Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Posts tagged “writing

Tilting at windmills, perhaps, but I have to support my writer friends

Perhaps you’ve heard about the fight between Hachette book group and Amazon.com about pricing on e-books. Amazon is putting the screws to Hachette by not accepting pre-orders or delaying shipping of print books from that publisher. Hachette, like most other corporations these days, is made up of several (relatively) smaller publishers, of which a couple publish books by two colleagues from my New Mexico days.

Walter Jon Williams is the author of many books, including Hardwired, Knight Moves, Angel Station, Days of Atonement, Aristoi, Metropolitan, Implied Spaces, the “Dread Empire’s Fall” series (The Praxis, The Sundering, Conventions of War and Investments, a separate novel set in the Empire’s Fall universe) and his latest works based on social media, This is Not a Game, Deep State and The Fourth Wall. Those last three are affected because they’re published by Orbit, one of those smaller publishers. Walter is an excellent writer. He’s also a smart, gregarious fellow, as you’ll find out if you go to his web page. There you will also find links to his out-of-print-made-into-ebooks, short-story collections and novellas.

James S.A. Corey is an amalgam of two writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who paired up for “The Expanse” series, Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate and the new novel, Cibola Burn, coming out this summer. The series has impressed critics and hit the NY Times bestseller list and the first one has been picked up by SyFy channel for a series. These books also are among those caught up in the argument.

Now, it’s not like you can’t get these books at all. Barnes and Noble is still in business, and they have a web site, too. Plus, there’s all sorts of independent bookstores that have managed to survive the online revolution so far, and I’d recommend you patronize your nearest one if you want these (or any other) books. Wal-Mart is reporting a jump in book sales, too, so there’s another option.And I can’t really shed much of a tear for the big publishers; sometimes the way they treat writers borders on criminal. The Corey duo and Williams aren’t going to be hurt that much from this because they’re established and known writers, but as the Coreys point out on their blog, writers with smaller followings or those starting out could be hit kind of hard. After all, Amazon makes it so easy to buy a book. Click and boom!, a couple days later there’s your purchase.

I’ve used Amazon many times; I’ve bought all the Corey book that way. This last Christmas, I bought several gifts from the company. Now, though, I’m not buying anything from Amazon until they stop being jerks. They’re trying to bully Hachette into meeting their demands, but they’re doing it on the backs of the writers. (Why is it everyone hates the writers and creators? Publishers, movie studios, merchandisers, and now Amazon — always stomping on the people who bring them profits.) Maybe Amazon will win this one. And maybe I’ll never use them again.

So be it.

(Sorry, Walter, but I am not clicking on that video of those identical roller-skating, accordion-playing sub-debs singing polkas from hell or anywhere else. Not going to do it, uh-uh, nope, no way. Your nightmares will remain your own, so stay out of mine, thank you.)

 

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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.