Aug 25 2008 11:54am

Gordon Van Gelder Asks Some Questions

I would be remiss in my duties as "the dude who talks about short fiction" if I didn't send you to look at Gordon Van Gelder's (Hugo Award winning editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) recent blog post: "Questions about publishing short fiction online."

As with many of us (reader, writers, and editors), whether to publish stories online has been on his mind lately. You should go to Gordon's post and enter in your comments there, but here are the questions to which he's looking for answers:

1. When you read a story online that you like, do you feel inclined to support the publisher of the piece?

2. Have you ever subscribed to a print magazine on account of a story you read on their site?

3. Most magazine publishers post their Hugo- and Nebula-nominated stories online for free. If F&SF started charging the cost of an issue to read these stories, would you do so?

4. Do you think the prevalence of free short fiction online has made you less inclined to pay for short fiction?

1. Yes. Whether it's an online publisher or a print publisher, I try my best to support as much of the short fiction field as I can. I particularly try to support new endeavors since I'd like to see what people do.

2. My heart wants to say yes, but my brain keeps telling me no. Gordon carefully puts print magazines in the question in order to exclude places like Strange Horizons, Lone Star Stories, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Farrago's Wainscot which don't have a subscribable product. I honestly can't think of any examples other than myself of print magazines that have put up online fiction, either for the heck of it or as a means to draw in subscribers. Now, if the next question wasn't there, I might think otherwise, but I'm excluding magazines that put up award-nominated stories from this question. I know a few places have started to put up free fiction, but I've either already been a subscriber to those magazines or decided to not subscribe.

3. I was going to say "I don't I think I would," and I'm going to change that to "no I wouldn't" and be more emphatic about it. For me, the point of posting award-nominated stories is to assist in the voting process. I realize that there are people who read the stories for free this way and do not vote, but I can only speak for my own purposes. Now, if those nominated stories were available together (even in a POD format) as a sort of 2007 Award-Nominated Stories from F&SF publication? That could be something worth talking about.

4. No. But I may be an exception. I do know that I'm prone to read the online, free fiction before my magazines for several reasons. The print magazines have a permanance: they are always there for me to read. I can get to them at my leisure. The online fiction might stay up forever, there might be stories that get taken down, the publisher might only have them up for a limited time, etc. Also, since I tend to spend at least eight hours a day in front of a computer, it's very convenient to read the online fiction. A new issue of Clarksworld Magazine or Strange Horizons only has a few stories compared to their print counterparts, so it takes me less time to read an entire issue. I think the prevalence of free fiction online has made it so that I am unwilling to pay for online fiction.

By the time you read this, my responses should also be over at Gordon's post. The question of whether to put fiction online for free is a tough one. At first glance it seems like a great idea. However, if you're the publisher of this fiction, you quickly run into the problem of how to maintain everything. You have to pay for the stories, for the art, for the web space, etc. and web advertising only covers so much. Annual print anthologies of the online fiction or other publishing ventures or donation drives might cover your costs, but this is all so new, no one's hit on a consistent formula yet. We're on the cusp of a new venture, and I'm very interested to see where it goes.

Liza .
1. aedifica
So far Baen's model is working for me: the first half of the story is free, to read the second half you have to buy the issue (which then gives you access to the second halves of all the other stories in the issue).
2. Marina
Ever heard of a Library, friend? Free books, free, free, all you can (well - except for taxes). The punchline is, though I'm an avid library user, I still buy books, lots of them. Now I'm buying them online.

The kicker for the author/publisher is, you need to make it EASY to buy books. Give away some to get your potential hooked on your product, and sell the rest. And make it one button easy to buy, as Amazon has done with the Kindle e-reader, as Apple has done on the music side with iTunes.

I have an iPod Touch and there are a couple of (free) 3rd party apps that now let me use it as a reader. Hooray! But I had to work at getting that function going, and now I have to work to find compatible e-book sources for the titles I want. Not good, at all.

Make it easy for me and I'll buy. Make the price consistant, and better, low - the way iTunes has and I'll buy lots.

I understand that deep reluctance to give away your work. But you need to understand the world has changed with this technology and you (and your publisher) need to find a way to make it work for you, or people will take your work, digitize it, and post it to the wide world anyway. Because they like it, nice second prize, but cash in hand would be better, n'est pas?

Publishers may think bludgeoning customers with the Copyright Act will make digital piracy disappear. Wrongo. Think Napster, and all the other variants that still exist. And then think of iPods and iTunes. Choose. Now.
Rudi Dewilde
3. BalRatMort
Ok, let's start answering the questions:

1. Yes, in fact, my renewed obsession for SciFi can be totally attributed to reading online. I have bought literally hunderds of books because of that.
2. Yes, I subscribed to both Asimov's and Analog because I read award-nominated stories from both magazines online.
3. Possibly, see 2...
4. No, the opposite is true. My interest in short stories got revived by reading online examples.

I recently bought an e-reader (the new Iliad) which uses the paperlike new e-ink. It's my best buy ever, as it can in no way be compared to reading online on your PC. It's like reading paper.
Other companies have their own reader, and I really believe we will see a growth in e-book sales now.
And if I read a particulary good book on my e-reader I also buy the "paper" version.

I think it was Stross that said in his blog that free e-books boost his sales, but that editors are still afraid of it.

