The Short Of It
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Building the FoundationI found this on Simon Waldman's blog today. Simon is the Director of Digital Publishing for the Guardian Newspapers. He was talking about news publishing on the web, but what he said applies just as well to fiction publishing on the web.
My overall feeling - as I’ve banged on about repeatedly, is that we are seeing the start of a series of moves that will take us from a world of online publishing that is really printing without paper, to a media environent unlike any other we have previously operated in. And, exactly who will make money out of it, how they’ll make it, and how much they’ll make is still unclear.
Photojournalists have an expression that the best aperture is ‘F/8 and be there’. In otherwords - forget technical wizardry - if you’re in the right place at the right time and pointing your camera in the right direction, you’re 90% of the way there. And I think that’s the same with this. This isn’t about fine tuned strategies and trying to work it out in meeting rooms for the next year. Point and shoot and see what happens. [emphasis mine]
This is what I am groping toward with this blog and my rants on short story publishing. The fact is we don't know what is going to work, and even the smartest, most perceptive people out there haven't got a clue how to predict what will work. The only thing we can do is try something and see what happens. Most of the time we'll probably do a face plant, but what the hell, it's only cyberspace. The ground is soft.
Selection As The Second PillarIn 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.
Friday, February 11, 2005
Cell Damage by Dave Case"Cell Damage" by Dave Case, Hardluck Stories, Winter 2005
Another series in the making - and that's a good thing.
John Pope and Maggie Gallagher are members of the Special Operations Section of the Chicago Police. That section contains the most aggressive officers in the Department, which explains some of the actions in this story.
Pope and Gallagher are partners, almost as widely divided in age as they are in gender. Pope takes Gallagher to breakfast at one of his favorite joints. When they get there, they find the crime scene cops present. It seems that the owner, arriving to open the restaurant, found a dead man on his floor. The detective that caught the case, Freddy Lode, is holding the owner, Gus, a friend of Pope's, with the intention of charging him with murder. Gus says that he didn't kill the man, but he has tested positive for gunshot residue.
Pope and Gallagher hit the streets searching for a viable alternative killer. Along the way they identify the corpse. He was Gus's granddaughter's boyfriend; at least he was before he raped her. That gives Gus a motive for killing the man.
The two cops then start canvassing the neighborhood. They find witnesses that saw an ice cream truck and three unfamiliar men behind the restaurant before Gus arrived. The three men had entered the restaurant, but only two came out. Further investigation, one lead taking them to the next, leads them to the real culprits and a gunfight.
At the end, Pope reasons out why there was GSR on Gus' hand. A nice little twist.
The story is well written and very believable, which makes sense because Mr. Case is a Chicago cop and a member of the SOS. I liked the interaction between Pope and Gallagher, though Gallagher's tongue action (read the story yourself!) might be a little over the top.
In short, I'm looking forward to the next installment.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
House of Pain by James M. McGowan“House of Pain” by James M. McGowan, Hardluck Stories, Winter 2005
This story is set in Northern Ireland and follows an IRA cell when four men arrive at a bar. They’ve come to pick up a suspected traitor. They will hold a trial and, if the man is found guilty, an execution. That is the plot. Almost. There is one other very subtle plot line operating.
Mr. McGowan is a skillful writer. He uses the appearance of British patrols to build suspense, and the atmosphere is well drawn. The desperation and fear of the suspected traitor builds convincingly from nonchalance when he is first picked up through naked terror at the end. Very nicely done.
And that other plot line I mentioned? I said it was subtle. I missed it entirely on the first reading. I found it the second time through. The setup occurs in one paragraph, two sentences, near the beginning of the story, just after two of the cell members enter the pub to bring out the traitor. It gives the main character’s actions another level of meaning. A very skillful use of setup-payoff.
Oh, one other thing. One member of the cell, the main character in this first-person telling, is a bit crazier than the others, and seeing that they are IRA, that’s saying something. That character is named McGowan. It’s probably a good thing that I liked this story.
In short, skillfully executed.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Interview with Clint Gaige, Quiet Storm PublishingClint Gaige is chief cook and bottle washer over at Quiet Storm Publishing. In addition to the Quiet Storm website and his personal website, Clint has started a blog. One day he talked about his best sellers and some of the other things he was doing. Since it was all good news for short story fans, I thought an interview was in order.
