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JOHN SCALZI: WHATEVER

January 3, 2003
Change of Plans

So, there's been a slight change of plans. As you may remember (surely 2002 isn't too hazy yet), I serialized my most recent science fiction novel, Old Man's War, here in December, and this month I was going to put it up as shareware, a la Agent to the Stars. Well, I won't be doing that. The reason for this is that, well, I kind of sold it. Instead of being available as shareware, Old Man's War will be available either later this year or early next year in a hardcover edition from Tor Books, publishers of (among others) Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, Steven Brust and Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, really, Teddy Roosevelt. It's a reissue, I think, not one of those L. Ron Hubbard-eqsue "dictating from beyond the grave" situations. 

Am I happy? What a silly question. I'm just glad this is a text medium, so you can't see the footprints on my desk from where I was dancing on it (yes, I could make a little videocam movie. But, no). And it's actually a two book deal, so I get to write at least one more novel and have someone pay me for it. As they say, it beats a sharp poke in the eye. Or in the groin. Or just about anywhere else, for that matter. Sharp poking: Bad. Two book deal: Good. 

I'm also pleased to say that the book deal comes as a direct result of having the book up here on the Web site; the editor who made the offer (Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who in addition to being the Senior Editor of Tor is the author of the Electrolite blog) did so after reading chapters on the site and then downloading the complete book (and by doing so, Mr. Nielsen Hayden's ranking on my list of People Who Can Ask For a Kidney and Not Be Dismissed Out of Hand has shot up rather dramatically over the last few days. And I can assure you, it's a very short list). 

I'm not 100% positive on this, so please don't hit me if I'm wrong. But I'm pretty sure it's the first time that an SF novel that's been published on a personal Web site has been picked up by a major publisher for traditional publication. It's not the first book that's been derived from a personal Web site, of course -- James Lileks, for one, turned part of his site into a successful non-fiction book (and has another one coming), and Pamela Ribon's upcoming novel is in part mined from her Web site entries. But it might be the first time for a novel that was presented in more or less completed form to make the jump. If this is the case, then as you may imagine I'm rather pleased about it. One always likes to be the first at something, or at least near the top of that list. If it's not, of course, I'm still pleased for me. 

(Addendum: MJ Rose reminds me that she did it first, with her erotic-tinged novel "Lip Service." In 1998, even. But it wasn't science fiction, so I can still cling to being the first in that genre until someone inevitably comes to knock me off that perch. Come and get me!)

It's also a confirmation of something I wrote just prior to serializing the novel on the site. I wrote: 

There's also another reason I'm putting it online, which is simply that I'd like to advance the possibility that something like this -- self-published and online -- doesn't necessarily have to be automatically shoved into the "loser" box. Over the last year, I've been spending a lot of time listening to and reviewing independent music through my IndieCrit site, and speaking out of a decade and a half of critical experience, much of this independently-released (and indeed largely "self-published") music is as good or better than the music that is being shot out of the major music labels. Why shouldn't independently-released novels have the same chance of reasonable quality? Someone's got to start making the case for it, and why not me. 

And indeed, the fact this sale was possible at all is yet another example of the maturation of the online medium. Many folks still see the online medium as the medium for people who can't or won't get published any other way, but that hasn't been the case for a while now. Over the last year in particular several of the more prominent bloggers have seen their online bylines become useful in transferring their writing into the mainstream media; by the same token a number of old-line writers and journalists used the "blog" format to ratchet up their reputations (my high school classmate Josh Marshall being a fine example of that).

For talented and committed writers, writing on one's own site is a true alternative medium which can be used for one's overall gain, and not simply as a catchall for otherwise unusable or unpublishable material. People who write well, and write online, no longer need to feel at an inherent disadvantage to those who write well, and write in a traditional medium (bad writers, alas for them, are still stuck). 

Now, before someone gets it into their head that my publishing my novel online was some sort of controlled, Machiavellian plan to forgo the SF publishing slush pile, and that Mr. Nielsen Hayden fell right into my trap, bwa hah hah hah, I'd like to be clear: I'm not nearly that organized, and I don't know that this sort of thing is easily reproducible. Old Man's War is a good book, but there are lots of good books out there waiting to be looked at, and typically speaking, your book has a much better chance of getting bought if you actually set it in front of an editor rather than waiting for an editor to come on by. 

So in short: Boy, did I ever get lucky. I really cannot emphasize that enough, and to drive this point home, I'll note that Agent has been online for going on four years and hasn't had so much as a nibble, traditional publishing-wise. I don't want to suggest we all ditch the traditional methods of getting work published. They're traditional because they tend to work (also, if people start hounding Mr. Nielsen Hayden or any other SF editor to swing by their Web site and look at their novel, I don't want it said it's because I said that's what they should do. Please, be nice to the editors. Give them love. And jewelry).

What I am saying is clearly we've gotten to the point where it's no longer the smart thing to automatically dismiss writing online -- even an online novel -- as "not good enough." Sometimes, it is good enough. It's just that simple. I'm happy to be one of the guys who gets to be the case in point for that. 

-- JS 

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