Fiction in the digital age: What do we do as writers?

Muramasa and the Mass Media Market
The online run of Muramasa: Blood Drinker is soon coming to an end. It won’t be a swift end, and it probably will not have the end that was expected by my tortured readers, but it will be a good end. The right end. Rather than taking time and energy at the end of that project’s publication to wonder about the future, I thought it might be better to look ahead a little (ahem) ahead of time.

The Downfall of Traditional Media
“Prometheus Bound” – Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1618
The vision for this site came about through many years of experience in the arts, monitoring trends, and observing successful content creators. More than ever, I feel like our society is pushing harder toward content that requires no up-front cost to consume. This can be exhibited through the massive scale of online music “sharing,” which is, from a legal and indeed ethical perspective, rank theft. Other content, notably movies and cable TV shows, have had similar problems the last few years. When nobody is watching, the moral imperative to pay people for their work seems to be forgotten.
Rather than shake my fist at the wide swaths of people that use bittorrent and similar applications, I am going to use it as a message. When people had the option to not pay 18 dollars for a CD that contained a single song heard on the radio with the rest being totally unknown, they took up Napster on the offer. When people had the option to forego paying upwards of 100 dollars per month on cable to watch four installments of Game of Thrones, they took Pirate Bay up on the offer.
 In the media industry, such actions are lamented as they seem to represent a loss of revenue. The recording industry has lost a great portion of the profitability it enjoyed during the CD era of the 1990s. Nobody seems to think that people are buying less music because lots of it wasn’t worth paying for to begin with. The old music model relied on radio play of a single hit to sell a CD with 14 tracks on it, and the quality of those filler tracks was almost irrelevant to sales. When people could actually listen to the whole thing without the 18 dollar gatekeeping fee, or buy the one song they liked from iTunes, the highly-profitable model from the 90s was bound to fail. This hasn’t stopped the RIAA from trying, even going so far as to sue Limewire for an implied 72 trillion dollars, which is more than the combined wealth of Earth.     
The same is true of cable TV, which relied on selling large packages of channels to every single end user. With subscription services like Netflix, that model too should fail, though doubtless cable companies will try to keep it alive through manipulation of government entities like the FCC and might attempt to bully content makers. Even HBO, the long running “premium channel” has considered shifting away and offering HBO GO as a stand-alone service.
So, as you have probably noticed, this site is mostly devoid of music and video content, aside from links to my YouTube channel. What does literature have to do with the industries I was just talking about? The short answer is that the written word is content, creative and informative, just like what exists in those other industries. Newspapers are suffering, being outcompeted by digital news sites. The economy of creation is changing, and has changed, irrevocably.
Literature seems to be holding out against that change, for the time being, but the success of Amazon and e-readers is changing that landscape. The kindle and its many competitors have opened up inroads to markets that were either too small or too selective before their creation to be well-served. We live in a time when a thing as far-flung as steampunk literature is not only a real thing, but thriving, growing, maturing, and producing some damn good books. That is very encouraging, but similar to cable TV and music, the old industry gatekeepers are clinging to the their old models, going so far as to sue Amazon for wanting to sell their e-books at a certain price – the privilege of every other retailer. Amazon is also trying a subscription model, with results not yet obvious.
The book industry is still, however, ignoring ad-driven models. YouTube is the most obvious example of the potential success of this model, but webcomics also serve as champions of change, providing daily content to specific audiences without having to make what they do fit into the tropes of the Sunday paper. Bloggers monetize political and news discussions.
Very few people are attempting this in literature. I am one of them.
The Vision.
The vision is to provide content free of charge to the consumer, with money for myself generated on the back end through ad revenue or, potentially, the sales of related products. Whether this will work remains to be seen for myself. Books are fundamentally different from YouTube videos and webcomics, which tend to be bite-sized. Books are usually a binging affair, with long, relaxed reading sessions rather than daily bites. The market for serial fiction shouldn’t exist, right?
Webcomics again serve as the example. Head over to Penny Arcade or PVP and take a look at what they do. They write and draw comic strips about video games. There is “bad” language and sexual themes in them. If you traveled back to 1995, before Scott Kurtz penned his first panel, and tried to convince an investor that such a thing would not only be viable, but hugely successful and widely read, he would laugh you out of his office. Just because market demand is invisible now does not mean it will be invisible forever.
Perhaps a market for my stories will emerge from the bite-sized internet crowd, who want to look at something insightful, informative, or entertaining for just a few minutes. Perhaps it will not. Only an attempt at it will answer the question. At the end of the run of my current story (Muramasa: Blood Drinker), I will at least have a book, one which I can then try to publish in the traditional (or less traditional, with Kindle) market.
Won’t you go on an adventure with me?
More to come on Wednesday!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.