March 2010 Archives

Charlie's away, and foolishly he's left the keys with me and with the brilliant and unpredictable Hal Duncan while he's gone.

I've spent part of today researching Io (the moon of Jupiter, not the chick who got turned into a cow) and it's turned out to be a peculiarly nostalgic exercise. You see, my Swedish grandfather, the plumber (and talented sketch artist), was the sort of person who (if he had been born a hundred and fifty years earlier) would have been a dedicated naturalist. And he and I spent many many hours poring over National Geographics together when I was small. (He used to argue with them in the margins.)

I was born in 1971, so a little elementary math and history will tell you that this was taking place during the heyday of outer-solar-system probe exploration, with Pioneer and both Voyagers making their passes through the Jovian system  At that time, those images--especially the Voyager ones--were simply stunning. Breathtaking. Revolutionary.

We had never seen anything like them before.

Heck, we were still getting used to images of our own world from space.

I remembered those images as if it were yesterday. Io's dragonskin colors, the plume of the volcano--the first active exovolcano ever witnessed--rising from its surface huge and spherical as a partially eclipsed sister moon. The false-color images, painstakingly chicken-pecked across interstellar distances and long minutes of light-speed lag by a data recording and transmission system that basically consists of an  8-track tape deck and a 160-baud modem. 

Voyager 1 mosaic image of IoSome of the images were tapestries, panoramas pasted together from dozens of photographs, the lines visible in a manner that will now feel familiar to any user of Google Earth, where exposure or shadows had changed.

What a gorgeous, gorgeous thing we sent home from the cold out there. What a wonderful thing we found: a geologically living world, stretched and compressed by its primary's unimaginable gravity, seething with sulfur compounds and lakes of lava so vast that on Earth they would be inland seas.

Funny thing, today. I realized something.

Galileo image of IoWe have better images now. We have much better images. Galileo and New Horizons sent back some stunning pictures, and we live in the future now. We can make computer simulations of Jupiter and its moons that put you there, that turn Voyager 1 (now the furthest man-made object in the universe, having passed the termination shock and still in intermittent contact... and still using that 160-baud modem and a transistor radio to phone home) into your private touring car.

But every so often I find myself looking at those old photos from when I was eight years old, and aching to touch the textured dragonscale of an alien world.

Even now.

images courtesy of NASA's dedication to giving stuff away for science.

I've fallen quiet over the past week for a number of reasons, one of which is that on Monday I'm off to HalCon in Omiya, Japan. (Which, the astute among you will note, doesn't happen for another two weeks, but if you had a reason to visit Japan wouldn't you want to stay a little longer?)

I'm going to try and blog a little while I'm there, but I'm likely to be a bit erratic. So in the meantime, I've invited Glasgow-based fantasy author Hal Duncan to borrow the soapbox for a week or so from the 5th of April; I'm sure he's got plenty to say. (We may also be hearing from Elizabeth Bear again.)

(This is a round-up of miscellaneous useful information rather than a structured examination of a specific widespread misconception about publishing.)

How much are SF/F novelists paid?

A few years ago, Tobias Buckell got curious about this question and ran an anonymized survey. In 2005, he re-ran it, and his full results are here, with input from 108 authors. (Note that his figures refer to the US market.)

If you want a full run-down, I strongly recommend reading the whole thing, with discussion, but in a nutshell: the median advance for a first SF/F novel is $5000. For authors going through an agent it was $6000; for unagented novels it was $3500. (As I noted in an earlier CMAP posting, an agent is on commission and takes 15% of the author's cut. And they're cheap at the price, going by this finding!)

For established authors, the median advance for an SF novel is $12,500, and for a fantasy novel it's $15,000. Agented books average $12,500; unagented average $7,250. The range of advances is much wider in fantasy; the survey logged advances of $0 to $40,000 in SF, and $1000 to $600,000 in fantasy (the latter being a one-off that should probably be excluded from analysis of the results).

Note that, as I explained earlier, the US book advance is not the whole story; royalties and foreign rights sales may add considerably to the pie — or not, if the author or their agent don't exploit them properly.

How do SF/F novelists break into the business?

Fantasy author Jim C. Hines got interested in this question and ran a survey of his own, just last month. The results are fresh in, with input from 247 writers, and Jim discusses his findings in two essays.

In the first he examines the received wisdom (at least in the SF/F field) that you break in by writing and selling short stories, polishing your skills, and then work your way up to novels; and he looks at whether self-publishing your first novel is a route to success. The full story is here. (Attention conservation form: writing and selling short stories can help some writers, but is by no means a universal route to success; and self-publishing your first novel is almost certainly useless.)

