Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Posts tagged “books

Another victim of the changing technological winds gives up the ghost

Video killed the radio star; streaming killed the video store.

So it is with Hastings Entertainment. The company has thrown in the towel and is in the throes of its final liquidation sales. Once upon a time, it was a source for books (at that time printed on paper) and music (at that time recorded in the grooves of vinyl platters). Video (at that time magnetically recorded on half-inch tape) and video games (at that time recorded on various types of electronic media) came later.

I found my first Hastings in the late ’70s, early ’80s in Amarillo, Texas. Rock music blared from speakers, the record section was huge, the book section was enticing, the posters on the wall bright with color. Some of the stores were found in those temples of consumerism, the indoor mall, but others could be found in the old-style strip shopping centers or stand-alone buildings.

When I went back to New Mexico, I found Hastings already had invaded, including a couple of stores in Santa Fe. Once the legality of home viewing of Hollywood movies on rental tapes was confirmed, Friday nights became busy places as individuals, couples and whole families came in looking for a weekend’s entertainment possibilities. Sometimes all copies of the movie they wanted were all gone, setting tempers on edge. A waiting game was sometimes played as employees brought in the returns from the drive-up drop-off bin. That paid off only occasionally, but for some customers, always worth the chance.

I worked one summer at one of the SF Hastings stores. I was assigned the Books section (naturally), and found that the chain practiced what I call the “shallow inventory.” This meant only those books that moved fairly quickly were stocked and if they didn’t, they were out. Even so, the sheer number of books was amazing. Once, the entire staff stayed all night doing a “purge” — the managers called it “inventory” — where we pointed a hand-held electronic device at the UPC code (the store pasted its own code over the publisher’s before the book went on the shelf) and if it beeped, the book was pulled. By daybreak, the aisles were jammed with the new rejects, which soon disappeared from the store, probably as fodder for the pulp mills. Or to return as bargain books to be placed on the special shelves. You could get some pretty good books for little money but of course the authors don’t get a cut of sales. Cheap for you, total loss for them.

Stocking the shelves was the Task That Would Not Die. The guys in receiving would cram wheeled carts with the night’s arrivals and they’d be waiting when I reported for work. Morning, noon or night, those damn carts never seemed to empty. Help a customer find a book, go back to shelving the new ones. Clean up the children’s section — another constant task; kids, you know? — go back to shelving books. Make the four thermoses of coffee in the morning, go back to shelving books. Put away the magazines and books left on the chairs where the customers had been reading and drinking coffee like the place was Starbucks (also just getting going), go back to shelving books. It lasted until it was time to play janitor and vacuum around the Books desk, the last task if you were the closer. During the night, some strange magic would be performed and the stocking carts would appear the next day loaded to the point of collapse again.

The only respite came when I was assigned to a cashier slot. I hated that, I’d rather shelve books than cashier. I’m not a people person, so being pleasant to a long line of customers was a real trial. Most of the customers were video renters, and if late charges showed up their accounts, they could get nasty. Gift certificates — not cards then, paper, another sign of antiquity — took special processing. And the soda companies thought it’d be fun to stick coupons for free drinks on the caps of the plastic bottles, creating another pain for cashiers.

Vinyl records were still the main option for music when I started. There was something zen about standing flipping through the eye-catching art on the sleeves. But, technology changes, as it always does, and new gadgets started rolling in. First it was cassette tapes (eight-track tape cartridges had pretty much withered away), then CDs slowly started to proliferate. (Digital audio tapes, DATs, came and went practically unnoticed.)  Vinyl is having its last laugh, though, rising from the dead on wings of audiophile preferences.

On the video side, VHS won the war against Betamax, but soon they were succumbing to DVDs. Tech advances add new capabilities, but the disks seem to be the end of physical media. Streaming is the new paradigm for now, as it is for music and video games. Books still cling to printed life against e-books, but Hastings evidently missed the import of all this streaming and electronic downloading and such. So it has to pay the piper, as it were.

One time my friend and I were waiting our turn to get a Saturday night movie when a woman in the next line freaked because she didn’t want her name entered in the store’s computer. That’s Santa Fe, N.M., folks, and that’s not unusual. She asked if there was a video store that didn’t use computers, and, that again being Santa Fe, of course there was.

(That store was called Video Library, and Hastings reportedly opened a second store in SF with the express purpose of running them out of business. Didn’t work; they’re still renting VHS tapes and DVDs and still keeping track of them on file cards filled out with pencil. The locally owned bookstore, Collected Works, also has out-lasted Hastings. The record store, alas, didn’t.)

When Santa Fe raised the minimum wage, Hastings retaliated by closing one store (the one I had worked at, but I’d long since left). That left the one in the DeVargas Mall Center, which needed a viable store badly at the time as malls themselves were being rattled by changes in shopping habits. It wasn’t the only video store in town, but the Friday and Saturday crowds made it seem so.

