Key Points: We seem to be swinging out of fantasy back to science fiction, by way of steam punk. Supplementary materials are big, and growing to be expected. Watch for shortening of the value chain, and new ways to link it up. Fulfilling a need is always good. Balance self-promotion and marketing against just writing. Think about where you want ot go, and how to get there. Then write.
[Howard] Season Seven, Episode 54.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Four Ways the Industry Is Changing.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Howard] We're still not that smart.
[Howard] Is what Dan was saying.
[Brandon] Okay. The reason we do this... People ask us about this a lot. When I said, "Okay, we're going to do this" to the panelists, or to the podcasters, they all groaned. Because we get asked this so much. But I do think it's important. Remember the context for this particular podcast, this particular episode. It's not that we're saying this is us foretelling the future, or this is what you should do. No, these are things that we are thinking about right now as professionals. This is our business. Thinking about... I feel a shift happening here. It may or may not inform how we actually work for the future. It's just shifts that we feel happening underneath our feet. That we find curious. We're going to start with Mary.
[Mary] Oh, good. So, one thing that I am noticing... I think that we are in a trend where we are starting to trend out of fantasy and into science fiction as being the top genre between those two. And that steam punk has been part of our process of going from... It's the transition phase. There tends to be long cycles in fashion, and what people like to read is basically a fashion...
[Mary] We swing from science fiction through fantasy. In the larger context, what this is, is a swing from the natural to the artifice and back again.
[Mary] Artifice being represented by science fiction, natural being represented by elves and urban fantasy and fantasy in general.
[Brandon] Yeah. I would not be surprised if in the next five years we see another big science fiction tentpole.
[Brandon] A new one.
[Brandon] You could call Avatar that already, if you wanted to. Since they're doing sequels and things. But I see some sort of good space opera happening.
[Howard] From a literary standpoint...
[Dan] We're kind of already seeing that with Hunger Games.
[Mary] Yeah. Hunger Games.
[Dan] This shift toward science fiction, I think, is kind of spearheaded in part by the YA market.
[Dan] With Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, and now the Hunger Games and this kind of big dystopian wave that has brought science fiction back.
[Howard] From a literary standpoint, what would you say that our last science fiction tentpoles were?
[Brandon] Star Wars and Star Trek.
[Howard] But from a literary...
[Mary] Well, Asimov...
[Brandon] I mean... This... The... If we look at the consumer thing, like the 70s sort of was this big height of science fiction coolness, and it trailed behind the literary by a ways. Then we hit the film wave of fantasy, trailing behind, because fantasy in literature became very big in the 80s, and then became dominant in the 90s. Then, late 90s, early 2000s, we saw the film wave, and it hit the general media. Now it's kind of following the same thing with dystopian. I think Mary may be right, I kind of feel a hole in like the good space opera sort of thing.
[Mary] I think that's one reason that Scalzi is taking off so much right now. And Paolo Bacigalupi with his Windup Girl. He... Part of it is, it's a really good book, but part of it is, he tapped into the zeitgeist. Because one of the things that science fiction also tends to do, is that it tends to reflect our fears about what is happening. You can look at the Golden Age of science fiction, and that is... There's a lot of the atomic things...
[Mary] Because we were thinking about the bomb. Then cyberpunk...
[Mary] Tends... That was...
[Brandon] That was when Reaganomics was big and things like that, so, yeah.
[Mary] So I think that that's part of the reason we're seeing a lot of dystopians right now, is that because the environment is such a big topic right now...
[Mary] Also because genetic engineering is such a big topic right now. I think that's one of the reasons that those things are starting to trend. But I do want to say that just because I can look at it and go, "Hum. I think this is what's happening." That... When people talk... Caution you not to chase the market...
[Mary] This is exactly what they're talking about.
[Mary] I can look at that and think, "Hum. Okay." I may want to... Of the vast number of projects that I want to write, I might want to bump one of my science fiction ones up a little bit higher.
[Mary] But if I had no interest in writing science fiction, it would be silly of me to write it because my guess is just a guess.
[Dan] Yeah. Don't write science fiction just because we're telling you it's getting more popular.
[Brandon] Yeah. All right. Dan! What's yours?
[Dan] Okay. The thing that I wanted to talk about is kind of a trend toward supplementary materials, which you'll see a lot. My Partials deal that I have with Harper, actually the initial deal included write a bunch of extra in-world documents that we'll use for marketing. So I wrote them. They actually haven't used them yet. They may have by the time this comes out. Then, after the book came out and was big, they came back and said, "We actually want a novella." They want an in-world Partials-related novella that will come out kind of as a bridge between the first and second books. You can see that a lot.
[Dan] Seanan McGuire actually put up a bunch of supplementary stuff for the Newsflesh series on her website. An alternate ending to one of the books. Things like that. People are putting up free short stories on their blogs, or are selling them as little things online. Now that the Internet has made it so easy to publish little things like that and distribute them, you're seeing them all the time.