In the second essay, Jim examines a couple of other myths; the myth of the overnight success, and the widespread belief that you've got to know somebody in publishing. I'm not going to spoil his masterful examination of these issues: read the whole analysis here.

Note that if you see a conflict between my advice and the advice in these surveys, go with the survey. My experience and career path are very atypical in some respects (although utterly vanilla in others — the age at sale of first novel, for example, is 36).

Finally, if you're interested in writing and publishing (especially SF/F fiction), there are a bundle of resources online. If you're writing purely for your own enjoyment, you don't need to bother with them — but the moment you put your writing in front of someone else's eyes, you're dealing with other folks' expectations, and you'll find that it helps to know the basics of how to prepare manuscripts, how to participate in a workshop with other writers to constructively criticise each others work, and how to approach a publisher. SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers of America, run an online information centre with essays these and other relevant topics: highly recommended as a starting place.

According to the contents of my mailbox, Amazon appear to be cancelling pre-orders of "The Fuller Memorandum".

Do not panic if you have pre-ordered this book. It's still due for publication on July 1st (in the UK, from Orbit) or July 6th (US, from Ace). Amazon are just having one of their periodic database glitches, and re-setting the title to "unavailable" rather than "due out on July 1st". It does not imply the book has been cancelled, or that Amazon won't be selling it when it's published. You might want to re-order it elsewhere, or wait until May/June (by which time Amazon's database might have realized that the book is, in fact, going to come into stock at some forseeable date).

As some of you probably know, SF author, biologist, (and friend of mine) Peter Watts was charged a couple of months ago with assaulting a US border patrol officer. The case has now come to trial and Peter has been found guilty of obstruction, for failing to get on the floor immediately when told to do so after being punched in the face a couple of times. The more serious charge — that Peter had assaulted the officer in question directly — was thrown out of court. But failure to immediately and unquestioningly obey any order by a border patrol officer is apparently "obstruction", which in turn is a subset of "assault", carrying a maximum 2-year prison sentence. (Being incapacitated — for example, due to being dazed due to having been beaten up — is not, it seems, a mitigating factor.)

The problem behind this unjust and bizarre mess is buried a couple of layers deep.

Given: the assault (on Peter Watts, by the Border Patrol) shouldn't have happened. Nor should he have been charged, much less tried and convicted of assault in the opposite direction. Nor should failure to immediately and unquestioningly obey an order after being punched in the face be a crime — any kind of crime.

But there's a more alarming moral to be drawn here.

I note with some alarm that the saucepan of free international travel we've been swimming frog-like in for decades is now steaming.

It's not just the USA where border agencies have quietly acquired vast, unaccountable, and draconian powers. Here in the UK, the government is responding to anti-immigration sentiment by erecting a near-iron curtain around all ports and airports, monitoring all traffic, and dealing harshly with anyone who wants to travel for reason other than tourism or business. Ditto most of the EU (within the EU things are as different as they are within the United States, for much the same reason — it's a free trade/movement zone). The barriers are going up all around the developed world, and while the spikes are intended to point outward, other developed world travellers get caught on them. (I'm not just thinking of Peter Watts here; in SF fandom there's also the case of Cheryl Morgan. Just off the cuff, among friends of mine.)

Capital can flow freely, but labour is in shackles world-wide.

If you don't see a very specific political subtext here (being sold to the voting masses on the back of crude xenophobia and racism), let me be more explicit: labour wants to migrate where working conditions and pay are best. Capital wants to invest for growth where working conditions and pay are worst.

By penning us (the labour) in, capital can maintain, for a while, the wage imbalances that maximize profit. (Take raw material. Process as cheaply as possible. Sell for as much as possible.) In the long term, it's unsustainable — labour in the high-cost developed world is taking a hammering due to being uncompetitive, and wages will be forced down until it is competitive, while labour costs in the developing world are skyrocketing. It'll end when American and EU wages meet in the middle with Chinese and Indian wages ... unless American, EU, Chinese, and Indian wage-earners are forced to recalibrate their expectations against the DRC or Somalia.

f you don't think this affects you, if you don't think you're on the same side of the barricades as the sweatshop workers in Bangladesh and the marine biologists in Toronto, you're deluded; unless you've got a seven-digit trust fund to dine out on, the tidal flow of globalized capital is running against your class interests.

