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Essay

The Sigil lands in iFiction

How users are expanding the versatility of a new online fiction distribution site

Andrew Burt 10 June 2007

www.lablit.com/article/267

They can just click, the author gets paid, and they get to read

Last year I created a free, web-based tool called iFiction to help out my fellow authors. Since many authors know nothing about setting up web pages, let alone the intricacies of password protections and taking payments via Paypal, iFiction lets authors link to a page that displays their story or novel and collects payment or donations via credit card for any pieces they might want to publish on the Internet. All the funds collected go to the author (none to me, though of course PayPal is happy to get their share: 30 cents outright and 3% of any money that is eventually collected from readers) and most pieces are either free (donate if you like ‘em) or less than a dollar.

iFiction allows an author to choose how much of their story they want to display for free, then collects payment before letting the reader see the ending. If you have an audience for directly selling some of your work, iFiction makes it easier for your readers to pay you. If they have to think about how to get money to you, and have no encouragement to do so, it cuts down the chance they actually will. Here they can just click, you get paid, and they get to read.

iFiction is intended for authors who have an existing audience, for example a writer who has already sold the piece to a print market and wants to make available a reprint online to squeeze some more money out of the project. But anyone is free to use it as they wish. Essentially all an author needs to do is click a button to upload a manuscript and enter their PayPal payment address, then spread the word.

And spreading the word is the hard part. iFiction is not like an online magazine or bookshop, since there's no marketing. Nor is iFiction itself intended to be a destination site, which is why it's designed for authors with an existing readership base – so they can simply link to iFiction pages as a display and payment collection site.

Nevertheless, some authors are choosing iFiction even without the original work already in print, or with a large audience already aware of the story. A great example of this brave new type of inhabitant on iFiction is The Sigil, by Henry Gee. Gee is a senior editor for the venerable science magazine Nature and editor of their terrific "Futures" series of science fiction stories, and he recently chose iFiction to debut his first novel, The Sigil.

Though he's written non-fiction books, I confess I was wary – especially as I run an Internet workshop for new and established writers and thus get the opportunity to critique a great deal of fiction. First novels often show more signs of an author learning the craft than later works do. I started reading it on my itty bitty Blackberry screen – and couldn't stop. The Sigil is that rare gem where you recognize the genesis of a new talent in the field. Gee really knows his stuff, both the science and the science fiction, and it shows in his debut novel, which has great writing, plotting and characterization. It's epic, building inexorably toward a payoff that's worthy of awards. When I finished I thought: This is what science fiction should be.

The science in The Sigil is broad, flowing from the research that one of the main characters, Jack Corstorphine, does for his doctoral thesis ("Models of land use derived from geomorphology and lithic distributions in the British Palaeolithic"). To wit, that the landscape of Europe shows evidence for a civilization a million years old, not the mere few thousand we believe. But don't let the archaeology fool you; that's just the start. Gee ties in all the corners of science from the microscopic to the astronomical, from evolution to aliens, and of course the philosophy and theology one is likely to find in any great work of science fiction. There's something here for everyone. There are romances, such as between Jack and a star pupil, Jadis Markham. The scope is epic in time as well, and follows lifelong friendships, notably those that center around Jack, Jadis, their adopted son Tom, and scientist/priest/mentor Domingo. The characters are real. There's action, adventure, and astronomical-sized challenges the characters and the world must overcome.

The downside is that you can't lay your hands on a print copy. The manuscript is sitting with some editor or other at a major publisher. Just as well, then, that it’s available on iFiction. Gee has chosen to place 100% of his novel in the "free" part, thus meaning that if you happen to like it and want to throw a tuppence his way, then, by all means use iFiction’s functionality to make a donation. In the meantime, Gee has been very busy doing the necessary promotion and marketing all over the Internet; who knows, online success may help nudge Henry's editors into publishing it on paper sooner rather than later so it can enjoy the wider audience it deserves.

I never intended iFiction as a place to launch new fiction. But as more folks use it, and readers explore, I expect it will take on more of a role in helping connect readers to reading material. That may take years to mature, though. The more people know about iFiction, the more this process is likely to speed up, so I urge you to spread the word.