The Future Form of Fiction

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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.

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. But 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. Each chapter takes only a few minutes to read, reducing the perceived time and opportunity cost to the reader, and encouraging the reader to spend just a few minutes more on the next chapter (and the next, and the next…). With many short chapters released regularly, WNs are arguably the modern-day digital serials.

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.

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.

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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.

Publishing Announcement: INVINCIBLE

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In an Empire beset by internal rebellion and ferocious yaomo, the elite Shenwujun stand ready to defend human civilization. Among the Shenwujun there is none finer than Ensign Zhang Tianyou, who earned the nickname Zhang the Invincible. During a mission to quash a nascent rebellion, a Shenwujun detachment discovers evidence that the Grand Union is supporting the rebels. Zhang is tasked to investigate and destroy this new threat.

But will Zhang the Invincible meet his match at the hands of the rebel called Han the Demon Sword?

I’m pleased to announce the publication of INVINCIBLE, a historical xianxia novella which won an Honorable Mention at the Q1 2017 Writers of the Future Contest. First published on Steemit, it has now been formatted into an ebook for easy reading.

INVINCIBLE can be purchased on Amazon, Smashwords and Payhip for just USD $2.99.

To enjoy a 30% discount, be sure to share my Payhip page on Facebook and/or Twitter.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to my next story.

Chasing Literary Awards Won’t Promote Singlit

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Epigram Books, a Singaporean publisher, is aiming for the Man Booker Prize. As part of its goal, it has opened an imprint in the United Kingdom, so that its offerings will be eligible for the Prize. Founder Edmund Wee believes that the publicity generated from such an achievement “would be a turning point for people to see that Singaporean books aren’t that bad at all”.

I wish him the best of luck, but my experience suggests that it’s a long shot. I am Singapore’s first, and so far only, writer nominated for the Hugo and Dragon Awards. I can tell you that chasing awards means nothing.

Epigram Books is the creator of the Epigram Fiction Prize, Singapore’s richest literature award. Each winner receive $25,000 and a publication offer. Per the article:

Out of the 72 entries received in the first year, four were shortlisted and published. All four sold out their initial run of 1,000 copies within two or three months, a milestone that normally takes bestsellers a year to reach in Singapore, according to Wee.

Colour me impressed, but I should note that my own novel, which was not selected for an Epigram Fiction prize, did far better in the same time frame. I’m not sure if I can publicly disclose the actual sales figures, but I can say that neither my publisher nor I had to sink in $25,000 to bring it to the market. We both enjoyed healthy profits from that one book in three months.

And I won’t comment on Epigram’s UK imprint selling only 100 copies per title in its catalogue.

The key to understanding the TradPub mindset is that they don’t sell stories. They sell paper. It’s the traditional way of delivering stories to customers. But technology has significantly altered the publishing industry in the past decade.

Print on Demand technology has rendered storing mountains of paper books in bookstores and warehouses obsolete; if you want a paper book, just go on Amazon, and it will print and deliver the book to you. Ebooks are far cheaper than paper books, and far more convenient and accessible in an age of smartphones and tablets. Ereaders and ebook stores have opened the floodgates to new markets and new writers, and search engine algorithms and social media have made discovering and following writers easier than before. Self-publishing platforms allow anybody to write and publish stories from anywhere in the world without having to go through publishers.

Books themselves are facing stiff competition from elsewhere. YouTube, Crunchyroll, Steam, GOG, NetFlix, and other media are all competing with books for the readers’ entertainment dollar and time. If a customer has to choose between dropping $18 on a paperback that can be read in 8 hours, or $15 on an indie game that lasts for 50 hours, you can bet that he will choose the latter. Likewise, $18 on a single paperback versus $11.95 on a monthly Crunchyroll premium membership with complete access to all anime and drama in its catalogue is a no-brainer too.

We live in the sunset of traditional publishing. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing down, and Big Publishing is declining. Writers and publishers must adapt to changing times or be forgotten.

Encouraging Singaporeans to read Singaporeans may be an admirable goal, but publishers need to remain profitable to continue publishing stories. If they can’t make a profit, publishers will be force to close down. Becoming profitable is simple:

Give readers what they want.

Technology may have changed, but readers’ tastes have not. Romance readers want love and drama. Thriller readers want excitement and derring-do. SFF readers want awe and wonder. Produce books that meet their expectations, using technology to minimise costs and penetrate markets, and you’ll make money.

