The Future Of Science Fiction Publishing Is In Cyberspace

A panel of science fiction writers and editors recently met at a publishing conference to discuss how blogs and internet marketing have affected the publishing industry and what their impact will be going forward.

The O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, held this past February, is a yearly event that brings literary professionals together to examine current trends and new technologies in the publishing world.

One panel, called "Where Do You Go with 40,000 Readers? A Study in Online Community Building," included John Scalzi (author of Old Man's War), Tobias Buckell (author of Halo: The Cole Protocol), and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (editor of the science fiction publisher Tor Books); the panel was moderated by Ron Hogan of Beatrice Books. All three of the panelists are bloggers as well. A video of the panel has just gone up (we've put it at the bottom of the post), and here's a quick summary of the highlights.

The basic premise of the discussion was that using blogs and newer media like Twitter can make publishing a more successful enterprise - a not particularly startling assertion in 2009. But the panelists delved into the nuances of what really makes a difference. Patrick Nielsen Hayden noted the appeal of successful bloggers goes beyond just their ability to write:

As an editor who's always look for good, promising new writers, obviously the ability to write an entertaining work of popular fiction is absolutely paramount, but on a secondary level, somebody who can keep an audience engaged with their personality and their thoughts on a variety of topics that aren't the incredibly boring subject of writing is a big plus. It basically suggests somebody who's going to flourish in the new media environment…

Towards the end of the panel, John Scalzi returned to this idea and succinctly spelled out the relationship between his roles as blogger and science fiction author:

When you build those 40,000 people or 4,000 people or however many you have because what you write is interesting to them and they come back again and again and again you develop an interest in yourself as an author. There's somebody in this room who once said the next generation of authors will be performers as well and there is something to that. My performance is not necessarily what I'm doing now, for example my performance is on my website on a daily basis. It makes a difference.

Of course, it's all well and good to trumpet the coming of this bold new media as the next big thing, but does it actually translate to increased sales? Nielsen Hayden gave a resounding yes to this question:

We published John's first novel, Old Man's War, as a hardcover original. Like most hardcover originals from unknown science fictions writers it shipped a very few thousand copies and went back to press almost immediately, and by the time a year had elapsed we had sold nearly like nine thousand copies in hardcover, over two-thirds of them through online sources, mostly Amazon. Which is to say the brick and mortar book industry mostly treated it like any first novel and it took them a long time to realize their lunch was being thoroughly eaten by online sales because John already existed online.

Moreover, a web presence is not only useful in driving up print sales; increasingly, it can be an end in itself, and a more popular one than traditional sources of science fiction at that. Scalzi discussed the impact of the Tor Books website offering original short fiction:

I think one of the things that was very useful for Tor to do, quite honestly, was they they did from the outset publish some original fiction. And I think that is something that is very useful, not just for upcoming authors but for existing authors…The short fiction market is kind of in turmoil at the moment and people are wondering where they're going to be able to find short fiction and how it works and where we go from there. The fact that Tor from the outset is doing short fiction has made quite a difference. I'll give you an example using my own particular story. We did, after The Coup, which came out when Tor.com debuted and after two weeks, more people had clicked through to read the story, or at least look at the story, than the combined circulation of the big three science fiction magazines.

One of Tor's advantages is that it actually pays writers a decent rate compared to the prestige science fiction magazines. Tor's online content pays about 25 cents per word, while their print counterparts pay about 7.5 cents per word. Scalzi draws the obvious conclusion:

Tor.com fiction is generally some of the best short fiction out there and it is specifically because it is paying a professional rate as opposed to a lot of the rates being paid in the genre.

They acknowledged that Scalzi's model for success can't really work for everyone, considering a huge part of his audience appeal is derived from the fact he's been writing online since 1998 (I'm not even sure how aware I was of the internet in 1998, but, in my defense, I was ten at the time). Still, there's always something new and different that those seeking to build a web presence can make their own, as long as they're able to do it in 140 characters or less:

Scalzi…Part of the reason that I have this audience I have is I was able to spend ten years building it. Now necessarily this is not…something that is necessarily practical for every writer to do. Every writer cannot replicate this because [to Nielsen Hayden] you say it's an early advantage and simply…

Nielsen Hayden: …right now there is just time for people who are suited to the medium to be early adopters of Twitter and become the huge Twitter stars of the future.

If I understand what he's saying, and I think I do, I believe this means Shaquille O'Neal will be the next big science fiction writer. I am very much on board with that.

Tobias Buckell, on the other hand, detailed common misconceptions about how online readerships work. Essentially, online marketing strategies can never have marketing as the sole, perhaps not even as the primary, purpose:

For an example, because I do have some credibility of being an author of a blog that's been around for a while and I've used it to leverage some of my success is that I will usually see a new writer with a first novel run off and create a website that is purely promotional and I have to say that one of the words I mentioned when I was first talking about what success I do have was ‘authenticity'…When I also do consulting for corporations occasionally about how to roll out some new media, like how to integrate Twitter or how to bring a blog to their website is always their first impulse is they want to speak to the customer, they want to deliver a press release, they want to tout their products. They're not interested in a conversation, they're not interested in building, like we said, a community. And so one the amazing things I've found is the honesty and authenticity to go out there and try to engage produces more long-term results, stronger result than just sort of vomiting content.

If you've got forty spare minutes and you really want to know more about this, you can watch the full video below:


[Bowling To The Future]