August 22nd, 2008


My Thoughts on Free Online Fiction

Obviously, I've got a horse in this race and its existence pretty much declares where I stand. but I figured I'd jot down some thoughts anyhow from the point of view of a techno-geek who's been watching the Internet grow and change from the beginning.

I'll start by saying this: Can you put stories up online for free and still sell them? is the wrong question. Can you put stories up online for free as part of a successful business model? is a whole lot closer to how I'd phrase it.

From the publishing side, I would argue yes and suggest that one look to webcomics to see some excellent examples of ingenuity in web-marketing, particularly the guys that run the Penny Arcade comic strip. Do they make money off the daily strip? Not directly, no. But they make a crap ton in merchandising (books and games and t-shirts and a mess of other things), other tie-ins such as the PAX Expo. and advertising. For another example, look at Jonathan Coulton's "Thing a Week" experiment, where free online content has worked well to drive Coulton's career. Coulton sells an icon you can put on your site to show your support, for one. He is essentially selling pixels. And they're pretty low-cost, usually.

For authors, people paying you to put your fiction up online is GREAT. You can easily point people to the site, for one thing. (How many writers are tired of explaining to family members that their latest publication is in a lit mag with a circulation of 250 that you can only get at a bookstore in Nome, Alaska?) Work on the Internet helps a writer build name recognition of the kind that leads people to pick one book over another when putting money down. I've made sure my online bibliography includes links to the free stuff, including a couple of older pieces I put up myself. I figure it gives me a chance to persuade people they'll like my writing.

The idea that one can transpose the print model onto the electronic world is a misguided one. Free quality content drives people to your site. It's up to you what you do with them after that. One obvious thing is selling them merchandise: t-shirts, stickers, logos to put on their website, ring-tones, anthologies by the authors you're showcasing, audiobooks, subscriptions to newsletters that have extras beyond what you're giving out for free. And so on and so on. It does require effort, and flexibility, and creativity. See Penny Arcade again.

Certainly people may be willing to click the occasional tip jar, but that seems a risky proposition to base a business on. I know that I have supported the Strange Horizons yearly fund drive not just because they've published my stuff but because they publish some good, interesting, adventurous stuff that I like, on all fronts: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and I have heard other good stories about tip jars (along with a whole lot of so-so ones).

I would be very curious to know how the web-subscription model, such as Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Baen's, or James Patrick Kelly 's podcasts, is working for people. I have no data on that whatsoever. Jerry Pournelle's newsletter seems to make him enough to keep wanting to do it.