December 2008 Archives

I can't wait for 2009!

The suspense is killing me!

It's a question that comes up quite often — back in the 1960s a typical SF novel ran to 60,000 words (130-150 pages); one that topped 80,000 words was considered lengthy. But today, I'm more or less required by contract to hand in 100,000 word novels; and some of them are considerably longer. (At 145,000 words, "Accelerando" would have been considered a whopper back in the 1970s.) So what happened?

Here's how one of my editors (who's been in the business for close to 40 years) explained it to me ...

Until the early 1990s, mass market SF/F paperbacks in the US were primarily sold via grocery store racks, supplied by local distributors (400+ of them). The standard wire rack held books face-out, either against a wall or on a rotating stand. And that's where the short form factor novel became established. Thinner books meant you could shove more of them into a rack that was, say, three inches deep. Go over half an inch thick, and you could no longer fit six paperbacks in a 3" rack. And there was only so much rack space to go around.

During the inflationary 1970s and early 1980s, prices of just about everything soared. The publishers needed to increase their cover prices to compensate. But the grocery wholesalers who sold the books insisted "the product's gotta weigh more if you want to charge more". They weren't in the book business, after all, so just as buffalo tomatoes got bigger, so did paperbacks. (Even though this meant there was less room to go round in the wire racks.) You can only get so much milage by using thicker paper and a bigger typeface; so they began looking for longer novels.

In the 1960s, an SF novel was 60-80,000 words, with 80K being considered overblown and long. By 1990 they'd grown to 90-100,000 words. Luckily the word processing revolution came along in the 1990s, making it easier to write and revise longer books. (A different editor of my acquaintance observed that whenever one of her novelists switched to word processing, the average length of their books increased by about 10% .)

Then in 1992 or thereabouts Walmart Safeway woke up and said "why the heck are we using eighty bazillion distributors?" and fired 90% of them. The number of grocery distributors in California collapsed from 40 to just 2; across the US, 85% of the distributors went bust or merged. The mass market book racks imploded as a sales channel. But that left Barnes and Noble and Borders a market vacuum to fill. So all was well for a while, with the midlist paperback market replaced by a midlist hardcover market.

But the same length pressure applies: publishers want to get more money per book, and over two decades they had successfully trained their end customers, the readers, to expect fatter books. So they tried to make the hardbacks bigger. Finally, circa 2001, Borders yanked the brake handle and said "we won't buy any non-bestselling titles that cost over $24 in hardcover or $7 in mass market — they're not selling". (Each $1 over $24 apparently reduced sales turnover by 20%: new novels by unknown authors simply didn't sell at $30.)

Anyway. I began selling novels (in 2001-02) just as the trend for longer novels peaked. I'm actually writing shorter books than my earlier ones — my last two finished manuscripts ran to 102,000 and 107,000 words respectively, whereas my first three SF novels ran to 118,000, 138,000 and 145,000 words each. (On the other hand, I'm not necessarily writing less. Two bloated 150,000 word behemoths take nearly as long to write as three relatively slim 100,000 word novels, if you've got your future projects planned out well in advance.)

There's just one outstanding problem with this Just So tale of publishing folk. We who read SF/F may have been trained to expect longer books by the grocery distributors, but why haven't mysteries grown the same way? It turns out that the average mystery is much the same length that it ever was. There are exceptions, but they're obvious as such — you don't regularly see 400 or 500 page mysteries on the shelves.

I would hypothesize that mysteries didn't succumb to the selection pressure for longer books because there's a countervailing force at work — the reader's ability to keep track of multiple characters and plot threads. If you want to bulk up an SF or fantasy novel, the easy (and lazy) way to do it is to add viewpoint characters and plot threads, small stories interleaved within the larger story that shed light on it. But it's hard to do that if what you're trying to hand the reader is a comprehensive set of clues to a fixed scenario, without burying them in a midden of red herrings. Which leaves stylistic efflorecense; but a gritty, relatively terse style that has been de rigeur in mystery since Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett — there are exceptions, but florid verbosity is generally frowned upon.

Am I missing anything?

Just to let you know that things here are going to be quiet for a bit.

