Publishers talk about blogging and SciFi literature

Note: I find myself using the once-derided “SciFi” more and more often when referring to science fiction and fantasy because it’s just so easy to write, whereas SF&F requires a slightly different typing pattern. Besides, most people now associate SciFi (the cable network) with science fiction and fantasy (although I think purists would point out that it’s mostly cheap, schlocky science fiction and fantasy — which is why they objected to using scifi in the first place).

All of which has virtually nothing to do with this story from IO9 about a a panel on blogging at the O’Reilly Tools For Change Publishing Conference. The article is accompanied by a 40-minute video of the panel if you want to watch it.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden (editor for Tor Books), author John Scalzi, author Tobias Buckell, and moderator Ron Hogan of Beatrice Books talked about the impact of blogging and the Internet on marketing books, especially science fiction and fantasy books. Heh! I could have easily sat on that panel 8 years ago.

If you have an established audience they will buy your books, and if you need to establish an audience the Internet is a great place to do that. I’m not yet convinced that Twitter will enable unknown people to launch whole new careers. That concept has to be proven beyond the occasional fluke (and so far all the flukes seem to be doing with Twitter is getting themselves fired).

There is a difference between someone like Shaquille O’Neal, Aston Kucther, and Oprah Winfrey reaching out to established fan bases with Twitter and someone who has never been heard of before coming on like a dark horse and overtaking the field. Maybe it can be done, maybe not. But if the future of science fiction literary success is based on media like Twitter, new authors will have to work even harder to make names for themselves.

The Internet has turned self-promotion into an almost mainstream practice. For over 100 years the traditional publishing industry has warned people against buying the services of vanity presses, who would shamelessly print and ship 3000 copies of books no one wanted to buy to their author/customers. The authors then had to go sell the books themselves, and good luck getting book stores to take on such books. A few authors succeeded.

The first online book success was probably M.J. Rose‘s romance eBook, which she sold in the late 1990s. A writer for a popular online magazine, she had an established audience who quickly bought 16,000 copies of her eBook at a time when people like Patrick Nielsen Hayden were saying no one wanted to buy eBooks (I am referring to a discussion in a science fiction news group I participated in many years ago where numerous SF authors tried to convince me no one was buying eBooks).

Selling eBooks has sometimes been easier than selling books online. There were always two eBook markets, and the larger market was the one that Publisher’s Weekly could not track because it was a cottage industry. Small online presses used distribution channels PW simply wasn’t aware of (or perhaps didn’t respect) back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Of course, the Dot-Com Meltdown shattered the online eBook market like it shattered so many other industries, but one online distribution channel survived the Dot-Com Meltdown: Print-on-Demand publishing. POD books were also eschewed by the traditional publishing gurus for years because, frankly, there were a lot of false starts in the POD publishing industry. Nonetheless, one company made it possible for POD technology to survive and flourish: Okay, there were actually three companies that ensured the success and survival of POD technology: Amazon, Ingram, and R.R. Bowker.

R.R. Bowker will sell ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) to just about anyone.

Ingram invested in Print-on-Demand technology through its Lightning subsidiary.

And Amazon carried POD books in its regular inventory.

The distribution channel thus survived, and thousands of frustrated authors, tired of being rejected by New York’s picky editors (or just wishing to reprint books that were once accepted by New York), bypassed the entire publishing industry and made the self-publishing industry respectable once again (which it had not been since the days of Mark Twain). Only this time it wasn’t that a lot of good authors had jumped on the bandwagon, but rather that the capacity to publish a lot of mediocre or bad authors finally existed.

The demand for print-on-demand books went through the roof, but the demand was generated by people who wanted or needed to publish books — including organizations, businesses, government agencies, and self-promotional entrepreneurs. Seth Godin and Stephen King didn’t hurt anything by helping popularize eBooks, especially since no one has ever really agreed on just exactly what an eBook is. If you can put together a .PDF file that is more than 50 (printable) pages long, you probably have an eBook.

