Friday, December 15, 2017
The Future Form of Fiction
Recently, Brian Niemeier argued that success in indie publishing demands a prolific release schedule. This, in turn, demands short novels. I think he's right.
The maths is simple. A 50,000 word novel can be edited, formatted and published much faster than a novel of three times the length. An author who releases four books a year enjoys four times the product, four times the chances of being discovered, four times the odds of being recommended, and four times the potential profit (or more) than a writer who publishes merely one. While there are authors who can go for years between novels and become insta-bestsellers when their latest books hit the shelves, these authors are enormously lucky outliers, and professional writers can't count on being lucky. They have to make their own luck.
This doesn't mean long novels are obsolete. Larry Correia's novels are as gigantic as he is. However, he keeps his stories tight and fast-paced, and when he's in the zone he churns out ten thousand words a day. He publishes multiple books a year, making him as prolific as other indie writers who punch out shorter novels.
Book length isn't as important as being prolific. But not everyone can dedicate so much time and energy to writing as Larry Correia, so for most authors, writing shorter stories would be a better writing strategy.
Self-publishing has opened the floodgates. At the end of this sentence a new book has been published. To generate and retain brand awareness in such an environment, an indie author must be prolific.
What does this mean for me?
I grew up in the age of mega-novels and densely-packed texts. As a boy I tore through massive tomes without regard for length. Harry Turtledove's Worldwar and Southern Victory sagas, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Tom Clancy's and Larry Bond's technothrillers, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Ron L Hubbard's Battlefield Earth. In the early days of dial-up Internet, I consumed web pages filled with nothing but text and the occasional poorly-rendered image. Today, I still ignore nine in ten photographs I see in online articles.
It never occurred to me that I should be intimidated by the length of the current story I was reading, and that attitude overflowed into my writing. My first novel ran to over 300 pages, and my more recent novels start at 150,000 words. I'm predisposed towards reading and writing what would, by modern standards, be ultra-long works of fiction. I am a most atypical reader and writer.
None of which matters in the current age of fiction.
In the 1990s, when I grew up, books merely had to compete with movies, television and video games. Books and library memberships were far, far cheaper than the competition, and they had the singular advantage of being seen as a prestige product. But we don't live in the 1990s any more.
Today, books have to compete with movies, television, live streams, YouTube, Internet streaming services, mobile games, PC games, and console games. The price of traditionally-published print books haven't changed significantly over the years, even with the advent of Print on Demand technology, but the entry price for everything else has dropped dramatically. Humble Bundle and Steam sales regularly offer steep discounts for games, streaming is cheap, and YouTube is free.
More importantly, people have changed. We live in an age of constant novelty and distraction. Social media feeds flood users with information every second of the day. Ebooks have no physical presence to remind users of their existence, but they do have page counts that suggest the reader must plow through mountains of words. When given a choice between regular, quick hits of dopamine in a fast-paced mobile game or a prolonged, subtle experience in a work of prose, your average consumer will gravitate towards the former. To even stand a chance of being read, digital articles must come with attractive graphics, attention-grabbing headlines, and be as short as the writer can get away with.
I didn't create this world. But I have to live in it. And if I am to be successful I must flow with the times.
These industry and consumer trends point to the impending dominance of pulp-style writing. Short, punchy fiction, written quickly, released regularly and sold cheaply. Longer works like The Lord of the Rings would be released as serials or broken up into multiple shorter books. It is the same model employed by modern Japanese light novelists for decades. Its success in the Golden Age of pulp and in modern times indicates that prolific publishing of shorter works is a time-tested strategy for writing success.
There is, however, another method.
Web novels are the red headed stepchildren of the modern publishing scene. While virtually unknown in Western writing circles, they are hugely popular among fans of Japanese and Chinese fiction -- especially WNs that have been translated into English. On first glance, WNs seem to defy Niemeir's argument: the most popular WNs run into hundreds or even thousands of chapters.
However, WNs create the illusion of brevity. Each individual chapter takes no more than a few minutes to read, and is loaded on a single web page. The reader feels that he need only spend a few minutes to make significant progress in the story. He also feels he need only spend a couple of minutes on the next chapter (and the next, and the next...), encouraging him to read on. Readers who have caught up to the latest chapter know that the next chapter will only take a few minutes, so they have a much lower cost of consumption and a much higher incentive for engagement.
By contrast, books are experienced as a contiguous whole. Ebooks may tell you how many pages you have left to the next chapter, but print books don't. Novels with long chapters can be a daunting experience to read versus novels with much shorter ones. By breaking up the reading experience into discrete web pages, each trickled down slowly over days and weeks and months, WNs shorten the perceived time it takes to clear each chapter and plot point. When printed, WNs tend to resemble light novels in the brevity of their chapters and story arcs, and indeed many popular LNs began as WNs: Sword Art Online, Re:Zero, Rise of the Shield Hero. With short chapters released regularly, WNs are arguably the modern-day digital serials.
Which makes WNs perfectly suited for Steemit.
I know I can write huge amounts of words quickly. But to be a pro, only published stories count. Going forward, I must adapt my writing style to suit the times. As Kai Wai Cheah I'm obliged to complete the Covenant Chronicles the way I envisioned it: a series of at least six long-form prose novels. But as Kit Sun Cheah I've been experimenting with short fiction on Steemit, and the results have been encouraging. I won't speak of what I will write yet, but come 2018, a new kind of fiction is coming.
Watch this space.
If you like pulp-style action horror, check out my short story Redemption Road: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, part 4, Part 5
For long-form prose, you can find my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons here.