Charlie Stross: April 2010 Archives

There has been some ... interesting news from the tech sector this week.

Firstly, the Apple vs. Adobe vendetta gets even nastier, with a public letter from Steve Jobs explaining why Adobe's Flash multimedia format will not ever be allowed into the garden of pure ideology that is the iPhone/iPad fork of OSX.

Secondly, Hewlett-Packard are buying Palm, apparently for Palm's WebOS — with rumours of plans to deploy a range of WebOS tablets to rival the iPad — at the same time, they're killing their forthcoming Windows 7 slate, just as Microsoft are killing the Courier tablet project.

Finally, gizmodo (not, perhaps, an unbiased source in this regard given current events) have a fun essay discussing Apple's Worldwide Loyalty Team, the internal unit tasked with hunting down and stopping leaks.

It's probably no exaggeration to say that Apple's draconian security policies are among the tightest of any company operating purely in the private sector, with a focus on secrecy that rivals that of military contractors. But even so, the control freak obsessiveness which Steve Jobs is bringing to bear on the iPad — and the desperate flailing around evident among Apple's competitors — bears some examination. What's going on?

Misconceptions abound, and not only about the publishing industry. In this posting, I'm going to talk a little bit about what it is to be a commercial fiction author.

Most people have a very romanticized view of what it is that authors do. Firstly, there's a widespread perception that the workload involved is relatively easy — in modern western nations, the level of functional literacy is high enough that a majority of the population can read a book, and write (at least to the extent of thumbing a 160-character text message on their phone). Because there is no obvious barrier to entry as with music (where proficiency with musical instruments clearly takes practice), most people assume that writing a novel is like writing a text message — you put one word in front of another until you're done. The skills of fiction composition are largely invisible, until you try to actually do it. Secondly, many people harbour peculiar ideas about how much money there is in commercial publishing — and when disabused of the idea that selling a first novel is a road to riches, they assume it's because the evil publishers are conspiring to keep all the money to themselves (rather than the unpalatable truth — publishing commercial fiction is hard work for little reward). Finally, there's the Lifestyle chimera.

Before I get onto the Lifestyle rant, I'd like to point you at this 2005 paper by the Author's License and Collecting Society, titled "What are Words Worth?, describing the findings of a study organized by the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management (CIPPM)I, Bournemouth University. Briefly: in the UK in 2004-05, median (typical) earnings for authors were £4000 a year, with mean earnings of £16,531 — that is, while most authors earned very little, a handful earned a lot more and so the mean skews high. Once you discard part-timers and focus on professional authors who spend 50% or more of their time working by writing, the median rises to £12,330 (and a mean of £28,340). Many professional authors supplement their income by teaching or consultancy; restricting the survey to focus on main-income authors (those who earned over 50% of their income from writing) gave median earnings of £23,000 and mean earnings of £41,186.

Interestingly, the researchers went on to calculate a Gini coefficient for authors' incomes — a measure of income inequality, where 0.0 means everyone takes an identical slice of the combined cake, and 1.0 indicates that a single individual takes all the cake and everyone else starves. Let me provide a yardstick: the UK had a Gini coefficient of 0.36 in 2009, the widest ever gap between rich and poor — while the USA, at 0.408, had the most unequal income distribution in the entire developed world. The Gini coefficient among writers in the UK in 2004-05 was a whopping great 0.74. As the researchers note:

Writing is shown to be a very risky profession with median earnings of less than one quarter of the typical wage of a UK employee. There is significant inequality within the profession, as indicated by very high Gini Coefficients. The top 10% of authors earn more than 50% of total income, while the bottom 50% earn less than 10% of total income.
And so, the Lifestyle misconception raises its ugly head.

The Lifestyle misconception is this: people base their expectations of how authors live and what their lifestyle is like on media coverage of the top 10% — or rather, the top 1%. And the lifestyle of the top 1% is indeed aspirational. J. K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett are responsible for something like 5-6% of all fiction sales in the UK; Stephenie Meyer is probably pocketing another couple of percent these days. The media spotlight focusses on the stars, leaving nothing but shadows for the 50% of writers who earn less than £4000 a year from what is essentially a hobby — albeit one that involves grinding work.