Firstly, I'm putting a lot of blogging energy into a project elsewhere (the folks at Crooked Timber are having an online seminar on my books, and I'm responding to comments at length). Secondly, around the festive period I'm heading down south to visit my parents. Thirdly and finally, I'm nose-deep in deadlines — behind schedule and wrestling alligators to finish "The Trade of Queens", the sixth Merchant Princes novel.

Speaking of which ...

Last year, I ran really short on energy and output. In fact, I did quite badly, producing only one and a bit short novels. So I set myself a new year's resolution back in January. (Actually I set myself several, but I'm behind track on the exercise and cutting down on dairy produce fronts. Oops.) For work, I resolved to write 1000 words a day of finished, production-grade fiction. If taken literally, that comes out as over a third of a million words, or about 1000 book-length pages. Which is a lot. They won't let me publish books that long — it costs too much to bind the pages into the cover. They won't even let me publish books half that long. So, realistically, I was shooting for a three book year.

Needless to say, I have not written 366,000 words of fiction this year. But as of today, "The Trade of Queens" stands at 42,000 words. "The Fuller Memorandum", including the additional novelette "Down on the Farm" (also written this year) stands at 117,000 words. "The Revolution Business", which I wrote at the beginning of the year, stands at 103,000 words. And the novella "Palimpsest" (coming out in 2009's short story collection, "Wireless") racked up 30,000 words. There are ten days to go. If I average 1000 words per day for the rest of the year — as I have been doing for the past few weeks — I will pass the 300,000 word mark. And if I allow myself myself weekends and basic holiday time off work, I'm actually over quota (a thousand words per day for 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, comes to just under 250,000 words). The real target is more ambitious: I need to write five novels (and a novella) in less than two years. But that's another matter.

For Christmas I'm going to buy myself a new keyboard and a pair of robot hands. Meanwhile, that's my excuse for not blogging profusely: I'm too busy writing.

They're coming out just to late to make Christmas stocking-fillers, but I have two books coming out in the USA in the next couple of weeks:
The Atrocity Archives - Paperback
The Jennifer Morgue - Trade Paperback

Yup! There's a cheap paperback of "The Atrocity Archives" and, for the first time in any kind of mass-market edition in the USA, a trade paperback of sequel "The Jennifer Morgue"! (Yes, you can click through those cover pictures if you want to buy a copy from; they should be available from most high street retailers too.) I'm rather happy (that's polite English understatement, in case you were confused) about these books; they've been hard to find a paperback home for, but it looks like the series is established in a niche, now, and the third volume of Bob Howard's misadventures, "The Fuller Memorandum", is written and hopefully on course for publication in 2011.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for last-minute gift ideas, I'd like to put in a word for two of my favorite charitable organizations: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (in the US) and The Open Rights Group (who do much the same work, in the UK). Both these organizations campaign for your civil liberties on the internet (and mine), and it would make me happy if you'd give them some money or think about joining.

Rule 34 specifies that for any conceivable subject, pornography or sexually-related material exists on the internet.

However recondite or just plain opaque to the rest of us it may be ...

My name is Ulrich Haarburste and I like to write stories about Roy Orbison being wrapped up in cling-film[*]. If you have written any stories about Roy being completely wrapped in clingfilm please send them to me and I may put them up on the site. If you have a site with stories about other pop stars being wrapped in cling-film mail me and we can exchange links.
Oh, and he's written a book (about Roy Orbison being wrapped in cling-film).

This leads me to postulate a rule 34.1: Anything on the internet can be construed as filth, by a mind that's sufficiently warped.

(Hmm. Does anyone write fanfic about the Home Secretary being wrapped in cling-film for her own protection? Added bonus points if you can find an excuse to link in obsolete digital technology like, oh, PDAs.)

(Saran wrap, for American readers.)

(Taps microphone: "is this thing on?")

I've been neglecting this blog a little of late. Sorry 'bout that; I've been busy — I'm currently working on my third novel of the year, and though it won't be finished by Hogmanay I've managed to just about double my work output relative to last year, albeit at the price of being frequently absent from these parts.

Today I want to talk about ... well, I had a couple of things in mind. I'm gearing up for a discussion of Closure in fiction, which is kind of on my mind right now because I'm writing the sixth and final book in a series and I need to tie up, if not everything, then at least enough Important Stuff to satisfy my readers. (NB: This is not necessarily going to be the last Merchant Princes book ever; it's just the natural end of the current series, and the last one I'm currently under contract for. So no need to yell at me. Okay?) And then my gizmo habit caught up with me and told me I want to write about something different. Like: who killed the PDA?