In their heyday, the stores became nodes for pop culture. Comic books became a staple, and the stores stocked theme merchandise, everything from bobble-head dolls to clothing to posters to kids toys. Some electronics, too; headphones, portable players, that sort of thing. The last time I saw a Hasting store, the shelves were jammed, the music loud, the lights flashing. What they looked like the day before the bankruptcy was announced I don’t know.

The other cultural phenomenon Hasting rode for a while was the rise of the “speculation genres” — science fiction, fantasy, horror — into the mainstream of popular culture. The revolution in special effects in movies made possible by computers helped spark this boom. It was necessary. Harry Potter had jolted popular culture with a huge blast of storytelling magic. Seeing the movie version with the old special effect methods would have made them laughingstocks. Suddenly stories that had been around for years — Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Beowulf — became fodder for the new tech in the new movies. Along with that was the realization that books for children and young adults held some great source material for Hollywood producers eager to get a share of the disposable income the new generations of entertainment-savvy youngsters had rattling in their pockets.

I asked George R.R. Martin during a signing in the DeVargas store why he, having spent time in Hollywood working on TV shows, thought the old, venerable tales like Lord of the Rings had to be made into movies. He gestured around at the store with its mass of merchandise and said something like “it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” Uh, yeah, I said, but beyond money, isn’t just reading books good enough any more? We did agree that visual storytelling pulled in more people to the material than just books could, and perhaps some of them then would turn to the original sources, which was a good thing. Thus was Hasting’s mission defined: To be a conduit for fans to get access to their favorite stories be it videos, CDs, books, video games or music.

(This conversation likely took place around the time of the publication of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Yes, it was possible to have a conversation with George at a signing because not many people showed up that day. Not like now, when such an event would cause eager fans to form a line that would go out the door, up the highway and into the next county. Plus, at that time, he had no desire to make a movie or TV series out of his tale. Ha, ha, ha, how quickly things change, right?.)

I don’t mean to suggest that Hastings was a haven for all that was cool and hip. It was a corporate operation that looked upon all that merchandise with a cold eye for profits, not cultural milestones. The stores looked pretty much the same inside wherever they were. The music playing on the sound system generally was top-forty, with only an occasional foray into something cutting-edge. (And when that happened, it was quite noticeable.) The trailers playing on the monitors above the cashier stations were for that week’s new movies, but if you wanted something more esoteric — small independent, foreign, cult, obscure — your best bet was to hit one of the local video stores. Same with the books. Same with the games. Same with the music.

The shutdown of the chain signifies the end of another American cultural touchstone, like the passing of the malt shops of the ’50s or the malls of the ’70s, and ’80s. And while Gen-Xers and Millennials might look upon this as just another Baby Boomer lamenting the passing of his childhood, it could be worse — this could be about head shops with their psychedelic posters, background sitar music, albums (vinyl, of course) with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix and such filling the racks, all in a haze of incense (and perhaps something, shall we say, more pungent). So count your lucky stars.

So long, Hastings, you were a bright and noisy source for home entertainment and the occasional community hang-out for a while. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to buy some stuff from Amazon.com.

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The spat is over, just in time for the holidays

Certainly glad to hear Amazon and Hachette have settled their tiff about e-book pricing. While its good for customers and fans, the authors caught in the middle should come out better once the buying and rating systems are restored for their books..
I don’t know if the boycott did any good — I doubt my not buying anything from Amazon made much of an impression. Perhaps the effort led by Douglas Preston and others nettled Amazon corporate honchos enough to give ’em a little extra incentive to stop being jerks. I hope so. I hope no one forgets the authors were hurt the most by this.
I support the effort to bring Amazon’s shenanigans to the attention of the Department of Justice, even if nothing happens there. Regulators need to be made aware that even one large company can strangle free enterprise without much risk on that company’s earnings.
Some people are saying the Amazon boycott should continue, but I’m not so sure. I think we ought to buy as many Hachette authors as we can for the next few months to show Amazon that they can suffer from bad business practices, too. Plus, its a good way to let those authors know we missed them and still support them.
I’m still wary of both companies despite this sudden breakout of amity. These two giant corporations still can — and do — new methods to screw the writers and artists. We must watch both sides constantly or face the possibility of losing a lot more than delayed deliveries or loss of sales. The stakes remain large.


Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Eh — never mind, it’s just another superhero

Superheroes are everywhere. You’d think they were gods or something.

Humanity always has had a yen for something greater than itself, someone or some thing that will fight for the oppressed and right the wrongs in society.

Because it’s so hard to do it oneself, right?

Super-strong and/or super-smart creatures of myth go back as far as golems and Herculeses and messiahs and archangels, but for our purposes, superhero history starts in April, 1938 with the publication of Action Comics No. 1. The cover sported a man in red-and-blue tights smashing a car into a boulder as (presumably) the crooks flee in terror. The man in tights was Superman, as if any American born after 1938 couldn’t tell.