Welcome to the future that globalized capitalism has bought for us (and see also the vital, pressing need for election funding reform in the USA, which is the pivot on which this whole mess revolves). I'm beginning to think that, regardless of his prescription, Karl Marx's diagnosis of the crisis of capitalism was spot on the money. And crap like this is going to keep happening as long as we're workers first and citizens last.

Subject says it all. I'm on the book salon over at FireDogLake this Sunday, from 5pm EST (9pm GMT), talking to Paul Krugman and taking questions from readers about "The Trade of Queens". There'll be a chat transcript afterwards (and I'll link to it), but if you're there at the time you get the opportunity to join in.

(In other news, I just did an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun. Being an author is a full time job — I could do it for 40 hours a week without writing a word!)

(I'm going to try and keep this one brief ...)

Many readers hold the charming misconception that authors not only write their books, but are responsible for the size, shape, texture, flavour, and appearance of the finished physical object.

(We're talking physical books here, not ebooks. That's yet another opportunity for discourse that I'm going to eschew for now.)

Here's the reality: as an author, I am required — per contract — to supply the publisher with a manuscript of approximately the correct length, on roughly the correct subject matter, that is substantially free from factual errors and libelous or criminal statements. I'm also required to participate in the editorial process. And I can suggest a title. That's all.

The title of the published book will usually conform to the author's suggestion, except when it doesn't. Reasons why the publisher might change it include: the author's idea of a title is going to repel readers, the editor has a better idea, or the publisher's list contains another book with a too-similar title and confusion will arise.

For example: my novel "Singularity Sky" was originally titled "Festival of Fools", but right after my editor at Ace acquired the North American rights one of their other editors published "Ship of Fools" by Richard Paul Russo. It was felt that two "... of Fools" titles on the front list at the same time would be a Bad Thing, so we haggled over a new title (and my editor wanted the S-word in it "because the Singularity is hot right now").

For another example: my short story collection "Wireless" was originally titled "Palimpsest" (after the novella it contains), but Catherynne Valente's novel "Palimpsest" came out right after I submitted the manuscript: although it was with a different publisher, we were, again, worried about the potential for confusion.

The confusion doesn't emerge between authors and their readers, but among the overworked staff at bookshops and wholesalers, or between the marketing department of publishers and the acquisitions managers at the big book chains. Every editor's nightmare is that their hot new novel is, through a namespace conflict, going to be confused with yesterday's tired midlist title by the buyer at Barnes and Noble or Borders, who will in consequence order only half as many copies. It may or may not be a nightmare with reality lurking behind it, but who wants to take that risk?

The author's name on the published book is probably safe. At least, there's a clause in my contracts that says they're supposed to attribute authorship to me, myself, and I, unless otherwise mutually agreed. It sometimes happens that authors who are in a spiral of diminishing bookstore orders are asked to start up a pseudonym (presumably to defeat the evil moustachio-twirling opera-cloak-wearing inventory computers who are persistently short-ordering their stock, and who can be confounded by the sudden appearance of a middle initial). But this is a big step, and it doesn't happen without heart-felt discussions between the author and their editor and/or agent.

(Full disclosure prompts me to reveal: my Merchant Princes books were nearly sold under a pseudonym, because of the degree to which they diverged from my other fiction. What finally stopped us going that way were the points that (a) I didn't need a new identity at that time, and (b) if either fiction track suddenly took off, selling lots of books, having them under different names would prevent follow-on sales going to the other.)

The book cover is not the author's job. In fact, the major imprints all have in-house book design departments with art directors to commission paintings, external contracts with professional photographers to commission back-flap author photos, and so on.

The job of the cover is to make a shopper pick the product up. Retail psychology studies indicate that shoppers are more likely to buy a product if they physically handle it, and this is as true in bookstores as it is in grocery or electronics stores. The cover design will therefore ideally be distinctive (to stand out from the crowd), colourful (to contrast with the crowd), and aesthetically appealing (ditto). Unfortunately these are all culturally variable and highly subjective. Fashion in book design is radically different between the USA and the UK, for example; the US market in SF at least is increasingly driven by saturated hues, while in the UK for a while the trend has been towards grainy monochrome, with one publisher going so far as to reissue an entire list of books with black and white covers.

There are exceptions, of course. Small presses involve the authors much more closely; I worked closely with the editor, publisher, and artist on refining a series of roughs to pick a final design for the Golden Gryphon editions of the first two Laundry novels, and although the book design was 100% Golden Gryphon house style, the cover artwork was a consensus decision. But if you're with a major publishing house, the first you will hear about your new cover is probably an email with a JPEG attachment saying, "hi, Charlie! Here's your new cover! All of us here at hte office think this is great! What do you think?"