So what is the job like?

Putting words in a row is wearying work. When they're flowing fast, I can sometimes reach a dizzying peak output of 2000 words per hour for a couple of hours — not in fiction, but in a blog entry or a non-fiction essay. I've occasionally had death march sessions in which I pumped out as much as 10,000 words in a day. But such Stakhanovite output isn't sustainable; a 10,000 word day is usually followed by a three-day-weekend to recover from it. A more realistic target for a full-time professional writer is 500-1000 words of finished prose per workday, corresponding to about 1-2 hours of writing, 2-4 hours of polishing, and another couple of hours of thinking about what they want to say, and how to say it. Like anyone else, they need weekends and vacation weeks and time to do the housekeeping. 1000 words per day for a 250-day working year (50 weeks of 5 days a week) works out at 250,000 words per year — or two 320 page novels.

You might think that a job that requires 3 hours of work per day is easy. But in most intellectually demanding jobs, the worker isn't delivering head-down time for 40 hours a week: we work in bursts, and the rest of the time gets filled up with administrative junk and social fluff. I have correspondence to deal with with my agent and editors, marketing folks at my publishers, booksellers, and people who want to tell me about the typo they just discovered in a book that came out five years ago. I do around 25 magazine/website/newspaper interviews a year, and about an average of one public appearance per month — which may be anything from answering questions on stage for an hour to a gruelling three to five days on public duty as guest of honour at a big SF convention. On top of this you can add all the administrative tasks of running a small business — double-entry bookkeeping, tracking expenses and cash flow and receipts, chasing invoices (where appropriate) and paying tax.

There is a catch, though. This job takes place in what is basically my spare bedroom. I have office-mates, but they're not co-workers: at best they'll stand on the keyboard and meow at me when I need a screen break. Writing is an intensely solitary occupation — so much so that many authors give up after a while and go hunt for a part-time day job to ensure that they see other human beings once in a while.

In addition to being a wildly unstable, lonely occupation with an insane income spread, there are other drawbacks to being a writer. Many American writers are forced to rely on a day job, or a spouse with a day job, for health insurance: health insurance for the self-employed is prohibitively expensive, especially for the self-employed poor. Those who don't have a job that provides healthcare, or a partner with family benefits, are never more than one accident away from bankruptcy. As the median age for publishing a first novel is around 34 because it takes a lot of life experience before you know enough to write something worth publishing, most authors are in the age range 34-70 — old enough that they're likely to develop chronic health conditions or need expensive treatments. (To be fair, it's not just authors who get the short end of this particular shitty stick: I suspect the US health insurance industry is actively suppressive of entrepreneurial start-up ventures by older folks in general.)

So here's the truth about the writing lifestyle: it sucks. It is an unstable occupation for self-employed middle-aged entrepreneurs. Average age on entry is around 34, but you can't get health insurance (if you're American). You don't have to be a complete loner, but it helps to have a solitary streak (or a bad talking-to-cats habit). It also helps to be an inveterate optimist, because you'll probably need to supplement your income (about 70% of the mean for someone in a skilled trade, never mind a professional job) by taking on other work such as teaching, journalism, or consultancy. As a business, it's a dead-end: you can't generally expand by taking on employees, and the number of author start-ups where the founders have IPOd and cashed out can be counted on the fingers of a double-amputee's hands. And then, finally, when you go out in public and people ask you what you do for a living and you tell them, they look at you as if you've just sprouted a second head because they know that real authors are millionaires with country estates and private jets who work an hour a day, languidly dictating their next bestseller to their secretary, and who the hell is this poverty-line loner freak anyway?

No, it's not a fucking lifestyle — it's a job. And if you'll excuse me, I've got a book to go write ...

I got home yesterday after a 25 hour journey, door-to-door, and am now merely fuzzy-headed with jet lag. Talking to fellow-passengers on the short-haul from Paris, it sounded like everyone had a horror story of volcanic disruption to tell. Anyway, my plan for the next few days is to take things easy, catch up on the domestic stuff that has been waiting for me for the past month (have you any idea how much junk mail a British general election campaign can generate?), and get back to work when my head's clear again.