Collectively, we probably publish between 2 million and 3 million eBooks a year. We just don’t monetize them.

But publishing a book is not the same thing as selling a book. And that is where the Internet comes in, although many authors go about promoting their books in the worst possible ways. The best thing you can do is make a name for yourself, and the easiest way to do that is to blog. Blog regularly, blog consistently, blog well.

Don’t get me wrong. There are other ways to make a name for yourself. You can be a freelance writer, selling stories to online and print magazines that give bylines. You can build a popular Web forum community. You can create a business that promotes you as the spokesperson. You can become a spokesperson for someone else’s business. You can create goofy videos (the “Will It Blend” videos are a great example of self-promotion that works). You don’t just have to blog.

But it’s easier to blog than to do all that other stuff (I’ve tried it — I know where the least amount of effort is required). Of course, millions of people start blogs every year and most of those people end up abandoning their blogs. Why? Because they’re not really into writing. A professional writer, whether self-published or not, looks at writing as the work s/he loves to do. It’s a career choice, not a job. It’s a life path, not something you do until something better comes along.

Your passion is your game and passion is what brings people back time and time again. They can tell when you care about what you write because your passion makes your writing interesting.

There are, in fact, professional writers who earn quite a bit of money but never achieve any recognition at all. They work-for-hire and retain no rights to what they do. I’ve taken on more than one work-for-hire contract and currently work with several work-for-hire writers (they write for me in my day job). The work-for-hire writing industry has exploded because of the Internet. Online marketers, trying to game the search engine algorithms, have created a huge demand for people to write unique, original articles about thousands of topics.

Those guys sell eBooks and POD books, too — but their work-for-hire writers don’t get the credit (or much of the money). It’s the volume of work being done that makes the industry so successful. A lot of money is changing hands. But the one thing online marketers have (or think they have) that typical self-promotional writers don’t have is a knowledge of how to attract and retain online audiences.

If you don’t have the audience, you have no one to sell to. Twitter has yet to prove itself as a vehicle for selling books and merchandise (except for well-known celebrities and NetCelebrities). Blogging, on the other hand, has proven itself many times over.

I think that — as someone who recently sat on a blogging panel at an SF convention — you’ll see more and more conferences and conventions focus on the growing power of blogging in the SF publishing industry. It’s a powerful medium that hasn’t yet been fully exploited.

SF-Fandom is a fan-run moderated Web discussion community devoted to science fiction, fantasy, history, and mythology. Founded in 2001, SF-Fandom is part of the Xenite.Org Network of science fiction and fantasy Web sites.


2 responses to “Publishers talk about blogging and SciFi literature

  1. There have been numerous discussions on various blogs and forums regarding this and related topics. The one big issue that always stands out is that there are very few authors (good, bad, old or indifferent) who have a following, have content and obviously know how to write, but who either aren’t interested or are not capable of sustaining the self-marketing grind that is necessary to really achieve success.

    The number of authors who produce really standout work and who have a consistent and interesting online presence are represented by perhaps a double-handful.

    I believe that true success on a grand scale is going to require some kind of third-party assistance for the authors – be it services provided by traditional publishers (they set up the author page, the RSS & twitter feeds and perhaps even provide some kind of content when the author in question doesn’t keep up the schedule), marketing specialists who will ‘manage’ numerous author sites or something somewhere in-between.

  2. I used to write a weekly column for Suite101 in the early 2000s. At one point I had about 30,000 weekly readers. Suite101, unfortunately, could not afford to keep paying its writers. I stayed with them for about a year after they discontinued their payments in the hope they’d find a way to monetize the site effectively enough to pay me again.

    I believe they do now pay writers again but that came in after I left the site.

    In my opinion, anyone who wants to be paid for building an audience needs to find a regular writing gig — a weekly or daily column. I’ve done both. Writing the weekly column for Suite101 like to killed me. Writing the daily column (which I only just recently stopped doing after a little more than 2 years) was absolute torture.

    There is no free ride in this business.