The Short Of It: In your blog you said that your best-selling book in 2004 was Chesapeake Crimes, edited by Donna Andrews, an anthology, and that Bab's Lakey's DIME, another anthology, was in the top ten. Does this make you more open to anthologies and collections (Anthology: multiple authors; Collection: single author) than a major publisher might be?
Clint Gaige: Hmmm, tough question. Primarily, we publish full-length fiction, that is our bread and butter. I am open to anthologies with the right vision, collections, on the other hand, are a real tough sell. If the right author brought me the right collection at the right time, I would consider it.
TSOI: On the basis of a percentage of overall sales your anthology sales are obviously larger than they would be from a big house like St. Martins. Do you know how the number of books sold compares? In other words, would an anthology from Quiet Storm sell more copies than an anthology from St. Martins?
CG: Probably not. The larger houses just have so many weapons at their disposal. Small publishers are really at the market's mercy. I will say that we may push our anthologies more than a larger house though. So, it is possible we could out distance a larger house anthology given enough time, but if you're gauge is release date sales, we'd lose every time.
TSOI: You're doing an audio book of Babs Lakey's DIME anthology. Why did you decide to do that?
CG: I decided to do that before I really thought it through. My background is in audio production. I love the sensual nature of audio books, but they are a VERY tough beast.
TSOI: How is the process for doing that different from print publishing?
CG: An edited book takes quite a long time to write and edit...audio books take a neutral reader (most of the time) and introduces the material to the voiceover artist...you then hope that the reader can do justice to the work.
TSOI: How is the timeline different?
CG: It is a GRUELING process. Usually, 2-6 hours of reading per chapter, that doesn't count the production end of things which can take another 2-4 hours per chapter.
TSOI: How do you feel about the future of audio? Do you see advantages in distributing audio, perhaps over the web, in digital form?
CG: I love audio and I think it can bring a number of things to the field...especially with MP3 technology.
TSOI: I also noticed that you are starting to offer your books on disk in two ebook formats along with a video related to producing the book and an audio file of the author reading a selection. Have you been doing it long enough, or do you have enough out, to have gotten much reaction?
CG: This is a brand new plan of ours and a completely new product for us. We haven't received a lot of reaction yet but it has been positive. Since we're just testing the waters, we have not really used the technology as well as we could.
TSOI: Well, that's probably more than enough for now. I appreciate your patience.
CG: Not at all, I appreciate the interest.
Thanks again to Clint for taking time out of his very busy schedule. Go to his website and buy some of his books. I hear a rumor that there is a book available now written by some guy with a name like Cold, or Snow, or something. I just know the name has something to do with Winter. I've heard it's pretty good.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Junk In The Trunk AnthologyThe Junk In The Trunk anthology is now open for business. For those of you who have been hiding under a rock the last month, this is the result of an off the wall idea cooked up between Dave White and Bryon Quertermous. They contacted a list of author bloggers and invited them to write a story about someone with something in the trunk of their car who gets pulled over by the police. The stories were great. Now you can read them all in one place, you lucky people!
Glutton for Punishment by Charles Shafer"Glutton for Punishment" by Charles Shafer, Hardluck Stories, Winter 2005
Two Chins Carter gets in the middle of something bad in this quick-reading tale.
Two Chins, aptly named given his 300-plus pounds, is a two-bit strongarm man who, having recently been released from a year's imprisonment for exercising his talents on Joey, a deli owner, returns for revenge. Having exacted said revenge Two Chins must now beat feet most quickly - but not before gulping down a foot-long hot dog and a handful of fries.
Two Chins steps outside just in time to see an old Caddy driven by a little old lady creeping down the street. Putting himself in danger of a heart attack he catches up to the Caddy and carjacks the old lady. Once inside the car he discovers a passenger in the back seat, a small man that the old lady calls Don.
After discovering that the two people don't have enough money between them to buy him a decent meal, Two Chins decides to take advantage of the home-cooked meal the old lady has waiting for Don at her house - in the Little Italy section of town.
Once at the old lady's house she ignores Two Chins and serves a heaping plate of food to Don. It is, after all, his birthday. Two Chins, not one to be ignored when there's food to be had, takes the plate from Don in spite of the old lady's insistence that Don should eat first. When the old lady tries to give Don another plate, Two Chins takes that as well, leaving Don without.
Two Chins really should have let Don eat first. The ending is nicely twisty.
