Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Essay: Podcast Fiction - The New Frontier?

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

For me, one of the things that stands out as far as the science fiction/fantasy industry goes is podcast fiction. I mean ten years ago, sure, we had these things called audio books yet they were never really the popular section of the bookstore (the exception being nonfiction audio books, specifically the self-help types). Or should a particular piece be adapted into audio, it's usually a classic or a best-seller--basically a novel or short story that's already well established, or at the very least read by someone who's popular (i.e. Tolkien). These days, it's a whole new paradigm: previously unpublished authors are podcasting entire novels, the latest short stories are being adapted into the audio format, and more importantly, people are listening to all these material!

There's something fortuitous about 2008 when it comes to podcast fiction. Not that the podcasters or their audience are acting any differently than they were a year or two ago, but more of the big publishers are finally acknowledging podcast fiction. For example, podcast novelists like Scott Sigler or Mur Lafferty are finally seeing their work in print. We've had podcast magazines like StarShipSofa and Escape Pod for some time now but lately, prominent online magazines like Clarkesworld and Fantasy Magazine are including podcasts in their publication as well. Just last week, Transmissions from Beyond debuted and they're bringing with them not just TTA's fantasy/science fiction stories but horror and crime/mystery as well. Oh, and before I forget, much like my editor Jesse Willis over at SFFaudio, I missed the fact that Tor includes audio downloads in its free offerings (that's not to say they're the first publisher to do so--Small Beer Press has some audio downloads on its site as well--but Tor is one of the more mainstream and gigantic publishers).

I don't think anyone could have predicted the podcast fiction phenomenon (not that it's that big, but more of acknowledging it has a cult following). I mean it's not like the .gif and .jpg photo formats which "make sense" when you take into account the history of the Internet. Ten years ago, the idea of podcast fiction is completely unfathomable. I mean I'm one of the people who still remembers the .mp2 format (the predecessor of the .mp3) and while I was certain back then that people would wait an hour to download on dial-up a 5-minute song on their computers, I don't think the same could be said for a 15-minute short story. People had to wait until bandwidth became cheaper and faster (I still remember the days cursing Rick Kleffel and his Agony Column because his mp3s were encoded in stereo--it could have been encoded in mono--which meant a larger file size for me to download; these days I hardly pay attention to that fact and some people would probably complain if the sound was of less quality). And then podcasts also had to wait until the prevalence of mp3 players (and perhaps unfortunately until Apple coined the term podcast) which made listening to audio books cheap and portable (and this is arguably why audio fiction beats eBooks when it comes to mobility [i.e. reading/listening when not in front of a computer]--the former will work with a device under $100.00).

I won't go into detail the advantages of audio fiction. The biggest asset I think is the ability to multitask while listening to audio fiction, whether it's your daily commute or working on drone-like chores. Another factor is its accessibility and in most cases, that means being available for free.

What I want to elaborate on however is the format. Let's face it, I don't think people will listen to a 10-hour podcast, although a person might spend 10 hours listening to podcasts. I'd say the tolerable length of a podcast should be anywhere from half an hour to two hours at most. What that translates into when it comes to print is a short story or a novelette. I mean for the most part, the bread and butter of sites like Escape Pod have been short stories. Those seem to be the optimum format when it comes to podcast fiction.

When it comes to novels from podcasters like Mur Lafferty, the authors break them down into several episodes. I honestly don't think the podcast novels could truly be called novels because they're not released in one big file. Instead, we download and listen to them in chapters. To me, this is more akin to the serial novel, where readers (or in this case, listeners) go through the book at a certain pace, and at times are left hanging as they wait for the next chapter/episode. There will be exceptions of course but looking at many of the podcast novels out there, they pretty much follow the serial program. And serial fantasy/science fiction, let's face it, isn't prominent in print but seems to be perfectly viable in podcast form. (Of course one could argue that another value of podcasts is that one gets to choose: I could wait until all the episodes have been released and listen to them in one go or download and listen to them as they get released in chunks.)

When it comes to the online magazines, I'm glad to see that they're featuring podcasts, not because of the increased prominence of podcasts, but rather that as online publications, they're starting to make good use of the medium. I mean as far as content goes, online magazines have followed the rules of print, everything from word count rates to formatting. To me, the only thing online magazines have leveraged for themselves when it comes to the medium is how they promote and distribute themselves (the fact that any household with Internet access can view their content or use various networking tools to help spread the word). Podcasts are one the things that an online magazine can do that a print magazine can't (well, a print magazine can try including an audio CD in its package but that seems out of place for a fiction magazine). Hopefully online magazines will explore more the features of its online nature (off the top of my head, what comes to mind are book trailers as promos/ads/advertorials, the occasional YouTube video feature, memes, etc.).

On the side of the industry (publishers/editors/authors), I wonder how contracts will change in the future. Will fiction sales include podcasting rights? What will be the metrics for revenues in podcast fiction? Currently, podcasts are another venue for authors to sell previously published stories. And as far as publishers go, fiction podcasts seem to be a marketing tool to help get the word out without compromising its "print" market ("here's the story: you can listen to it but if you want to read it, buy the book"). As far as fans go, otherwise inaccessible stories ("I'm not subscribed to that magazine!") get circulated--and typically for free. There's also a new sub-industry being developed: skilled people who read fiction. I don't know whether this'll eventually evolve into one with comparable professional fees but I'm sure as more and more podcasts get released out there, the demand for voice actors, experienced podcasters, or simply skilled readers will increase.

Podcast fiction seems to be a new element in the industry that's finally being embraced. Whether it'll be subsumed into the fantasy/science fiction industry or spawn off into its own new territory remains to be seen but it's certainly one phenomenon to keep an eye out on in the years to come.

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