Today, someone on the Ebook Community mailing list was asking about publishing ebooks in serial format, with a possible view toward subscription down the road. It’s an interesting idea, and it could work—in theory. Certainly there have been plenty of serial writing projects on the Internet; I’ve belonged to some of them myself.

Probably the most successful was the Superguy listserv, a humorous superhero fiction mailing list which at its height had hundreds of subscribers and dozens of episodic posts every month. The complete archives are still available to be searched and read via links on that site, by the way, and it’s well worth the time. There’s a lot of drek in there, but there’s certainly enough good stuff to throw Sturgeon’s Law off a bit. It’s mostly dead now, alas; I wish I knew what could be done to make it live again. I’ve halfway considered plugging it in Google AdWords just to see if it picks up any interest.

There were other such groups, too—most notably,, alt.comics.lnh, etc.—but if I dwell on past glories, I’ll never get to the point I want to make here, and I’ve got a ways to go yet. The point is the feasibility of serial publishing for money, not just for love, and I have a couple of examples to cover.

Almost exactly four years ago, back in late 2000, I happened to be hanging around SF writer Elizabeth Moon‘s SFFnet newsgroup at the point she and a few other SFF regulars got all-over excited about the Street Performer Protocol. The Street Performer Protocol, which I shall henceforth call SPP to save on some typing, was proposed in a white paper by John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier as an alternative means of content financing in the Internet age—sort of a modern-day version of the old Renaissance system of patronage.

The theory went that since, thanks to computers and the Internet, a completed work can be passed around ad infinitum without the author ever being compensated for his work, the author should endeavor to set a goal for how much money he wants to make out of the work—and then make that amount of money out of it before it is made available in its entirety. Anything he happened to make out of it after that would be a pleasant bonus.

The idea was that an author would create a complete work—be it a novel, a record album, a TV series, whatever. He would put the work in escrow with some reliable agency, or at least have such an agency certify that it was complete (so he wouldn’t be selling a work that might never be delivered). Then he would chop that work into X+1 pieces, post the first piece to the Internet (or make it available by whatever means; the Internet is simply the most convenient), and set out a “hat” with the proviso, “Pay me whatever you want; when I get (1/X * my goal) amount of money, I’ll post the next piece.” Some people would chip in, others would not; either way, each piece that’s released has been paid for, so it’s free for anyone. And then the next bit would be paid for and released, and the next, and so on, until the last piece is published. Then, once it’s all published, anyone can do whatever they want with it, because the author has already made the money he set out to make. (The white paper suggests putting the work in the public domain; a Creative Commons license would probably be more realistic today.) It gets a little more complicated than that, but follow the above link to find out more.

Getting back to Elizabeth Moon, she and others were quite enthusiastic about the idea of serial tip-jar publishing; Moon had some story notes that she’d never gotten around to publishing, nor did she think they were publishable by normal methods. So they set up the Storyteller’s Bowl based on SPP principles. It was a very nice-looking website, with clean, professional design, a little illustration of a Middle-Eastern storyteller with carpet and bowl, a FAQ, and a set of writer’s guidelines. “Only professional writers with a track record are eligible at this time,” they said. One imagines Mrs. Moon delivering this line in stern tones, perhaps peering over the rim of half-moon spectacles as she speaks. (I have no idea if she actually owns half-moon spectacles, but she probably should.)

However, was is the operative word. As you can see by looking at the listing, it was only ever updated once—and if you go to now, you’ll just find a placeholder. After gamely hanging around unwanted for several years, its registration has finally expired. The storytellers’ enthusiasm didn’t last long enough to put out the bowl.

Why? I asked that question back in 2001, on the Storyteller’s Bowl SFF newsgroup. There were several obvious reasons, of course: people got too busy, nobody wanted to be the first to bell the cat…but probably the biggest one was, as author Lawrence Watt-Evans put it,

Stephen King’s The Plant sort of undercut the idea — it got all this hype, and then he DIDN’T FINISH IT, which has not been good for the consumer confidence factor.

Ah, yes, The Plant—Stephen King’s brainstorm after his short story “Riding the Bullet” did so well as an ebook. The fly in the ointment was that King was too used to thinking in terms of paper books and just couldn’t seem to get his head around the differences. This led to problems.