I particularly liked the way Mr. Shafer handled Two Chins' characterization. In the very first paragraphs of the story he establishes Two Chins' propensity for violence. Then in the twelfth and thirteenth paragraphs of the story he sets up the character traits that make the scene at the old lady's house believable. Set up and payoff, important elements in a crime story.
In short, well done.
Monday, February 07, 2005
Knight Erring by Darragh Metzger"Knight Erring" by Darragh Metzger, Hardluck Stories, Winter 2005
This story takes place at a Renaissance Faire and follows a team of seven reinactors, five men and two women. They perform jousts at the various faires around the country.
At the beginning of the story Jane, a new member of the team, is about to joust against her team member, Deke. While she's supposed to win the joust, she suffers an equipment failure. The shaft of her battle-axe fails, and she takes a blow to the head that ends the match.
Jane, apparently a hothead, is fuming. She had supposedly one of the best armorers on the circuit custom make the axe for her. Now she's off to give the man a piece of her mind.
Accompanied by two of her teammates she confronts Thor at his place of business, a tent on the grounds. She makes a general spectacle of herself and even threatens to kill him if he doesn't have her a replacement axe within an hour. Then she gets really nasty and threatens to sic the IRS on him. Man, was she mad!
Later in the day Rory and Jane find Thor dead in Jane's tent with Jane's new axe buried in his head. Rather than rushing off to call security or the police, the team sits down and works out the story. Then Jack, the team leader, gives the OK to call the police. While they are waiting for the police to arrive, Rory while moving the body discovers a clue. Yes, Rory is an idiot.
The clue leads them to the murderer but by an indirect route. The ending, an action-filled chase on horseback with a little jousting to boot is the best part of the story, exciting and suspenseful.
This is a fun story though the writing seems a little uneven at times. I suspect that will be corrected as Ms. Metzger becomes more comfortable with the characters.
She handles the background of the faire very well, which makes sense because Ms. Metzger has spent several years doing in real life what she is writing about.
My one quibble is with her choice of Rory as the first person narrator of the story. The guy is immature and a bloody idiot as well. I suspect she made this choice as a way to introduce a little comic relief. Perhaps this will work itself out as she spends more time with her ensemble cast. She is currently working on a novel featuring this same cast of characters. I'll be on the lookout for that.
In short, I hope Ms. Metzger turns out a few more stories like this before her novel comes out.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Further Thoughts on Promoting Short FictonLet’s talk some more about promotion. The way I see it, promotion is one of three pillars that will support a burgeoning short story market. Any effort to start a new zine (on the small scale) or a new culture (on the large scale) will succeed or fail in large part because of the effort put into promotion.
Promotion occurs on two levels. The first is the grassroots level. On this level there need to be evangelists, people who are willing to buttonhole anyone who will stand still long enough and regale them with the virtues of the short story in general and any or all means of acquiring them in particular.
Some of that is already happening with an increase of short story panels at the various writer/fan conventions. That’s important. Convince fans that short stories are fun to read, that they are as meaty, at times, as novels, that short stories can make you laugh, cry, or get mad just as easily as a novel can in a much shorter period of time.
Another type of grassroots effort is blogs that talk about short stories (he said, modestly).
This all translates into word of mouth, and that’s a very powerful form of promotion.
However, in spite of what modern marketing gurus say, I don’t think that grassroots promotion will do all that needs to be done to make short stories popular among the general reading, or listening, public. Short stories need to be perceived as COOL. I’ve said this before, and I will keep saying it. If THE PUBLIC sees short stories as COOL, then the short story market will boom.
I emphasized THE PUBLIC because that’s who we need to be targeting. We all know or are being told that the number of people who read, books, magazines, newspapers, whatever, is shrinking. We need to reach the ones who are not now reading or are reading minimally. If they come to think short stories are COOL, they will demand short stories.
So how does something become COOL? I will point to two very successful marketing campaigns: iPod and “Got Milk?”. I’ve talked about iPod before, and I’ll probably do it again, but not today.
The “Got Milk?” campaign was successful because they used celebrities and produced images that stuck in the mind. At the time I thought the campaign was asinine, but it worked. I can’t argue with that.
A product becomes COOL when it is associated with someone or something that is already perceived as COOL. Tom Cruise is cool. Angelina Jolie is cool. Stephen King is cool. And he may be the only writer that is so perceived.
Promotion, promotion, promotion, people.
Oh, yeah. I said that promotion was one of three pillars. The other two are selection (of which price is a subcategory) and ease of use. I’ll talk about those in future rants.