The Future of Publishing

After reading this article on Michael Stackpoole's ideas about where fiction is going, my usual speculation urges came to the forefront.  I began to wonder what might a viable model be for publishing internet fiction that would go around the big publishers, or at least let one build a reputation and an audience.

Understand of course I am NOT a professional writer (I've been published professionally, which is no where near the same).  This is pure geek theory, so take it as you will, and make sure that grain of salt has friends.

So, here goes – what I see as a viable model for fiction publishing in the future.

The first question is what are people looking for in their fiction.  Of course that is in part a trick question – people have very different desires for genre, character, etc.  So any questions about what people want is sort of a meta-question.

Based on my observations, deluded as they may be, there are a few things that stand out..

  • People want something they connect to.  This may or may not be related to "quality"
  • People want something they can keep up with – IF they have to.  This implies either something with support material, easy access to past material, or easily consumable.
  • People want something "good" but that varies.  I would say the "general" good is "delivers what someone wants in a matter they can enjoy."  The greater "Good" would be world-changing stuff like Tolkein, and that's a harder call since it can come out of nowhere – and tends to be more universal.
  • People want to share their love with others.  Fiction fandom is a social bonding experience.
  • People tend to like being able to make a long-term commitment to something, but it's not guaranteed.
  • Multimedia synergy is appreciated, but not necessary – it's a tricky deal depending on the property and how it evolves.  Poor synergy only sells units in big properties.
  • People want to be able to experience their fiction in a variety of ways, devices, etc.
  • Few people read a giant work in one setting – Harry Potter aside.
  • People like to connect with creators, they often feel a familiarity with them.

From this I can determine a few things:

  • People want something they take to personally.
  • They want some kind of social involvement around it, or will build it.
  • Multimedia or blockbuster status is nice, but not required – though it may evolve.
  • They want multiple forms and ways of access.


Authors of course have their own needs.  Big Open Internet type i am I WANT authors to make money.  A lot of money.  I want them to keep writing.

The internet age makes it easy to publish – and also transmit content beyond your control, without physical media, etc.  It's a tight balance.  Also authors are extremely varied people- I can generalize about fans, but individual authors bring in individual variances, so this is, of course . . . general.

So for authors, what I see is:

  • They want to make money, and if possible, do this for a living.
  • They want some accessibility to and from fans, but vary widely with their tastes.
  • In general, most actually enjoy writing and wouldn't mind doing it for life if they knew it would support them.
  • They are fine with merchandise and multimedia synergy, but it varies.
  • Most are reasonably interesteded or very interested in public appearances, etc. as well.
  • Most would like some privacy so they're not interrupted all the time.
  • Many are willing to experiment to try different ways of doing things.

From this I determine:

  • Authors would like to be paid, and are willing to put in the work on it.
  • They in general don't mind fan contact or like it, but want some distance – if only to keep working.
  • They don't mind multiple streams of income in general.
  • They DON'T like interruptions.

So based on this, let me imagine my Ideal Fiction Source of the future, or IFS (I leave off the second F as eventually this will be the Ideal FIction Source of the presence if I'm right).  Warning may contain traces of BS, self-delusion, or outright stupidity.

The IFS would be centralized on a website that represents a particularly prolific author, or more likely a group of authors who form a kind of cooperative or small business.  This allows for cross-selling, cross-promotion, and banding together to share and reduce expenses.  The IFSF would be, in many cases, a kind of club/thinktank/alliance.

This is the tricky one.  An IFS would probably be about one particualr author, theme, or set of themes – romance, mystery, etc.  This allows for cross-marketing, lets authors pool notes, and guarantees an interested audience.  An IFS could possibly be built around an entire extended work.

Content would probably be focused on a given audience for theme, but also style, quality, and even self-awareness.  You could have sincere simple action stories, knowing deconstructions, etc.  A potential issue would be that authors in an IFS might get tired of their limits, though IFS may evolve into mini-publishers anyway.

An IFS in short should be something of a known quantity (even if it's a known unknown, such as odd, speculative, or mysterious genres).  The IFS is a mixture of focus and self-branding.  When you go to an IFS you know what you're getting.

Fiction would be distributed in chunks/chapters on a regular basis through a variety of devices and options, probably charging individuals a reasonable amount.  Convenience and speed would be the name of the game, making it worth the reasonable charge per chapter.  In short, to avoid people wanting to pirate, you give them speed and accessibility at a small price so it's just easier to go to you.  Distribution may be email, download, etc.

Chapters would be available for download for fees always, and later "in bulk" for a reduced price as they accumulate.  As chapters grow, a physical book would also become available, probably from print on demand, and likely including additional premium content to interest buyers.  These could also be autographed, have limited editions, etc.

Chapters would likely be distributed with their own premium content, such as author's notes, letter answers, newsletter info, etc.  Something to engage people and get them interested.

Distribution would probably be available as subscriptions and individual purchases – with subscriptions being cheaper.

Basically make the content, distribute it regularly, add premium, and make it so it's worth buying not borrowing.

