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The Best Way To Break Into Science Fiction Writing Is Online Publishing

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The only way forward for new writers is digital publishing, says game and novel writer Michael Stackpole. If you want to write for a living, learn to love this post-paper age.

Stackpole gave a seminar titled, "Writing in the post-paper era," at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, OH a week ago. His feelings on the subject were made clear immediately when he pointed out that he was the first author to make short stories available through the iPhone App Store. Stackpole is convinced that both established and fledgling authors need to embrace new content delivery methods or fade into irrelevance. In fact, he offered evidence that digital publishing will not only be necessary for authors, but that it will work in their favor.


From Stackpole's perspective as an established author (more than three dozen published novels, eight of them Star Wars novels), digital publishing offers more control and direct, reliable payments. Selling stories directly though his website generates a payment before the buyer has even finished downloading the story, and the profit margin on even a short story is far higher than on a paper novel. By comparison, the lag time on payments for sales of a hard copy novel is six to nine months, and even then he pretty much has to take the publisher's word for it that the accounting is accurate.

A lot of writers are worried about online piracy, but Stackpole dismissed those concerns. "People downloading my stories from the big torrent sites were never going to buy them anyway. It's no money out of my pocket." He even admitted to downloading some of his own books from bittorrent sites if he didn't already have a digital copy, saying it was far easier than scanning it in himself.


Writers still trying to break into the publishing world have an unprecedented chance to start their own websites, build an audience and create a market for their work without relying on major publishers at all, said Stackpole. Posting short fiction or even a serialized novel on a website won't cause problems if a writer tries to sign a publishing deal at a later date because mainstream publishers don't see digital publishing as a serious threat.

Rather than simply changing the method of delivering stories to readers, Stackpole believes digital formats will change the nature of the stories themselves. At the very least, authors should tailor their work to these new mediums. He cited what he referred to as "the commuter market," people who read two chapters per day on their half hour train ride to work. It's an ideal market for fiction broken into 2,500 word chapters, and could presage a resurgence of serial fiction. "It's kind of like a return to the Penny Dreadfuls," he said. "But the readers today are more sophisticated, so we as writers need to put more work into it."

It was interesting to hear the formulaic way Stackpole approaches writing. He described how the method of writing old pulp stories could easily be adapted for modern audiences by eliminating certain ubiquitous but unecessary subplots and adding a bit of character development. A serial detective story should be, "70 percent case, 30 percent soap opera," with a little more soap in a later story to satisfy readers interested in a character's developing personal life.

Even amidst all this embracing of change, Stackpole reassured his audience that digital formats were not sounding the death knell for paper books. "Cars did not kill off horses. Digital publishing will not kill off books. It _will_ change the way they are written and retailed."


If nothing else, it's nice to hear an optimistic note among all the doom and gloom about genre fiction these days.