I remember the first time I ever saw a PDA in the wild: the shock of the new. It was 1991, and I was riding the Metropolitan Line in London, in a mostly-empty carriage. And a man sitting opposite me reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out one of these and unfolded it and started typing on it with his thumbs.

Now, be aware that in 1991 laptops were not unheard-of. (I actually owned one; a 286 with 2Mb of RAM and a 20Mb hard disk.) Pocket-sized PCs were not unheard-of; the HP-100, the Poquet, HP-95LX, and Atari Portfolio were all out there already, running DOS. Psion's Organiser machines had developed a solid niche in business (mostly in stock-taking and EPOS applications). But this thing was something a little bit different. With an icon-driven interface, a suite of productivity apps (address book, alarm clock, agenda), and a link to a software suite running on a desktop PC with which it synchronised, it made no pretence whatever at being a PC. It was a PC companion, a new type of gizmo.

There was of course another model for the PC companion: the Apple Newton. Newton was John Sculley's pet project, allegedly started after a high-level Apple meeting in which he realized everyone present was using a Cambridge Z88, and said "why don't we make one of those?" The target market was seen as management, 1989 style: folks who didn't use keyboards. So the Newton project focussed on the idea of a touch-screen and a pen and handwriting recognition. Conceptually it was far ahead of its time; practically, it fell flat on its face for the first couple of iterations — the computing power to do full cursive handwriting recognition on the fly simply wasn't available in 1990. Apple's engineers persisted, and they were close to getting it right with the Messagepad 2100 in 1998 when the entire division was shut down: there's still a fanatical fan-base for the Newton OS even to this day.

Apple's inability to get handwriting recognition to work was another company's entry: Palm started out as a software company, selling Graffiti as a simplified, much more computationally tractable shorthand for PDAs (as the new category of machines were known). Subsequently, they looked at their software, and at the Newton, and thought "why does the computer need to be so big and heavy to do the job?" The original Palm was a fraction the size of the Newton (which typically weighed 0.5-0.6Kg — as much as a modern Asus Eee 701). It did very little, serving essentially as a smart Filofax that could synchronize with a desktop PC. And it sold like hot cakes.

Microsoft, of course, took one look at the competing PDA models from Palm and Psion, and declared war. The resulting mess of trademark-compatible embedded operating systems (Windows CE, Windows Mobile, Pocket PC, Windows Smartphone — go on, you untangle the family tree!) sold well enough to take the #2 spot (after Psion's management in 1999 made the most momentously bad decision in British personal computing history and surrendered to Microsoft's bluff). But even Microsoft haven't been making money out of PDAs. The sorry truth is, PDAs are a commercial rat-hole. The only folks who really made money at them were Psion (hors de combat) and Palm (whose abject failure to modernize their OS since 2001 amounts to the longest drawn-out suicide in portable computing history).

What were PDAs good for, and what killed them?

Well, they're not entirely dead yet — the corpse is still twitching. Sitting on my desk is an HP iPaq 214 enterprise PDA. By the computing standards of the year 2000, it's a bit of a monster: it has a 614MHz processor, 128Mb of RAM, about 16Gb of storage (expandable to 64Gb), a VGA screen with 3D graphics acceleration, Wifi and Bluetooth and USB, and it weighs around 200 grams — a third as much as the last generation Newton. It also cost about a quarter as much. The times, they have been changing. Even Microsoft eventually got it not too terribly wrong with Windows Mobile 6.x; with some tweaking by HP, it's not entirely vile, and it doesn't crash very often.

Yet despite delivering the initial promise of the Newton — yes, you can scribble anywhere on the screen and it will decode your notes; yes, it does the agenda and contacts and notepad stuff well; it also takes voice memos; it's got a decent word processor and spreadsheet on board; it's a desert topping and a floor wax — it's fundamentally obsolete.

