Charlie Stross: November 2006 Archives

To all the folks in the UK who've ordered copies of THE JENNIFER MORGUE and have just had their orders, at, canceled:


What happened is this:

Historically, the right to publish books in the English language are split into two lumps: the USA and Canada, and the UK and the rest of the English-speaking world (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth territories).

When a book is unpublished in the UK, will usually import it, but if a British publisher announces that an edition is forthcoming, they stop doing that -- they don't want to piss the publishers off -- and cancel any outstanding orders.

A couple of months ago Orbit acquired UK rights to "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue", and indeed they're due to publish both books in paperback next year. Evidently they told Amazon, and Amazon pulled the plug.

Far be it from me to question the wisdom of Orbit defending their market rights, but I'm slightly surprised that Amazon canceled a bunch of outstanding orders for US first edition hardcovers — I suppose they must think people who order foreign first editions would prefer to wait twelve months for a British paperback. Or something.

Anyway. If you really want a first edition hardback, you can make an end-run around this marketing SNAFU by re-ordering "The Jennifer Morgue" directly from, not If you haven't done this before, there's no need to create a new account — your existing login and password will work fine with will ship books to the UK; it just takes longer for them to arrive by surface mail, and costs a lot more to ship them via air mail. Alternatively, you can sit tight and wait for the (doubtless excellent, and typo-fixed) Orbit editions.

Astute readers of the daily fishwraps will have no doubt been aware of the Litvinenko poisoning. (Synopsis for aliens: a former FSB colonel, resident in London and noted for making serious accusations of terrorism at the Russian government, fell ill a month ago and died last week. The cause of death is now believed to be poisoning with radioactive Polonium 210, and police are treating the death as "suspicious" — legalese for "we think he was probably murdered but we don't have any evidence pointing to a specific third party so it's not technically a murder investigation, yet.")

Polonium 210 is interesting stuff. As noted in a variety of places on the web, it is entirely artificial — it doesn't occur naturally, but has to be created by irradiating bismuth in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator — and it has a half life of 138 days, decaying via alpha emission. To do any damage, it needs to be up close and personal, inside the victim, because alpha particles are absorbed very rapidly: but the biological damage they cause is much more severe than gamma radiation, neutrons, or beta radiation, precisely because all their energy gets dumped into bodily tissues promptly, rather than most of it zipping right through the victim and dissipating harmlessly in mid-air.

And the Wikipedia section on Polonium toxicity makes for sobering reading. ("250 billion times as toxic as hydrogen cyanide" is not a typo!)

Anyway, I digress.

The point is, someone with access to fresh Polonium 210 (read: less than a year old, hot from the reactor) decided to use it to bump off an enemy.

And the terrorism alert status hasn't risen a notch? Pull the other one.

Anyway, to the point: this wasn't simply an assassination. There are any number of poisons out there that would do the job painfully well but much more rapidly, and without the same scope for a diplomatic incident. Likewise, a bullet to the back of the head would have worked just as well (as witness the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya).

What this is, is a warning: "we have the capability to detonate a dirty bomb in central London any time we feel like it, so don't fuck with us". (Just take Polonium and add a little TNT.)

Who the warning is from, and who the intended recipient is, are another question entirely. I don't think it's any accident that the COBRA committee was convened the day after Litvinenko's death (on a Saturday, no less). And I don't think it's any accident that the British press have been very carefully pretending the phrase "dirty bomb" is not part of their vocabulary for the past week.

We're actually facing a national security nightmare: someone has demonstrated the capability to use radiological weapons on the streets of London and we don't know who they are. (Although we can make a couple of guesses.)

Given that Litvinenko was promoting a book that asserted FSB agents blew up two apartment buildings in Moscow and pointed the finger at Chechen rebels in order to justify Putin's subsequent war on Chechnya, one possibility that must be considered is that elements of the FSB may be responsible — and willing to use radiological terrorism as a tool of foreign affairs. It may well not have been ordered by the Kremlin: all it takes is for Vladimir Putin to mutter "will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?" over his breakfast one morning, and Shit Happens in a foreign capital thousands of kilometres away. (Or it may be entirely deliberate, merely "plausibly deniable", to use the charming CIA-surplus weasel words for "we did it but you can't prove it".)

