of the Fey, even though there are reorders? Really? Why, Bantam? Why?), and the readers write to me, demanding to know why I did this. Well, I didn’t, at least not back then, and I certainly wouldn’t have if I had a choice, which in those dark and gloomy days, I did not.
I do now have the choice on most of my work—and I have to say, most is the operative word. Pyr published the first three books in my Diving universe sf series, and only bought North American rights. You’d think I’d just be able to upload those books in English for the rest of the world, but it’s not that simple. I live in the States, and most of the ebook distribution companies based here make it very difficult to have books that exclude the US. I’m working on it, but slowly, although it’s rising up the priority levels, with the fourth book, Skirmishes, scheduled to appear in September.
That frustration, which I have written about before, has led me to make the books I do have control over available to as many readers as possible. I give away short stories for free only on this website and only for one week (although WMG will do a weekly free story at some point, probably using some of mine). The following week, there will be a new free story, for as long as I can maintain this.
The free stories started as an experiment, just like this weekly business blog started as an experiment. I’m still experimenting in this new world, finding what I like and what my readers like.
With the help of WMG Publishing, I’ve done a few experiments this year, and have a few more planned. The first, Bleed Through, is a novel that came out in February. It’s had a slower build than I would like. I had hoped to get a few more sales early on, but that’s not happening.
Still, I’m really, really pleased with the way that we’ve chosen to publish Bleed Through. It’s a book about the aftermath of a school shooting. If I had sold Bleed Through traditionally, we would have been doing final copy edits in July of 2012 when the Colorado shootings happened, and the sales force would have been marketing the book hardcore in December, right over the horrible Newtown massacre. About the time the after-publication marketing would have hit full force, the Boston Marathon bombings would have happened.
God, it’s been a horrible year, and I would have felt embarrassed and exploitive about the marketing on the book, about doing interviews, about talking with reviewers during that time.
Bleed Through is not a book to force readers to pick up. It’s one they have to want to pick up, and if they don’t want to, that’s okay with me. I’ll let them find it, and hope they find out that the book isn’t about exploiting other people’s pain; it’s about surviving someone else’s horrible decision.
So, in my mind, the experiment is working. I am proud of the novel, but I really don’t want people to feel obligated to read it, review it, or even think about it if they don’t want to.
WMG Publishing and I are conducting a different experiment starting this week. I love serialized books, and when I finished my novel, Spree, I thought it uniquely suited to serialization. WMG is offering the book for free on its website, one chapter at a time. Full disclosure: If you wait for the weekly chapters, it will take a year to read this book. The other chapters will remain online, so you can read it in full for free by May of 2014.
Right now, though, the entire book is available, however, so if at any point, you feel the need to finish it immediately, you can.
I can’t wait to see how this will work, because I know I’ll want to do it again with another book. Am I doing this to stop people from stealing the novel? No, but that is a net effect. If you want to read it for free, you can. You just have to be a bit patient. I won’t make a dime on the free serialization, and we’re not putting a donate button on it either. I only make money if I’m a good enough writer to make readers impatient, to make them feel like they need to finish now.
It’s a nice little high-wire act for me, except that I hedged my bets. I finished the book before serializing it, unlike what so many other authors are doing when they serialize online.
Dean Wesley Smith’s performing a different high wire act this week. He was hired to ghost-write a novel for another author. He does this a lot, and he always does it very fast. His experiment isn’t the novel or the speed with which he’s writing it. The experiment is that he has, for reasons I still haven’t fathomed, decided to blog about his method. The blog is truly eye-opening. Someone called it a reality-show for writers, and it is that.
The content of the blog is not eye-opening to me. I live with him and have seen him do this for twenty years now. What’s eye-opening for me are the comments and questions he’s getting. (I’m amazed he’s willing to answer them while he’s so busy.) Most writers who are following his blog and commenting seem to believe you have to know what you’re going to write before you write it, that you need a detailed outline (God, I’d never write a book if that were true), that you need hours and hours of uninterrupted time to write (see the previous parenthetical phrase), and that you need to rewrite something to death before turning it in.