It turns out that people don't want that stuff in a notepad-shaped machine. What they want is a mobile phone that does the address book/agenda stuff — and is an entertainment gadget besides, with a camera and music player built in. Sure the iPaq can play MP3s and videos, and even some games, but it's a Serious Business Tool, like an executive's bulging Franklin Covey planner. The market for such gizmos is vanishingly small compared to the market for iPhones which don't even have cut and paste, or Blackberry devices, which have a keyboard so bad it would have caused Psion's 1990s engineers to piss themselves laughing.

What seems to have happened is that sub-notebook sized PCs got better, and cheaper, until you can buy an entry-level Eee for about the same as the serious-end PDA, with a keyboard and a bigger screen and some proper laptop-grade applications. The signal failure of the UMPC market to take off, coupled with the explosive growth of Netbooks, seems to demonstrate that folks who use computers and want a mobile device want a real computer that has shrunk in the wash, not some bizarre tablet thingy that forces them to write with a pen. Sculley's 1989 executives might not have known how to use a keyboard, but it's 2009 now, and only luddites and geriatrics have failed to come to terms with QWERTY over the intervening two decades. The keyboard has won, as long as you class such abominations as Apple's on-screen touch keyboard for the iPhone as a real keyboard. (Look ma! No moving parts!) And the mobile phone has won the other battle, for control of that Filofax full of contacts. When the iPhone overtook the Motorola RAZR as the #2 top-selling contract mobile phone in the US, the writing was on the wall for dumb phones. The PDA concept survives — in the shape of devices with built in phones, and cameras, and annoyingly small keyboards. At the high end, it's been subsumed into the laptop market by way of Netbooks — many of which now come with SIM slots and 3G phone connections. But as a stand-alone computing device, where does the PDA go from here?

I've burned through a remarkable number of PDAs over the past two decades. I was a staunch Psion user until they quit the field, despite a brief fling with Newton. Then I transferred my loyalties to Palm, although I've had a few one night stands with Windows CE (mostly followed by morning-after regrets). I've been more flexible with phones: I hung on with Palm's Treos long after I should have given up, and I've even flirted with Symbian, the obese, hectoring descendant of Psion's once-svelte and seductive EPOC/32 operating system. But I'm now looking at my desktop. There are two devices on it: the powerful, grown-up iPaq with a decade of software development behind it, and the new upstart iPhone. And I know where the future lies.

This iPaq is probably going to be my last-ever PDA. by the time you factor in a case, a folding keyboard, and some storage cards it costs as much and weighs as much as a netbook, and does less. And I don't see that equation ever changing back again. The iPhone may acquire more PDA-like features (such as cut and paste, and an external keyboard, and a word processor), but no amount of tweaking will turn an iPaq into a rival for a netbook. It's probably the last of its kind, or near enough as makes no difference, the swan song for a computing niche that once looked promising, spawned a thousand hopeful startups, and is now dwinding to a dot of light in the centre of a darkened screen.

And that, my friends, is the secret of narrative closure.

Last minute reminder: I'm reading tonight (Thursday), from 6pm, in the west end branch of Waterstones' on Princes Street here in Edinburgh. Tickets are free at the front desk, and I'll be signing afterwards (before moving on to a pub).

I'm trying to figure out The Rules We Are Expected To Live By This Century. So far I'm not having much luck in the internal-consistency department.

Let me see if I've got this right:

* Child pornography and "extreme" pornography are illegal in the UK. And child pornography is illegal just about everywhere.

* However, it's not child pornography if it's over thirty years old and available all over the internet.

* It is child pornography if it's a cartoon of fictional yellow-skinned four-fingered humanoids copulating (especially in Australia, but that law's pretty much the same over here).

* It might be illegal extreme pornography if you photograph yourself and your spouse getting lively with a pair of handcuffs, but the police aren't sure.

* It isn't illegal extreme pornography if you film the police, even with handcuffs, but the police will treat you as if it is.

* The Home Secretary wants to let it be known that she is not a Stalinist.

Have I missed anything?

By the way, if you're wondering why I might be annoyed about the Extreme Pornography regulations, it's because the current clamp-down isn't just about cartoon and pictorial material; there's currently a prosecution going on under the Obscene Publications Act (1959) for the first time in donkey's years, and we seem to have policy makers in the Home Office/Justice Ministry who think that words are as harmful as sticks and stones, and that "community standards" mean "fit for use in primary school". Let us not forget that the OPA — a dead law for the past decade and a half — was originally used to prosecute novelists and playwrights; if this disgusting piece of censorious bullshit rises from the grave, I'm potentially liable (as I'm sure a sufficiently enterprising blue-nosed prosecutor could make out a damning case that, say, Saturn's Children or Iron Sunrise are obscene material within the meaning of the act).

