The other night, I had to stay late in the office waiting for documents. Too tired to do meaningful work in the meantime, I followed a link I had recently come across to a novel published online by its author, a novel also available for purchase in the normal fashion.
Reading that novel has inspired me to talk a little about the publishing model that its author, David Wellington, is using. Along the way, I’ll need to dip into microgenres, before returning to wider publishing issues. I’m going to save my thoughts on the novel itself until the end of this piece, as I’m aware there will be readers who might be curious about the publishing model but who have no interest in a horror novel which for me was in any event unsuccessful. I’ll flag when I’m turning to the work itself, so those with no interest can know to duck out gracefully at that point.
Put simply, when David Wellington has a new work, he publishes it on a weekly or biweekly basis online, chapter by chapter. Each chapter comes with a comments section, allowing fans to directly comment and discuss the work with each other, and a sidebar asks those who read the whole work to buy his most recent novel in print form, and encouraging those who enjoy his works online to also buy copies of those also in print form.
The essence of the approach then is free access to the work, interactivity with fans (of which more shortly), and an honour system to encourage fans to buy that which they can obtain at any time for free. I have seen David Wellington’s novels on sale in London in mainstream bookshops, so while I cannot say how successful this model is for him, my impression is that it has worked.
David Wellington’s approach is not of course unique. Recently, some bands have taken to putting albums free online, either for a limited period or indefinitely, counting on the free distribution to itself boost sales. Stephen King experimented with online serial publication, albeit for a fee, for one of his works. An experiment which in his case ended in failure. Other authors have tried placing example chapters online, so that potential readers can read a fair selection of the relevant novel, before making a buying decision. Writer Jeff Long, author of bestselling (I think, I could be wrong on that actually) novel The Descent took this approach, placing the first chapter of his novel at his website – a move which if nothing else shows he has confidence in his own story (and although I didn’t like the chapter and so didn’t buy the book, clearly plenty of folk disagree with me given its success). The, on its face fairly risible sounding, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies took a similar approach (god help me, I read the first chapter of that online too, from morbid curiosity. It is, if anything, worse than the title would suggest. Again, clearly many disagree with me).
Of the examples above, David Wellington is the only one I know of that has published his entire output online for free, Jeff Long and the PP&Z author are merely using online publishing as a method of giving tasters of normally published books, extended versions of the Amazon “see inside the book” concept. Wellington is much braver, much more experimental, the question arises then why does this technique work for him and could it work for others?
By now, it should be apparent what all my examples have in common, all are horror writers. I have no personal interest in the horror genre, save early examples such as Poe, Lovecraft and MR James. It doesn’t, as a genre, speak to me or interest me. I am, however, aware that in the 1990s it saw a fall in popularity that led to many bookshops discontinuing or reducing their horror sections, but in the last few years has seen a popular resurgence, helped in part by the emergence of the young adult supernatural romance genre.
Still, whatever fall or partial reprieve in popularity the horror genre may have suffered, I suspect it still significantly outsells most literary fiction, it’s possible then that though the two have little in common, there may be lessons capable of being learned.
David Wellington is not only a horror writer, he is also to be more precise a writer within a microgenre – zombie apocalypse fiction, which turns out to be a fairly vibrant subgenre – and which is as specific a niche genre as I can imagine. That niche quality, however, has certain advantages. I doubt that zombie fiction has a vast number of fans, but with the internet that doesn’t matter as however dispersed they may be it’s easy for them to find each other. Being a microgenre, it’s perhaps easier for an author to engage more directly with fans, to have a feel for their expectations and so produce works that will build a solid and reliable fan following. Further, lowering that barrier between author and fan, creating a sense of a relationship (a rather illusory sense, I suspect) must help with relying for income on an honour system. A fan who reads a work online, who feels they have a relationship with the author, that their comments are invited and valued, will I suspect then want to support that author by buying the print editions of their works.
Turning to the comments aspect of David Wellington’s publishing model, while reading his novel I dipped into three or four of the chapters’ comments sections. The comments were generally pretty content free, lot of “OMG! This so rocks!” and “Wow, great chapter” which while probably cheering for Mr Wellington didn’t add much to my life. More interestingly, it became apparent with Plague Zone that several fans were (rightly in my view) unhappy with the final section of the book and in particular the ending, Wellington let those comments stand, showing firstly a laudable fairness on his part with regard to his fans input, but also illustrating that he has received valuable direct feedback on what his fans liked and what they didn’t. On another note, Wellington conducted a competition, the winner of which was included in a chapter as a minor supporting character, so further drawing in fans and involving them in his work.
