Posted in E-publishing, Tips and Tricks | Posted on 07-09-2012|
When people hear the term “e-publishing,” they naturally think of ebooks these days. Why not? Lots of independent authors are doing well publishing ebooks through the Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc. stores. But long before e-readers became popular, there were e-zines and other forms of online publishing. A lot of these publications were “for the love,” and few made their creators much money, but there have been exceptions…
Back in 2002, author and teacher Bruce Holland Rogers started selling short story subscriptions through his website, and he continues to earn money this way (among others) today. He’s agreed to answer a few questions for us, and I think his story will be particularly inspiring for authors hoping to diversify their income streams (i.e. so we don’t rely solely on Amazon to pay for the monthly coffee and chocolate supply).
Welcome, Bruce! Could you tell us about your short story subscription service and where you got the original idea?
I got the original idea from a story that probably wasn’t true. I read a book about guerilla marketing for writers, and according to the book, there was a pioneer of email subscriptions who offered to send a limerick a day to anyone who would send him a dollar. The book said that the limericist has been flooded with payments and made $100,000 with this service in its first year.
According to the story, this writer had basically used a spam email to find his subscribers. This was supposed to have happened in the early days of the public Internet when there wasn’t even a name yet for what we now call spam.
I knew I couldn’t start my subscription by sending a spam solicitation, but the idea of distributing my work to paying readers by email seemed terrific. So that was what got me started. I launched shortshortshort.com in 2002.
Once my own subscription service was successful, I tried to learn more about these daily limericks by subscription. And as far as I have been able to tell, the whole story was apocryphal. It does not seem to have happened.
How many subscribers do you have and how did you get those first ones? (I imagine they’re the hardest.)
I have had up to a thousand subscribers. Right now, because I haven’t really worked at maintaining my readership by finding new readers, I have drifted back down to 500.
I got my first subscribers, and built my initial numbers, through a sort of pyramid scheme. I call it a pyramid scheme, but it was completely transparent, honest, and realistic. I said that if I had one subscriber, I’d send that one person one story for the year. If I managed to get ten subscribers, I’d send stories quarterly. With twenty-five subscribers, I’d send a story a month. And so on.
My first subscribers were family, friends, and my most enthusiastic fans. Because they wanted more stories, they recruited more subscribers for me.
When I had about 250 subscribers, I was obliged to send two stories a month. Delivering two really GOOD stories each month was already getting to be a challenge, so I changed my policy at that point and promised to send three stories a month no matter how many subscribers I had. The original scheme could have had me writing more stories than that, and I think that would have ended up disappointing all concerned, because three stories a month is really the limit of what I can produce up to my own standards.
Do you ever get burned out on writing short stories? Three a month seems like a lot to me!
I wouldn’t say that I get burned out on writing short-short stories, but I do get burned out on everything else that takes time away from thinking about and writing stories. I teach, and I love teaching, but if I could, I’d cut back the teaching to just one class a year. I’d really prefer to have a lot more time for writing and thinking about what I’m writing.
But three stories a month is about the right pace for keeping me pleasantly under pressure. Or even unpleasantly under pressure, but satisfied that I’m getting work done.
Of course, sometimes, as when my wife suddenly left me, my usual resources have taken a hit, and it has been hard to keep working. There was a time when I put the subscriptions on re-runs, extending the expiration date for all subscribers and sending out stories that I had written years earlier. But to tell the truth, getting back on track with the stories was very helpful to me in picking up the pieces of my life. And it’s tremendously rewarding to have paying readers with whom I am in direct contact. They keep me going just by letting me know that they’re reading and thinking about the stories. Even if the occasional reader didn’t like a particular story, I am pleased to be getting a reaction. And, too, a story that wasn’t one reader’s cup of tea will almost always be a story that makes a different reader email me to say, “That was one of your best ever.”
Some subscribers have said to me that they’d like me to only send two stories a month, but to send only the best ones. The problem is, readers would disagree greatly about which, out of any month’s production, were the two best stories. That always serves as a great reminder to me that the reader creates half of the story, and some of my work makes for better collaborations with this group of readers than with that group. Writing is not perfectible. That’s actually kind of reassuring. Although, of course, the shorter a work is, the more the writer can reasonably be expected to make it very, very close to perfect. So the pressure to do good work, to strive for excellence, is always high.
The other thing that makes me strive for excellence with every story is that I’m always getting new subscribers. Every story is some new subscriber’s first. First impressions matter. So I try really hard to make every new subscriber feel with the first story he or she gets that the subscription was a good idea.
How is payment handled? It looks like you use Paypal. Does Paypal automatically renew people’s subscriptions and such?
I take PayPal or checks. I prefer checks, actually, because of the rather high percentage that PayPal takes in fees for a small transaction. No, PayPal doesn’t renew anything automatically. Renewals only come when I ask for them, or the subscriber herself notices that her expiration date is coming soon.
PayPal is international, and that’s a great help. I have subscribers all over the world.
Have you done any advertising or promotion to get people to your site and (one hopes!) signed up for your subscription?
I did a little advertising early on, but most of my subscriptions come from people who have heard me read or give a lecture in person. I think part of the motive for subscribing is to support an individual artist, and that means getting an impression of me as a person.
I’m going to be trying some ads at my local art cinema beginning later this year.
Have you thought about bundling the short stories and later selling them in ebook collections? Getting paid twice, as it were?
Getting paid twice? I’d be very disappointed if I only got paid twice! For most stories, I get paid at least three times. First, I’m paid by the subscribers. Second, I’m paid when the stories are published in magazines or anthologies. (Most editors see that the subscription stories haven’t really been published in that they aren’t available. There is no publication of record where you can go to read one of the stories, so although some small and generally non-paying publications won’t consider the subscription stories unpublished, the major markets do, and those major markets are the places I credit as the “first publication” for the stories.) Then the stories are translated into German or French for the translation editions of shortshortshort.com. I don’t make much from those since the numbers are small and I split with the translators, but I’m hoping to grow those services and to add languages. Then the stories appear in collections. In the past, that has always meant trade paperback from a small press. However, I’m going to self-publish my next collection as an ebook and as a trade paperback.
Because my stories are short, a few of them get picked up for educational use. My stories have been incorporated into textbooks internationally and used as the basis of questions on standardized tests in various U.S. states.
None of these income streams is big, but they do add up. If I can regrow my subscriber base from 500 to about 2,000, then I’ll be making a living from shortshortshort.com, and I really could consider the option of just teaching one class a year and spending much more of my time writing.
That’s fantastic, Bruce. Good luck with the ebooks and with finding more subscribers for your short stories. Thanks again for stopping by!
Thanks for the questions! www.shortshortshort.com is the site.
Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have won a Pushcart Prize, two Nebula Awards, two Micro Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and, most impressive of all, the Jonny-Cat Litter-ary Award for a work of cat-related fiction. He has received fellowships to teach writing and conduct story research in Hungary, Finland, and Japan, and he has taught private writing seminars in Greece and Portugal. His stories have been translated into over two dozen languages. He is a member of the permanent fiction faculty at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, a low-residency MFA program also known as the Whidbey Writers Workshop.