Five years ago, David Rothman posted a link to Diane Duane’s Storyteller’s Bowl project, The Big Meow—a third book in the trilogy of Feline Wizardry novels whose first two hadn’t sold well enough for a publisher to be interested. The idea was that people would subscribe, and in return for the subscriptions Duane would write the book. In many ways, this was a forerunner of other such projects such as Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Fledgling and Saltation. (I even had all three of them on a podcast talk show together (Part 1, Part 2) to discuss the process of installment writing.)
About halfway through the project, The Big Meow more or less ground to a halt as Duane faced a number of health- and work-related issues that made it hard for her to do even the writing for which she was under contract, let alone side-projects like this one. But today, Duane announced that the draft has been completed, and the chapters made available on the Big Meow website for subscribers. (They will become visible to everybody on February 12th.)
In her announcement, Duane apologizes that it took so long to get the book written, and that she didn’t communicate better about her situation over the intervening years. She also went over future plans for the project, noting that the draft will now be edited by a freelance professional editor of her acquaintance, and the revised version made available to subscribers whenever it is ready (probably at least a few months). She will be selling e-book versions as well, and printed versions will likely come out over the summer.
In discussing the matter on BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow talks about how difficult writing can be sometimes, as projects that once seemed full of promise can suddenly shrivel up and go nowhere, or otherwise expand to take far longer than they should. This can make “street performer” style books problematic if donations are taken before the books themselves are actually written.
Of course, what Cory doesn’t mention is that there’s an important distinction to be made here. The original Street Performer Protocol proposal assumed that the work being crowd-funded had actually already been completed before the crowdfunding stage took place—for precisely that reason. (The work would be held in escrow by a third party, who could guarantee to would-be subscribers that they aren’t buying into a pig in a poke.)
But most people who’ve actually implemented the idea have gone at it in more of a Charles-Dickensian fashion: taking the money before starting, trusting that they’ll be able to finish the work on time. I usually refer to this type of payment-before-production model as the “Storyteller’s Bowl” model, named for a potential implementation that never actually got off the ground, to draw that distinction. For some, such as Lee and Miller, this has worked out well. Others, such as Duane, have had trouble with it. Scott Lynch, whose Queen of the Iron Sands project I mentioned back in 2009, has also had troubles (though he has gotten a couple more chapters up in the year or so since last I checked it).
(This was true even back in Charles Dickens’s day. Dickens famously wrote his magazine-serialized stories from month to month, one chapter at a time, not bothering with trivial little things like “completion” before shipping the chapters off. His contemporary Anthony Trollope once tried this practice, but found it stressed him out so considerably worrying that he might not be able to come up with the next chapter on time, or even finish it, that he swore off of the practice and never serialized a book before completing it again.)
The problem writers have with the pure Street Performer model, as opposed to the Storyteller’s Bowl model, is that hewing to its production-before-payment model essentially amounts to writing a novel “on spec”—something professional writers usually know much better than to do. They have no guarantee the book will actually make its Street Performer target, and then what would they do with the unwanted fruit of their labors? They could instead be using their time to write something they know a publisher actually wants. This is why further volumes to series that fail to sell well often don’t get written. The Big Meow is a case in point. At least with the Storyteller’s Bowl, they’re getting some income out of the time they’re taking off of more profitable projects.
It used to be that there wasn’t really any good way to publish these stories if publishers wouldn’t take them. That’s why Lee and Miller’s Liaden series languished for several years after the first three volumes didn’t sell well. Then the ideas of Street Performers and the Storyteller’s Bowl were floated, writers such as Lawrence Watt-Evans made it work, and Diane Duane and Sharon Lee and Steve Miller signed on.
But in recent days, another possibility has sprung up, exemplified and championed by J.A. Konrath: using Amazon’s self-publication options to bypass publishers and bring the books to an audience while keeping 70% of the sale revenues. If writing a complete work for it still amounts, in a sense, to writing it “on spec”, at least it is less complicated and chancy, and provides a better distribution network, than banging it out one chapter at a time and hoping enough people kick in money to support you. (For that reason, I’ve suggested it to a Baen author whose trilogy Baen decided it didn’t want to finish. She was intrigued by the idea; hopefully it works out for her.)
Perhaps if Diane Duane set out to write a self-published work like The Big Meow today, she might go that route. (Though, more likely, she’d simply sell it directly through the e-book store on her own website and keep all the revenues, less expenses. She’s done this already with one of her books whose publication deal fell through, A Wind from the South, before eventually releasing the e-book version for free.) Either way, she says she’s learned her lesson now: “And these words are now more or less branded on the inside of my skull: WRITE THE DAMN BOOK FIRST, DUMMY. SRSLY.”