But we don't know that. It's just a guess. It might be wrong.

And what disturbs me most is that all the other possibilities I've been able to think of are worse ...

Over in the New York Review of Books, Mark Danner has a long review essay about the war in Iraq that anatomizes the forthcoming defeat of the United States in the Middle East. It's not a pretty story; a mixture of blinkered ideological optimism, bureaucratic status games, weak leadership, and utter ignorance of the facts on the ground combined to systematically destabilize and undermine any possibility of rebuilding the Iraqi state. It's a sobering and systematic summary of the series of events in the civil administration, post-invasion, that led to the current civil war:

Nearly four years into the Iraq war, as we enter the Time of Proposed Solutions, the consequences of those early decisions define the bloody landscape. By dismissing and humiliating the soldiers and officers of the Iraqi army our leaders, in effect, did much to recruit the insurgency. By bringing far too few troops to secure Saddam's enormous arms depots they armed it. By bringing too few to keep order they presided over the looting and overwhelming violence and social disintegration that provided the insurgency such fertile soil. By blithely purging tens of thousands of the country's Baathist elite, whatever their deeds, and by establishing a muscle-bound and inept American occupation without an "Iraqi face," they created an increasing resentment among Iraqis that fostered the insurgency and encouraged people to shelter it. And by providing too few troops to secure Iraq's borders they helped supply its forces with an unending number of Sunni Islamic extremists from neighboring states. It was the foreign Islamists' strategy above all to promote their jihadist cause by provoking a sectarian civil war in Iraq; by failing to prevent their attacks and to protect the Shia who became their targets, the US leaders have allowed them to succeed.

So. What happens now?

I'm not at all convinced that a US withdrawl from Iraq right now would be a good thing. The time to campaign against US troops in Iraq was back in 2002 and 2003, before and during the invasion. Today, Iraq — as a nation state of the kind with which we, as westerners, are familiar — scarcely exists any more. The Bush administration defends its decision not to withdraw immediately by framing it in terms of preventing a "failed state" from emerging as a harbour for Islamicist terrorist groups, but the term "failed state" is itself predicated on an concept of state-hood which is a feeble transplant to this region.

Iraq was carved out of the rump of the defeated Ottoman empire in the wake of the first world war, part of a settlement by the victorious allies that was intended to neuter what was left of the "sick man of Europe" and provide oil for the British fleet in perpetuity. It didn't work well then — we might well revisit Winston Churchill's experience of dealing with an insurgency in Iraq, at that point a crown colony, as a harbinger of things to come — and it doesn't work well now: it has generally taken a strong dictatorial centre to hold Iraq together as an entity, because it was deliberately carved out of several previous provinces of the Ottoman empire, with very different populations and economies. (Iran, which is not an Arab state, is another matter entirely: let's bear in mind that while they're both primarily muslim areas, they're very different societies with different languages and cultures, m'kay?)

To the south, we have the other detritus of Empire: the small oil-rich emirates held together by small feudal monarchies and boundless patronage, the large Arabian peninsula dominated by a fabulously rich and legendarily corrupt royal family. To the west we have Syria — the last hold-out of ba'athist Arab nationalism, ruled by a king-in-all-but-name, a surgeon who inherited his throne Presidency after his elder brother, the designated heir, died accidentally and his father succumbed to cancer — and Jordan (likewise, another kingdom), and to the south-west we have Egypt, populous, bustling, a one-party state propped up by American guns, the spiritual home of the Muslim Brotherhood and the society that spawned Sayyid Qutb, the failed Lenin of revolutionary Islamism.

(At risk of avoiding a key factor in the current mess, I intend to say nothing now of Israel and Palestine, the ulcerated, bleeding wound in the Arab world's sense of identity — perceived by them as both the reincarnation of the western Crusader Kingdoms of the 11th and 12th centuries, and as a modern imposition, the continuing pursuit of the western colonial imperialist agenda by proxy. One does not have to say anything about the rights or wrongs of the State of Israel to recognize that its existence is not perceived by the Arab world in the same way that it is perceived in the West. The existence of Israel as a factor in the rise of Islamicism cannot be under-stated, but I'm going to ignore it for now because it's not part of the Arab national system I'm examining.)