Superman was a big hit almost immediately and still is going strong, fueling a billion-dollar business today with video games, movies, comic books, graphic novels (thicker comic books, some with hard covers, to make them at least look sophisticated) and all the assorted merchandising therefrom. Superman’s got more staying power than any battery-operated bunny and he’s known worldwide. Children whose great-grandparents picked up Action No. 1 have a broad choice on which Superman story to follow. If you’re interested in Superman’s personal history and all the permutations to this point, and about the men who created him, Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Random House) is a fine account.

Tye did an excellent job for me in tying together the many threads that are Superman. As each generation changes to the next, publishers feel a need to update their superheroes lest they be become obsolete or even worse, unhip. This has led to the many variations of Superman and his ilk: Batman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, the Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Captain Marvel (and Junior, Mary and Uncle), Ant Man, Aqua-man, The Human Torch, Plastic Man, Wonder Man, The Shield, Sky Wizard, Magno the Magnetic Man, Red Raven, The Green Lama, Iron Man, The Flash and so on and so on to just about infinity. Some of those are oldies and long gone, some are oldies but still around and even more have yet to be discovered. It’s a wide, wide world in the realm of the superhero.

My first experience with Superman was in the ’50s when he seemed … boring. Either he was in a romantic tiff with Lois Lane or Lana Lang or some other “LL” girl or he was being warped out of shape by the various colors of Kryptonite, or he was – temporarily, always temporarily – about to be eliminated by Brainiac, that ‘LL of a guy, Lex Luthor, or that guy with the all-consonant name. Bizarro was the interesting character; his warped being and that warped world he lived in much more interesting than the latest lecture on how superbeings must always do good. And I couldn’t stand Jimmy Olsen.

The arrival of the Marvel superheroes didn’t do much for me, either. Yeah, I know Marvel saved or reinvented superheroes (depending on your point of view), but they were all too whiny and too inward-looking. They were superheroes, for goodness sake, couldn’t they come to some conclusion and then get on with saving the world? And yes, the art was great, but the characters … meh. Mostly. Occasionally one stood out. The Thing, the Hulk, Captain America, Fin Fang Foom. (Wait – that last isn’t a superhero, is it? He’s one of those weird Jack Kirby monsters who were often more interesting than the superheroes.)

And the Marvel villains – talk about going off the scale! Planet-devouring gods. Mystic bald-headed advisers. A man with metallic arms attached to his side. A shiny surfer (in a ploy to show the surfer crowd that superheroes can be cool, too).

DC couldn’t just stand by in the face of all this, so their supervillains started getting bigger and badder. Until one came along who could kill Superman. For a while, at least.

This points out one of the basic problems of superheroes: they need enemies that can fight at their level. If you’re a superhero, just arresting bank robbers, thieves, corrupt politicians and greedy CEOs will get boring after a while. So, eventually the Lex Luthors, the Brainiacs, the Dr. Dooms, the Jokers, the Galactuses, the Doomsdays, the Doctor Octopuses start appearing. And with each iteration, they get meaner, more destructive, and more personal in their vendettas. Only on rare occasion is a villain destroyed; but usually they just slink away, only to come back later. Or escape the insane asylum

This constant recycling of bad guys became a problem for me. In the superhero realm, this has to do with prohibitions against killing. In the real world, it has to do with the writers unable to come up with a new villain. Look, shoot ’em, punch ’em, break ’em , zap ’em, pulverize ’em– just get rid of them. Granted, it’ll be hard to replace the Joker, but it’ll be a good challenge for the imagination.

Batman is a special case, of course. He’s not a superhero in the strict sense; he has no power that enables him to fly or move mountains or drop tanks on bad guys. He’s been carrying the trauma of his parent’s death for 70 years now, and he’s gotten darker and darker, until he’s just this paranoid, angry vigilante hiding in the shadows. But that’s part of his charm – if you can call it that.

There’s talk the new move will make Superman darker, too. Tye makes a good point in that Superman cannot really become this because he’s too embedded in the American mythos. In the 74 years of his existence, Superman has become the symbol of what’s good about America. Naive, maybe, but with the optimism and a belief in himself. Just like the country he represents. A dark Superman will suggest that the optimism is misguided at best and worthless at worst. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the country, but as so goes Superman, so goes the nations’ future.

It’s all tied into these generational changes. Each superhero must be reborn, his (or hers) backstory altered to fit the mindset of the hip young, the ones with money and a driving thirst for entertainment. This has led to that tangle of threads mentioned earlier that threatens to engulf all of the superheroes. This is also a failure of storytelling.

Tales of a different set of superheroes (and superlosers) has worked around that problem. The Wild Cards series doesn’t come out in comic-book form but as novels and anthologies (thus perhaps too daunting for some people). Edited by George R.R. Martin (yes, that George R.R. Martin; he does do other things besides Game of Thrones, you know) and Melinda Snodgrass, the series has been going since 1987 and is up to 21 books, soon 22. The series came out of a role-playing game and started with a core group of writers sharing the Wild Card universe. New writers have been picked up along the way, helping solve the staying-relevant problem. The generations not only pass in the real world, they pass in the series, too. The original superheroes have aged, some have died, others have just disappeared; and still others have been born (or mutated) since the series began so there’s always a new crop of heroes. And villains, who come out of the same source as the heroes.

