Publishing fiction in the 21st century

The future’s online. The business of authorship is currently in flux between the old and new models. How can authors of fiction publish their work and gain an audience today, in the early 21st century?

The gist of the matter is described in “Online Publishing and Electronic Libraries” by Petri Wessman. (Abstract: “The emergence of the Internet (and other large-area networks) as a new publishing medium has opened up more than one can of worms with regards to traditional publishing. Since anyone who has access to the network can “publish” a document (which is not limited to text) at virtually no cost, the concept of “publishing” must be examined in a new light — as must the concepts “copyright” and “library”, among many others. This document examines the history of online and electronic publishing, some of the issues involved and possible future trends.”)

Web publishing technology

Web sites are more important than [hardcopy] books. Web publishing technology is constantly changing but the essentials remain: how to build a readable site, manage content, get readers, and make it profitable. Right now that last factor is usually though ad revenue, but sales of physical product (or memberships) are other options. The classic, Web 1.0 tome of building database-backed Web sites is by Philip Greenspun, who’d brought us photo.net, one of the first “community” sites on the net, and one of the best of its time. As of February 2009, his book on Web publishing, Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing, can be bought for about 16 cents with a one-click purchase.

Kindle Editions

Amazon’s portable handheld Kindle gives you free cellular Internet access, no matter where you go. For that alone, the new Kindle 2 is a steal. Free Web browsing from anywhere. It’s small. Plus you can read all manner of magazines and books on it, published in special, lower-priced Kindle Editions. Will that be a viable way for authors to have their short stories (and novels) published? Stephen King did well (five-figure downloads in three weeks). Are there publishers doing this now?

Reader-supported online serialization

I’ve thought about this method for a long time. You post the beginning of a work and accept donations from readers to continue publishing the work, portion by portion until done. If it’s a draft you can then get it edited and printed somehow and send all donors a copy of the book.

Sci-fi author Watt Evans has been doing it with success: third effort, circa Nov 2008.

Print-On-Demand

Wil Wheaton tried both POD and a traditional publisher, and now in 2009 he’s happily back with POD.

POD and epublishing (PDF files as “PDF books”) can be profitable. Interview with sci-fi author Rudy Rucker, dated Feb 19th, 2009, on the topic of self-publishing PDF and POD. While all POD outfits use Lightning Source (owned by the Ingram Book Group) for making hardcopy, there’s a big difference between Lulu, iUniverse, and the others. Rucker’s impressions, circa early 2008 (he prefers Lulu, but there are other options).

POD has certainly worked for non-fiction. 37signals have made hundreds of thousands at this.

(Repackaging plays a big part in the revenue formula, e.g. blogs with ads or conferences, as well as for reprints of old or classic works)

Open source books

All Systems Go: The Newly Emerging Infrastructure to Support Free Books” by Ben Crowe

Case for Free Books

Free is more complicated than you think”: Tim O’Reilly on Scott Adams on making Dilbert free

Online advertising

If you can get traffic to your online fiction, then online advertising is a potential model. With a popular site, an author can become part of a web-advertising network such as Federated Media. But you have to get traffic, and right now it only seems to be a proven method for writers of non-fiction. (Is there anyone online, posting fiction and getting significant traffic?)

For further reading


First published on February 17th, 2009 at 4:04 pm (EST) and last modified on March 8th, 2009 at 6:19 pm (EST).