Publishers need to take a long, hard look at the industry and themselves, and see how they can best serve their readers’ needs. Wee’s words are instructive of his attitude:

“For many years, it has been in Singaporeans’ minds that foreign books are better and local books not so good,” he says. “I blame everybody. I blame the schools because literature is not compulsory. I blame the bookshops. I blame the press because they still want to interview famous international authors instead of local authors.”

Blaming everybody is not the solution. Courting people with awards will not work. If you don’t publish writers whose works people love, people aren’t going to love them back. It’s as simple as that. Of all the Singaporean-authored books and stories I’ve read over the years, none of them have left a lingering impression on me. None of them met my tastes — or my standards of craft.

Chasing a Man Booker Award is a snipe hunt. Writers who can win such an award are incredibly rare. Gambling everything on the hope that that such a talented writer signs on with you is the literary equivalent of putting all your eggs in one basket. After all, what are the odds that a writer capable of winning the Man Booker Award sign on with a small publishing house from tiny country?

Even if Epigram manages such a feat, it’s not likely to have a knock-on effect on all other Singaporean books. As I have seen first-hand with the Hugos and Dragons, should an author win an award, readers will flock to the award-winning book, then the rest of his backlist, and only then other authors of similar standards in the same field. Sharing the same nationality as a Man Booker Award-winning writer isn’t compelling enough to capture a reader’s heart. These other writers must be in the same league as the award winner to stand a chance.

Mickey Spillane once said that people eat more salted peanuts than caviar. Other writers mocked him for his writing style, but through hard work and appealing to the masses, he left his mark on the American crime thriller genre. I have a similar philosophy.

I don’t write stories to chase awards. I write stories to entertain my readers. Awards are pleasant, but profits are king. If you want to encourage readers to read more books, you have to sustain the ability to publish more books, and to publish books you need to be profitable. If I were a Singaporean publisher, this is what I would do:

  1. Focus on genre fiction. There is a dearth of genre fiction in Singapore; other than Young Adult and the odd romance and horror story there is a stunning lack of Singaporean genre fiction. Grab the first mover advantage in this field. Don’t limit yourself to submissions from Singaporeans, but do try to sign on as many Singaporean genre fiction writers as possible.
  2. Publish stories that meet and exceed genre conventions. Stories must be entertaining. Build a brand focused on quality entertainment and powerful story-telling. In a world where anyone can publish anything, publishers can differentiate themselves by creating a reputation for quality.
  3. Break into ebooks and Print on Demand technology, and target a global audience. The wider your potential market, the more money you make. Minimise cost, maximise distribution.
  4. If your goal is to promote ‘literary’ works, create another imprint dedicated to literary fiction. Channel profits from genre fiction into this imprint to keep it running. Follow steps 2 and 3, building a reputation for publishing quality work and delivering it to the world. You might not make much money out of the literary imprint, it might even be a loss leader, but hey, you’re promoting Singlit and your own brand.

I am leery of ‘literary’ stories. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two kinds of books: books worth reading, and books not worth reading. To stay competitive, publishers must do the former and avoid the latter. Qualities like ‘literariness’ or subversiveness or other avant-garde properties take a back seat to market demand. To remain in the publishing game, publishers have to turn a profit. Ignore the market at your peril.

At the end of the day, trad publishers would do well to study the history of publishing. The literati may elevate the heavy, ponderous tomes of great literature — but it was the cheap pulp magazines, filled with energy and excitement, that instilled the joy of reading in the common people.

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To get a taste of my writing, check out my Steemit serial NIGHT DEMONS and my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

SIGNAL BOOST: Lyonesse Volume 1 by Silver Empire

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I am pleased to announce that Silver Empire has published Lyonesse Volume 1, a collection of 16 short stories published through its Lyonesse service. For the low, low price of just USD $6.99 a year, Lyonesse delivers a short story every week to its subscribers’ inboxes, plus a bonus story over the holidays.

Volume 1 collects the stories published in the spring of 2017. Among these stories in this volume are Four Weddings and a Funeral by 2017 Dragon Award nominee L. Jagi Lamplighter, two stories by Dragon Award nominee Declan Finn, and We Bury Our Own by yours truly.

In my not so humble opinion, We Bury Our Own is one of the finest short stories I have ever written. Starring a trio of humans elevated into sci fi battle angels, they must make their way across a world drowned in mysterious corrosive mist to do battle with a fellow warrior who has succumbed to the sin of pride. It’s a story where blasters and behemoths, revenants and swords, and mysticism and magic collide.