That source was an alien virus deliberately spread into Earth’s atmosphere. Its effects on humans varies; you can become an Ace with nifty superpowers, or you can become a Joker with terrible physical consequences. All this certainly stretches credibility, but it’s better than bites from radioactive spiders, mystical magic, lanterns from space and vats of acid.

The stories are about humans dealing with the cards they are dealt, and it’s not always for the better. Power has different effects on people; not every man endowed with superpowers is going to fight crime and battle for truth, justice and the American way. And other people – heads of corporations, dictators of nations – are going to want to exploit those powers for nefarious reasons. Even reality TV enters into the Wild Card universe. How hip is that?

(A Wild Cards movie is in the works, but if you want to familiarize yourself before then, you can always start at the beginning with the original Wild Cards anthology called, um, Wild Cards. Tor books has released a revised edition with a new story added. Or you can start with the latest, Fort Freak, for a good introduction; Lowball, the 22nd book, is due this year).

As mentioned, the Wild Card heroes at least have ready-made villains instead of having to wit for someone to arrive out of the mist. This idea of superheroes having no one to fight is one of the premises of my own superhero novel, The Tyranny of Heroes. (You didn’t think I was talking about superheroes just for the heck of it, did you?) The heroes – 54 of them, just to make things interesting – descend upon Earth at about the same time Superman did in his universe, during the Great Depression. They start out like Superman did, catching crooks, smacking down nasty landlords, dealing with greedy capitalists etc., etc. They help with big government projects like Hoover Dam while taking care of the Mafia-connected gangs that terrorized the population. Unfortunately for my superheroes, though, there isn’t anyone who can challenge them. So what do they do? Well, they do what I’ve always thought people with superpowers would do – they take over the world.

At first, they are reluctant to accrue too much authority. But World War II persuades them that humanity needs guidance and they’re the only ones who can provide it. Good intentions begin to go awry, as they often do. In trying to fix this problem or stop that injustice, they slowly usurp the powers of the government. Not just the USA government, but all governments. Soon the superheroes are not just in charge, they are dictators. A benevolent dictatorship to be sure, but in securing the world’s safety they have to take draconian actions, meaning dissidents go to jail, certain ideas are crushed, censorship is the norm and all nations must follow the American ideal.

Is that so bad? There are no wars big or small; civil rights are guaranteed for all; electric cars dominate the roads; mag-lev trains crisscross continents; nuclear weapons are banned; every country is economically secure; air, land and water are unpolluted; and national borders are open with passports a thing of the past.

The downside? Humans haven’t gone into space. You want to study Moon rocks? The Supers will bring you all the samples you want. You want to know what Saturn looks like up close? The Super will take videos for you. You want to live in space? Well – it’s dangerous out there and not inviting at all. Humans haven’t explored their own planet much, either. It’s cheaper to send a Super to the bottom of the ocean than it is to build an expensive machine to protect frail humans. The world might have mag-lev trains in 2014, but personal computers are just barely appearing in the marketplace. The Internet isn’t even a dream and cable TV has yet to be strung. Cell phones? Never heard of them.

Scientific and technological advances are under Supers control. While research has eliminated diseases such as smallpox, polio and malaria, everyone in the field must adhere to the Supers rules – or be bounced out (sometimes literally). And often politics plays a part – look at the debacle the Supers made of the AIDS epidemic. (I know what some people are going to say about the politics of all of this, but they will be wrong. This is a fable, not a manifesto.)

Of course, most people are quite satisfied with the way things are. Life is good, why rock the boat? But there is that minority that sees the status quo as a dead end for humanity. They struggle to point out the loss of national sovereignty, the denial of due process, that civil rights don’t exist if dissidents face imprisonment in Alcatraz – or worse. Arrest, trial and execution cane be swift then the overlords have powers way beyond mere humanity.

Still, the Supers have secrets of their own, secrets that could undermine their authority. This is why they keep their origins a secret; this is why research into Super DNA is banned. But they can’t stop human curiosity. One man who feels his family is threatened by the Supers suddenly is becoming a real irritant under their superskins.

Then the Supers suddenly face a threat that does have the power to destroy them, but from a direction they never expected.

The Tyranny of Heroes is an e-book. Clicking on the picture at right will take you to Amazon.com. For now, you’ll have to go to Barnes & Noble through your browser.


Please don’t hate me for what I am about to do

I’m not planning anything illegal or immoral; all I want to do is get a novel published (though certain segments of society might see that as immoral). I have tried the traditional means, and now I’m going to the route that technology has opened for us.

