The Online Smorgasbord

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the SFWA Bulletin #157

Browsing.  Customers in brick-and-mortar bookstores take it for granted.  They stroll up and down the aisles, looking at the category signs posted on the racks, admiring or rejecting the cover art, and picking up books they might buy.  Noting the cover quotes.  Reading the teaser on the back.  Ruffling through the pages.  Testing the opening paragraph:  is it tantalizing, or too been-there-read-that?
In the early days of e-commerce, online shoppers were at a distinct disadvantage.  Cover art was sometimes reproduced at a low resolution and a size only marginally larger than a commemorative stamp.  Reviews and synopses were available, but there was no opportunity to flip through the book and see if you could really get a few hours’ entertainment out of the sticker price.  Today and Barnes & Noble offer their customers the chance to read brief excerpts of current releases, but dedicated readers prefer superior sources:  the author, or the publisher.
Providing samples of upcoming releases is not a new idea in the publishing industry.  The last dozen pages of many a paperback are dedicated to excerpts from an author’s new work or from other authors who might appeal to the reader.  The right excerpt can do even more than simple word-of-mouth to persuade readers that they really, really need to find out what happens next.  But with the advent of the Internet, the concept reached new heights.  Now readers don’t even have to buy a book in order to find samples.  All they need is the right URL.  Unfortunately, finding that certain URL can be a lot harder than strolling through a bookstore.
Anyone who has spent any time on the Internet lately is familiar with the frustration born of the difficulty of finding what you are looking for.  The smart author or publisher strives to distribute the right URL to as many fans as possible:  registering the site with the major search engines; putting the URL on letterhead, business cards, book covers, convention programs, and bookmarks; joining web rings; adding the URL to the signature files on e-mail and newsgroup posts, etc.  Good web site design also plays a key role.  If the average surfer can’t find what he or she is looking for in the first few minutes or clicks, that web site’s owner has lost a return visitor.  If the web site has a psychedelic background with blinking text, chances are that only the most curious or dedicated fans will persevere.
In addition to the questions of web site navigation and aesthetics, the author or publisher must consider the presentation of the samples themselves.  Will the samples be available in simple HTML?  Microsoft Word document format?  Rich text file?  Acrobat Reader?  One of the currently popular e-book formats?  Will the reader be able to save the sample to file, or print it off, or must the story be read on the screen?
All options have risks and benefits.  Accessibility must still be a primary consideration, if the publisher or writer wishes to reach the greatest possible number of fans.  Requiring the fans to download free software is a minor inconvenience, one that is lessened if the free software (such as Acrobat Reader) is so popular that most users likely already have it installed on their computers.  Requiring the fans to purchase proprietary software defeats the purpose of a free sample.  Small wonder, then, that most free samples are presented as ordinary HTML pages, and that larger complete works are often provided in several different popular formats, for the convenience of the reader.
Writers who maintain their own sites usually prefer ordinary HTML.  “We’ve been doing story and book samples online on the web since the mid ’90s,” says Steve Miller, who with wife Sharon Lee writes the Liaden Universe books.  In addition to the samples Lee and Miller have made available via their web site, their publishers Meisha Merlin and Embiid post samples from the Liaden books on their web sites.  Like Lee and Miller, Meisha Merlin provides excerpts in HTML, while Embiid offers excerpts in HTML and UBK (Universal Book Format).  “We try to set samples by using easily defined breakpoints–scene endings, chapter end, whatever,” Miller explains.  “In fact in some cases we’re guided by what we read out loud at conventions–the idea is to whet the appetite, not to have people angry because you’ve teased them with everything but the ending.”  Fan reaction has been mostly positive, with the exception being a small minority of fans who sometimes mistake the samples for works in progress and ask for changes.
Nick Pollotta, who writes SF as well as humor and military/thrillers, has posted short stories and sample chapters on his web site for the last five years.  “I don’t know if it promotes sales, but when I forget to change the sample chapter, I certainly do hear from my fans who wonder what happened,” he says with a grin.  In addition to refreshing the free story content on his web site, Pollotta has chosen to post only finished and polished (“and 9 times out of 10 sold”), believing that this is the best way for him to maintain fan interest.