Back in December of 2002, I wrote an email message to the Ebook Community neatly summarizing those problems in response to someone else’s inquiry. It went like this:

Oh, god. The Plant. Don’t get me started.

Stephen King couldn’t have made his project more ridiculous if he’d been intentionally trying to give ebooks a high-profile failure to make up for the success of “Riding the Bullet”. The Plant expressly ignored several key ways ebooks differ from treebooks, for no other real reason than King thought they should work that way.

  • Download of different formats of the same chapter was counted as separate, different downloads and expected to be compensated as such. What?! A download is not a non-renewable resource…and if someone downloaded one format and just did the conversion himself (as he is entitled to by fair use), he’d have the same result and save his money. King compared the practice of multiple download to saying “Since I have the hardcover, you should give me the paperback free.” That was totally missing the point.
  • “Success,” and thus continuation of the project was based on what percentage of the downloads people paid for. This set an impossibly high goal, and it’s not any wonder that sooner or later he failed to meet it. What should have been done was set a specific numerical or monetary goal, not unlike the Street Performer Protocol, and continue once that was met.
  • By tying “success” to percentage of download paid for, King also set it up so that anyone with a grudge against him or his readers could ensure that the project was not “successful,” simply by writing a script to download the episodes a zillion times without paying for them. That’s why on-line polls are so mistrusted—they’re so easy to rig. Any script kiddie could have done the same thing with King.
  • In the end, the percentage of paid downloads fell below King’s “success” bar, and he called the project a “failure” and terminated it unfinished—thus putting a black mark on the face of epubbing that may take a while to clean off. But even so, it’s worth noting King took in hundreds of thousands of dollars for only writing half a book. Maybe that’s not much by the standards of a megasuccess like King, but most other authors would have been dancing in the streets if one of their books made them even one hundred grand.

    And so King shelved the book, and it cast a pall over the entire ebook industry. If such a famous author couldn’t “successfully” sell a serial ebook, then the market must just not be “ready” yet. ($463,832 profit. I wish I could “fail” like that!) It was not the only reason the Storyteller’s Bowl remained empty, but it was probably the biggest one.

    Now it’s four years later, and ironically, it’s turning out that flat-out giving one’s works away for free on the Internet is usually a sure-fire way to sell more of them in print. You don’t have to look far for examples: Baen, Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, and countless others are slinging ebooks every which way and selling print versions hand over fist. Forget selling on the installment plan, give it away and you’ll sell even more.

    This points out the fact that the SPP plan still has a few problems, even putting aside the shameful example of The Plant. Here are the ones that I see.

    Writers (and other artists) don’t want to limit their profit. Now, granted, most books these days sell fairly poorly; it’s the rare writer indeed who can make his living entirely from the pen. But still, writers and artists don’t want to think, “I can get this much…and that’s it.” They want to think about multiple printings, reprint rights down the road, and so on and so forth. (Heck, that’s why our copyright is now umpteen zillion years long—all the big corporations saying, “Oh, please, won’t someone think of the artists?”) Creative types want to earn as much as they can, and continue earning it for as long as they can. (And really, don’t we all?) And this leads into…

    Free works better. Much as we e-nthusiasts would like to think otherwise, most people just don’t want ebooks yet—or at least, they don’t want to pay money for them. Certainly they don’t want to pay hardcover prices for them. And yet, they’ll certainly take them when they come free—and if they like them enough, they’ll buy them in print, and more by the same author. As mentioned above, this has been shown multiple times; some Baen authors like Mercedes Lackey have even seen a notable increase in their non-Baen sales after giving away books free. Why, then, would we want to sell something they don’t want, and sell it in pieces to boot? And this, in turn, leads to the realization that…

    Consumers want convenience and conformity. Getting people to try something new and different is hard. Getting people to try something new and different and hard to understand is even harder than that. Can you imagine the puzzled looks on peoples’ faces? “You want me to pay for something that isn’t even available yet. And you don’t even have a set price? My ever getting to see it at all depends on other schmucks chipping in? Are you crazy or something?” Also, the people who read Baen snippets (preview fragments of the first 25% of a novel that the authors throw out before Webscriptions is ready) and Webscriptions (which publishes new books divided into three monthly chunks) notwithstanding, I think most people would prefer to be able to read the whole work at once and not have to wait on an update schedule—especially if the update schedule is irregular and may not even happen at all if not enough people chip in.