Unfortunately, that route also attracts heaps of opprobrium.

A recent post of a quote from a guy who describes himself as having worked for three big-name publishing houses and 10 years as an agent is the epitome of this criticism. When you pay for editing, he says, when you pay for cover design, when you pay for marketing, when you pay for anything (emphasis his), “that is a vanity press.” He says you’ll never see your book on store shelves and the only people who will buy it are your relatives. The publishers will make money from those pathetic sales while you’ll be stuck with a garage full of books. (That last part’s not in the post, but it’s sure as hell implied.) As such, it is not the definition of a published author by any yardstick he uses.

I got angry when I saw this. First, this, this “knothead” is trashing the efforts of a lot of good writers who have chosen nontraditional means to publish their books (because, bottom line, it’s a threat to Big Publishing). And then he shows his ignorance when he conflates “vanity press” with “self-published.”

I’m familiar with true vanity presses; I know enough to stay away from them, both as an author and what I saw as an editor of a newspaper’s book-review section. I received several; all were junk. I always looked at them though; you just never knew …

I also received self-published books. Aren’t they the same as vanity press? Only to a point.

A guy in Colorado sent me a book he wrote, and he also paid for the cover art, he paid for formatting, he paid for editing, he paid for printing and he was paying his own marketing costs (all before e-books and e-readers existed, by the way). Under knothead’s definition, that’s “vanity press.” But the author didn’t use any of the existing vanity presses; he formed his own press to publish and market his book. He’d tried to market it the traditional way, but all he received were rejections. He had something to say, he had a good story, he wasn’t about to let his creation fade away. He probably sent copies to dozens of book reviewers all around the country, many of whom likely rejected it out of hand. (“We don’t do self-published vanity books,” they probably sniffed as they threw their copies into the trash.)

I read it. It had a great cover and an intriguing plot. I passed it along to one of my reviewers, an author himself, and he liked it, wrote a nice review. I can’t claim all credit for what happened next, but I like to think I at least helped. Enough praise from other non-snooty reviewers eventually got a Big Publisher to pick it up and soon the author saw his book on store shelves. It’s still in print and still gets glowing reviews. Not bad for self-published, eh, knothead?

Now I’m in the same situation. My novel is a good story, with lots to say, and it’s well-written. People besides me have said so, and none of them are related to me. Some are published authors who gave me guidance while I was writing it. I have been trying for years to get it published by sending it to publishers and agents. All have rejected it. One rejection came back with the hand-scrawled note, “We don’t do superheroes.”

OK, can’t do it the traditional way, so I’ll go the new way: e-publication. And because I’m not artistic enough to design the cover and unsure of myself to do the formatting, I have paid to have all that done. Oh, and the editing, too, by a professional. (“Evil! Evil!” moans knothead. “Vanity publishing!”) I do this because I have no choice.

Perhaps I did give up too early on the traditional agent/publisher method. But I’ve run out of publishers that will first, allow me to submit without an agent; and second, would be even slightly interested in a superhero novel (“As we said before, we don’t do superheroes”). All the agents I contacted – and there were many – declined to represent it (“We don’t do them, either.”). And perhaps they did have a good reason for rejecting it: the book is terrible. Always a possibility, but I know bad and my biased opinion this is not a bad book. Someone else will have to decide the final merits of it. Plus, there’s the issue of time. I’m getting old and would like to at least see something I’ve written published before lights out.

I’m going into this with eyes wide open. I know I’m taking a big chance, possibly even an end to my fiction writing career. (With the state it’s in at this point, no great loss.) I could put the novel out there and not see one sale (well, a couple maybe, my niece and my sister, but those would be family sales, as knothead would gleefully point out). It could be ripped to shreds (metaphorically, of course) and scorned as dreck. Those are risks authors take with any kind of publishing, but e-authors also seem to run the risk of alienating traditional publishers. (“You have e-books for sale? Ewww! I’m calling security!”)

And, of course, I’m dropping the book into a maelstrom where millions of e-books already exist, each trying to catch the eye of a browsing customer. I don’t have a big following so I won’t have automatic sales. I do have one novel available as an e-book, but its sales aren’t exactly burning up the sales chart. (It’s called Rewind, available through E-Reads.com, see the link under the cover image at right. [Yes, that’s self-promotion, that’s the thing authors have to do even when they find it abhorrent, but never mind, go buy a copy.]) So the odds are stacked against me, yet I persist. I’m either tenacious or a fool. (Knothead and his ilk will have no trouble picking which one.)

Another disadvantage will be the lack of reviews. I’m not sure how many magazines or other periodicals or bloggers review independently published books (a more sophisticated way of saying “e-books.”) Not that reviews will boost sales all that much, but any mention anywhere (even negative ones) help. And I’m not sure e-books make any lists of the best novels of the year or are considered for awards. Not that awards are the end-all. But they sure look purty on the mantelpiece.