Note #1: I can see a slight alternative to this model: chapters are made free, and bulk distributions, compendiums, prints, etc. with premium content are available for a fee or subscription.  Frankly though I think authors want a predictable income and would rather risk alienating those with a subscription than hoping the other models work.

Note #2: I can see some specialized "patronage" subscriptions that are pricey and get the patrons some kind of recognition. Something you subscribe to to feel good and support an author.

The IFS would be heavy on customer engagement in order to promote loyalty, get feedback, and generate good connections.  Customers will have options like email newsletters, personalized accounts to login with, raffles, etc.  Customer recognition would be a big part of this – spotlighting customers, having "frequent buyer points" for bonuses, and so forth.

Social media style engagement will of course be the norm.  Fans can join Facebook groups, sign up for Twitters, post on message boards, get feeds, etc.  The IFS would get fans to form their own communities or use an existing one and encourage interest.

Authors should avoid being inappropriately distant – they will, like it or not, be regarded as at least something of media personalities.  Good branding, good interaction, and proper etiquette will be invaluable for them.  Each author will have to establish an ideal level of involvement – and distance – for themselves.

Smart IFS will treat fans with respect from the start, establishing a relationship early on – and in turn expecting respect for the writers.  Thus fans may indeed not like a plot choice, etc., but as a writer established goodwill – and their own integrety – early on, that will hopefully smooth over any conflicts.

One concern I have is some fans may feel they have an "ownership" of the written properties and demand certain directions or changes.  In some cases authors may want to explore that, but not all will.  In any relationship, boundaries have to be established.

An IFS site would be more than a distribution or community site, it would be a one-stop shop for fans of the content.  Among the possibilities:

  • Wikis containing information about the world(s) and setting(s) and characters.  Possibly maintained by selected fans.
  • Author interviews, profiles, and links.
  • Podcasts and roundtables.

In short, the visit to the site should let you jump straight into the worlds and settings of the authors there.  The site itself should be THE expert resource for information of the fictions included, and efforts should be made to make it a destination.  This creates buy-in, builds communities, and frankly increases sales.

Merchandise and More:
There will be merchandise, collectibles, motivators, lectures, con appearances, and more.  Let's face that.  Some of it will probably be pretty neat.

These make money for the authors, and we want authors making money so they can write.  It's up to the authors, the subscribers, and all involved to figure out how necessary this will be.  I suspect there will be something in any IFS – if only the aforementioned books.

I also see the possibility of "publication only" products – such as artbooks, designer notes, interviews, DVDs of interviews, etc.  These things could go over pretty well, many can be made cheaply.

Ideally, the authors/artists would end up making additional money from lectures and convention apperances – and a site is good for promoting that.  The IFS could offer "package" deals of its authors at conventions, etc.  This is good for relations and keeps the authors in touch with the audience and vice versa.

A few notes on appearances:

  • Who "owns" them could become an issue – because an author could bundle up a few convention or event speeches and put them on a DVD and make some cash.
  • Simulcasting/Webcasting could be a big deal – a convention/event gets a price break and the celebrity in question doesn't have to leave home.

Multimedia and Beyond:
Finally, beyond merchandise and e-books and what have you, some of the IFS could easily expand what they do straight into multimedia.  They become sites to help promote an animated adaption, or a game version, etc.  Far out yes, likely to apply to only a few IFS, true.  But a distinct possibility.

At that point the built-up audience and destination site location becomes another tool to promote and connect people to further multimedia – games, movies, TV series, etc.  Where that could go of course depends on all sorts of things, how much ambition there is, methods of monetizing, etc.

As an example, for wild speculation, imagine a successful fantasy series that, a few years after it starts, spawns a simple but effective ZOMG/Adventure Quest/etc. like MMO in Flash.  Players can then enjoy adventuring in the world and interacting with some of the fictional elements.  Elements from the chapters/books are introduced over time.  Perhaps only subscribers to the books can play, or there's some other method of implementation of pay.  Either way, I can see a potential success.

OK, quite a long-winded speculation.  So where do I see things going in the end?

  • Website-based methods of promotion, distribution, and community building.
  • A variety of ways of disseminating media, most likely involving subscription models.
  • Inevitable tie-ins, some of which could be quite complex and involve merchandise, shows, games, etc.

And career-wise?

  • If you're a writer, comic artist, etc. look DEEP into what the web and technology means for you.  Now.  Start planning around what the new technology means for you and find out how to leverage it (this is true even if most of the above is a hallucination of mine).
  • If you're a technologist, expect more and more to see opportunities to be involved in the dissemination of works.
  • The above method of dissemination could be done by very few people, very fast, very quickly.  The technology is out there to get works to people on the internet now – you can move fast.

And finally, ONE big thing.

Someone could build an IFS (like the Rockband community/site anyone?) designed to be expanded and added to.  Something that new authors and artists could sign up for very quickly after a vetting process and presentation of work.  That could be good – or bad.

ANd that's it for me – any thoughts from the readers?

– Steven Savage