Living the Long Tail: WisCon 35 panels

The first panel I went to at WisCon 35 was called Living the Long Tail and it continued my tradition of attending panels that aren’t what I think they are. I had anticipated that the panel would be discussing the book The Long Tail  which discusses developing and keeping a core audience. To some extent, we did talk about that, but it was really in the context of self-publishing and a web-based business model.
I really hadn’t been thinking in terms of self-publishing to this point. I’ve been steeped in the traditional publishing model my entire life. I like my physical books. My over-stuffed bookshelves have long been a source of pride and every move that required a paring away of my collection was faced with reluctance and angst.
The panel included a woman who had never published via the “New York” houses, those who had at one time but are now going it on their own, and one who is following both avenues. Their goal is to make money from their writing and they feel that maximizing the opportunities by pursuing new models makes the most sense.
A discussion of self-publishing seems to draw out the extremes in people. A couple of the people on the panel made it sound as if going the self-publishing route was the only way to go. No one needs NY! They don’t pay enough and they want to just screw the writer! After the panel I had a conversation that took place on the other end of the spectrum, describing those who pursue self-publishing as having drunk the Kool-aid, that it’s fit only for those who can’t make it in NY because NY is the only path to real success.
John Scalzi had a different take on this argument. In short (although you really should read the whole thing: his is very funny and this is not) there are functions in addition to writing that have to be done to take a story and make it into something people will pay money for. If the writer is doing all of these things, then when is there time to write?
The panel made me rethink some of my own prejudices regarding self-publishing. I agree with Scalzi that the publishing industry provides services to the author. These functions have to happen, at least to some extent. If those functions – editing, designing, packaging, marketing, publicizing, selling – are done by the writer, then the writer doesn’t have as much time to write. If they’re done poorly, then the final product (and that’s what we writers are doing, we’re creating a product) will seem unprofessional and of low value. The NY houses provide those services and the hope is that they will do them well, resulting in a professional product, something of higher value and worth. That means sales.
The competition to place a piece of writing with the NY houses is damn stiff. I’ve had little luck in placing short fiction to this point and it remains to be seen if I can place my long fiction with any more success. One of the panelists described her work as targeting a very small niche market. The NY houses spend a lot of money printing and distributing writing. They’re not going to do that if they don’t think there’s a market for the work. Self-publishing provides an outlet for writing that simply won’t sell to the NY houses because they can’t make enough money off it. Those small, niche, markets are no-doubt under-served and are willing to pay for writing directed at them. Provided that the writer accomplishes all of the functions from writing to editing to selling in such a way that the final product is something that customers in even under-served markets are willing to pay for.
Even the best writers don’t sell everything they write. Some pieces may be too experimental or not quite successful in their attempts or too specific in their subjects. No matter the author, any one piece of writing may simply not “meet our current needs” of the house they are with. Other than amusing the author’s friends and families, what happens to those pieces? Might there be life for them online?
As I thought about it over the weekend, I realized that I don’t see the situation as self-publishing VS the NY Publishing Industry. It doesn’t have to be an either/or for anyone who is lucky enough to find a NY publisher. I’ve heard more and more that some of the functions listed above, particularly the marketing end, is being off-loaded back onto the author. The avenues described by the various panelists seemed to me to speak as much to publicity and marketing as they do for sales.
This blog is a result of the Long Tail panel. It may be that, at some point, I may post one or more of my stories that haven’t sold. If the novel finds an agent (and the agent finds me a publisher), I may put some of my character or world-building information up to add to the experience of reading the novel. If people start reading this blog, there are opportunities to get readers to subscribe to it via the Kindle. If I generate interest and an audience, a newsletter is another option. Starting off, this gives me another way of generating an audience, connecting with readers, getting the word out. Should I get established, having an online presence may provide a second life for backlist. If I don’t find an agent, if I don’t get sales through traditional channels, then I may still be able to build some sort of income selling my writing online.
It’s all about connecting with an audience and utilizing every method out there to find and build a readership. Readership means sales, either in support of traditionally published works or directly to an audience. Either way, online and electronic formats offer me more options. I don’t see the need to limit myself to one or the other.

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