(Incidentally, there won't be a trip report like the one in the "Specials" to the right — at least, not for a while. Not because I'm not writing one, but because Hayakawa SF, Japan's largest written SF magazine, are buying it. It'll show up here eventually, when their readers have had their exclusive.)

Believe it or not, I'm not going to work on "Rule 34" today — or any other fiction. William Gibson wrote in "Pattern Recognition" that when we travel long-haul, our souls take hours to catch up with our bodies — and that's how I feel right now.

In other news, "The Fuller Memorandum" should be at the printer now. Barring production hiccups, this means it should be showing up in the warehouse in June, and available in bookshops for the July 6th launch (US hardcover). British readers can look forward to getting it earlier, and cheaper, in paperback on July 1st — a reversal of the usual "rip-off Britain" syndrome.

Normal blogging service will now be resumed ...

I've just checked in online for my flight home; barring last-minute delays and cancellations, I should be home on Monday after just shy of an entire month in Japan. I will admit to being a bit frazzled. The effect of that damn volcano has been to cause the worst delays to the civil aviation industry since 9/11 — arguably, the worst ever, in terms of cancelled flights. I count myself lucky to be going home only six days late: I know other folks who've been delayed for a fortnight or more.

I travel a lot, and I've written here before about stuff I've picked up to make travel easier. This time, there are different lessons. I haven't had the wheels fall off like this before — I am boringly risk-averse — but it's given me some food for thought.

UPDATED (22-November-2013)

A while back I did a series of postings on the topic of Common Misconceptions About Publishing.

Here they are:

  • The publishing industry, and how it's structured

  • How books are made

  • What authors sell to publishers

  • Territories, translations, and foreign rights

  • Why books are the length they are

  • "Why did you pick such an awful cover?"

  • Miscellanea

  • Lifestyle or Job

  • ebooks (circa 2010)

  • Understanting Amazon's ebook strategy (circa April 2012)

  • More on DRM and ebooks (circa May 2012)

  • Things publishers can't do (yet) (How supply chain contracts limit booksellers' operations)

  • Why I don't self-publish (Note: the title does not read, "why you should not self-publish")

  • Why Microsoft Word must die

  • Why I [still have to] use Microsoft Word (even though I hate it)

  • "Why can't I find audio editions of your books in the UK?"

  • I'm booked on an Air France flight departing Narita for Paris at 21:50 on Sunday night, six nights late. Hopefully Mount Doom that damned volcano will keep its opinions to itself and allow us (self plus spouse) to scuttle home; whereupon herself has approximately eight hours to get over her jetlag before she has to rush off to Amsterdam. For my part, I'm going to run the washing machine non-stop, remind the cats who feeds them, and sleep off the effects of too many time zone changes.

    I'd like to apologize for not blogging more about my experiences on this trip. From the day-long excursion to the volcanic hot springs at Owakudani (in a blizzard, inappropriately dressed, on a pirate ship) to a hot day's wandering around Odaiba (an artificial island in Tokyo bay, dominated by corporate showcases, geodesic domes, a monorail-like people mover, and a bizarre Italian-themed shopping mall), by way of the miniature robot stores and shops full of pregnant nun bondage anime porn in Akihabara (I'm not making that up), it's been ... strange. Unfortunately the room we're staying in is so tiny I'm not really up to using it as a workspace (I can bang both elbows on the walls simultaneously while typing), so any real write-up will have to wait until I get home.

    We have not gone shopping-mad on this trip (sterling is very weak against the yen). However, our luggage does contain a bottle of sake, a plastic cuttlefish, and a theremin.

    Still stranded in Tokyo, but we've got a hotel roof over our heads and, more importantly, a rescheduled departure time (six days late). And more to the point, Air France are re-opening some routes into Paris CDG (the hub we're due to fly through). There's no guarantee that our new flight will actually take off, and we may end up stuck in Paris for a while, or be forced to catch the train (a euphemism for a minor logistical nightmare if you're aiming for Edinburgh — three hours from Paris to London, then change stations, and the thick end of five more hours to get home), but at least we're not in limbo any more.

