Note: This article will also form the basis of a discussion on my TalkShoe book show, The Biblio File, on Saturday, December 16th at 12 p.m. Pacific/3 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Universal time. Diane Duane, Sharon Lee, and Steve Miller will be joining me to discuss their Storyteller-published books. For information on how to listen or participate, see this page.
In an entry on my essay journal in 2004, I talked about a new model of serial publishing called the Street Performer Protocol. I went into how it had excited Elizabeth Moon and some other SFF writers enough to register and set up a website to try it out, called The Storyteller’s Bowl. However, none of the writers ever got around to placing any works on this site, and eventually the domain name registration was allowed to expire. It was my belief that the Street Performer model would not work very well for fiction writers, though I felt it might have a place in the roleplaying game industry.
Since then, several writers have proven me at least partly wrong. It seems that the Street Performer Protocol can work for fiction—at least in certain circumstances.
The Street Performer Protocol
John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier came up with the Street Performer Protocol while trying to figure out a way for artists to continue to earn a living in the electronic era despite widespread Internet piracy of their works. Under this model, an author would serialize his work in return for donations.
In a Street Performer Protocol publication, the artist would divide his work into a number of pieces (such as the chapters of a novel, though it would also work for episodes of a TV series, songs from an album, or other easily-serialized media). He would publish the first piece free for all to see, but would set a donation threshold for the next piece: for example, “I need to receive a total of $100 in donations before I will post the next chapter.” Once that threshold was reached, he would then publish the next piece, with the same donation threshold for the next one after that, and so on, until the work was freely available to the public in its entirety.
In a response to my essay, author Lawrence Watt-Evans said that one circumstance where the Street Performer Protocol can be useful is “if an [established] author has a novel he can’t get published profitably elsewhere.” Watt-Evans explained that he first tried it in 2005 with such a novel, The Spriggan Mirror. It was the ninth book in a series, and his contract for it had been cancelled after he had four and one half chapters written. Rather than let that work go to waste, he decided to see if there was sufficient interest in the book that readers would be willing to donate a total of $100 a chapter in order for him to complete it. He had not expected to receive enough donations to have to write the entire book, but to his surprise he ended up receiving almost twice the amount of money required to put the entire 28-chapter work on-line. He has subsequently begun serializing another book in the series, The Vondish Ambassador, this time at $250 per chapter, and has published 13 chapters so far.
Fantasy writer Diane Duane ran into a similar situation with her third Feline Wizardry novel. Her first two books in the planned trilogy, Book of Night with Moon and To Visit the Queen, had not sold well enough for her publisher to be interested in a third book. Duane really wanted to write that book, but was busy enough and her time valuable enough that she could not do so “on spec;” she needed to be certain she would be paid for it. Then someone pointed to Watt-Evans’s success with the Street Performer Protocol, which piqued Duane’s interest. She solicited opinions from her readership on her blog, and to her surprise enough people stepped forward with offers of money (including at least one $1000 challenge grant) to make it feasible. Thus, The Big Meow was born. Although Duane has not stated what the per-chapter donation threshold is for the completion of the book, five out of the projected ten chapters have been posted so far.
Finally, a new serial donation project has recently been announced. The most recent novel in the Liaden Universe series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, I Dare, concluded with the sudden introduction of a new character, teenaged jump pilot Theo Waitley, who had a “kind of complicated” problem. Lee and Miller would like to write the much-anticipated next Liaden novel, but in order to do that they need to work out exactly what Theo’s “kind of complicated” problem is. This means writing a “side book” to tell her story. However, side books are generally “expected to be of little interest, except to stalwart fans of a series”—which means it is doubtful that a publisher would be interested.
Thus, Lee and Miller have announced they will be writing and publishing Fledgling on the “Storyteller’s Bowl” system, posting one chapter per week as long as they make their donation threshold of $300 per chapter. According to the project’s website as of this writing, they have already received enough donations to cover the first six chapters and 92% of the seventh—almost $2,100—and it is still a month and a half from the first chapter’s release date. (Lee and Miller are not new to marketing directly to their fans; after the first Liaden books did not sell well enough for publishers to continue the series, they sold chapbooks from their website until the series was picked up by Meisha Merlin.)