As best I can tell, Wellington didn’t actually change the course or content of his novel as a result of fan feedback. I don’t know if he writes it as he goes along in line with a predetermined story outline, or writes the whole thing and then releases it bit by bit (I suspect the former), but the fact of serialisation and fan comment doesn’t seem to cause him to change his direction. Equally, he doesn’t himself appear much in the comments section, leading to my own comment earlier that I suspect the relationship fans feel with him is largely illusory, the real relationship being still one of author and reader. This isn’t then a shared writing experiment, an interactive novel, rather it is simply a publishing model.
Could it work for other genres? Perhaps, the hyperniched nature of David Wellington’s work must I think be a factor in his success with this model, but much literary fiction is also read only by a very narrow readership base. Admittedly, literary fiction enthusiasts have the benefit that newspaper review sections take their interests seriously, a luxury Mr Wellington’s fans don’t enjoy, but for all that external support literary novels still aren’t that widely read – with some deserving writers getting only a few thousand readers.
Over on The Asylum, Linda Grant (who likely has more than just a few thousand readers) has appeared to discuss works, and both at The Asylum and The Mookse and the Gripes I have seen authors give interviews, discussing their works with John and Trevor, the bloggers at each of those sites. Would it be such a large step for an author to take control of the process themselves? To publish their work free online as well as in print, to discuss directly with their readers their thoughts, to engage with their readership as Mr Wellington has with his?
David Wellington uses fan loyalty, competitions, the ability to comment as a work develops and a self-created fan community to encourage his readership to actually buy print copies of his books. Were a literary author to do the same, I suspect they would in some ways find it actually easier, few readers of literary fiction ultimately will want to read such works on a computer screen, they’ll want a physical copy. I’d guess that many more zombie horror fans will be happy just with the online version.
David Wellington has demonstrated with his works an alternative publishing model, one that sits not in replacement of normal publishing, but alongside it supporting it. It’s an interesting experiment, one that appears to have worked for him and if for him I would have thought could also work for novelists such as say Indra Sinha (a very online-aware author), potentially allowing him to reach more readers than is presently the case.
That ends my thoughts on publishing models, I’m now going to talk about Plague Zone, the novel. Those of you who’ve stuck with me this far may want to bail at this point if a discussion of a specific zombie horror novel is outside your interests.
Right, I suspect I’m now writing for myself even more than usually. Still, here goes. Plague Zone is a work of zombie horror by David Wellington. It tells the tale of a librarian, Tim Kempfer who while embarking on an affair at an out of town librarians’ conference sees a news report of a zombie attack, a news report in which he recognised both the zombie and the victims – his wife and sitting in the unlocked car next to them his young son. Tim decides, through what fairly clearly is a form of guilt displacement, to get back to his home city of Seattle and have revenge on the zombie that killed his family. In other words, to find and kill one zombie in a whole city full of them.
The writing style is straightforward, it’s very much about telling the story without effect, recounting events. In my view, that’s appropriate, the genre wouldn’t support overly clever attempts at narrative technique, indeed given the inherent improbability of a zombie apocalypse a relatively flat writing style is perhaps an advantage. Some flaws emerge, twice Tim encounters zombies that were once women in print dresses, it’s clear what’s attempted there. A zombie that was once a woman in a print dress is a reminder of normality lost, that the monsters were once our friends and neighbours. Two such women though is a bit clumsy. Still, it’s the only such problem I noticed.
You don’t read this sort of novel though for the literary technique, and to analyse it on that basis wouldn’t really be fair. There is a strong tendency to tell rather than show, but that fits with the generally flatly descriptive approach taken:
He turned around, the fear threatening to paralyze him if he kept looking at the slowly creeping mass of droolers. He turned toward the entrance of Safeco Field, then to the street that ran past it. If he kept his calm, if he didn’t trip over something in the dark, he knew he could outrun the infected. He could put them behind him and after a few blocks of pursuit surely they would lose his scent and give up. He didn’t need to shoot every drooler he saw—that would be a waste of time and ammunition.