    And I'm pleased to announce that my novella "Palimpsest" and short story collection "Wireless" are both finalists in the Locus Reader Awards for 2010.

    EDIT: And because we're stuck in Tokyo, we'll be drinking in Popeye tonight from 7pm (directions in the earlier post, Beer, Tokyo).

    Regular readers will have noticed that I have a bit of a travel habit. And my wife and I are currently in Tokyo. Our primary excuse for coming here was an SF convention (I was the foreign guest of honour), but you don't fly from Scotland to Japan for a long weekend without taking some extra time to poke your nose around.

    Anyway, we were due to fly home tomorrow — Monday, on a long-haul from Narita to Paris Charles de Gaulle, then a connection back to Turnhouse (Edinburgh).

    However. Airliners fly along great circle paths — the shortest route between any two points on a sphere — and the great circle between Narita and Paris CDG flies over the northern coast of Russia and then down the Baltic. Which is right in the middle of the ash plume venting from That Damned Volcano, aka Eyjafjallajökull.

    And our flight home has just been cancelled (in the early hours of Sunday morning).

    We're not in any immediate jeopardy. We've got travel insurance, sufficient money, and enough medication for an extra fortnight. However Tokyo is the most expensive city on the planet, so I think I'm going to be a bit busy today negotiating an extension at our hotel and doing some hasty planning.

    The bad news is that the last time Eyjafjallajökull popped its top, in the 1820s, the initial eruption continued for six months. If that happens, we may be hitting the trans-Siberian express. Not to mention doing a whole lot less air travel this year ...


    Finally got through to Air France, after a couple of hours of war-dialing. I'm now awaiting the arrival of an e-ticket with us re-booked on basically the same flights, departing next Sunday (i.e. six days late). I am hopeful, if not optimistic ...

    I gather an erupting volcano in Iceland has closed all the airports in Scotland due to a volcanic ash plume that's drifting south-east. Hopefully it won't stop us flying home next week, but you never know; I might be stranded in Japan!

    In order to maintain the usual content flow when I'm short of time for essay-writing, I usually post a link salad; but for once I'd like to do something different. Mili Popova is an IT project manager with a background in economics; I ran across an interesting blog posting of hers on the subject of content and public goods, and while I'm not sure I agree completely with her conclusions, I think they're provocative and deserve wider exposure. So rather than simply posting a link I'd invite her to repost the whole thing here. So without further ado — see the blog entry below.

    I'm in Tokyo, and I intend to have a beer or two next Tuesday from 6:30pm at Popeye (Bakusyu Club Popeye, 2-18-7 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo-to Tokyo-shi, 130-0026). They've got 42 taps and a draft real ale, not to mention food.

    If you want to join me (and can be there), add a comment below so I can tell them how many folks to expect.

    For the past six years, whenever the Hugo award shortlists have been published, I've had a book on the shortlist for "best novel".

    (I'm told that's an all-time record for consecutive best novel nominations. None of them won; but who cares? A record is a record, and just being on that list is an honour.)

    Well, not this year. Book #5 of a series was always unlikely to be shortlisted for an award, and my other book of 2009 was a short story collection.

    However, I'm very pleased to say that my novella Palimpsest has made the shortlist for best novella, and Overtime has been shortlisted for best novelette! And you can read them via those links (in the case of Palimpsest for the duration of Hugo voting; Overtime is on permanently).

    Just a reminder that I'm doing vacation-like things in Tokyo this week and next, being a guest of honour at a Japanese SF convention the following weekend, and doing more vacation-y things the week after that. Hal Duncan and Elizabeth Bear have the mike and the soapbox; my presence here is going to be limited to short bulletins rather than long essays for the duration.

    Meanwhile, from elsewhere on the internet: an illustrated tutorial on the subject of cooking bacon with a machine gun.

    (When I get home I so need to do my photo-essay on duct-taping tofu to a cat ...)