On her web site, Kristine Smith has posted the first chapter from each of her first three Jani Killian books as well as the first chapter draft from the fourth book (titled Contact Imminent at the time of this article) in the popular series published by Avon Eos books.  “Since there will be two years between books instead of one this time, I was anxious to post something.  And, at the time I wrote that Chapter 1, I thought it was the Chapter 1,” says Smith.  After Contact Imminent is published, she intends to replace the earlier draft with the finished version, “unless I decide to put together a page discussing drafts and how things change….  I honestly don’t know how many folks have read the sample chapters, and how they’ve responded,” she admits.  “I have learned that some folks don’t like to read sample chapters.  They prefer the entire book at once, especially if they know there will be a significant time lag between the posting and the release of the book.”
Other writers have received more definite feedback from their fans.  Brenda Clough has short fiction as well as articles on her personal web site and three novel chapters on her publisher’s site.  “More than once I’ve gotten e-mail that says, ‘I read your story X over at the Y site, and was so thrilled I went over to and bought your book.’”  Clough is eager to point out the convenience provided by online samples.  “Tracking down an old magazine article is nearly impossible, buying books is expensive, but a free sample on the Internet is easy.”  Michael Stackpole also admires the advertising power provided by online samples, with his work available on WizKids/Roc, Bantam and Del Rey’s sites as well as his own web site.  “I decided to put fiction on the site myself. . . .  [because] giving folks a free taste of what I do is the easiest way to get them go out and buy books.”  In addition to the novel excerpt available on his site, he has posted several short stories:  “Some stories are hard to find, so the compleatists like that….  I don’t know if it helps sales in any huge way, though I do know that I’ve gotten sales for books I sell from my site based on folks reading the first chapters I’ve got posted there.”
An individual author can only post so many samples on his or her web site, being mindful of the space and bandwidth limitations for most personal web sites.  A publisher, on the other hand, can and will post much more, providing samples from many different authors, and sometimes even complete novels.  DAW, Del Rey, and Tor all offer online samples, with varying degrees of accessibility.  Perhaps the most well-known online collection belongs to Baen.  Excerpts from Baen authors appeared on the web site shortly after its launch, when Jim Baen noticed that visitors “were already growing restive for content.  Excerpts proved just the thing.”  Mr. Baen has also encouraged authors to post excerpts of their works on their own web sites, on the condition that these be offered to the reader for free.  Starting in the late 1990s, has also featured excerpts of works-in-progress.  Soon the Baen Free Library sprang to life, featuring selected works from Baen authors.  The Library is presided over by Eric Flint, himself a Baen author and enthusiastic proponent of this online marketing approach.
“Although I won’t swear to it,” says Flint, “I think I was the first author who started … using snippets from a work-in-progress in order to build interest in the book.  I did that in 1999, with snippets from 1632, which was published in February of 2000.  There is no question in my mind–nor in Jim Baen’s–that those snippets played an important role in building a “pre-audience” for the novel.  1632 sold out its first hardcover print run within a month after coming out, despite being only my second solo
novel.”  He continues offering online snippets of his work to this day, posting one to two sections a week, depending on the intended length of the finished draft.  “I prefer snippets in the 1000-1500 word length.  So, going by the rough arithmetic involved, I’ll start posting snippets when I estimate I’ve got enough weeks to post 1500 words a week and still have about half the story left unposted when I break off.  That means, as a rule, that the audience is getting snippets for 6 to 12 months before a book comes out.  That’s a long time in which to start building interest in a new book.”
The fan response remains “extremely enthusiastic” and “universally positive with a touch of feeding frenzy,” according to Flint and Baen.  Flint is also fascinated with the fan subculture stimulated by online samples, “with a lot of bantering back and forth between the authors and the fans.  Many fans like to guess at what’s coming in a story, of course, and try to finagle it out of the author.  Others–sometimes the same ones — delight in nitpicking little details of the story….  I really don’t think there’s much doubt at all that my own rather quick success as a writer is largely due to the success I had in building a large and loyal fan base through this kind of constant interaction based on works in progress.  I think the same was certainly true for several other new authors.  And, with established authors like Dave Weber and Misty Lackey, I think it’s helped build their existing fan base.”