I do not want to give up on traditional publishing. Indeed, I have a different novel awaiting adjudication now. I sent it in to a traditional publishers four months ago, but outside of an e-mail confirming arrival, I’ve heard nothing since and yet I must wait another couple of months before inquiring on status. And even if I sold it today, it’ll still be around two years before anyone would see the physical copy.

Even with all that, though, I’d still love to see a traditional, ink-on-paper, bound book with fancy cover art on a bookstore shelf. I would love to be part of a marketing campaign, including going out and meeting fans and readers. I would love to see reviews in magazines such as Locus, the definitive magazine about SF publishing. It’s a thrill doing all of that, as I found out with Rewind (though five people came to my first signing, all friends). I go to bookstores and see books by friends on their shelves and I see where the authors are getting interviews and reviews and I see the lines at their autographing sessions. Yes, I get jealous. And I get angry and irritated. But I have to temper my reactions because if my writing career is creaking and clattering along and losing pieces like Howl’s castle, I have to take a lot of the blame for it.

Traditional publishers are getting mean now because they’re panicking. One of those friends whose first published book (and the first in a trilogy) received all sorts of attention ran into problems over cover art, scheduling of the paperback editions and editing and scheduling of the other two books, all from the publisher who bought the series in the first place. So traditional publishing has its pitfalls, too, some of them severe and nearly career-ending (as happened to another friend, but fortunately he’s really smart and a damn good writer so he’s been able to continue his career elsewhere).

Just for fun, let’s examine one of the unsaid things in knothead’s diatribe. What knothead is really saying is that you, the readers, don’t have the sense the creator gave a snail. Agents and publishers are there to take you by the hand and show you what books you like and want ought to read. You can’t do this yourself because only they have the knowledge, experience and keen intellect to pick those authors whose books meet their strict standards. Your intellect is not powerful enough to realize which books are dreck and which ones are good. You must leave such decisions to them.

Baloney. If they were so good, every book they published would be best-sellers, get glowing reviews (and none negative) and the Pulitzer Prize committee, faced with all these deserving books, would be reduced to flipping a coin to determine the winners. None of that happens because Big Publishers have no more idea what makes one book rocket up the charts, another book to become a cultural icon, and yet another a disaster. There is no secret formula (at least not yet) that can predict what the reader wants on any given day.

And readers, that means you are the ones in charge. I will put my book on e-pub sites and hope you will see enough in it to A: buy it and B: tell someone else about it. That’s the real way books become known, through word of mouth. Just ask J.K. Rowling.

My book is called The Tyranny of Heroes, and as I said, it’s about superheroes. I think I have something unique to say about them, and I think the story is good. The cover art has been selected, the formatting is about done, and I hope to make it available in a couple of weeks.

And then, its fate is up to you.


Bradbury had the imagination and a way with words

Ray Bradbury in my mind was one of the top-tier science fiction writers of trailblazers and inspirations. And now they’re all gone — Isaac Asimov. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Bradbury.
These were the ones I thought of when I thought “science fiction,” especially in my youth. Clarke was the one I remember reading first and it might have been the cover that caught my eye. I got to the others eventually, each pressing itself into my brain (though I have to admit Heinlein not as much as others, but I really can’t say why).
And thinking of Bradbury as an SF writer doesn’t really do him justice. He did write SF, but it had its own style. The popular way to judge SF is if it’s “hard” or “soft.” To say Bradbury was soft is a misnomer. “Lyrical” is a better term.
And Bradbury could be lyrical about pretty much anything. A sea creature falling in love with a lighthouse (when you see an illustration of a sea creature knocking down a lighthouse, “love” isn’t the thing that comes to mind). A virtual-reality playroom (long before anyone could explain the room with the term “virtual reality”). A circus-carnival train. Mars. Burning books.
OK, I said “lyrical,” not happy. That playroom might have been a marvel of technology, but the kids used it for deadly purposes. Who picks up one generation’s new technology faster? That generation’s offspring, leaving the adults befuddled — and vulnerable. Bradbury saw that. Circuses and carnivals are exciting and wondrous things for young boys, but the glitter and and the noise can cover up some nasty surprises. And government-sponsored book-burning isn’t always as far-fetched as we’d like to think. Bradbury may have been lyrical in his writing, but never obscured the point he was trying to make about ourselves, our technology and our futures. (Although I have to say that lyricism did get in my way. Sometimes I had trouble getting around all those similes and metaphors and the words dropped in to make a sentence more rhythmical. Just me, I guess.)
One thing I never will take away from Bradbury, though, is imagination. That’s what drives successful storytelling and he had it in spades. In this age where the creative impulse is little more than taking someone else’s work and prequelizing and sequelizing it or dumping vampires or zombies into it or gussing it up with awesome CGI makes sometimes Bradbury seem quaint. While imagination does manage to show up occasionally in contemporary culture — see Pixar as example: Wall-E, Up, Toy Stories I-III — it’s definitely taken a back seat. Jerry Schuster, imaginer of Superman, once boasted he could write a story about a Coca-Cola bottle.* Bradbury could, too, if he wanted. And it would be a story you would want to read.
Imaginative writers still write in the SF and fantasy fields following the paths Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke and Heinlein blazed. And they’re not just copying and pasting; they’re original, entertaining and just plain good. Check out the writers listed on this page if you want a place to start.
Bradbury is gone, but his legacy is secure.