I also like the Baen way of working (lots of free books to entice you to buy online, although there is a lot of crap in their library. But with TOR books on Baen shortly all that will be history :-)

Anyway, times are a-changing, and I think for the better.
John Klima
4. john_klima
Marina, I don't really make a big deal about it, but I work full-time as a librarian. I also read a lot of books from the library. And I also still buy a lot of books. :)

However, I don't think libraries are necessarily relevant to Gordon's questions and my answers. You'll find fewer and fewer libraries are carrying fiction magazines. If you want to read genre fiction magazine content these days, you have to either buy it, or read a place that is giving it away.

I'm all for giving away content, but as a publisher of a small magazine, my concern is: if I give away the content, how do I support my expenses in providing the content? People don't give me stories for free. It isn't as simple as just doing it.

It's different when Stross or Doctorow or Scalzi are giving away their books for free; in most of those cases they've already been paid for their book through the book's advance. On top of that, they're all exceptionally talented writers. As the publisher a magazine, I'm the one paying everyone. If I give it away...

But, I've never tried. So I have no factual basis for my concerns. I don't know that giving away content for free will or won't drive sales. The one issue I've posted online in its entirety was done after the issue had already sold out. Perhaps it's time for me to try posting the issue online as it goes on sale.

You're absolutely right, though. The process of obtaining electronic content needs to be simple. And there's no reason to charge $5 for an e-version of a print magazine. The print price is set based on covering the costs of production (an over-simplification, but for these purposes it works). An electronic version would lose most of those costs, and its price should be adjusted accordingly.
Joe Sherry
5. jsherry

I know you have several issues of EV that have gone out of print. Do you think it would significantly raise your costs in the future to add electronic rights to your contracts so that, say, six months after an issue has sold out you publish the issue for free online?

It might be a bit much of a hassle to try to go back and get electronic rights to the stories in already sold out issues, but it might be a way around putting stuff out for free without negatively impacting your business model.

Also, were you able to tell any difference in sales from posting "The Way He Does It" online last year after the WFA nomination?

My answer to Gordon's #3 question was a qualified yes, though the more I think about it, the more grudging I am about it.

I wouldn't pay the price of a full issue. What if F&SF only has one nominated story? I'm to pay $5 for *that*? Nope.

If you're charging for your online fiction I don't think anything more than a buck a story is realistic , but even at that price point I'm not going to take a risk on an unknown. Potentially not even an unknown award nominated story.

Besides getting the work out to voters, I think posting free nominated stories of major awards is one of the better ways to advertise particular magazines. *Those* are the quality stories that are published, come buy our product in the future. Here's a taste.

As an aside, I wish more publishers would put out World Fantasy Award nominated work, besides just the Hugo and Nebula.
Jeffrey Richard
6. neutronjockey
This is the part where I see a post by John and immediately start spieling about marketing!

Or not... or kinda... maybe.

I wonder if the delivery method of SFF can be improved. Meaning: a short story was designed to be able to be digested by the reader in a single uninterrupted setting. That was at least the vision of the short story---what made it superior to supposedly longer forms of fiction.

Let me not go into single effect---they are brainwashing me at school...

The intent of giving away free stuff has been to sell ENTIRE subscriptions or (at least) ONE magazine.

Why not just sell one copy of one short story.

You can buy individual tracks of CDs and albums (is that word even used anymore?) ... isn't that what people have come to expect? Customization of their reading time? "I want that author, and that one, and the free copy I got of that one makes me want to read that one..."

The other thing Mr. Van Gelder points out is the use of metrics. Metrics is good --- but what does the metrics really tell you? Can you reliably account for all variables involved? Magazine subscriptions have gone down in the last quarter therefore people no longer like short fiction? Or, magazine subscriptions have gone down in the last quarter because people's pockets are squeezed by rising gas prices?

John Scalzi was quoted regarding his story "After the Coup" --- it had received 49,566 hits. From who? Coming in from where? What IPs? Multiple IPs or 50k hits from the same IP? Is there a particular region that's reading Scalzi more than any other? Was it via another link from someone else's blog? Can this be tied into an increase in sales of Scalzi-Fiction...can we prove it?

Metrics is important. Metrics however isn't everything. Psychological reciprocity IS everything.

"John Klima, you're lookin' good today."

Paying a compliment is free, costs you nothing, makes them feel better and makes them more likely to give you something back in return.

That free compliment could be in the form of complementary fiction...and could be returned by them hand-selling your 'zine---digitally of course.
Arachne Jericho
7. arachnejericho
Speaking as someone who's deeply involved with metrics in various contexts, and not just at play with the blog... 50k views for one article is a very, very difficult number to reach if you're not one of the top bloggers (and just about none of the SF bloggers are near the top bloggers, apart from Cory Doctorow in cahoots with Boing Boing) or something like Yahoo, eBay, Amazon, or Google (all to whom 50k is a drop in the peak hours bucket).

Yes, there are shared IPs in there, and yes, there people reading the story multiple times, but those factors tend to even each other out. 50k is what you got, sir.

50k is gold. Especially in that short of an amount of time. "But what if it's just a few IPs?" does not hold, statistically speaking from samples I've taken of small, middle, large, and ginormous data sets where web visits are concerned.

It's not so much that metrics is everything. It's that good metrics measure whether you're failing or not, and where you might be failing. And good metrics strongly depend on having a goal that *is* measurable. It's a game of playing scientist, sometimes mad scientist, and making sure you know when to cut your losses and when to push ahead, though the world damns your decision.

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