Mercedes Lackey admits, “I was initially as paranoid about online books as anyone could be, but my experience with the Baen Free Library completely reversed that.”  She encourages other authors to look into offering works (in whole or in part) online as well, noting that many readers are sometimes wary of taking a chance on buying a book by an author unknown to them, but are usually willing to spend their time reading a free online sample.  “I would, in fact, encourage posting short stories, so that the curious can see what a “whole” looks like rather than a “part” as well as sample chapters….  I can say that at least half of the people coming over to post to my topic on Baen’s Bar have said that they weren’t interested in my work but read it out of curiosity because of the Free Library and are now hooked.  I’m getting a reflection of this in the increase in backlist sales as well, across the board, with all the companies I’ve written for.”
Unfortunately, many writers’ experiences with online copies of their works involve e-pirates, people who illegally make and/or distribute  electronic copies of books and short stories.  Aside from any lost income that may result from such activity, authors worry that e-pirate copies are distorted, with changes at best resulting from OCR-related inaccuracies and at worst resulting from e-pirates rewriting the original texts to suit their own ideas about how the story should go.  Works by such well-known authors as Douglas Adams, Piers Anthony, Isaac Asimov, Robert Aspirin, Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card, Harlan Ellison, Raymond E. Feist, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, Barry Longyear, Anne McCaffrey, J.K. Rowling, Norman Spinrad, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling circulate on the World Wide Web, Usenet, and peer-to-peer sharing networks.  Trying to track down each and every e-pirate is a never-ending and nearly impossible task, which can be very frustrating for writers who are concerned about e-piracy growing into a major problem in the near future.
Andrew Burt, chair of SFWA’s E-piracy Committee, came up with a different anti-e-piracy approach:  the Tagging and Sampling Project.  The idea started with his observation (familiar to long-time netizens) of the Usenet newsgroups’ signal-to-noise ratio, with “good” posts (those whose content was appropriate to the newsgroup’s focus or range of topics) being drowned out by “bad” posts (spam or other inappropriate posts).  What if, he wondered, the e-pirates’ illegal copies suffered a similar problem?  After extensive discussion with the E-piracy Committee, and approval from SFWA’s Board, he launched the Tagging and Sampling Project.  The T&S Project is not specifically aimed at e-pirates; rather, it is aimed at the readers who create the demand for e-pirate copies, particularly those who claim they would willingly pay for author-approved texts if they only knew where to find them.  “Tagging” involves taking electronic copies created by e-pirates and inserting new messages into the text, explaining some copyright basics to the reader and directing them to where they may buy legitimate copies.  “Sampling” takes a similar approach, except that the author provides a chosen sample, rather than simply giving permission for an already existing pirate copy to be used.  Once the work has been altered, the work is released into the wilds of the Internet, using the same distribution methods favored by e-pirates.  Burt, a programmer and computer science professor for nearly 20 years, admits that “the idea of using the pirates’ own methods against them was such a pleasant one that I kept trying to hammer out a way it could work in practice.”
The distribution methods are legal, explains Burt in the T&S FAQ.  “If they weren’t legal means, the pirates wouldn’t be able to abuse them. This will simply be legitimate use of those same channels.”  But is it really legal to take works of yours that have been pirated, alter them, and release them again?
Assuming the author has the right to approve electronic works, yes.  C.E. Petit, an attorney specializing in intellectual property and publishing law, familiar to many SFWAns who have retained his services, explains, “The key to the tagging and sampling program is that everything is done with the prior approval of the author (or other copyright holder). That makes the tagged files and samplers derivative works as to the Committee, although it does nothing to limit the author’s response to actual pirates, such as those who created the files from which tagged versions are made.”  Authors participating in the project are required to sign an agreement granting the SFWA E-piracy Committee the right to send out samples via the channels favored by pirates and/or send out pirate copies; in both cases, the works have been modified to include messages notifying the readers about the possible harms to writers from e-piracy and purchasing information.  Burt encourages authors to submit their own messages, or use the soundbites created for the E-piracy Awareness Campaign.  Message variation circumvents possible blocking via pattern matchers so that the samples get through to the reader as intended by the writer.
While the exact number of writers involved in the project is not widely publicized, Burt did reveal that eighteen novels had been released at the time of this interview.  “The software’s ready for action and the first batches have gone out, so consider this a wide open call for participants!”  Interested SFWAns are invited to visit the Tagging and Sampling FAQ to learn more about the project and how they may participate.