Myths all, and Dean’s exploding them by example. Although I find the comments on other blog sites referring people to his hilarious. People who claim he’s unknown and doing this as a stunt. (Don’t they have search engines?) People who claim that Dean can do this because he’s, well, Dean, and no one else should try it. Dean is experienced, after all. No one who makes those claims seems to understand how Dean got his experience. They all seem to believe he was born from the forehead of Zeus as a fully formed professional writer. (Well, all of them but the lame asses who don’t know how to use a search engine.)
Dean and I have been experimenting for the last few years. The online classes that he’s teaching (and I’m helping design) are an experiment. If they hadn’t worked, we would have stopped them. We’re both doing lectures online, as well.
Fiction River itself is an experiment. We ventured into Kickstarter with it, figuring if the Kickstarter failed, then we wouldn’t return to editing. Instead, we achieved our initial goal in less than 48 hours, and more than doubled our initial ask by the end of our thirty days.
The first volume came out on Tuesday, and the book only exists because of all the Kickstarter supporters. (Thank you!) We expected to ship the initial volume to the supporters and maybe a few bookstores, and thought that the bulk of the interest would occur after the volume was out.
But we’ve been getting subscriptions ever since the Fiction River website went live with subscription information months ago. We shipped several hundred copies more than we expected on the first issue, sight unseen.
By then, WMG had hired Jane Kennedy as audio director, and she has put together several different voices to perform the volume. It’ll be available as an audio book in May. I’ve listened to excerpts from all of it, and it’s beyond my wildest imaginings. I figured we’d get to audio in a few years. Instead, it’s going to happen within weeks.
There’s more experimentation to come, with podcasts and all kinds of other things, some of which we can’t talk about yet.
Some of this is simply because Dean and I can’t help ourselves. Recently, Mike Ashley contacted me to discuss my personal history as the editor of F&SF for a book he’s writing. I realized as I answered his e-mail questions that I always go at things with an eye toward what works better, what’s new, what should we do? With Dean’s help, I brought F&SF into the computer age, and redesigned the contracts so that they no longer had clauses that no longer applied due to the 1976 Copyright Act. I arranged all kinds of ad possibilities and subscription drives and all sorts of things that editors don’t normally do.
It felt normal to me, but it wasn’t, and I took a lot of heat for it from a variety of quarters.
The same thing happened when I tried to be innovative with my books. More than one genre? What’s wrong with you? Pick a genre and stick to it. (One agent told me she had trouble selling my books because I was “all over the map.” I needed to pick the most important thing and settle down. Hah!)
A friend of mine, a reviewer, told me that I really should stop writing elfy-welfy crap (my fantasy novels) because it was ruining my reputation. And then I just plain old trashed the reputation (according to people like him) by writing tie-in novels like Star Trek. Why did I do that? Because the novels were fun to write and because John Ordover, who oversaw Pocket’s Star Trek line at the time, was an innovator. Dean and John and I would get together in New York and come up with all kinds of series innovations. John invented ways to put all of the Star Trek series together as crossover titles, he started a new writer contest (that Dean edited), and he tried all kinds of behind-the-scenes promotion stuff for his authors’ original books, for the sf field, and for games.
Before all of these changes in publishing, innovators either had to go into publishing themselves or hope to get an innovative editor who could hold onto his job and work with them at the same time. John always called us because he knew we were game to try anything, to stretch our creative wings, and to do the best we could in any way we could.
I loved that. I still do.
I feel so free these days. I feel like anything is possible.
And I’m not the only one.
