Monday, March 15, 2010

Does it Work?

I started writing this post last year, but never got around to finishing it. I intended to make a big song and dance about how successful the Podcast-To-Print model was, and how it was all so Very Good For Writers.

Now I'm not quite so sure.

As you'll all be aware by now, it was with both quiet resignation and fierce determination that JC Hutchins recently bowed out of doing any more podcast fiction for free. I read this news with a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, as I'm sure many other people did. The question that kept racing through my head was "If Hutch can't make it work, who can?"

St Martin's Press won't be publishing the remaining books in the 7th Son Trilogy, the podcast of which I reviewed and recommended as absolutely essential listening. I'm in no position to speculate on why Hutchins' publishers have decided not to proceed with the series, but I fully respect JC's reasons for pulling the pin on what has been many years and no doubt thousands of hours of work.

People have had the gall to criticise Hutchins for this decision, but as Mur Lafferty was at pains to point out, "Content creators are not your bitch."

I've also heard some fans say that they refuse to pay for content from the writers they like. That, to me, is just plain parasitism. But more on that later.

I've been a big fan of the podcast novel form since I found it way back in '08 with the awesomeness that is Hoad's Grim. I have soaked up more hours of podcast fiction in the last two years than I've read books in the past ten years, and it has also opened me up to a vast and amazing community of writers, editors, publishers and fans.

What are they all trying to do? What was Hutch trying to do? Make a living, preferably by writing and selling that work. JD Sawyer sums it up tremendously well over at his blog, so I won't try to repeat his interpretation of the role of the free model to the writer. But I think I can speak with at least a modicum of authority on what the rise and fall of the free model means to the fan, and to the writer who had been considering the podcast as a possible option.

For all that I've consumed hours and hours of podcast fiction, I've bought very little of the published material that has come out from authors I've enjoyed in the past year. In fact, that copy of Jack Wakes Up was given to me by Seth Harwood, signed, for the price of postage. Seth is just awesome like that. No, I didn't buy a copy of 7th Son (I know, I'm hanging my head in shame), simply because I don't like having incomplete sets on the bookshelf. That doesn't help Hutch any, and I apologise.

The simple truth is that living way out here, books are ridiculously expensive. The price of a book which is $7.99 USD from Amazon will not qualify for free shipping to New Zealand, and depending on the exchange rate will end up costing upwards of $45.00 NZD to get here. So I have to really love a book to want to buy it, if I've already heard it.

Part of this is that the audio experience and the experience of reading a book are very different ones, but that's a topic for another day.

Had I not gotten hooked on Crescent, I would not have bought the book. Had I not thoroughly enjoyed 7th Son, I would not have bought Personal Effects: Dark Art. When Dragon Moon Press publish Toothless later this year, I will howl at the moon for a copy, because Moore's writing is just that good. Even if Phillipa Ballantine doesn't podcast Geist when it comes out this year, I trust her writing talent so much that I'll be buying a copy regardless of whether or not I've heard in audio form first.Which is, of course, the key word: trust.

Writers who podcast their fiction do so, in the first instance, to build up a relationship with an audience. They set out to show listeners that they know how to tell a story, and they're willing to release that story into the wild in order to prove it. They want to give the audience a chance, for free, to learn to trust them. Several have succeeded (Scott Sigler, Seth Harwood, Tee Morris, Phil Rossi, Mur Lafferty, Philippa Ballantine, Nathan Lowell, Mark Jeffery, JP Moore, James Melzer and JC Hutchins are just a few of the authors who have gone from podiobook releases to publishing deals), and several more have not.

An interesting contrast to these writers is Jeremy Robinson, author of Pulse and Antarktos Rising. Unlike Scott Sigler, who releases practically every word he writes as a podcast, Robinson has released only two of his novels as podcast fiction. The first, Kronos, is the only reason I know of Robinson at all, but he has several books in print, which I know of now because I found him via his podcasts. His books sound fascinating and I'd certainly consider buying them if I saw them. This is because I can trust him to tell a good story. The podcast novels serve as loss leaders, in a way, to draw the reader to his dead-tree books. This is a technique that seems to work for him, probably in no small part thanks to the talents of his narrator, Jeffrey Kafer. Robinson's podcasts are a highly polished professional investment.

However, I seem to be rambling, so let me get back to the matter at hand. If the free model was to change significantly, based on the evidence that all those hours of work do not in fact translate into dollars in writers' pockets when it's given away for free, then what would I, as a fan, be willing to pay for new content? There has been a lot of debate about this.

Some say nothing; why bother paying when there's so much more free stuff out there to sample? To this I say I've wasted a lot of time listening to bad free stuff, and sometimes I want to know that what I've got lined up on my ipod is going to be good quality.

Some say nothing; the writer can get sponsorship or run advertising. This is an 'easier-said-than-done' sort of thing, requiring a proven audience base, and comes with the inherent risk that such advertising can just be skipped over. Few writers will have a client base they can draw on that will pay them a decent wage in advertising fees for this form of media.

Some say they wouldn't be happy to pay a monthly fee when there's no guarantee that the author will meet prepaid deadlines, and that's a fair call.

There has been debate high and low about what people would or would not pay for, and lots of discussion about how writers have even a ghost of chance of making a living off their work, but here's what I think, as a fan, and what I think would work for me as a writer. Feel free to shoot me down if you so choose, since I haven't actually been there myself. Not yet.

I wouldn't pay to listen to the first episodes of a podcast novel by an author I'd never heard of. If I listened and really liked the quality of the writing then I might consider it, but as I haven't come to trust that the writer can deliver a full package with a good ending, I would be very hesitant. This is analogous to the reading of a second-hand book which someone lends you. You're happy to read that book, but I wouldn't be likely to pay for it off the shelf if I knew nothing about it or the writer.

I wouldn't pay to listen to a podcast that was being released week by week or month by month, since I have seen so many such podcasts fade, slump, or disappear. I hate being left hanging, particularly if I know that the material is only being produced sporadically. Again, if I trusted the writer and their ability to deliver then I might be tempted, but life is fickle thing. What seems certain one day can be an impossibility the next.

I would, however, pay to listen to a podcast by an author I knew and trusted, if that podcast was complete and I could pay to download the whole thing and know it wouldn't be chewed up by some nasty DRM or other invasive software. How much would I pay for that? Well, less than I would for a book, since it's not a physical thing that I can put on the shelf and it will, eventually, be rendered obsolete by technology in ways that books cannot be, but if it cost around the price of a paperback (without the exorbitant shipping costs out here to NZ) then that would seem quite fair to me.

What that means for writers, if this attitude was to be even in the least bit commonplace, would be that they would need to earn their audience's trust by releasing good, solid, well-written storytelling into the wild, and have a body of work to back it up if things turned out well.

So, back to my original question: Does It Work? Yes and no. Rather than having to convince an agent or an editor that you can write, you take it upon yourself to convince thousands of people to consume your work, for free, and then to turn around and show you their love by paying for it. And, if you're good enough, many do. But sometimes that many isn't enough. If I was to put it on the line, I'd say that publishers possibly overrate the value of the free model and blame the writer when the fans under-deliver at the checkout. But I'm sure it's more complex than that. I'd say that Hutchins' experience tells us that you can give away too much, but you need only look at Scott Sigler to see that that's not the case.

Like more talented people before me have said, the free podcast is a tool in the hands of a craftsperson, and for all that we can bend our energies to work the tool, we cannot control the swirling chaos that lies outside our walls, that place we call Other People. All we can do is throw a hook into that writhing mass and hope that we get a bite, and that it's a big one.

We can try, or we can do nothing. You know the rest.