With the exception of Egypt and Iran, these are all artificially constructed states that have been imposed on a map that, before 1918, looked very different indeed. And the very artificiality of their borders renders them fragile, porous. Civil war in Iraq cannot avoid causing concern in Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia because insurgencies overflow — ask the Irish government about their experience of the troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s.

The biggest risk we now face is that, if the United States withdraws from Iraq, the withdrawal will trigger a regional collapse. Iran will be sucked in from the east, as Iraq succumbs to a Sunni on Shi'ite civil war that threatens Iran's own western population. Sunni insurgents trained in Iraq will flood the region as a whole, threatening to destabilize the weaker Arab regimes (Syria and Jordan) and to undermine the stronger ones (Egypt and Saudi Arabia). The Iraqi Kurds have both oil and an ethnic identity that is deeply threatening to the Turkish state, not least due to their implicit claim on a large swathe of Turkish territory, and it is likely that the existence of an independent Kurdistan will provoke civil repression, ethnic cleansing, or even outright war on the Turkish border.

The continuing US military presence in Iraq is, I would contend, a bad thing — occupation is brutalizing, both to the occupying garrison troops and to the nation under occupation. That Iraq has been badly damaged is beyond question; what may be less obvious is that, politics aside, the criminological blow-back when the troops come home will harm American society for a generation. (Consider: a whole generation of deliberately violence-desensitized soldiers are being given free rein to experiment with their sickest pet obsessions, and some of them are going to bring their taste for killing and torture home with them. And replacing troops with "private security contractors" is even worse — these are civilians who are happy to go places and earn money in return for shooting people. When they're not working for the government we have a technical term for these people: "serial killers".)

Despite all that, despite the Abu Ghraib photographs and the evidence of mass murder of civilians by soldiers, and a thousand daily petty atrocities, it's not immediately obvious that bringing the troops home won't make everything a whole lot worse in the long run, up to a worst-case scenario in which the "failed state" of Iraq turns out to be not so much a "failed state" as a voracious cancer of social breakdown that spreads inexorably to its neighbours, until the entire region is effectively government-free. "Government-free" does not mean some libertarian pipe-dream of a night watchman state and respect for individual liberty: it means that eventually the whole region will come to resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban, with authority — any authority — welcomed as an antidote to blood feud and starvation.

Here's a thesis for you: most dictatorships tend to decay, over time, towards democratic norms. In the broad sweep of history, dictatorships (even the hereditary ones known in the west as "monarchies") have been the incubators of strong national systems and, ultimately, democracy. Only the most violently expansionist dictatorships demand an armed response — Italy in 1936, Germany in 1938, Iraq in 1980 and again in 1990 — otherwise, containment and realpolitik gets results over time, and with a lower death toll than outright war. But by violently overthrowing the dictatorship that held Iraq together, we have exposed a black hole of anarchy that threatens to tear apart and swallow the thin fabric of the Arab states. We've proven that even what appeared outwardly to be the strongest of Arab dictatorships was, in fact, a thin glaze spread across the face of a society riven with a myriad of cracks. And that makes all of Iraq's Arab neighbours vulnerable to the same centrifugal disintegration of society.

The question the politicians should be asking is not, "how should the US disengage from Iraq", but "how can we prevent the inevitable coming collapse of Iraq from spreading to its neighbours"?

I don't see any signs of that question being asked, and I very much fear that we may already be too late.

(Have a happy Thanksgiving!)

You might be wondering why there was a sudden flurry of activity, only to be followed by a looming silence. In a nutshell: I was busy, then I finished a book. Now I'm getting busy again, with a trip to Philadelphia for Philcon '06 later in the week. And when I get back I'm going to be straight into (a) re-working chunks of one novel, (b) plotting out another, and (c) moving house.

I'll try to blog whenever possible, but don't expect too many gigantic essays like the last posting for a while ...

