Saturday, February 12, 2005

Selection As The Second Pillar

In a previous post I mentioned that I thought Three Pillars would support a viable short fiction market on the web: Promotion, Selection, and Ease of Use. This time I'm going to talk about Selection and its subcategories Price and Value.

One of the major things that make iTunes and the new Napster and Microsoft subscription services work is the huge selection they have. When those services came into being there was already a critical mass of digital music files available, and, given the modern methods of recording, large numbers of new files were being created every day. Now, I'm not going to say that made it easy for these guys but it did make a lot of material available for someone who wanted to do the work of aggregating it. And much of that material was by Big Names.

In the case of short fiction that critical mass does not exist, not in text-based stories, certainly not in mp3 files, and absolutely not with Big Names attached. Having thought about it, I'm not sure a critical mass of stories has to exist. Music and fiction are different. I see no reason why a periodic zine of short stories (whether text-based or audio-based) can't charge for content PROVIDED certain things are addressed and changed. I also believe that the more often a zine is published, the more likely people will be willing to pay for that zine. A quarterly publishing schedule allows too much time for people to forget about how much they enjoyed reading the stories in the last issue.

Yesterday I did a very geeky thing. I listened to a podcast called The Gilmore Gang. This is a collection of ubergeeks that get together every week and talk about developments and trends in the IT world. The week of January 28, 2005, the subject was podcasts, how they related to the evolution of radio, and how one might make money with them.

Some people might be wondering why I keep bringing up podcasts. I keep doing that because podcasts are basically the same thing as short stories saved and downloaded as mp3 files for listening. What's happening with podcasts is relevant to recorded short stories. So there!

Getting back to The Gilmore Gang, their major conclusion after an hour of interrupting each other, was that if you wanted someone to pay for something, that someone would have to perceive some VALUE in what you were selling.

There it is, laying on the table like a dead rat: that annoyingly vague word, VALUE. What the hell does that mean?

Let's take an example. I suppose someone might perceive more value in a recording of one of my short stories as read by Thom Bray (actor, writer, TV producer) than they would in a recording by me. Thom's recording would have more value because: a) he can speak without stumbling over his own tongue every third word; and b) he can actually act. The listening experience would be more pleasant. Thus they would be more willing to pay real money for Thom's recording than mine.

Another way to add value is to bring widely separated items that people are interested in (but don't have the time or desire to search out themselves) together in one easily accessed place, and not just any old items, but the best items of their type. People buy AHMM and EQMM because they can get 8 or 10 high quality stories (most of the time) in one easy to use package for about $0.40 to $0.50 per story. People see value in that convenience and price.

So why won't people pay for Hardluck Stories, or Shred of Evidence, or Shots, or Thrilling Detective?

Four things. First, it's easy for people to see that the publishers of AHMM and EQMM have expenses: paper, printing, and transportation. (In my experience very few people think about paying the author. That's one of those vaporware expenses, doesn't really exist.) The buyers realize that in order for the publisher to continue to supply them with their convenient and reasonably priced stories, the publishers have to be able to pay their expenses and make a little profit.

Second, there are no easily understandable expenses for the web-based publisher. Nothing is tangible. Everything is just electronic bits and bytes zipping around the aether. Web-based publishers have no expenses. (Don't choke Dave, Megan, Sarah, and Kevin/Gerald!) Why should we (the consumer) pay for something that doesn't cost anything to produce? Woven into that is the old Internet wheeze, "information wants to be free," which is fine unless you are a producer of said information.

Third, stories published in ezines are perceived by the reading public as being inferior in quality to those published in print. This is an incorrect perception by and large. Of course there are sites that publish stories with little or no attention given to the skill of the author. This is where the EDITOR adds VALUE. The reading public has to be educated to understand that while a great deal of crap exists on the web, there are aggregators of content (ezines) that winnow that crap out and publish only the good stuff. We are beginning to see anthology editors such as Otto Penzler and John Breen break down that perception by including web-published stories in their "Best Of" anthologies. Or at least putting them in the Honorable Mention category. More work needs to be done here.

Fourth, stories published on the Internet simply aren't as convenient as stories published on paper. That is beginning to change, and I believe it's changing faster for audio-based material than it is for text-based material. All of this I'll discuss as the Third Pillar, Ease of Use.

After all this, I'm changing the name of the Second Pillar from Selection to Value. So, in order to make publishing (and writing!) short stories on the web an economically viable operation we have to convince the Gentle Reader (or Listener) that the value of what they are purchasing is greater than the price they are paying. That's going to take some work.


At 9:06 AM, Blogger Megan said...

I think the "convenience" factor of print vs. web is very subjective. The vast majority of the short fiction I read comes from webzines (and a fair chunk of the rest comes from e-books).

That's mainly because if I want a quick fix at work it's more convenient to use the computer. I don't have to cart around books or magazines I might potentially read, wonder if I should feel embarrassed by cover art (okay, I'll admit I've been tempted to just leave Kiss Her Goodbye sitting in my cubicle and see who says what), run the risk of two days without my current book because I left it at work, or wait till I go to the bookstore or get an Amazon delivery. I buy magazines irregularly, often within two minutes of reading a review of one of the stories or an author's mention of newly available work. Fictionwise means instant gratification.

If I took the train to work, or didn't have an office job with effortless internet access, my reading habits would probably be different. My reading habits were different in the 90s. Which is pretty much aligned with the points you're making; I just wanted to quibble with the apparent absolute.

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Bob said...

Quibble away! The convenience factor is subjective, but at this point the preponderance of the subjectivity lays on the side of the general public. I buy 95% of my books and magazines in electronic form. I even buy AHMM and EQMM as ebooks for all the reasons you state. Unfortunately people like you and me are in the small minority right now. That will change. We have to do what we can to help that change along so hopefully you and I can make some money doing what we love.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Megan said...