(If you think this is just slightly passive-agressive, you would not be wrong. It is a well-understood constant of the publishing world that authors frequently hate their book covers so much that they feel compelled to bring Western Civilization to a crashing halt until they can get a minor detail — the heroine's hair colour, for example — changed. Ways of coping with this common problem have therefore been developed.)

NB: In a spirit of full disclosure, I have occasionally thrown my toys out of the pram over cover art. The worst three:

1) The US cover of "Halting State". Not the one you've seen on sale; the one I kicked up a fuss over was an earlier draft. Same design, but the police badge on the front cover was a Scotland Yard one, and it had the London Eye in the background. (Way to go for a Scottish crime/thriller, sort of like an LAPD police car parked in Time Square.) A fix was procured in the nick of time. (Lothian and Borders Police logo, and the Walter Scott Monument.)

2) The US cover of "Saturn's Children". I'd already played my "author objects to cover" card the previous year, and was overruled. I'm still conflicted about this cover. On the plus side, it's undeniably striking (and highly likely to get men of a certain age to pick it up). On the minus side, I've had mail from readers who bought a British copy, imported at great expense, because they were afraid of their partner's likely response.

3) The Czech cover of "The Family Trade". I'm told half the bookstores in Prague misfiled it under "romance". (As I mentioned earlier, authors going ballistic over their book covers is understood. When their agent joins in, publishers take it more seriously. We got the subsequent covers changed.)

The author's photograph on the dust jacket ... I have a lot more respect for the modelling profession after being on the receiving end of a five-hour photoshoot around the arse-end of a decaying naval warehouse in Boston in mid-February (for the cyberpunkish ambiance, according to the photographer). I've heard apocryphal stories of the Bad Old Days when unscrupulous publishers would substitute a photo of someone more attractive if they felt like it, but I don't know anyone that's actually happened to. I will note that it's a lot tougher for women; men in DJ photos are allowed to look middle-aged and slightly unkempt, but given what the purpose of a book's DJ is, you can figure out the sexist syllogism for yourself.

The blurb on the back cover/inside front flap ... they're usually written by someone in marketing, although I know at least one major publisher where the commissioning editor writes his own blurbs and runs them past the author for comment. The goal of the blurb is to convert the person handling the book from a handler to a purchaser; nothing more or less. It does not need to reflect the content of the book accurately, although most authors get awfully itchy and irritable in the presence of actively misleading blurbs. It shouldn't spoiler the contents if there's an element of surprise: this is one good reason for publishers to show marketing-written blurbs to authors before running with them. But that's all. The blurb is an advertisement, not a plot synopsis.

The review quotes on the back cover/inside the front matter ... obviously, good reviews are gold dust. But you don't need good lemons to make lemonade. If Kirkus Reviews say of a hardback "this was an exercise in meretricious misogyny, stunning in the depths of it's depravity", do not be surprised if you subsequently see a back-cover quote like this: "Stunning — Kirkus". (In general, the longer the quote, the more likely it is to accurately reflect the review. But see above about the purpose of a book cover.)

The author's biography on the inside back flap is entirely their own fault, but I will note that publishers are under no obligation to print one. Nor are they going to put much effort into updating a bio they've used on previous books, so don't be surprised if bios are a few years out of date. Or decades. Or full of lies. Whatever.

Anyway, as should be obvious by now, authors have little to no control over what goes on the cover of their books, because book covers are marketing tools. And if you're of a nasty disposition and want to needle an author at a public event? Here's your pin.

Blackwells have organized an evening launch for Ken MacLeod's new novel The Restoration Game at the Pleasance Theatre in Edinburgh (on The Pleasance), at 7pm on Wednesday the 17th. Tickets are free from the front desk at Blackwell Bookshop, 53—59 South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1YS.

Confusingly, the book in question isn't due out until July (these gigs are scheduled months in advance, so occasional whoopsies happen: in this case, the publication date slipped). But not to worry: Ken's doing a reading from "The Restoration Game", I'm doing a reading from "The Fuller Memorandum" (which is also not due out until July), and then there'll be a panel discussion on the state of Scottish SF chaired by The Scotsman's SF critic and reviewer Andrew J. Wilson. And there will be books on sale, a signing, and a retreat to the pub led by the survivors. Time traveling bibliophiles especially welcome.

pile of Merchant Princes books
My first author copies of "The Trade of Queens" arrived this morning; that's one of them, sitting on top of the pile of its predecessors on the step-stool. (Parenthetically, this means that copies should be showing up in warehouses and book stores over the next week, and in the mailboxes of folks who placed advance orders very soon thereafter.) The stack you're looking at is the culmination of eight years' work; I began work on these books in 2002, if I remember correctly. It's about 70-100 pages longer in total than "War and Peace". And I'd like to talk about them for a bit.