[Brandon] Right. I think the way the business is shifting, is the business is starting to expect them. Dan mentions that. My initial... I sold Steelheart recently, my YA book, and most of the deals included a we want you to do a novella we will use for marketing between books. That was just part of the contract, now. Where as early as just like last year, it was... They hadn't put that in the contract and they had to come back and ask for it.
[Brandon] Yes. People have always been doing bonus material. But I think it's becoming more and more expected and that we're shifting toward it a lot.
[Howard] A large portion of my revenue stream comes from stuff that's not the comic. The patches and the dice and the calendars and the boardgame and the T-shirts and all these sorts of things. I know that ancillary merchandise has been out for a long time, but I am always looking at those things.
[Howard] In fact, back in 2004, when Captain Tagon died, the idea of issuing shirts to the company that had his silhouette as the logo, that was a merchandising ploy on my part so I could sell you the shirt. I sold a lot of T-shirts.
[Howard] A lot of T-shirts.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's go ahead and just stop for the book of the week right here. Last Light of the Sun? Is that how it's called?
[Mary] Yes. By Guy Gavriel Kay. This is... One of the things that I love about him is that he writes things that are like history but with the serial numbers filed off just a little bit.
[Brandon] Yeah. They're wonderful.
[Mary] They're wonderful. And he does a really good job with characterization and world building. This one is basically taking Vikings and filing the serial numbers off. It's a beautiful coming-of-age story, it's an interesting magic system, political intrigue, and some good fight scenes.
[Brandon] Yeah. Definitely, by my money, the best writer in epic fantasy is Guy Gavriel Kay. For all the fact that most of his books are not series. Most of them are standalone. He does have a few series. But the best world builder and storyteller you're going to find. He's just an amazing writer.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse Head on out there. You can start a free trial membership, last for 30 days. You can get a Guy Gavriel Kay book for free, and another Guy Gavriel Kay book for 30% off. That would be a really, really good use of that trial membership.
[Brandon] All right. So. Howard, what is your way the industry is changing?
[Howard] You know what? I'm going to go ahead and hit the hot button that everybody's been talking about. I'm going to name it a little differently. The shortening of the value chain.
[Howard] For a long time, the market has been built around the author, who sells to the editor, who sells the publisher on the idea, and the publisher sells the books to the distributor who sells the books to the retailer who sells the books to you, the reader. We have entered a world in which, through the power of the Internet, whether it's an e-book or like I do with books that I print myself, the author can sell directly to the reader. Now that is the most extreme example of the shortening of the value chain, but it is happening and lots and lots of different ways. The fact that publishers sell directly to Amazon, who is, in turn, a retailer selling to you. That is a shortening of the value chain. I am not going to suggest that the shortening of the value chain is necessarily the rule, or that it's going to change publishing forever, or anything like that. But you need to keep an eye on it, because there are lots of companies that are in the middle of the value chain that are scrambling to make deals, that are hungry, that are excited to do business with you.
[Howard] You can take advantage of that. That... I mean, that's not just for authors. We're seeing it in comics, we're seeing it in software, we're seeing it all over the place. It's something to keep an eye on.
[Brandon] It's a major shift in the way the Internet is forcing us to do business.
[Brandon] As you said, it's across all different types of industries. If you make whatever widget, and you can have a storefront that sells that widget, suddenly the... All the little subsidiary storefronts become slightly less important to you.
[Howard] I mentioned the Schlock Mercenary boardgame.
[Howard] In the boardgame business, the designer pitches a game idea to the game company. The game company manufactures the game and sells it to alliance distribution, who sells it to game stores, who sell it to customers. Kickstarter has made it possible for a game designer to design a game, put together a little video, throw an idea in front of people, and ship them the game right away.
[Mary] Go on...
[Howard] I was just going to say, that's what we did with the Schlock Mercenary game, except I worked with a game company. The game company put up the Kickstarter. When the Kickstarter funded, the game company went to a distributor who is very interested in having a piece of this action, so there's still four people in the value chain. It's not just me selling a game directly to you. It's me recognizing that I don't have the experience to make you a game. I want to lean on some of these other people, so that the game you get is really good.
[Mary] Yes. So. But one of the things to recognize is that this is something that is going to continue to change.
[Mary] One of the things... One of the reasons it is working right now, the way it is working, the way it is working so well is that there is there's not that much material out there compared to how much there could be.
[Mary] I think...
[Brandon] The question is, where is that bubble... How big will that bubble get?
[Mary] Bubble get...
[Brandon] Has it gotten as big as it going to be or not?