*Where did I get this? From Larry Tye’s new book, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far, it’s a good read.


Into the Unknown, or a pleasant weekend at a Midwestern SF con

ConQuest 43 (theme: Into the Unknown) is history now and it lived up to its reputation as a friendly regional con that took place in a mostly convivial atmosphere.

I say mostly because it had the misfortune of being held during a hotel name switch. The con hotel used to be the Hyatt, but that company lost operating rights or however these things work and now the Sheraton has taken its place. And, of course, the new people have to put their mark on the place by putting their own their stamp on it. And the best place to make that statement is the front lobby, which was blocked off completely. This meant getting on the elevator, going up one floor to the mezzanine, walking to the opposite escalator nearly three-quarters of the way around the hotel and riding it down to the one tiny corner of untouched lobby for check-in. Once competed, the same journey had to be made in reverse in order to get back to the elevators that took you to floor, all the while dragging your luggage behind you like dead pets. (And grumbling – a constant chorus of muttered complaints could be heard in the back-and-forth parade of newly arrived and irritated hotel guests.)

Fortunately, I arrived too late to hear the cacophony of jackhammers tearing up the tiled lobby floor, but I heard plenty of complaints about that.

The con itself was a chance to see New Mexico friends such as Parris McBride, wife of George R.R. Martin (George himself being in the wilds of Montana) and Steven Gould (Jumper, Helm, Blind Waves, Wildside); SF acquaintances such Robin Wayne Bailey (Shadowdance) and Gardner Dozois (editor, writer) plus the chance to put faces to names I’ve seen over the years such as Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (Ghost Ship, part of the Liaden series of novels).

This con – and any con held this year, and maybe last year and the next – comes in the middle of the Great Upheaval in Publishing where e-books are coming up strong, panicking traditional publishers, who are doing some rash things in response. They’re afraid of the economic model that allows authors to go around them and make their work available to an audience directly. Many of the writers who attended ConQuest have had experience with e-books either as an adjunct to their print career, a second track to their overall career, or as their main career track. As Gardner pointed out, writers with a backlog of out-of-print titles should be taking advantage of e-book to get those titles back into print and make some money off of them. Steve Gould is one who has done so, and he says his e-book backlist is paying his mortgage. For every writer doing that, however, are several who aren’t because they don’t know how and don’t want to learn. Those tend to be older writers, but they’re hurting themselves. Writers with established careers have fans, who would like to see some of the old stuff again. Plus, e-books could bring in new fans for these writers.

The large traditional publishers have reacted to this by dumping mid-list writers (those who sell steadily but not spectacularly) in favor of those who sell millions of copies and thus earn millions of dollars. Gardner equates this to shooting oneself in one’s foot because the publishers spent all that time and money supporting the careers of these midlist writers, but by cutting them loose, they’re sending he author’s fans away, too. The author then can turn to e-books, continue sell to his backlist to fans with not a cent going to the original publisher.

Some writers are doing both, selling their books to traditional publishers while putting short stories, novellas or even novels on e-book sites. This puts printed copies on bookstore shelves while maintaining an electronic presence, sometimes through a small press. If done right, both methods feed off each other (that is, give the author more marketing presence).

The third category is fraught with uncertainty. This is the author who has no backlist, is perhaps just starting out, and puts a first novel on e-book sites. Because most people won’t have heard of him, the possibility of the book just sitting there is large. E-book self-published authors have no marketing staff behind them, no signing tours planned, no ads in printed or broadcast media (not that those help all that much). Word of mouth – readers telling their friends to read a book they like – is the best ad campaign, but a lone author has little unless he can get his friends to start the ball rolling. So why would anyone do it? Because he he’s got something to say and he knows he’s got a good story, well-written, professionally edited and formatted, so, despite all reasonable expectations being against him, he does it anyway. (Hang around here long enough and you might see something like that actually happen.)

The big problem with doing this is the author watching his beloved child sink into a morass of self-published dreck, never to be seen again. The only consolation is that traditional publishers often published dreck, too, and spent a lot of money doing it.

One worrisome item mentioned at the con was the aging of the attendees. Many fans started attending – and a lot of writers started writing – in the 1960s-’70s, so there was a lot of gray hair walking the hotel corridors. Getting younger folks to attend should be a priority of con planners, yet there seems to a be a reluctance to do this. Old canards about young people not reading cannot be used as excuses because it’s not true. It certainly isn’t graybeards and grayladies buying Harry Potter or the Hunger Games or Brian Selznick or any of the other successful juvenile authors. You must consider youth or your con will just wither away with the Old Ones.