From time to time, readers ask me questions: and one of the commonest questions is, "when is [X] coming out?" for values of [X] that are usually a novel I've been muttering about for the past couple of years and have finished some time ago. And my usual answer is along the lines of "some time next year (or even the year after)". This typically produces the response, "why does it take so long?" So here's my stab at explaining what happens when you hand a novel in, from the author's point of view (which is horribly skewed and subjective and nothing like the editor's point of view).

The first thing to understand is that a book publisher is typically running a production line. They have a monthly schedule with [n] slots in it, where [n] can be anything between 0 and 20 titles. Typically slots are allocated to authors up to 2 years in advance. A slot might be assigned to J. Random Specialist's learned treatise on the care and feeding of Swamp Guppies (hardcover, est. 2000 sales) or the latest paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Preposition of Noun (slay more forests, lay on more convoys of 18-wheelers). But it's still a production line, which means it runs at a constant speed in terms of the rate at which it pumps out finished products.

(I'm going to ignore the minutiae of marketing and sales, but suffice to say that without them, the book ain't going nowhere. If you're interested in the grisly details, there are plenty of publishing folk who deal with marketing and sales on a day to day basis: for example, Anna Louise — or, from an agent's point of view, Miss Snark. But for now, I'm just going to talk about the production process in genre fiction publishing, as seen from the writer's end of the business.)


Let's suppose you've got a finished manuscript in your hands, and you're an old hand, so it was sold before you even started writing it. You've run it past your focus group and redrafted it, knocked off the rough spots, and given it a polish. What happens next?

You do not send your manuscript directly to your editor: instead, you email it to your agent. (Or print it out and mail them the slices of dead tree; it depends on your working arrangement. As I'm on the far side of an ocean from my agent, we do most of our business by email because it saves a lot of time and money.)

Now, your agent is your reader of last resort. After all, they're on commission: they get a 15% cut of your income, in return for doing their damndest to maximize that income. (Which they indeed do. Tobias Buckell ran an anonymized survey of SF/F writers' advances and discovered that agented books on average get about a 60% higher advance than un-agented ones, and better royalty terms all round.) That's because your agent knows all the tricks the publisher's contracts people will try to pull. And they're also a professional salesperson. And they're on your side.

In my case, I rely on my agent not just for the small print negotiations, but as a sanity check. She's a former editor, and if she raises a red flag over some aspect of a book I'm handing in, I'd better take it seriously. She has a strong interest in not letting me shoot myself in my foot.

However, I'm not her only client, so it will probably take her a week or so to read the book and get her thoughts together once I send it to her.

Once my agent agrees it's ready, she then sends it to my editor, who reads it. Which takes another week or two, because in addition to publishing Charlie Stross, said editor also publishes folks whose sales I can barely dream of, and who are therefore ahead of me in the queue. What's more, they also work for a big corporation in what is largely a managerial role and therefore get to spend lots of time in meetings.

When my editor has read the book and approved it, they notify Finance that the book has been delivered, which causes them (in principle) to send me a cheque for the D&A component of the advance (which can be something like 25% or 33% of the total, depending on how the contract splits up the payments).

Now, the publishing industry habours a dirty little secret: even in this age of high-throughput low-overhead efficiency cultism, some editors like to edit. They will kick the tyres and piss on the fender and get back to the author and say "change this around, and get rid of the happy singing dinosaur in chapter 14". And the author will therefore have to do a whole bunch more work on the book before it's acceptable. For the sake of this essay, the editor I'm dealing withis tired and cynical and knows my agent is on the ball, and if my agent is giving feedback before the book is even delivered, why bother? Which means everything goes smoothly.

(But at another publisher, it's quite possible that the editor will say "change this", and you politely argue the case (30%) or obey (70%), until a satisfactory manuscript is achieved and your editor signs off on it. Which may take months because editors are busy folk and even if you make the changes immediately and email them a revised manuscript, it may be weeks before they have time to read it ... and say "hey, you didn't do what I told you to do! Bad author! No advance!".)

Anyway, once the editor is happy with the manuscript the process of turning it into a book begins. And it is printed out on 11" long strips of dead tree and mailed to an external copy editor.

You know what copy editors do, right?