The other stories in Lyonesse are amazing in their own right. Four Weddings and a Funeral features a woman who can raise the dead, and grapples with the philosophical implications of doing so. In Zombie Jamboree, one man takes on a zombie invasion of New York, while The Dragon’s Teeth is the story of a soldier who faces impossible odds as he fights for a lost cause. Readers who enjoy old-school science fiction and fantasy, stories of wonder and joy and excitement, will find much entertainment in these stories.

Lyonesse Volume 1 is available on the Amazon Kindle store here. To find out more about Lyonesse, you can check it out here.

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Lyonesse: Make Short Fiction Great Again!

Lyonesse, a short story subscription service, promises to revolutionise the industry. Its Kickstarter is now online, within a single day, the campaign has already reached almost half of its funding goal.

Silver Empire has put in a great deal of effort making Lyonesse possible, and as I have described in a prior post, I believe that Lyonesse will provide a much-needed shot in the arm in the field of SFF. Unlike many mainstream ‘SFF’ magazines, Lyonesse does not elevate politics above story to the point of unreadability. Through a clever subscription model and regular delivery of stories, Lyonesse offers a much-needed alternative to print magazines that refuses to compromise the quality of storytelling.

Lyonesse’s authors include the inestimable J. Lagi Lamplighter, Dragon Award nominee Declan Finn, and of course, yours truly. The subscription fee is a mere USD $6.99. In exchange, you receive 52 stories, plus bonus stories during the holidays. It’s an incredibly generous offer.

If you have spare change, send some to Silver Empire, and together we can make short fiction great again.

Lyonesse is Coming!

A new paradigm is coming to the field of science fiction and fantasy short fiction. Traditionally, SFF magazines publish a few stories every issue. In exchange for a subscription fee, print mags deliver them to your doorstep, while webzines send them to your inbox. Other short fiction ‘zines also compile themed anthologies for your viewing pleasure. Issues are usually delivered monthly or quarterly, with anthologies appearing annually or on special occasions.

Lyonesse by Silver Empire aims to change that.

Lyonesse is a short fiction subscription service. Instead of a few stories every month or so, Lyonesse delivers one story every week, straight to the reader’s inbox. Bonus stories will be published throughout the year as well. Instead of paying a flat fee to contributors, 60% of revenue will go to the authors in the form of royalties.

In other words, where traditional ‘zines deliver a bunch of stories in one shot, Lyonesse prefers a steady, regular drip, with the odd bonus story. Through the royalty model, authors could stand to make more money than flat payments (if Lyonesse takes off, of course).

I’m excited about Lyonesse. Eighty years ago, during the Golden Age of Science Fiction, writers could make a decent living by selling short stories to magazines. Today, costs of living have escalated, but pay rates have remained flat.

The digital subscription model significantly reduces the cost to the subscriber without cheapening the entire catalog of stories, making subscription affordable to a wide audience. The digital format also reduces the cost of advertising and marketing while making it easier to reach a wider audience. And as 60% of the revenue goes to the authors, they get to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Many authors have signed up for Lyonesse, myself included. I understand that Lyonesse has attracted a significant concentration of talented writers and excellent stories. As for my own contribution, Russel Newquist, the editor of Silver Empire, has this to say:

“His submission for Lyonesse simply blew me away”

And:

“Can confirm: it is RADICALLY different from his previous works… and it is AMAZINGLY GOOD.”

Far be it from me to boast about my own work, so I shall simply say that I hope you will enjoy it as much as I had writing it.

Silver Empire will be launching a Kickstarter for Lyonesse on December 1st. The introductory subscription rate is just USD $6.99 for an entire year. Stay tuned on Silver Empire’s website and Mr Newquist’s site for more details.

 

 

Women writers have never been more advantaged

(Image c/o Flavorwire)

This article by TODAY newspaper on female writers is heavy on human interest and light on facts. In fact, the lede flies in the face of reality.

The literary scene has long been dominated by men. Despite notable female authors such as J K Rowling and, closer to home, Catherine Lim, the consensus is that women writers remain disadvantaged in a male-dominated literary world.

It is fashionable to claim that there is a ‘consensus’ that women writers are disadvantaged. But what is the ground truth?

The 5 genres that make the most money in the industry are romance/erotica, crime/mystery thrillers, religion/inspirational, science fiction and fantasy, and horror. Of these genres, women dominate romance and SFF. 2 out of 5 may seem proof of male domination, but this is not so.