[Brandon] These... As a team, we generally feel like we kind of walk down the middle line. There are people who talk about e-books as the second coming. I mean, it's just like this is going to empower authors. It's the be-all and end-all. There are some good points there. We do not believe publishers are going away, either, is the thing. So there's this line for you as a listener to watch. If you want to publish in the next five years, we assume, you gotta be watching these things to decide where on this line you stand, how much you want to aggressively pursue publishers, whether you want to take the I want to publish this myself and try and build up an audience and then sell to a publisher. These are all choices you'll have to make.
[Howard] I'll say...
[Mary] One thing...
[Howard] Sorry. I'll say this. If you are of the opinion that all self published stuff is crap or that all publishers are evil or all agents are bloodsucking leeches, if you harbor any of these ideas, you are doomed to make a bad decision. Because none of those are true.
[Howard] None of those things are true. There are... There is... There are bad e-books, and there are bad agents and bad publishers. But these have always been the case. What you need to recognize is that the truth is far more complex.
[Mary] One thing to understand also, I think, about how the current model arose, because it will also affect your understanding of how the next model arises, is that the current model arose because it served the needs of the consumer. That there was a niche that consumers needed something and people were like, "I can make money by fulfilling that need." One of the things that consumers need is they need someone to weed out, to serve as a gatekeeper. Whether that is a review site, whether that is a publisher, whether that is a bookseller, whether that is friend word-of-mouth. Whatever that is, that that's something... That something that we as readers...
[Mary] Because there's so much information out there. The person who figures out how to monetize the link between the creator, which is the product, and the consumer -- that's the person who's going to fill that niche. Right now, it's possible for the creator to do that all by themselves because there isn't so much that the audience is overwhelmed. But I think... That is the piece that I look at and think it's going to change. How it's going to change exactly, I don't know.
[Brandon] Right. All right. Let's do the last of the four things. This dovetails quite well together. The idea of self-promotion and marketing by the authors is in a state of quite a bit of flux and change right now. A lot of people talk about the concept that so much more is demanded of the author then used to be demanded of the author...
[Mary] Which I don't agree with.
[Mary] [laughter] Do you want to keep going or not?
[Brandon] No, go ahead.
[Mary] Well, I think that the author has always needed to self promote.
[Mary] That there have been a few authors every generation that publishers have thrown money behind and really promoted, but the vast majority of their stable, they're like, "Well, let's see if you stick."
[Mary] "You're on your own." What's changed, I think, is that there is more available for the author to do.
[Brandon] Okay. And this can be a bad thing and a good thing.
[Brandon] It can demand so much of your time that you don't end up writing. I actually had a little bit... I might have had a misconception in this area, personally. I was talking to a group of... The kind of... A core, stable group of the self published crowd. Very reasonable ones. These are the people who are in fantasy right now trying to get above the water and some of them are doing a very good job of it, some of them are still kind of... Above the water meeting make a living at the writing. Some of them are actually doing a pretty decent job of it, others, they sell 1000 copies a year, not quite enough to be going full time or anything. But I was talking to a group of them and I had heard pitched at me time and time again that the idea was pick a platform, do the Joe Konrath thing. You pick a platform, you do a blog that ties into the platform, and you make it very readable. It's kind of what John Scalzi did to get famous. Then you have a product to sell them which happens to be your book. Your mar... The way that you're doing this is not... Everything's not about selling your book, everything's about being interesting in a way that relates in some way to your book. I had assumed this was the big method. They told me I was wrong. They told me that they have found a lot of people trying that, and the success to failure ratio is much lower there. Meaning there's a lot more failure than the simple spend that same time writing three books. Which was always the good wisdom in trying to get published. Write three books rather than putting everything into this one. They say that still the way self-publishing... They're finding that the people who write three books in general have a better chance of going professional than the person who writes one book and creates the platform. It's just the one person who creates the book and the platform, and the platform gets big, we hear about it because they have a platform. These are like the very most dynamic successes. This is the self marketing thing. We see how well the self marketing thing that worked for someone like Joe Konrath or John Scalzi, and we say, "Wow, that's the way to do it." But if we never write, we're going to be in trouble.
[Howard] I'm a great example to not hold up as an example.
[Howard] Because I created a website for a single intellectual property, Schlock Mercenary, and it took off to the point that I'm able to make a living off of it. Okay. That's... In terms of authorial careers, that's not a great example because the number of folks who have tried the exact same thing, in prose, in web comics, in film, who have failed is far higher than the number of people who have succeeded. I didn't try it twice. I tried it once, got exceptionally lucky because the idea was right and the execution was right, and... I got lucky.
[Brandon] All right. Well, let's go ahead with a writing prompt.
[Mary] So, one of the things that I keep saying is that I think that the people who are looking at the way the writing... That the future of writing is going, is that people tend to go, "We're in a car. Where does it go?" That instead, you should be going, "We want to get to Rome. How do we get there?" So what I want you to do is figure out the way you would like the future of writing to be, and then write a story in which we get there.
[Brandon] Oh, awesome. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.