    I'm still working on "Rule 34" (due from Ace in 2011), but as some of you probably noticed I've reached a stopping place in my Merchant Princes series (published by Tor) and need a break. More importantly, I've been ploughing a stony field for the past few years; writing the same stuff time and again is draining. So it should be no surprise to you to learn that I've been discussing possible new projects with my agent for the past year.

    There are other factors at work besides a lack of fresh ideas, of course. We've been taking a hard look at the market realities; things have been particularly grim in SF/F publishing ever since November 2008, and it has become clear that in light of a downward spiral of diminishing sales things can't go on as before. The poor market conditions (Tim Holman of Little, Brown says the British publishing industry as a whole shipped 1% fewer books in 2009) are resulting in downward pressure on new book advances: as an agent of my acquaintance put it, with respect to advances, "five grand is the new twenty grand". Despite my editor's kind offer to increase my advance by 50% in real terms if I'd accept payment in repossessed Hummer H2's, I am afraid that for me, the opportunity cost of producing science fiction has become too high relative to the untapped revenue potential inherent in other genres. So it's time to branch out.

    Late last year my agent and I conducted an exhaustive review of my skill-set and background, to the extent of commissioning a focus group to look into my work to date and suggest new directions. Readers commented favourably on the interpersonal romance subplots in the Merchant Princes series and the depiction of sexual relations in "Saturn's Children"; they also liked the paranormal elements in my Laundry novels, but expressed reservations about the tentacle count. A/B testing of a series of book proposals yielded some interesting insights into why people read books carrying the Charles Stross brand, and what could be done to improve their sell-through and market penetration. Finally, after a mammoth overnight brainstorming session, we put together a collection of new and extremely promising proposals for works that I feel are compatible with my interests and the reality of this age of changing market conditions we live in.

    My agent issued a proposal package and deadline for auction among the most likely-to-be-interested New York publishing houses. One thing led to another, by way of one of those whirlwind romances for which the publishing industry is famous, and we're now engaged: I'm pleased to announce my new five book deal, for a very strong six-digit sum, with one of the largest publishers in the United States!

    Harlequin Romance will publish my first paranormal romance, "Unicorn School™: The Sparkling", in Q1/2012. US:TS is the first book of the projected series, and introduces Avril Poisson, who moves with her family from Phoenix, Arizona, to Forks, Washington with her divorced father, and finds her life in danger when she falls in love with a Sparkly Unicorn™ called Bob. Stalked by and in fear of a mysterious horse-mutilator, Avril must practice her dressage skills with Bob and qualify her steed for a scholarship to the elite Unicorn School™, where he will be safe to grow (and sparkle) without fear of the vampires who infest the senior's common room. In the second book, "Unicorn School™: The Exsanguination" Bob and Avril must stalk a Vampire Unicorn™ who is draining her fellow pupils of the will to live back to the rocky outcrop where he lives. In book three, "Unicorn School™: The Deflowering", Bob and Avril confront their most ghastly foe yet, a moustache-twirling villain who is intent on seducing all the pupils (as we all know, unicorn/human relationships are only possible if the human party is a virgin) in order to sell their heart-broken steeds to evil French multinational meat conglomerate Hachette. In book four, "Unicorn School™: The Big Chill" the swindle that is global warming is exposed and, as glaciers pounce on the Louisiana Bayou, Avril and Bob are hunted by monstrous black-and-white swimming birds. And in book five, "Unicorn School™ Forever", our young lovers are going to get married — but not if the evil, bigoted anti-unicorn Sheriff Osama gets his anti-unicorn-marriage by-law passed first!

    Editorial director Connie Cozened said, "we're delighted to have Stross on board, bringing his inimitable style and fizzing dialogue to the fastest growing sector of the romance market! (If only from a very small base.) His Sparkly Romance Unicorns™ marketing concept is sure to be a massive summer hit with immense spin-off marketing potential, and we've already been in discussions with Archie McPhee about co-branding. Movie rights are still available, but hurry! Stocks won't last!"

    For further information relating to this press release, please contact Aprilsnar Maj-Kat, administrative assistant, Liza Dawson Associates.



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