Prime Palaver #3

Letters to the Librarian

Eric Flint

February 4, 2001

 

I received a very nice letter from a lady named Cynthia Higginbotham in response to my last column, which I think would be of interest to a number of people. With Cynthia's permission, I'm posting major excerpts from it here. My response to her letter comes at the end.

Dear Mr. Flint:

I stumbled on the Baen Free Library shortly before Christmas and was very impressed -- impressed enough to hop over to Webscriptions and buy my husband several months of e-books for Christmas. BTW, we're both avid science-fiction readers from way back.

I have some comments and possibly useful information about some of the topics you addressed in your second letters column.

Publishing unpublished works:

...guarantee you that the first thing that would happen if someone actually managed to "liberate" publishing and publish every piece of fiction being written immediately on the internet -- is that a demand would be instantly created for some kind of company which provided the public with the ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL service of hacking through all the weeds to find the stuff worth reading.

A very to-the-point answer -- however, I would like to point out that there are archives and resources for publishing your own manuscripts on the internet. There is a hell of a lot of free fiction published on the Internet by people who love to write and know they can't sell what they write -- because they don't own the characters they are writing about. It's called "fanfiction"; some of it is very good, rivaling published works, and most of it is crap. (Sturgeon's Law applies). I write some myself, so I have learned a little bit about how to publish and promote one's self on the Internet.

So, for people looking for a place to publish their manuscripts on the web, and actually get people to come read it...

(1) Have your own website and make your fiction available there -- and make damn sure it's valid HTML that won't choke whatever odd browsers people might be using. Presenting text information is what HTML is designed for, you shouldn't need fancy browser-specific tricks to present your stories. If you make it available in other formats (e.g., all my fanfics are available in Palm format, too), proof-read it before publicizing it. Nothing turns off potential readers faster than not being able to read your work.

(2) Once you have a website, you can promote it. List with relevant search engines--for example, Anime-based fanfiction sites should list with Anime Turnpike (www.anipike.com), etc. Get on RELEVANT Usenet discussion groups and talk about your story (read group FAQ to avoid stepping on group taboos, first). Find relevant web forums to mention your stories -- but always, be polite and intelligent. Rudeness & immaturity is a great way to convince people they don't ever want to read *anything* by you.

(3) Upload some or all of your stories to the major relevant archives, and make sure there is a pointer (URL) back to your website in everything you upload -- if people like your stuff, they will come to it looking for more. - Archives include Usenet groups; for example, rec.arts.anime.creative is the place to post anime-related fanfiction. There are groups for most other popular fanfiction and for original fiction of various genres. - The largest fanfiction archive on the web, Fanfiction.Net,(www.fanfiction.net) also accepts uploads of original fiction.

Fanfiction.Net brings me around to my next point: FF.net accepts anything that resembles a story that isn't outright plagiarism; it's largely automated, no editing. As a result, one does have to wade through a lot of crap to find the gems. This is also true of the bazillion or so websites dedicated to fanfics/original fiction. As you might have predicted, word-of-mouth (word-of-net?) becomes very important in deciding which author's work to go look at-- I don't have the time to waste reading a lot of crap for free. So, one thing that has happened is that well-respected authors or site maintainers maintain lists of sites or stories that they think are good. I like author X's work, I know she writes good stuff, so I suspect that the stuff she likes might be worth looking at, and so I check out author Y. I believe Jerry Pournelle once predicted that something like this would happen with the Internet. He was right.

Anybody who thinks something which is even as relatively "simple" as proof-reading can be done by "artificial intelligence" has never seen the weird stuff that happens when you simply let a manuscript go through with nothing more than a spell-checker at work. (And God help you if you let a grammar-checker get out of control...)

I can usually tell when a manuscript I've been asked to review has been run through a spell-checker but not proof-read; the pattern of misspellings is distinctive -- all legitimate words, just not the RIGHT word.

As for grammar-checkers... One of my fellow fanfic writers has voiced the opinion that Microsoft Word's grammar-checker was written by someone on acid. <grin>

(snips)

But, to be blunt, we don't consider the problems which some people have because they choose to use a less common system such as Linux to be in the same category. If you don't like Microsoft products, or WordPerfect, or whatever, that's certainly your prerogative. But you don't have the right to demand that the rest of the world has to accommodate you -- especially when you're not paying for it.

You have it available in HTML, what the heck are the Linux users complaining about? If you only put the books up in MS Word format, I could see what they might be complaining about, but that's not the case. BTW, I am a Linux & a Palm user and have no problems.

...Well, it would be nice if your Palm content was plain vanilla DOC format rather than "marked-up-for-MobiReader" DOC format, but since you provide the MobiReader free for download and my Palm can run both it and the reader I *really* prefer for other stories, no problem.

Anyway, thank you for reading, and I hope you found some of this helpful. Oh, and I've really enjoyed the Belisarius novels you and David Drake wrote. <grin>

Cynthia Higginbotham

Eric's response:

I know I shouldn't have included Cynthia's last paragraph, since there's no reason to do so except as a shameless plug for one of my own books. For which transgression of good taste I estimate I will lose [calculate, calculate] about three nanoseconds of sleep tonight.

Oh, quit griping. This stuff's all free and nobody's making you read this anyway.

As for the heart of Cynthia's comments, I think she's done an excellent job of laying out the best way for people to try to use the internet as a means of self-publication. Just to make my position clear, I'm not opposed to anyone doing that. For one thing, a number of people write simply for the pleasure of it, with no intention of trying to get their material published by a commercial publication. For them, Cynthia's comments should be most helpful.

Nor would I make the blanket claim that it never leads to any professional publication. Who knows, it might. My only concern, in my earlier column, was to caution people from thinking that online self-publication is really a significant avenue for getting published by a commercial publisher. It isn't. For that, the best method is still the ancient but tried-and-true system of putting a hardcopy MS in an envelope and mailing it to whatever publisher you think might be interested.

That's a long shot, true -- going by sheer statistics. But it's a lot less of a long shot than trying to use the internet. Publishers and editors are a lot more likely to look at their own slush pile in their own office than spend endless hours in front of a monitor scanning the mountain of stuff available on the internet.

And that's enough said on this topic. I'm starting to feel uncomfortably like a nag, which (I'm convinced) is another fate worse than death.