The romance genre outstrips every other genre. In 2014, sales of romance books were estimated at $1.44 billion, nearly twice that of thrillers. In 2015, romance books account for 40% of all Amazon Kindle sales. The overwhelming majority of romance books are written by women, for women. This means that women have the biggest slice of the publishing pie, and tend to earn more money than their male counterparts in other genres.

As for SFF, women have a stranglehold in three distinct subgenres: children and Young Adult, urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Going beyond the veterans — JK Rowling, Nalini Singh, Lilith Saintcrow, Faith Hunter — many newcomers in these fields are women. Some publishers, such as Tor and Math Paper Press, commit themselves to diversity by welcoming or seeking submissions from women and minorities; other publishers publish women and minorities exclusively. As for SFF, especially Western SFF, courtesy of the long and bitter culture war, female writers are almost always given preference over male ones to ‘fight’ the invented narrative.

Now consider: historically, have there ever been mainstream publishing houses that openly favour women? Especially in an age when major bookstores are forced to close and traditional publishers are losing profits?

In addition, the Internet favours female writers. Go to your search engine of choice and look up variations of the following in your favourite genres: ‘best female writers’, ‘top female writers’ and ‘recommendations for female writers’. Now switch ‘female’ for ‘male’.

Notice something? If you search for female writers, you get female writers almost exclusively. Search for male writers, and you get female writers and mixed-sex lists of writers. Unlike women, you have to go out of your way to search for male authors in specific fields before you can get male-only lists of writers.

Women also dominate publishing houses: 78% of staff in publishing houses are cis  women. Throw in other sexual minorities and the number will be higher. Men are not keeping women out of the field. If there’s anyone preventing women from being published, chances are high that they are female.

Female writers who choose the self-publishing route also enjoy similar advantages to their trad-published sisters. As these lists demonstrate, the majority of popular indie authors are women who write in the fields of romance, erotica, young adult, children, paranormal romance and urban fantasy.

The situation is more complex than the narrative wants you to believe.The narrative ignores demographic preferences. Women flock to romance, female-driven fantasies and stories with a heavy focus on relationships, while men prefer thrillers, uplifting works, and stories that emphasise action. The majority of female authors understand the female mind best, while the majority of male authors are familiar with the inner workings of the male mind. It’s a matter of different strokes for different folks.

I do not bregrudge women writers for finding literary success. I think the more stories and writers there are out there, the richer the world will be. That I live in an age where I have to make such a clarifying statement is telling as is. I am, however, allergic to nonsense, and the facts simply do not support the narrative.

In the literary history of mankind, women have never been more advantaged.

No More Gatekeepers

Nick Cole published this post detailing how his publisher rejected his latest book on grounds of being ‘offensive’. That is to say, the publisher decided that a single short chapter that outlined the antagonists’ motives was so offensive, the chapter needed to be rewritten or the book would not be published.

Cole elected to publish through Amazon instead.

This is the only appropriate response if faced by publishers who demand rewrites to fit ideological agendas. The rise of self-publishing has effectively demolished the role of publishers as industry gatekeepers. Indie authors can now compete effectively with mainstream published authors, especially in ebooks. Today, gatekeepers are irrelevant.

I sympathise with Cole’s position; I write the kind of stories that will never be published in Singapore. My latest submission to Castalia House has heavy religious and political overtones, which is almost guaranteed to cross into Singapore’s infamous Out of Bounds markers. My current project is a space opera that follows a decades-long interstellar war, and because it’s not about Singaporeans immersed in Singaporean culture, Singaporean publishers won’t be interested. And even if I could find a local publisher brave enough to buck societal and industrial expectations, I have not found a local publisher willing to ride the ebook wave and tap into Amazon’s global supply chain through Print on Demand.

For a writer like me, it simply makes no sense to go to a local publisher. Similarly, it makes no sense for authors to submit their works to publishers who see themselves as gatekeepers who decide what is goodthink and what is thoughtcrime.

The era of gatekeepers is over. Publishers are no longer gatekeepers; they have to be curators. Today, publishers should seek to identify the very best stories on the market, polish them to a sparkle, and promote them on every marketing channel they can find. Publishers have to go to bat for their authors, utilising every distribution channel they can get to sell their stories, and be ready to stand by their authors in times of controversy.

In other words, publishers must understand that they exist because of authors, not the other way around. And, as current events continue to demonstrate, publishers that fail to comprehend this are bound for the ash heap of history.