On April 14, Neil Gaiman gave keynote speech at the Digital Minds Conference as part of the London Book Fair. He thought the speech failed because no one applauded, but it went quickly viral on Twitter. The speech lasts about thirty minutes, but the truly pertinent point to this blog comes toward the end. Neil says,
Embrace the old as we embrace the new because we’re on the frontier, and there are no rules on the frontier. We can actually break rules that nobody’s thought to make yet. We can enter through doors that still say, ‘Exit only.’ We can climb in through windows.
The model for tomorrow, and this is the model that I’ve been using with enormous enthusiasm since I started blogging back in 2001 – probably since I started using CompuServe end of 1988, the model is try everything. Make mistakes. Surprise ourselves. Try anything else. Fail. Fail better. Succeed in ways we would never have imagined a year ago or a week ago. I think it’s time for us to be dandelions willing to launch a thousand seeds and lose 900 of them if a hundred or even a dozen survive and grow and make a new world. And I think that’s a lot wiser than waiting for 1993 to come back around again.
Perhaps one of the reasons you see me being so consistently upbeat about this new world of publishing is because it suits my personality—try this, experiment with that. If that fails, oh well, let’s try this instead. I have always been willing to launch a thousand seeds and let 900 of them fail.
This method does not fit into traditional publishing models. In those models, for writers, you get one or two shots per pen name, and then you’re done, failed, kaput. Traditional publishers, on the other hand, have always used the dandelion method. They’ve always sent out a lot of books, expecting most of them to fail. It doesn’t matter to traditional publishers, because there’s always an entirely new pile of books to launch, without as much care or thought as a dandelion releasing its seeds on the wind.
Do I expect all of my experiments to succeed? Well, yes, I do. But let me tell you what I mean by success. I don’t mean all of them will make me famous or make me millions. I expect all of my experiments to tell me something. I expect to learn from them.
What I might learn is simple: Don’t try that particular thing again. Or this other thing, it doesn’t suit my personality. Or it costs too much. Or it takes more time than I am willing to invest.
I always remain focused on a few things:
1) I have to write. Not I want to write. I have to. It’s as much a part of me as breathing. So I need time for writing each and every day.
2) I want my writing to reach readers. I prefer to do so the best way possible, but I suspect the best way differs for each project. If my goal is to reach readers, then of course, I do my best to take the restrictions off what I publish. If that has the happy side effect of keeping the piracy of my works down to a bare minimum, then great.
3) I’d like to build something that will last. In writing, that means I need to write enough to get to that one story, that one novel, that one novella, that everyone wants their children and grandchildren to read when the time comes. I doubt I’ve done that yet. I also need the personal infrastructure to keep that work in print until it does get discovered, no matter how long that takes. What is that infrastructure? I’m not entirely sure I have it yet, since it will be a combination of things from properly publishing the piece to making certain that my heirs somehow keep that work in print. All things to work on and think about.
As I wrote this, I took a break for my daily walk. As I headed out the door, a writer friend called with an update about his career. On that walk, he told me about things I hadn’t even dreamed of, innovative things he was doing, and I told him some of the things we were doing here. It was fun to hear from him at that moment, because he had no idea what I had just been writing about.
We’re both blazing new trails, and doing it in completely different ways. Perhaps that’s the best part of this new world. There is no longer one way to have a writing career. There are as many ways as there are writers.
I wish more writers would realize that, and understand the freedom that awaits them, if only they’d stop believing the myths, looking for rules, and trying to find the one true path. There is only one path: It’s your path. You just have to build it, one step at a time.
This blog has become part of my writing business. I arrange my writing week around the blog so that it disrupts as little as possible. That’s hard, especially right now, as I am finishing up several projects, all of which demand my full attention.
As I’ve said from the beginning, this blog needs to earn its own way. That’s why I have the donate button up. I hope you will leave a tip if you read something interesting or you found this blog series helpful.
Thanks to everyone who has donated and thanks to the folks who comment, e-mail, send links, and forward this link to their friends.
See you next week!
“The Business Rusch: Experiments” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.