Sturgeon’s Law, Self-Publishing, And What It Means For The ‘Hard’ Fanfic Writer

So, I’m new to blogging, and wanting to increase circulation of my little self-agrandizing rants, have gone around to look for blogs that I’d enjoy reading and commenting on their posts. In doing so, I stumbled upon a series of blogs by David Gaughran which eventually led to a series of blogs on other sites about the traditional publishers vs the Ebooks publishers, etc. Many were a year old, but as things in that industry are still in flux, I consider them relevant. I particularly liked the one about the Tsunami of Crap. I read a very interesting article by one Michael Stackpole. I particularly liked the one about Self-Publishing Myth #1: You Will Never Make Any Money. And the more I read about self-publishing, the more I thought: “I already know this”.

I’m not being annoying. I don’t mean this in the self-important, know-it-all way of someone who has heard it all before and someone is belaboring an ‘As You Know, But Might Need To Be Reminded’ bit of exposition from an old Asimov short story. I mean I know. I have practical experience with this, or at least something very like it that resonates in the trauma scars on my soul. And if you’ve ever written Fanfiction on, or any place with a reader feedback system, whether it be reviews or comments or kudos, so do you.

Unless you’re in Japan and are marketing doujinshi, Fanfiction should not, in theory, be subject to market forces. No one buys your fanfics. No one is paying you to write them, whatever some of your readers believe (well… there’s one guy I know, but he’s an exception. The guy paying him is a brony, and even by devoted fandom standards, they can be a bit much…). There is no economy built around fanfics, no supply and demand (except, of course, for the aforementioned doujinshi). You are not fighting for market share. You’re just kids and the occasional sad old guy wasting his potential by writing about other people’s works instead of making your own.

To which, I answer: LIES! IGNORANT LIES!

Fanfiction, believe it or not, can be very cutthroat (but that’s a story for another time). People think we write fanfics for fun. That it’s all about ten to nineteen year-olds putting up childish stories about how Superman becomes their best friend, or how they keep their neighbor Peter Parker from being bitten by a spider, only to be bitten themselves and becoming Spider-Man or whatever.

Right. And Ebook publishing is all about cheap erotica.

For all the lack of capital being transferred from fanficwriters to readers (who are often writers themselves), the structure and problems faced by Ebook authors in marketing their books is surprisingly similar to that faced by fledgling fanfic writers who’ve posted their first story and are looking for readers and, most importantly, what substitutes for money as the currency of choice in the fanfic world: reviews.

Reviews are encouragement, critique, support, and addictive drug rolled into one little 5-7kb email message, and are the standard of transaction in lieu of money, the scorecard by which fanfic writers measure their success, followed secondly by Faves and Follows (or equivalent thereof. I’m an ffnet boy, and even those who aren’t anymore are familiar with the terminology. For those who aren’t, the meaning should be self-evident). They are, in a very real way, a mark of why we publish what we write instead of tucking them away and only shyly showing them to people we think might get it, of what we’re after: readership.

Reviews don’t come from a vacuum. They only come about if SOMETHING in your fanfic speaks to the reader on whatever level. Whether it makes them laugh so hard chips get lodged in their nose and they have to leave the library from being so loud (my preferred reaction to invoke), it makes them tear up, they find your writing witty, or just that you presented them with an interesting idea or point of view, or perhaps took what was old and shined it and made it new and interesting again… do one of these things, and maybe one will leave a review.

However, to be reviewed, we need to be read. And that’s where the similarity between fanfiction and Ebook self-publishing REALLY sets in…

There is a law. TvTropes calls it Sturgeon’s Law. Summed up, it says 90% of anything— books, Ebooks, fanfics, scifi, tv shows, etc— is crud. Crap. No good. You get the idea. And even if you think your fanfic is in the 10% worth reading, it might not be immediately obvious. For one thing, your summary of the fic (the equivalent of the non-critics raves text in the back of a softcover book) might be boring or unappealing, making no one want to read it. Or your title might be stupid or badly punctuated, making no one want to read it. Or your story might be formatted badly, making no one want to read it. You get the idea.

All these problems sound familiar?

A part of me wants to bask in how the Fanfiction community managed to become a microcosm of the Ebook self-publishing phenomenon a full EIGHT YEARS (at least) before it actually happened. And if more than half my life reading fanfics and looking at how the modern incarnation of the fanfiction community has come about has anything to say, it is this: you know that state we’re in now in Ebook self-publishing? Tons of crappy erotica, a few good books that rise to become famous, hundreds out of thousands (adjust for size of population) of authors managing to carve out niches and devoted readers for themselves with their wit and distinctive style out of the sea of crap, and some even managing that most holy of grails, that of publishing their stories in hard copy…?

That’s going to be the norm.

(Which, actually, if you look at it, is not really so different from the state of publishing and authors more than a hundred years ago. Who’d have pegged Arthur Conan Dolye’s Sherlock Holmes as lasting this long?)

Seeing all this, as someone trying to get into self-publishing myself (just got to get around to finish that dang-blasted self-editing!), really fills me with a perverse glee (apologies for my language getting so archaic). I look around and see a battlefield I know. There very real, and new, dangers (my Fanfiction account wasn’t worth hacking, but I can’t say the same of my Paypal account), and we’re playing for real stakes now, though I suppose in some part of my heart I will still regard reviews as the mother currency. And though it might be delusion on my part, I can’t help but feel I have an edge. I KNOW how to have my story get someone’s attention as the scroll down a long row of seemingly identical entries. I know how to spread word I’ve published something new, in places where who I am carries some weight, were it even has a positive reputation! Heck, I even have a following, of sorts. I… I actually have good reason to be optimistic. I’m psychologically prepared. I have experience.

And, my fellow fanfic writers, so do all of you.

We’ve been here. Though the country is new and harsher, we know this battlefield, have fought these battles many times! I, personally, know of several writers who’d could be juggernauts. Overmaster, who’s writing speed is without peer! He’d be faster if he didn’t have me slowing him down. Immi, the mistress of the genuinely creepy mood and playing the heart strings. S’tarkan, who is eminent in the TWO most prolific fandoms alive, and bows to no one as a better.

Sorry, haven’t eaten yet. I might be going a little nuts.