So it was good to see ConQuest make an attempt with the con-within-a-con programming geared toward paranormal romance fans. As was pointed out, SF/fantasy and paranormal romance genres don’t overlap that much, but they still have some things in common. Inviting fans from other genres causes intermingling, which can lead to discoveries on both sides. The old SF/fantasy conventions might change because of this new blood (heh-heh), but change is good.

Long live the genres of any stripe.


Scorsese’s lyrical lecture on the importance of old movies

Of all of the three-D movies I’ve seen so far (granted, I haven’t seen many; dull, crummy movies are still dull and crummy no matter how many dimensions they’re presented in), two of the best are Avatar (the movie that really got the latest 3-D craze going) and Hugo (the movie that tells a story about one of the pioneers of movies by using the latest technology).

One of those movies looked terrific but had a weak story cribbed from dozens of previous sources. The other looked terrific and told a wonderful story based on an imaginative and intelligent children’s book.

Guess which is which.

This not a trick question.

Some people express surprise that Martin Scorsese would make a children’s film after making violent, adult fare such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Why should this be a surprise? Scorsese is a storyteller; the skills are the same whether you’re doing films about mobsters or prize fighters or eccentric businessmen or Michael Jackson videos. Go take a look at Scorsese’s bio and see how many different types of films he’s had a hand in as writer, director, producer or occasional actor. This is a guy who loves movies so much he’s spearheading the effort to save as many old ones as possible.

The central story of Hugo is about the rediscovery of a pioneer of movies and some of the films he had made. Right up Scorsese’s alley.

The book also about redemption, remembering the past and struggling with the loss of family. Quite a plate for a book for children.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is no ordinary kids book, though. For one thing, it’s 534 pages, but saying it that way is quite misleading. There are pages filled with type, yes, but then many are filled with drawings, which often take over the storytelling. The book’s one chase scene, for instance, is told in drawings, and boy, does that save time and words.

The author, Brian Selznick – cousin to David O. Selznick, producer (Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, King Kong) – is both author and illustrator. Hugo Cabret is an orphan who possesses an automaton his father was working on until he was killed in a fire. An uncle takes Hugo in, teaches him how to wind the clocks at a Paris train station, then disappears. Hugo, in order to survive and keep out of the clutches of the station’s Inspector who wants to put him in an orphanage, takes over the caretaker duties. In his off hours, he tries to repair the automaton using parts he steals from a toy vendor. The vendor catches him, takes his notebook and threatens to burn it. Hugo appeals to the toy-maker’s ward, Isabelle, for help, and eventually they discover the truth about the old man. The automaton provides an essential clue, and, in the movie, it’s fascinating to watch the thing at work. This one, of course, is a special effect, but in their day, such mechanical marvels really did do some amazing things.

Scorsese, of course, tweaks the story a bit. In the book, Hugo and Isabelle refuse to tell each other the obvious plot points until it becomes annoying. The movie lessens the need for this, but it also leaves out Isabelle’s slamming a door on Hugo’s hand, thus preventing him from winding the station clocks, which fall behind, which leads the Inspector to figure out Hugo’s secret, who then captures him. In the movie, Hugo’s capture stems from a different set of circumstances, but in this case, the book is better.

The book’s drawings gives us glimpses of 1930s Paris and Hugo’s world in the train station, but Scorsese’s use of 3-D immerses us. There are the usual 3-D gimmicks, of course – a guitar neck sticking out, a wrench falling from a great height and into the viewer’s face, a pendulum slicing into the frame, a locomotive engine careening out of control and into the audience. (The latter recalls an early silent, black-and-white film of a train pulling into a station that caused audience members to duck and scream. The bit is shown in Hugo, causing a few chuckles from the “sophisticated” modern audience, including one who almost shouted “Look out!” to a woman who he thought was about to be beaned by a meatball during a 3-D trailer for Cloudy with Meatballs.)

Scorsese goes beyond these gimmicks. We see ceilings high above us, the massive walls around us. We’re jostling among the travelers hurrying to meet a train, a scene which turns to terror for Isabelle when she’s knocked down and nearly trampled; we feel each jab in her ribs, wince at the sight of a foot aimed at her head. Scorsese knows how to use 3-D as a device to tell an entire story, not just make us dodge the occasional object. The storyteller again, gently lecturing us about the past and why it’s important to save it while entertaining us using all the tools he has available to him. For instance, when the kids climb high into a clock tower and gaze out over 1930s Paris at night – yeah, that’s real movie magic.

(The movie also does a better job with period costumes and architecture. Note to Selznick: If you’re going to use drawings to illustrate stories in historical times, a little research helps with the verisimilitude.)

And who is the filmmaker pioneer the book and movie are about? Well, reviewers already have let that cat escape from the bag, but if you don’t already know, go read the book or see the movie. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll actually learn something.

In an entertaining way, of course.