I've generally been thinking about audiences lately, and how one divides up the mass of "potential readers." First there's the language and literacy factor--except there are translations and audio possibilities. Then there's genre, but that's more a marketing and labeling issue than anything. Then there's access (which overlaps with social class to some degree): who can obtain print or electronic media, who can afford to buy it, who has the technical ability to read it. And that's without even factoring in the fact that some people just don't like to read, and some who do don't like to read the sort of stuff I'm interested in.

I used to think the best approach was to say "this is a book, and you can get it as a hardcover or a paperback or a download" and so on. I thought that because it's pretty much the way I picked up new technology. (And why I haven't done much at all with the audio possibility--audiobooks weren't something that I was overly interested in before iPods et al.) I figured it would work in the long run, and I still think it'll probably work in the long run, but I figured the "long run" would be a bit shorter than it's proving to be. (Not that I was ever in the e-book revolution camp--they just seemed silly and doomed to disappointment. But I did think that by 2005 people wouldn't still use quotes around the word published in reference to webzines.)

A somewhat long-winded way of saying that I've begun warming to the idea of targeting audiences based on format, not content. On some level it still feels wrong, but it seems to be the way an awful lot of folks are thinking (and purchasing). And, well, it's marketing, which can never be better than morally neutral.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Bob said...

Targeting an audience based on format isn't a bad idea. That's basically what I've been talking about regarding the audio files, I just hadn't thought about it in that focused way. If we, as writers of short stories, can slot our stuff into a popular format that people are used to paying for, like mp3's, then we are likely to bring some new listeners into the fold that might develop into readers.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Megan said...

And I guess the corollary in that situation is that it doesn't matter if they never develop into readers. As long as they're listeners, they're still part of the audience. And as long as providing multiple formats remains feasible--as long as it's one work, different packaging on the back end to some extent--that's all that counts.

At 1:32 PM, Blogger Megan said...

And I guess the corollary in that situation is that it doesn't matter if they never develop into readers. As long as they're listeners, they're still part of the audience. And as long as providing multiple formats remains feasible--as long as it's one work, different packaging on the back end to some extent--that's all that counts.

At 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head when you said that people can see the reason they're paying for a printed magazine, but not why they're paying for an online 'zine. There is a pretty wide-spread mentality that everything (info wise) online should be free.

If you want to charge for issues, that's going to work against you.

But I think, in all the discussions about this on your blogs and the SMFS board, everyone is forgetting one main source of revenue.

Ads, ads, ads, ads, ads, ads!

There are TONS of free newspapers and free online publications that subside SOLELY on advertising.

I'm not charging with my ezine, I'm going to try to subside on advertising and--eventually--start paying for my stories.

I don't think you're looking at it from the right perspective. Selling stories online is NOT like selling podcasts or iPod songs. The reason being that people are willing to pay for iPod songs or podcasts because neither is simply information. Stories are information, and generally, people don't like to pay for info online. (Unless you have a highly targeted nonfiction ebook. Those fly off the press--metaphorically--and make big $.)

Just my two cents,
Christopher Gooch

At 4:03 PM, Blogger Bob said...

You are absolutely right about the ads, Christopher. I had meant to get into that part of it in today's post, but, damnit, I forgot. But I don't think ads are going to be the single answer, but they can certainly be part of the answer. To make money on ads, you have to have very high traffic on your site, and if you are paid by the click-through, the ads have to be very focused and have high traffic. Maybe ads can allow you to charge $0.30 per story instead of $0.50 per story. Maybe you've got some really cool merchandise that you can sell to bring in more revenue. Or you can sell [fill in the blank]. The possiblities are pretty wide ranging.

OTOH, I think selling stories on the Internet is exactly like selling songs. Stories aren't just information. They are entertainment, and entertainment has value (there's that damn word again) over and above simple information. People are used to paying for entertainment. We just have to do a little educating.

At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a little further thought, I think you've got something there about songs being entertainment. Stories are entertainment. I hesitated to call them "info", but couldn't think of the right word. Entertainment, I think, applies to the "fiction" side of things--movies, songs, radio dramas, stories, etc.

And you're absolutely right about ads not doing everything. They're only profitable when you have high traffic and focused ads--both are necessary.

One way, I believe, to increase the perceived value of a short story would be to post the first couple of paragraphs of the story. If--and this is a huge IF--the hook is strong enough, it'd be real easy for the reader to click that "BUY" button. Of course, you sure as heck better have a good hook, though.


At 4:48 PM, Blogger Bob said...

I agree completely, Christopher. If you look on Fictionwise, they always have a teaser that you can read before you buy.

At 10:47 PM, Blogger Megan said...

But Fictionwise is a bookstore; you only go there with the intention to buy something. I'm not sure that selectively buying stories from a zine would be sustainable--the goal for the magazine model is subscriptions, not individual issues sales, much less subsets of issues.

On the perception front, I don't think people by and large pay for entertainment when they buy a print magazine. They pay for the physical object. (The competing philosophical extreme is the licensing model--renting content--of which I'm not a fan for various reasons.)

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Bob said...

I'm not suggesting that the stories be sold piecemeal. I only talked about prices for individual stories simply as a means of getting some datum point. I do think that if it becomes feasible to sell an ezine, the entire issue of the ezine should go as one package.

I think the people are paying for entertainment. The physical object just happens to contain that entertainment. People buy magazines because they want to read what's inside. They want to be entertained. They are going to have to be convinced that paying for a computer file is just as legitmate as paying for a physical object.

Licensing, PHOOEY!!

At 10:26 PM, Blogger ebgcommute said...

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