Screenwriter John August has written eight feature films, including “Go,” “Big Fish” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” At the moment, he’s writing the screenplay for “Creature,” based on the graphic novel, for Sam Mendes. But his latest project is a short story called “The Variant,” a mini-thriller about a mysterious library cataloguer whose secret life is revealed when a woman falls through his bathroom ceiling. August decided to sell the story directly to readers by posting it on Amazon as a Kindle edition, with sample pages available on his blog. In lieu of an editor, August recruited 20 of his Twitter followers to give him feedback on the story before he published. August talked to Mondo Media about what he’s learned from this experiment.
So essentially, you got your Twitter followers to help you polish up "The Variant," instead of having a professional editor?
I think a great editor is a huge help to anything you write — though lacking that, a bunch of disinterested eyes was a great second choice. I make movies for a living, so I recognize how important it is to have an editor who is giving your movie shape. But I also recognize how important it is to put your movie in front of an audience to see how it responds.
What’s the benefit of using Twitter followers, as opposed to any other 20 random people you could get?
At 7:43 on a Tuesday night I would tweet to ask for eight people to read it, and within a minute I would have eight people tweeting their ‘yes,’ and I would direct a message to them with their link to the file. I’ve run a blog for five years, and I love the interaction with my readers, but it’s so delayed on a blog. The immediacy of Twitter makes different kinds of collaboration possible.
I signed on to Twitter first when I was at Sundance with "The Nines," and at that point I was literally just tweeting where I was so people could find me. And it was fascinating to see how it’s grown. Now I definitely see my Twitter feed as being my public persona — Facebook is people I actually know in real life.
How long have you been reading on Kindle?
I love my Kindle, and I would prefer to read any book on a Kindle now — probably after the third book I read on Kindle, it felt just really natural, and you love the freedom of having your book with you wherever you are …. I read a lot on my iPhone. Honestly part of my motivation for putting the story on the Kindle was seeing how easy it would be for anybody to get through it on their iPhone. The challenge was that it was only going to be available in the US. So I had to let people in say Micronesia have the pdf version too.
Which has sold more?
I’ve sold three times as many Kindle version as pdfs. Which is fine.
You’ve said you settled on the 99 cent price for the story because that’s what a single song costs on iTunes.
I don’t read a lot of short stories, yet I really like short stories! It’s just, they were never around, never handy. So it seemed like a single was the equivalent — and 99 cents is also the price for most of the games at the app store. It seems like a nice price for one unit of culture.
Did you have experience with the New York publishing world before this?
Despite the seeming synergies between Hollywood and N.Y. publishing, I really don’t know that world at all. I don’t know a single editor or publisher. I know a handful of authors. Early on, just to see if he was interested in it as a model, I sent the story to Michael Chabon, who’s a friend of a friend. He gave me a great quote and a few suggestions. A lot of authors make their money on long books. Yet a lot of them also write short stories. But right now there’s no market for them except a few magazines — but no one is making money off of their short stories. I did this partly to see, could there be a market for short stories?
What effect do you think Kindle self-publishing like “The Variant” will have on the publishing industry?
I don’t see self-publishing greatly impacting publishing, the same way indy film has not greatly impacted Hollywood film. But this is a case of a story that would otherwise not have a market without self publishing.
How has Hollywood reacted?
Because I did this on my own, all the people who usually read me in Hollywood are figuring out that I have this story so I’m starting to get the phone calls about the movie rights, through the website and a New York Times article.
It’s interesting — I was experimenting with: What’s the future of publishing? And the response is, where are the movie rights? But I am not talking to anyone about them at this point. I’ll do other stuff in the universe of this story, but I’m not thinking about a movie right now.