Indie publishing, fanfiction and Lawrence Block’s ‘Sunday Writer’

So for those who missed it, yesterday Time posted a piece on fanfiction, hooked on the final Harry Potter movie release. It was fairly extensive, and was a balanced look at something that normally flies under the radar. But it also pointed to some changes in fanfiction in recent decades that mirror the indie publishing trend now and perhaps give some sense of how things will shake out there.Why? Because fanfiction allows for what Lawrence Block dubbed the “Sunday Writer” in his 1981 book “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.”

In it, Block talks about how for most art forms, there’s an option to pursue it as a hobby. You can sing in a choir without wanting to be a recording artist, or paint on Sunday afternoons without wanting your work to hang in the Met. But writing, because it requires readers, didn’t really have that option. Except that was 1981. Now, 30 years later, the internet has given us the tools to where you can be a Sunday writer. And most often, you see that in fanfic. People write it solely for fun, for the most part, and with no aspirations to make a living at it. Go to any of the major fanfiction sites, either general ones (FanFiction.Net) or fandom-specific ones (like NCIS FanFiction Addiction, for the NCIS fans out there), and you’ll find thousands of stories by people who just have fun writing.

Now, there’s a subset of those who either are published authors — I can think of a handful in the NCIS fandom — or aspire to be published authors, myself included. But what I’ve been noticing the more I read about indie publishing is that there’s room there as well for this concept of a Sunday writer — assuming you want to use your characters, not somebody else’s. Of the thousands of books that are self-published or e-published, the vast majority might only see the light of day for friends and family of the author, or in a select niche of interested people.

So, tying back to the discussion Anne Allen and I were having on Twitter the other day, what will make the difference between an e-pubbed book that succeeds and one that doesn’t is roughly the same as what separates the good fanfiction from the dreck — quality. What will stop being so important are legacy publishing constraints such as format or length. And, as always, backlist makes a difference. Just as the breakdown in the newspaper business model gives me some perspective on the dynamic playing out in book publishing these days, having lived through the newspaper shakeup — and seven rounds of layoffs and counting — so, too, does having built a reputation in fanfiction circles, at least in my current fandom, give me some perspective on doing the same in indie publishing — at least on the fiction side of things.

Lessons:

– When there’s too much to read, word of mouth and reviews give people a starting place. NCIS is a big fandom, with almost 25,000 stories just on FF.net. Too many if you’re just diving in — unless you don’t mind weeding through a lot of bad stories. So there are communities and review pages and fic-finding sites that help you narrow it down. And while there is some self-pimping of stories, the really good ones don’t need to be — somebody will recommend them.The same is becoming true in the huge world of indie publishing. The people who can get good reviews and build a following will continue to grow that because those people will recommend them to others, who then share with their friends.

– Recommendations from those who have authority make a difference. From there, people often look at the favorite stories of an author they like to find others they might want to read. Or get recommendations from that person. And those words carry weight. There are about a dozen authors in the fandom whose work is so good that even if something doesn’t sound like a story I’d like, I’ll try it if they recommend it. That sort of authority translates into readers — who then often become fans.

Not everybody cares about quality, but if you don’t have it, you won’t get traction. Are there readers out there who will read bad stories? Sure. Are there many of them? Not really. Fanfiction gives you a bit of a pass here — people already care about the characters. The same isn’t true for original fiction, so most bad books/stories won’t get very far. No audience, no sales. And if you don’t find somebody to edit, people will notice.

– One-shots have to be exceptionally good to get you noticed. Most of the fanfic writers I know who are recommended are writers who have written dozens of stories. They have a following because they have written so much that they automatically come to mind. There are exceptions — I can think of a few authors who have a single story so compelling that I’ll recommend that. But when people ask for recommendations, for casefics, or for a specific pairing, my mind tends to go to those prolific in that area — not the one-shot wonders.

– Building a fan base gives you room to spread out. Say you’ve got this idea for a story that’s way outside what you would normally write. Gene Doucette and I were talking on Twitter about this a few weeks back. He had an idea that just didn’t fit into any category, wasn’t sure if he could find a market for it. Now, the people most likely to try it are ones who have read “Immortal,” or one of his other works and enjoyed it. If you’re somebody as prolific as Nora Roberts, you’ve added new people with each book — maybe something specifically jumps out at you about that one — so you try others. The more titles you have, the more there is for your readers to read and the more likely it is they’ll get hooked. I have one main series in the NCIS fandom that has a less-common pairing. Some people buy it, some people don’t. This spring, I was doing a writing competition where I was steering clear of that pairing and ended up with a lot of pieces that got read by folks who normally would see my main series and avoid it. They read one story, liked it, so looked for more. After each one posted, I’d get reviews on the main series within the next few weeks saying “I never thought I’d like this, but you write it so well…” Which ties into the next point:

– Series fiction does better. When you have linked stories, people read one, then move onto the next. We like that. It’s why TV shows and movie sequels and books series, regardless of genre, are so popular. As readers, we like to see old favorites return. Based on the metrics for my stories, and what I’ve heard from others who write, the series stories almost always bring in more readers because they get hooked and want to read more. A series also gives more chances for people to find one story in the series and then want to read the rest to find out what they missed or what happens next.

– And the key bit Anne and I talked about the other day: Length and form become less important. I had reporters as me dozens of times when I was an assigning editor “How long can this story be?” And I’d often throw it back to them and ask “How long does it need to be?” Some stories are best told in 500 words. Others in 2,500 or 10,000. Some in 100,000. Traditional publishing constrains you. Mostly novels, between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Some short stories, if you can find a magazine that will publish it. Short story collections? Not often. Novellas? Even less common. So some perfectly good stories probably never saw the light of day because they didn’t fit the mold. Indie publishing, like the internet in general, takes that constraint away. Have a really good story that’s best told in 50,000 words? Instead of getting rejected for being too short to be a novel, go indie. E-pub it, priced appropriately. Same with that 8,000-word story that all the magazines say is too long. Now, charge 99 cents for something that’s 300 words and you won’t get many people. But take a dozen short stories and publish a collection for $2.99? Sure.

There are a lot of possibilities out there with indie publishing, though also a lot of challenges. But that’s another post, hopefully this weekend.