What all three of these projects have in common is that they are later books in a series and thus have dim prospects for print publication—but enough readers are willing to pay directly to make writing them cost-effective. Another commonality is that they are all offering free copies of a printed paperback version of the book for a $25 total donation (although Fledgling‘s offer is contingent on there being a printed paperback version—which will apparently only happen if the book is picked up by a publisher. The other two projects will have a print-on-demand version made especially for donors).
Street performers vs. storytellers
It is interesting to note that there are two fundamental differences between the “Storyteller’s Bowl” model these writers are using and the “pure” Street Performer Protocol. In the Street Performer Protocol, the works are already completed and placed in escrow with a third party before the author ever begins soliciting donations and posting pieces. This ensures that the consumers are not paying for something that might never be finished; the third party can verify that the entire work is in their possession. However, none of the three novels mentioned above has been completed yet; they are still works in progress. This also means that readers are paying for what essentially amount to drafts; they will be edited and revised upon their completion (as was the case for The Spriggan Mirror, which gained 5,000 additional words in the process).
The other difference is that, under the Street Performer Protocol model, the author is considered to have made all the money he will ever make on the project as of its completion, and the completed work is released into the public domain. However, Watt-Evans, Duane, and Lee and Miller are keeping the rights to their works—for possible later publication elsewhere—even as they post them free on-line. This means that readers are subsidizing the writing of the book—but not necessarily its publication.
On the other hand, this also means that the writers can set the threshold fairly low (if Fledgling goes to, say, 20 subsidized chapters, it will only bring in $6,000 for Lee and Miller) because they might later be able to sell the completed works to a publisher for an additional fee (as Lawrence Watt-Evans eventually did with The Spriggan Mirror). In that light, the Storyteller’s Bowl can be looked at as an excuse for a writer to write what he wants to write anyway, and not feel as if he is wasting unpaid time on something that may never sell.
This method does have its critics. In a discussion thread on rec.arts.sf.written, a poster identifying himself only as htn963 fears that the work will suffer from authors being given incentive to let the quality slip—after all, they’re already paid for it, no matter how good or bad it might end up being. And in Fledgling‘s case, there is no guarantee that the finished work will be professionally edited as it is uncertain that it will see eventual print publication.
There is also the fact that schedules can slip due to writer’s block or other matters. Diane Duane’s schedule for The Big Meow has slipped considerably due to various personal crises and other projects taking greater priority; originally intended to be completed by August, 2006, it was only halfway finished as of November. On the other hand, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller state they will be posting one completed chapter per week, except when travelling—the tightest schedule yet for a Storyteller’s Bowl work, akin to a weekly webcomic published in words instead of pictures. With over a month in which to build up a backlog, hopefully they will be able to keep to that schedule.
In my original essay, I was rejecting the Street Performer Protocol/Storyteller’s Bowl as a sole publishing method to replace standard print publishing. And much like the idea of e-books “replacing” tree-books, that is something that will probably never happen, at least in my lifetime. However, it seems that there is indeed a niche for Storyteller’s Bowl projects: later books in series that fans still want, but that don’t sell well enough for publishers to be interested. As it is a common problem for sales numbers to fall off for later books in a series (would-be new readers are put off by a fear that they won’t be able to follow the story without reading the prior books), it is possible this technique may see even more use in the not-too-distant future.
Incidentally, the Storyteller’s Bowl is not the only way to deal with such works. Mercedes Lackey and Steve Libbey are serializing the first book in their new superhero series The Secret World Chronicle as a free audiobook podcast to build publicity in the hope that a publisher will be interested. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that they credit me with giving them the idea.) It remains to be seen how successful this will be.
(Time stamp changed to move higher in blog. – DR.)