    That being said, I actually do think there is a place for the SPP in modern-day publishing—just not in fiction publishing. The SPP has to be applied to a medium where authors are more realistic (or pessimistic), there’s a reason to buy e- instead of tree-books, and consumers are accustomed to buying piecemeal.

    As you may already have guessed, I’m talking about the modern roleplaying game market. Let me hit those problems again and show why I think that in the RPG market they might be opportunities.

    Gaming writers are used to limited earnings. It’s sad to say, but it’s true; in the game industry, five cents per word is considered to be good money if you can get it. Multiple printings? Reprints? In today’s RPG hobby, depleted as it has been by loss of interest, game consoles, collectible card games, massively multiplayer games, any or all of the above (take your pick), a title that sells even one or two thousand copies is considered to be a smash hit. I suspect that the SPP could offer at least some gaming writers a chance to earn more than they would ordinarily make, not less. Especially considering that…

    Many RPG sourcebooks are now published as PDF-only. In an industry where a “best-seller” only sells a couple of thousand copies, sales of the “mid-list” will barely cover the costs of even a tiny print run—and increasingly, they may not even cover that. If the theoretical ideal of print-on-demand were available, it would be the best way to market these low-volume books—but it isn’t, so PDF is the next best thing. A PDF displaces the printing costs onto the buyer, so the seller has to sell fewer e-copies to break even on publishing costs. In some cases, renowned gaming writers may even sell PDFs directly to the gaming public without ever seeing a publisher at all (other than the website that sells the PDFs). Needless to say, these aren’t typically given away free, since if they were then there wouldn’t be anything left to sell. And gamers are used to buying stuff published in PDF form, since they’re just going to print it out anyway. And they’re also used to the way that…

    RPGs are published piecemeal anyway. How many books make up D&D 3(.5th)rd Edition’s core rules? Three—player’s handbook, DM’s guide, monster manual. You don’t need all of them to play the game (especially if someone else is game-mastering), but they each provide content that expands upon and works with the ones that came before. And they were originally published a month or so apart, so for the first couple months, anyone who actually wanted to play would be making do with only part of it. And how many books were in the old White Wolf World of Darkness line? How many GURPS books were there? And right when gamers finally have all of them, out pops a new edition and they have to buy even more! While there have been games that were complete in and of themselves (White Wolf’s Adventure! comes to mind), they’re much more the exception than the rule. And even games that have been beautifully complete (Champions 4th ed. and Nobilis 2nd ed. for example) have had supplements published. Gamers are used to buying things in pieces.

    It would be interesting if some gaming writer were to try this, as an experiment. Write a game, or a sourcebook, or what-have-you. Put a Creative Commons and/or OGL license on it, but keep it as close to public domain as you’re comfortable with. (Perhaps one of the licenses that allows unlimited noncommercial use, since that would allow eventual complete publication elsewhere on the rare off-chance that someone might be interested.)

    Break it into a few chunks, post the first chunk, then put out a tip jar (the new DropCash fundraising system from PayPal seems like it would be ideal, as it gives would-be donors graphic representation of how close they are to goal) and declare you’ll post the next when you hit a certain goal. (Be sure and set a realistic goal—but then, gaming writers tend to be well aware of how many copies and how much they make per book, so should be able to come up with a good estimate.) It would probably be best to make sure that each segment is at least useful on its own, so people don’t feel gypped at having to wait for something else to come out to make it useful. A good possibility would be a sourcebook for a pre-existing system such as D20 or World of Darkness; each chunk could cover a different region of a particular world, city, what-have-you.

    And then…wait and see how quickly it earns its way to the goal. When it does reach the goal, leave everything available and the tip jar out; the work has earned out and now it’s free. Anything that folks want to kick in afterward (and they will kick in, as more of them find and make use of the content) is gravy.

    Will it work? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. It seems likely to me that it would, as long as the goals were realistic and the writing good. Granted, I’ve never written any gaming material myself, just hung out with folks who have, so I’m not exactly an expert in the field. Still, I’m positive it would have a better chance than Stephen King’s bass-ackward The Plant plan—and just look how successful that was.