SFWA’s Tagging and Sample Project has a number of benefits and advantages.  First, it provides a member author with free advertising to readers.  Second, it does not take an aggressive, confrontational stance against the pirates themselves, which greatly reduces the likelihood of a pirate backlash.  In fact, Burt has heard no pirate grumbles about the project so far, and frankly expects none, precisely because this non-antagonizing approach fulfills what many pirates claim is their primary mission:  it makes electronic copies available to readers.  The project also answers the complaint of readers who say that they would willingly buy legitimate electronic copies if they only knew where to find them.  Finally, thanks to the authors of the automating software, the alteration and distribution now requires very little time and attention from the people involved.
E-piracy is not unique to the fiction publishing industry.  In June 2002, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) reported that illegal sales of recordable CDs rose 300% in 2001 to 450 million units.  The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)’s survey showed that 23% of music consumers claimed to be downloading or copying music rather than buying CDs.  Unsurprisingly, RIAA linked this to a drop in CD shipments to retail outlets:  from 1.08 billion in 2000 to 968.58 million in 2001.  The music industry’s fight against electronic piracy has been much more widely publicized, in part thanks to the Napster case, and the attempts at a solution have been much more complex.  Encryption has been the favored solution of many labels, yet encryption experts point out that such methods can be expensive to develop and establish, particularly if new hardware is required to read the encrypted media.  Sony released a Michael Jackson single with “anti-PC technology,” which was supposed to prevent the CD from being played in a CD-ROM drive yet still permit the CD to be played in a standard music CD player.  Recording companies also fight pirates in the courts, suing file-sharing companies in hopes of driving them out of business.
In contrast to the music industry’s efforts, SFWA’s Tagging and Sampling Project seems rather small and low-tech.  Yet the music industry has felt the backlash from consumers who decry the recording companies as greedy, grasping executives who want to add a few more zeros to their already enormous paychecks.  Musicians (most notably Courtney Love) have added to the backlash, revealing how little money they make from their albums, compared to the large percentage taken by the label.  And thanks to the speed of gossip on the Internet, as soon as an encryption scheme is broken, the solution spreads more quickly than a new approach can be developed, much less implemented.
SF has always prided itself on its community, the connection between authors and their readers established and maintained through conventions, fanzines, and now through the Internet as well.  With excerpts already a familiarity to many readers, it is no surprise that so many authors and publishers have chosen this method of promotion.  But like many techniques, if it is done poorly, the benefit is lost.
Reviewing the use of online samples by the above-named authors and publishers, certain common points emerge:



  • User-friendliness:  The reader must be able to find the excerpt, not only by having the right URL to hand, but by the web designer providing a clear, intuitive navigation scheme and by the web site owner emphasizing the importance of samples as a marketing tool, so that the reader may find excerpts in a matter of seconds, rather than minutes.
  • Accessibility:  The reader must be able to read the excerpt.  If presented in a web browser, the background and text colors as well as font size must not cause immediate eyestrain.  If presented in another format, it is better to use a popular freeware format that is already familiar to the reader and does not require extra time for installation.  If presented as a scanned page (as often does), the scan must appear in a size suitable for comfortable reading.  Web designers should also take into account that many Internet users use assistive technology to surf the Web.
  • Reader-friendliness:  The excerpt must be chosen to tantalize readers, not infuriate them with a scene that ends in mid-sentence or bore them with a scene that does not appeal to their sense of wonder.  Cover art and purchasing information could also be included.
  • Variety:  Readers will be less likely to re-visit your web site if the same samples are up month after month after month.  Depending on the circumstances, you could simply add new samples to your online archive, or you could offer a completely new set of samples on a regular basis.  If you write short fiction as well as longer forms, you may wish to consider posting one or two short stories in their entirety (depending on the rights situation) as well as an excerpt from a longer work.



Of all the self-marketing tools available to a writer, online samples can be one of the cheapest and easiest to try.  Assuming you own the electronic rights, you can either hire a web designer to add samples to your web site, or you can do it yourself; the latter option requires an investment of time and effort but not as much money, while the former may cost more money but could let you take advantage of a professional’s skills and experience.  Perhaps most importantly, online samples can help you develop a virtual community with your readers, creating a core of fans who will eagerly await your next publication.