It takes the copy editor about 2-3 days of wall-clock time to work over a novel. They then send it back to the editor (or rather, to your editor's editorial assistant), covered in red crayon chicken tracks. Bear in mind that postage time eats up 4-10 days either side of this 2-3 day process. $EDITOR then has their intern mail it to $AUTHOR, who is given three weeks to (a) vet the chicken tracks and approve or countermand them, and (b) get them back to $EDITOR. Three weeks may sound generous to you, but bear in mind that the postal time between $EDITOR and myself is at least five working days — there's an ocean between us! And if I'm either travelling on another continent, or down with the flu, that three week turnaround schedule is going to be missed. (In mitigation, any sensible author tries to keep their editors in the loop when they're expecting to be unavailable for more than a week, and tries to find out in advance when a bunch of copy edits is due to land on their desk.)

The Copy-Edited Manuscript (CEM) then goes to Production, along with an electronic copy of the raw manuscript as a Microsoft Word document. (Speculating as to why the publishing industry demands Microsoft Word is futile; it's like death and taxes.) At a pinch they can handle plain text from Joe Stick-in-the-Mud's manual typewriter, but keying it in costs money. Production slurp the Word document into Quark Publishing System or InDesign or another publishing program, and then a typesetter goes through it by hand, transferring the hand-made changes from the CEM, until they have a typeset book block that looks like the real thing. This process probably takes about 3-5 days to do properly (someone has to check it), but it's scheduled in a queue (remember what I said about that production line earlier?) and is therefore at the mercy of all the other jobs in the queue. For example, if it's an election year and H. Beam Piper wins the White House on a write-in vote, suddenly everyone will be rushing biographies of H. Beam Piper through the presses. (This kind of job is like meeting a Challenger tank on the motorway — you don't argue right of way with it, you just get out of its path.)

While this is going on, the book designer takes a look at the MS and the art director reads the marketing synopsis of it and commissions a cover painting and they put their heads together to design a cover. Which the author might be invited to comment on ... or not. (As most authors are not graphic design/marketing folks, they do not necessarily have anything more useful to contribute to this process than, as one editor put it, "squawk! $PROTAGONIST's hair colour is all wrong! I must immediately bring western civilization to a screeching standstill until this is corrected!")


In due course, someone prints out a PDF of the book and mails it to the author. This is still called a galley proof, although it's the end result of a rather different process these days. The author is expected to proof- read it again, and mark up all the little easter eggs and typos that Production introduced into the (always-perfect) CEM. Because, as you know, nobody ever scrawls something illegible on a CEM, or fails to correctly interpret said scrawl. It's another three week turnaround job.

When the corrected galley gets back to the publisher, it gets sent back to production, who update their typeset copy again. Oh, and with any luck the editor also proof reads a copy, and then there's a second round of checking and an external proof reader goes over the corrected galley (if you're lucky and they're not cutting corners this year). One of the laws of publishing is: the worst, gouge-your-eyes-out typo will be discovered by the first reader to open the first shipped copy of the book. It doesn't matter how many typos you hunt down and kill in the production process, there will be more, lurking in dark corners. But that's no excuse for not doing a thorough job ...

Finally the book is approved for manufacturing. Production send it to their printers (who are almost certainly a separate company — publishers don't own printing presses these days, unless they're newspapers, and not always then) and in due course a shipping pallet of hardbacks materializes in the warehouse and is distributed to boostores by the Sales Elves and the Distribution Fairies.

Believe it or not, this is not the end of the story. What's just gone out is a trade paperback or hardcover first edition. There will be errors, and your readers will email you to gloat about their genius in spotting them. So you save these errors up, and after a couple of months you email your little list to your editor, who will sigh and pass them on to production for the second printing or the mass market paperback. When it's paperback time, they'll go through the whole galley proof checking stage all over again, because as likely as not they've reflowed the typeset text for a new page size, and added corrections. But proofing a paperback isn't particularly onerous: most of the mistakes have already been extirpated.

