Today’s guest post is by author Bruce Holland Rogers, whom I recently met while teaching at the Whidbey MFA program.
Since 2002, I’ve been selling my flash fiction by e-mail to paying subscribers. The venture has been the core activity of my writing career for more than a decade, but it began with what may have been a lie.
According to a story that I read in a book about guerrilla publicity for writers, a limericist had offered a daily limerick by e-mail to anyone who would send him a dollar. He had earned $100,000 dollars this way in the first year. I was enchanted. Maybe I could use the same model for my short-shorts.
I launched my service, shortshortshort.com, on a sliding scale. If I could convince one person to pay me for an annual subscription, I would e-mail that person one story. If I signed up ten readers, they’d get four stories. When I had fifty subscribers, they’d each receive one story a month.
It didn’t take long for my subscription list to grow through word of mouth. Existing subscribers were my sales force, because if they could get others to subscribe, it meant more stories for everyone. Eventually, afraid that quality would suffer if I had to write too many stories, I changed the terms of the subscription to three stories a month, or 36 stories in an annual subscription, no matter how many subscribers I had.
At times, I have had as many as a thousand paying subscribers. Like any sort of subscription, I lose subscribers through normal attrition. If I don’t work hard at retaining and recruiting subscribers, my numbers drop off. Right now, after several years of not trying very hard to find new readers, I have about five hundred subscribers. At $10 per subscriber, I’ve never reached the $100,000 annual income of the anecdote’s limerick writer, but shortshortshort.com earns me more than what most writers of very short fiction make. There have been other benefits:
- Double dipping. The private e-mail list is what Ralph Keyes has called “privishing” rather than “publishing.” After a story has been seen by my subscribers, it still can’t be found by any member of the public who wants to see it. There’s no publication of record. So has it been published? Most magazines and anthology editors have said no, my e-mailed stories are not yet published, and those editors are willing to consider the e-mailed stories for more traditional publication. I credit such publication as “first time in print.” So I’m paid twice.
- Reliable audience. I write all over the literary map, from little genre tales to brief literary ones. With shortshortshort.com, I have a readership that will follow me across categories.
- Immediate gratification. I write a story, edit it, and put it before paying readers all on my own timetable.
- Deadlines. Real ones, with actual customers I want to keep happy. I’m productive.
- Audience response. (Happily, most often to tell me what they liked, but sometimes to say that a story was not their cup of tea at all.)
- A ready mailing list. When I recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for producing a trade paperback edition of my latest story collection, I mentioned the campaign in the introduction to a subscription story. Most of my Kickstarter backers have been subscribers.
- International reach. I have readers in dozens of countries.
- Translation. Some of my fans are also translators. Currently, annual subscriptions to my stories are available in German and French translation. (The translator keeps half of the subscription money.) At one time, subscriptions were also available in Chinese and Bulgarian. There are plans to launch the service in other languages this year.
Some subscribers, the hardest of hard-core fans, periodically suggest that I charge more than $10 yearly, but I want the subscription to be cheap enough that almost anyone can afford it. I sign up a lot of subscribers at readings, and I think it’s pretty easy to part with $10 as an impulse purchase.
Some subscribers voluntarily pay more than $10. I think they do this in the spirit of crowd funding: the subscription is a cheap way to be a patron of the arts and keep a favorite writer in tea and biscuits.
In 2013, I’m going to concentrate some publicity and advertising efforts in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, to try to build the subscription base locally. I’d like to be as well-known as a writer there as I am in, say, Portugal. This may be the wrong strategy for rebuilding my subscriber base, since people are often skeptical about whether any writer who happens to be local can be any good. However, I’m hoping that the appeal of patronizing a local artisan partly overcomes that bias. The slogan of my campaign: Locally Sourced, Organically Grown Short Fiction.
As for the limerick subscriptions, years after I had successfully launched shortshortshort.com, I tried to track down the writer of those $100,000 verses. I haven’t been able to find evidence that he ever existed outside of the pages of the guerrilla publicity book. (Should I alert Oprah?) But I’m grateful for the example that led me to begin my own cottage publishing business, whether that example was real or not. I write fiction myself. I like stories that inspire, even when—especially when—they inspire with pure invention.