Saturday, July 4, 2009

Serial Internet Novels: Waste of time or the future of horror storytelling?

by Nickolas Cook

When author David Wellington snagged a lucrative book deal with Thunder's Mouth Press for his debut horror novel, ‘Monster Island’, an online serial zombie novel (known colloquially as a 'blook'), there were many old school authors and publishing houses that openly scoffed at such an anomaly. An 'online' novel being read by the general public? How could this be? A 'badly written fanboy novel' getting a publishing deal?
Since then, Wellington has proven himself not only a talented storyteller deserving of a wider readership, and most importantly, that he is anything but a one trick pony. Since then, he's released no less than eight online serial novels, most of which have been published the old fashioned way after the fact.
But has Wellington's success managed to change the way readers and, more importantly, publishers view horror reading?
According to a library poll in 2008, it was reported over 33% of internet users say they do read blogs (a serial novel's usual format) and that around 11% do so on a regular or semi-regular basis. That's nearly double the numbers reported by various polls and agencies in 2006. So it would seem- at least by the above results- that internet readership is growing as more and more people become used to this new method by which an aspiring author can present his or her story to a potential audience.
But what about publishers? Are they paying attention to these fictional flowers on the internet? Just how many publishers, small press or otherwise, are scooping up the next online Wellingtons and sending their works out into the print world?
Not many.
A handful at most…and that's counting Wellington's blooks.
Even those companies that offer online publishing services to authors do so with the intent of having the buyer print the product at home, thereby saving them the cost of paper and shipping.
Which begs the transverse question: How many print novels have found life or even a new life online?
And the not so surprising answer is, of course, thousands.
Many literary classics, some contemporary works.
Some legally, most not.
So it would seem that many publishers are willing to use the internet to further their sales to those who use online as their primary reading source, but do not perceive this venue as a viable first source for readers.
Some publishers- mostly those who are trying to angle their business towards the much cheaper web publishing medium- claim that in ten years or less the print world will be pretty much dead.
With the recent third generation release of the Kindle DX, we're beginning to see more authors trying to give their older out-of-print works a second chance at a reading public.
All of these technology-driven publishing mediums are bound to take their toll on the old world of paper and spines, but with what eventual cultural effect? And this should be of even larger concern for those of us in the horror genre- a genre that has come to be identified with less than professional craftsmanship when it comes to self-publishing and web publishing.
Who will guard the gates of editing and good storytelling?
If you thought self-published works were bad, blooks make some of those look like Pulitzer Prize winners.
It seems these days that there are thousands of online serial novels hitting the web, perhaps inspired by Wellington's incredible success, perhaps because it is a free and easy, ‘no gates’ way of sending your work into the world.
One positive of such a no-holds barred venue is that strange and not-so-easy to define novels have the potential of drawing an audience, where in the corporate heavy mentality of modern big house publishing such works would never see the light of day. How many big houses would gamble on something like ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ these days? Or even something as surreal and subversive as Robert Anton Wilson's ‘Schrödinger's Cat’?
Can the internet save an ailing horror publishing market?
One thing against using the internet as a solitary source of readership is the non-physical aspects of it. Free, yes, but also by its very airiness in terms of costs, it also gives a perception of bearing no weight in this modern instant gratification culture. Do the words lose their consequence and importance because of their lack of physicality?
By many online authors' admission they want to see their works in print even if they're popular online, so it seems as though one cannot deny the reality that exclusive online readership simply isn't enough to impress the industry.
Which isn't the same for online comics/graphic novels, and even films. For those mediums of storytelling do just fine with an exclusive online life. As do some fiction and nonfiction magazines and news sites.
So why the double standard for novel length material?
Even the master of horror Stephen King felt the need to provide print versions of his online offerings in recent short story collections.
Some authors have even gone so far as to create whole worlds for their fiction offerings, as evidenced by Weston Ochse, John Urbancik, Mike Oliveri and artist Russell Dickerson’s creation, MUY MAL. Their experiment seemed to come off quite successfully by their own accounts, so maybe this is the new wave of fiction: an unrestrained world building between collectives, where the reader gets more than a printed page, an interactive experience, instead, that transcends the old world.
In any case, it’s truly stating the obvious the say that the internet is going to affect reading by and large, and probably a lot sooner than the old world reading public would like. The new world isn’t going to go away because it may be strange and inconvenient. It will break the taboos; it will tear down the pillars.
Here’s the future.

Below are a few links gathered during the writing of this article. Some display a creativity that embraces this new format for fiction, most don’t, but they’re still entertaining.

Cory Cramer’s ‘Hades Rising’ by Remarco Publishing

Chris and Patrick William’s ‘Dead Meat’ by Permuted Press

Simon Drax’s ‘Exit Vector’ by underland press (they call their works ‘wovels’)

John Passarella’s ‘Shimmer’

Zed Zefram’s ‘Zomtropolis’

Andersen Prunty’s ‘The Beard’

--Nickolas Cook