Now, if you've been keeping track, you'll recognize that there are no less than eight mail shots involved in this process, where the manuscript or CEM or galleys have to go walkabout, and for each of which you need to allow a week (as many of them are trans-continental or trans-oceanic in scope. Because it's a whole book, you also need to allow a working week for each interim stage. We're up to 16 weeks, now. You're an idiot if you don't allow 25% for contingency time due to the usual vagaries of business (author has flu, editor is on vacation, typesetter is on maternity leave) so we're up to, say, 22 weeks. There's also disaster time. If the CEM goes missing in the mail on the way back to the publisher and the office photocopy goes missing, then it's possible that you'll have to re-do two steps (i.e. the initial copy-edit and then the author's check), taking another couple of months. Think it couldn't happen? I know an author it happened to just last year. (Me, I have a scanner and I scan my corrected CEMs to PDF before I mail them. But I'm paranoid, I hate checking CEMs, and I take pains to avoid ever having to do it twice.)

A publisher can rush a book through in just 10 weeks, if it's particularly time critical (see "Shock Election Outcome: Dead SF Author in the White House"), but the stolen time has to come out of various other books' schedules, and they also have to throw money at the process to make it work (i.e. expensive courier services instead of relying on the mail).

What you're left with is, a job that should be do-able in 30 weeks, even in the face of disasters, illness, and unscheduled excursions. And guess what? Once you cross out December (because like many businesses, publishing doesn't get a hell of a lot of stuff done in December) there will be approximately 30 weeks between my novel arriving on my editor's desk to the PDF being sent to the printing press.

Now. Can we do this any faster?

In theory, you might imagine all the above jobs could be done using email, Microsoft Word's change tracking facility, and some technical nous. Saving all that postal time would in principle result in a much faster-running production line. But the catch is, not everyone uses Microsoft Word. Not everyone is technically ept, or able to use Word's change tracking facility effectively. A publishing company has to be flexible enough to deal with uber-competent geeks and eighty year olds who still write everything in longhand and don't have email at all, or even a fax machine ... but who have an enormous and loyal readership. The production line can only crank out a finished product at the speed at which the slowest raw material supplier produces input. Also, if you try to run a production line faster, the effect of any delay is amplified. Delivering something a week late into a 30-week process isn't critical. Deliver it a week late in a 4-week process, and you can screw everything up. From the publisher's business point of view, consistency is more important than speed; thus, there is a positive incentive for larger publishers not to hurry things along.

Small presses are lithe, nimble, and lean. And they usually have laser printers and understand email. My Laundry novels were originally bought by Golden Gryphon, who're small enough that the editor handles copy editing issues himself. So we worked on the copy edits by bouncing annotated Word files back and forth in email and using change tracking. The trouble is, because it took about one minute (instead of five days) to deliver the CEM, we kept going back and forth across it, picking up more issues. The book got a very thorough copy-edit indeed, but the process ended up taking about as long as a normal pencil-and-paper cycle. On the other hand, there was no risk of the MS getting lost by the Post Office, we saved a bunch of shipping costs, and we probably did a better job on it.

Typesetting at a small press follows the standard pattern, except that rather than mailing me a dead tree they often email me a PDF, and I email back lists of changes: this ends up saving maybe two weeks in postage time. However, due to the repeated copy-edits using change tracking, the galleys were very clean compared to the normal pencil-and-paper routine: because they were typesetting from an already-corrected electronic CEM, rather than importing a rough manuscript file and then hand-inputting scribbled changes from a paper CEM.

The moral of this story is, if your editor, your typesetter and your author are technologically literate and have the right tools at each end, you can do the whole job a whole lot faster. But this was a small press, only publishing about four books a year. Companies who deal with hundreds of authors have to be able to handle everything between Neal Stephenson (writes his own Emacs LISP macros to format the output he wants to deliver) and Joe Schmoe who still uses a fountain pen and pays a copy-typist because he never learned to type. You can feed the technically literate types into the pencil-and-paper chain and they'll just grumble a bit and get on with it, but if you expect Joe Schmoe to grapple with Word's change highlighting facilities you're going to get a nasty shock to the production schedule.

And this is why, in a nutshell, my novels take somewhere between 6 and 18 months to appear after I deliver the finished manuscript.



About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in November 2006.

Charlie Stross: October 2006 is the previous archive.

Charlie Stross: December 2006 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog