So, I was innocently sitting around doing, well, nothing, when an e-mail landed in my inbox:
Hi Barry You don’t know me but i am a fan of yours and a teenage writer.
I always love e-mails that start like that. They give me warm fuzzies.
I was hoping i could get your opinion on a publishing question?
Oh, sure. I love talking.
my friend and i are in the process of editing our co-written YA book. it’s novel-length. we’re probably not going to try and publish it traditionally, because we don’t know if publishers would like it and we are more interested in having it read than we are in making money. (good attitude, right?) what is your opinion on publishing online? we were considering posting it chapter-by-chapter on LiveJournal. do you/would you read online-only novels? have you heard of any? (good example: Fishbones by J. Cho) what would be pros and cons of online publishing vs. submitting to a real publishing company?
Look, there’s nothing wrong with writing something and not selling it. Heck, I posted a couple of stories (here and here) that I’m giving away for free, just because. Even these blog entries are freebies. If all you want is for people to read your work and you don’t care about getting paid, there’s nothing wrong with posting your work online.
It’s not always as simple as that, as you might imagine.
One of these caveats is not, in my estimation, the old canard that if you post something online, it’s considered published and therefore you’ll never be able to sell it to a publisher should you decide to do so one day.
I suppose that this is theoretically true, but in practice, it’s a function of the fact that most of the time (note that I said “most,” not “all!”), stuff that is only posted online doesn’t really meet publishing standards anyway. So, when someone posts something online and then sends it to a publisher, it’s more convenient (and better from a karmic standpoint) for the publisher to say, “Gee, sorry, this has been published already!” than to say, “Gee, sorry, this stinks like a gang of motorcyclists after six days in the desert and a collision with a garbage truck!”
Because the thing is, publishing is a business. If someone can make money with your work, they’ll publish it, no matter what. Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon when he was a teenager and his parents decided to publish it for him and help him sell copies on his own. (Wow — supportive parents!) That didn’t stop Knopf from saying, “Hey, we can make buckets of money on this thing! Let’s re-publish it!” They most assuredly did not say, “Hey, we could make buckets of money on this thing! Oh, too bad — it’s already published.”
Similarly, consider the case of Julie & Julia. No, not the movie — the book. Or, rather, the blog. Or, no, the book. Whichever. The fact is, she wrote a blog, which is — by definition — posted online. That didn’t stop a publisher from saying, “We’d like to take that bloggy thing of yours and put it on paper for money, mm-kay?”
Are these dramatic exceptions to a rule? Probably. But they bear out my original claim: If a publisher can make money off of it, that publisher won’t give a rat’s ass that it’s been posted. So don’t let that stop you.
What might stop you, though, is this: Is anyone ever going to find it online?
I know that the incredible reach of the internet makes people think that an audience of adoring millions is only a click away, but that same reach works against you. There are — literally — billions of things for people look at on the internet that are notyour book. What is going to make them look at your particular corner of LiveJournal? How are they even going to know that your story exists?
Don’t assume you can just post it and people will show up. This isn’t Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will only come if they KNOW IT EXISTS.
And if you think, “Well, we’ll post it and word will spread…”, well, stop right there. Yes, sometimes things “go viral.” But, again, there are BILLIONS of pages out there. The odds of something just so happening to go viral are enormously against you.
The question you need to ask yourself is this: Who do you want to read your book? If it’s just people you know, then great. You can put it on LiveJournal, send a link to your friends, and you’re good to go.
But if you have designs on grabbing the attention of the world at large, think about this long and hard. You’ll need to find a way to communicate to the world that your story is available. In short, you’ll need to market it and advertise it — and marketing and advertising are some of the many, many wonderful services offered by book publishers.
So, think about your goals in publishing this story. Then take the appropriate action. If you want the broadest possible audience, you’re better off with a traditional publisher — unless you have some way of drawing the world’s attention to your web site.
Now, you also asked if I would ever read an online novel. Sure I would! If it captured my attention and kept me turning pages…er, clicking “Next Page” links. Just like any other novel.
The e-mail ended with this:
feel free to reply however you want or even make a blog topic out of this if you have advice. i love your writing blogs, they’ve helped me a lot. thanks!
You’re welcome. I hope this one did, too. 🙂