But our beloved leader and teacher Home Secretary (and former teacher) wants to make it clear that she isn't a Stalinist. (And she's not a playwright, novelist, or pervert-lover either.) So that's all right then.

I'm just back from my long weekend in Oxford and London. Not much to see here: London is its usual grimy, over-crowded self, and despite the economy falling off a cliff the centre was just as claustrophobically crammed with shoppers as usual for this time of year. However, one thing caught my attention.

Along the way, I had a couple of meetings with editors — it's an occupational hazard — and in both cases they were neeping with glee over their shiny new Sony ebook readers. Sony finally got around to launching the PRS-505 in the UK a couple of months ago (I bought one a bit over a year back, on a trip to the US). Sample comments were along the lines of "it's revolutionized my commute" and "it's saved my back!" And I'm having a re-think about the niche these devices occupy.

Editors don't just hold meetings; they have to read a lot. Obviously, when they're actively editing a book they have to mark up a manuscript copy in some way that they can send back to the author — but a lot of the time they're just reading, to see whether a submission is worth buying, or to provide general comments by way of feedback (rather than red-lining individual bits of the text). A manuscript is a weighty beast: by convention you're supposed to print it out double-spaced in 10-point Courier, one inch margin all round, on A4 or US Letter paper. (The reason for this is lost in the mists of antiquity, but boil down to making life easier for the copy-editor and typesetters, so if you want to sell a book you meddle with the formula at your peril.) Anyway, manuscript format gets you about 300 words to the page, so a 300 page novel ends up running to the thick end of 450-500 sheets of paper — a ream or so. My editors work in London or New York and aren't mad enough to drive to and from the office: like everyone else, they catch the tube (or subway). It's dead time for any other purpose, so they're always reading on the commute, and hauling multi-kilogram chunks of dead tree across the landscape.

But these days, if they want to read a manuscript (which means it's already passed the first cut) they can ask for an electronic copy by email. And a Sony Reader can hold about 150-200 manuscripts, before you add a £10 memory card and boost the shelf space to something approximating a medium-sized branch library.

I've been thinking for a while that e-paper machines like the PRS-505 are a dead end. At the high end, e-paper readers that support a stylus or keyboard and allow annotations have got a promising role in those professions that rely on carrying copious documentation around (lawyers, engineers, and doctors being the prime candidates). And at the low end you can use your phone as an ebook reader, if you've got something like an iPhone or a Windows Mobile machine (with a decent-sized screen). But the in-the-middle readers that cost £150-300, like the Sony Reader or the Amazon Kindle, are trapped in the middle. 70% of the population don't ever buy books, and about 30% of the books sold are bought by maybe 1% of us. The real bibliophiles are probably going to stick to their first edition hardbacks, and the sort of folks who buy a big fat novel for the beach or the Christmas break twice a year aren't going to buy a machine that costs twenty times as much as that book (before you add any content).

But I confess, I wasn't expecting the editors to jump in with both feet, especially for a low-end reader that doesn't let them, er, edit. The publishing industry is small and the population of professional editors too tiny to support the likes of Sony. But if I missed one niche, I probably missed others. So where are they?

PS: Seen at Heathrow Airport: book vending machines that were not only selling books — they were selling disposable ebook players. Yes, that's right: cheap mp3 music players with headphones, pre-loaded with a single audiobook for £13 a pop. What's the story with these? Is the bill of materials for an mp3 player with, say, 64Mb or 128Mb of storage (voice compresses easily) so cheap that you can punch these things out at a profit via a trade channel that probably has a discount of 50-70%? And what, as they say, are the civilian applications?

Oyez, Oyez, Oyez:

* This Wednesday the 3rd I will be speaking to the Oxford University SF Society in St Hilda's Vernon Harcourt Room.

* The following Thursday the 11th I will be doing a reading and signing at Waterstones in Edinburgh (the west end Princes Street branch, at 6pm).

(Yes, this means I'll be travelling around the back of of this week and over the weekend — normal service will be thin on the ground for a while.)



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