Back in early 2005, I wrote a somewhat cynical essay on an earlier incarnation of this blog, titled "Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series". Web rot and a change of publishing platform have made that essay somewhat hard to find, so I'm going to reproduce it in edited form right here (below the cut), with updates and further insights gathered on the road.

I don't normally run corporate press releases on my blog, or carry advertising — except insofar as the blog promotes my own writing. There's always a first time, though, and so here it is:

Cubicle 7 Entertainment to publish roleplaying game based on Charles Stross's Laundry Files novels

Cubicle 7 Entertainment is producing a roleplaying game based on the award-winning Laundry series (The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue, and the forthcoming The Fuller Memorandum) by the even-more-award-winning Charles Stross, and uses the also-award-winning Basic Roleplaying System (Call Of Cthulhu) by Chaosium Inc.

(For more details, keep reading below the fold. Meanwhile, here's the cover ...)

Laundry RPG box cover

Publishing is a whole bunch of different businesses flying in loose formation; which is by way of saying that this particular topic is specific to commercial fiction publishing and has nothing to do with text books, technical reference manuals, autobiographies, or cookbooks.

Why are novels (the prevailing form of fictional entertainment on retail sale today) generally the length that they are?

The Trade of Queens

I have a book coming out this month; "The Trade of Queens", the sixth novel in the Merchant Princes series, is shipping (the official publication date is the 16th, but it should be showing up in bookstores in the USA from Monday onwards). And the last, for the time being — if you've been holding off starting on the series because you wanted to know there was an ending in sight, this is it. Series climax: finale: fat lady sings.

(You can find links to buy my books — including all the Merchant Princes titles — here.)

While this is the last of the current cycle, I'm not ruling out writing more books in that universe — but I'm taking a couple of years of time out first, and if and when go back to there, it'll be with a new story and mostly new characters.

I'm still slightly gobsmacked that I actually managed to write (and more importantly finish) this thing; a multi-volume novel about 30,000 words longer than "War and Peace", with a political subtext about economic development and a marked lack of good guys. One of these days I'm going to bolt my thoughts about writing larger-than-novel-length fiction together. But not right now ...

(I'm going to try to keep this post a wee bit shorter than the preceeding ones, because they're eating into my writing time and, as Rule 2 of being a successful author goes, "paying words have priority". Rule 1 is "don't die", in case you were wondering. Not many people break that one and prosper.)

In CMAP #3 I dissected a book contract for the sale of US and North American English language rights. As you probably guessed from the words in front of "rights", other stuff gets sold separately by authors who have any choice in the matter.

As a sidebar to my current publishing shtick, The New York Times runs an article discussing the costs of ebook publication:

In the emerging world of e-books, many consumers assume it is only logical that publishers are saving vast amounts by not having to print or distribute paper books, leaving room to pass along those savings to their customers. ... But publishers also say consumers exaggerate the savings and have developed unrealistic expectations about how low the prices of e-books can go. Yes, they say, printing costs may vanish, but a raft of expenses that apply to all books, like overhead, marketing and royalties, are still in effect. All of which raises the question: Just how much does it actually cost to produce a printed book versus a digital one?

Lots of stuff here, including a few too many over-simplifications for my taste — but as I earn my living from this stuff (books) it's a topic rather closer to my heart than it probably is to yours.

However, here (for my money) is the most screamingly important bit:

"If you want bookstores to stay alive, then you want to slow down this movement to e-books," said Mike Shatzkin, chief executive of the Idea Logical Company, a consultant to publishers. "The simplest way to slow down e-books is not to make them too cheap."
What Mr Shatzkin doesn't mention is that this strategy will fail. Keeping the existing distribution chain alive may be desirable, but not at the cost of growing the e-book distribution chain: if it results in e-book prices being kept artificially high, all it will achieve is to encourage e-book users to download unauthorized (pirated) copies. And as the music and film industry have demonstrated, DRM annoys the hell out of honest customers while not impeding dishonest ones — thus making the pirate download more attractive and useful as a product than the legal one.

It's a hideous dilemma for the publishers. What to do? Risk pissing off your existing distribution channel (the booksellers) before the e-book channel is big enough to be commercially viable, or convince your end-customers that you're as evil as the music and film industry?



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