Tim slammed the office door shut behind him, twisted the deadbolt. Backed up until his legs hit the desk behind him. He could hear the droolers coming up the stairs. They couldn’t climb fences but a simple staircase was still within the limit of their powers, it seemed. Before he’d even caught his breath they were pounding on the door. He could see one through the rectangle of glass set into the door, its face pale and patchy, broken with sores. It felt a film of black drool on the window as it pressed its mouth against the glass, its lips making an obscene seal there. He could see its blackened tongue lolling for him.
The writing then is workmanlike, efficient and adequate to its task (hm, damning a bit by faint praise there, but I do think a more nuanced writing style would actually be an error for this genre). The problems with the book don’t arise from that, particularly given Wellington’s many fans clearly enjoy his writing technique.
The book does however have three significant problems, characterisation, the fact that Tim is the sole hero (I’ll come to why that’s a problem shortly) and sheer (even given the book’s premise) implausibility.
Tim is not a terribly persuasive character, although badass librarian has a certain ring to it, he is basically a moving plot device and viewpoint character. At the opening of the novel, Tim is about to have an affair, we’re told he hasn’t had one before, there seems no reason for him to have one now, really my impression was that the only reason he was uncharacteristically about to have an affair was so as to give him something to feel guilty about, and so send him on his bizarre assassination mission after one zombie.
Other characters act equally without reason, a military commander who is easily the book’s best character effectively imprisons Tim for his own good, and is running a small and hyper-surveillanced militarised state consisting of a town full of survivors and refugees. That’s fine enough, but when Tim inevitably escapes the commander is so keen to recover him (his mission apparently being to protect everyone he finds alive) that he sends troops into a zombie-infested city and uses massive resources to recover one apparently suicidal man. It just didn’t persuade, there seemed no good in-character reason for him to go to such lengths. Other characters risk their lives for Tim, even offer to die for him, but precisely why is never terribly clear. The characters act as the plot demands, not as what little we see of their personalities would dictate, and it’s a fatal flaw.
Tim himself is not terribly sympathetic, in part because the zombies aren’t really literal zombies. They’re actually living victims of a disease that causes aggression and severe brain damage. Tim’s mission then is to kill an admittedly dangerous, but actually profoundly neurologically impaired disease victim. To Wellington’s credit, the distinct lack of heroism in this is intentional and several characters do query whether Tim is simply mad in pursuing his pointless, suicidal and ultimately cruel quest for vengeance.
That’s fine, characters in a survival horror context need not be sympathetic, but with Tim unsympathetic more weight is placed on other characters, and other than the military commander they can’t really carry it.
The book is also weighed down in places with tremendous implausibility, I’ve mentioned the military commander’s quest to recover Tim, a quest a deranged as Tim’s own. Much worse though is the ending, which I won’t go into here but which given the already established abilities of the zombies simply makes no sense, a point made by several in the comments following the last chapter. That said, the ending does involve a degree of psychological subtlety in Tim’s character that is welcome, though sadly which I cannot discuss without giving that ending.
Finally, there is the issue of Tim as sole survivor. Zombie horror is an example of what is known as survival horror, the horror comes from the possibility of sudden character death, from the frequent randomness and sheer unfairness of such death. Wellington tries to include that here, but with only one central character we know that Tim must at least reach the last chapter. That undermines any suspense, Tim will make it to Seattle, he will get past the obstacles trying to stop him, if he’s to die it won’t be until the end of the book – all that has to be true as Tim is the only viewpoint character and without him the novel stops.
It’s a big problem, without the possibility of random death, of bad luck or a single bad choice killing a loved character (not that I loved Tim, but that’ not quite the point), there’s no suspense and thus no horror. The choice of having a sole protagonist undercuts the genre, means we know pretty much what will happen in the book, and indeed I guessed the ending very early on and was right in pretty much all key particulars.
So, Plague Zone didn’t work for me, reading the comments it looks like David Wellington has written more successful novels, and since I wish him well in future I hope he continues to push his craft and extend his range – my strong impression was that here he wanted to write a more psychological study of one man under terrible pressure but didn’t wholly succeed. He is, however, an author with many fans and while I don’t think the zombie horror genre is the best place to explore psychological trauma, Stephen King moved from supernatural to psychological horror and I see no reason why with time David Wellington shouldn’t do the same, if that’s where his talent leads him.