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image (Picture proves cats like me back).

Something I noticed recently while wearing my (completely invisible but highly attractive) writing teacher chapeau is that the welter of SF subgenres and categories of fiction generally are terra incognita to a fair number of newer writers.

I’m okay with this. We begin as readers and viewers, after all. Many people coming into my UCLA courses are curious about speculative fiction. They aren't necessarily book-collecting, con-going, award-nominating fans. They've watched a fair chunk of genre TV and film offerings; they're up on the MCU, they can tell a spaceship from a unicorn and they even usually know which is the fantasy construct. They might have read a certain amount of fiction within their one or two favorite genres, or at least have read Harry Potter and his ilk to their kids.

A. M. Dellamonica

Hi, everyone! My name is Alyx and I'll be posting the occasional note here over the next few weeks, because Charlie was kind enough to hand me the mic. I thought I'd start with a long, musing whimsical thing about mincing subgenres and the nature of ecofantasy, because my upcoming book A Daughter of No Nation lies within that particular subgenre--when it's not passing for portal fantasy or a pirate story or crime fiction with magic.

Sadly, the opening of that essay is wayyyy too stuffy, at present, and needs to be beaten with a sack of oranges. Don't worry, I'll fix it before you see it. Anyway, I should introduce myself first, right?

So--official details: I'm in Toronto, I have gobs of stories out along with the four ecofantasy novels, the first two of which, Indigo Springs and Blue Magic, are chock fulla magically mutated animals, magical objects and queer folk. Seriously. I mention this last because a) I have the exceptional good fortune to be incredibly gay married to author Kelly Robson; b) my most recent book, Child of a Hidden Sea, was to my utter delight and astonishment nominated for a Lambda Award this year. The above-mentioned A Daughter of No Nation is its sequel. There will be a third; its current title is The Nature of a Pirate.

Or: Recent and Upcoming Debuts in Fantasy and Science Fiction... that just happen to be written by women.

Charlie invited me to come by and join in the posts helping those who may not already be in the know to find the wealth of writers who also happen to be female that they can't otherwise find when they are writing those excellent "where are all the women writers of fantasy and science fiction" posts.

I began to make a list of 'next-generation writers' who also happen to be women. (Since we don't write with our gender identities or genitalia, I figured it would be fine to not modify the word "writer," but for the search engines, I'll add it at in the end, so you know, they can find us. When they look.)

The problem seemed to be that there were so many of us who were otherwise hard to find! The entire list would crash the Internet out of pure hard-to-findness! And so Charlie set me a boundary, limiting me to 20, leaving off many excellent writers. I've thus kept this list focused on 2014 and 2015 English-language debut books in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and YA SFF. Many of these authors have new books coming out in 2015 and 2016 as well. I'll let the comments about those I've not put on this very short list stand as a reminder to you that we are NOT, in fact, hard to find.

  • Andrea Phillips - Revision (Fireside Fiction 2015) Science fiction
  • Zen Cho - Spirits Abroad (Fixi Novo, 2014) Linked short stories/Fantasy
  • Silvia Moreno Garcia - Signal to Noise (Solaris 2015), Fantasy/Slipstream
  • Ilana C. Myer - Last Song Before Night (Tor, 2015) Fantasy/Epic
  • Stephanie Feldman - Angel of Losses (Ecco, 2014) Historical Fantasy/Slipstream
  • Genevieve Cogman - The Invisible Library (Tor, UK) Fantasy/Alternate Worlds
  • Beth Cato - The Clockwork Dagger (Harper Voyager, 2014) Steampunk
  • Alyc Helms - The Dragon of Heaven (Angry Robot, 2015) Fantasy
  • Karina Sumner-Smith - Radiant (Talos, 2014) Fantasy
  • Stacey Lee - Under a Painted Sky (Putnam, 2015) Alt-Historical Western, fantasy
  • Sabaa Tahir - An Ember in the Ashes (Razorbill, 2015) YA Fantasy
  • Jacey Bedford - Empire of Dust - (Daw 2014) Fantasy
  • Susan Murray - The Waterborne Blade (Angry Robot 2015) Fantasy
  • Carrie Patel - The Buried Life (Angry Robot, 2015) Fantasy
  • Heather Rose Jones - Daughter of Mystery (Bella, 2014) Romance/Historical Fantasy/Queer
  • Nicola Yoon - Everything, Everything (Delacorte, 2015) YA Science Fiction
  • A.C. Wise - The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again (Lethe 2015) Linked short stories/Sci-fi/Queer
  • Monica Byrne - The Girl in the Road (Crown, 2014) Science Fiction
  • Camille Griep - Letters To Zell (47 North, 2015) Fantasy
  • me - Updraft (Tor, 2015) Fantasy

As I stipulated above, this list is defined purely by time, debut-status, and the number 20.

I'd love to add the writers who debuted in the years before us - including but not in any way limited to: N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Marjorie Liu, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Jodi Meadows, Genevieve Valentine, Justina Ireland, Jaime Lee Moyer, Stina Lecht, Jacqueline Koyanagi, V.E. Schwab, Mur Lafferty, Nene Ormes, Sarah McCarry, Leah Bobet, Natania Barron, Aliette de Bodard, Emma Newman, Alyx Dellamonica, Jaye Wells, Emily St. Jon Mandel, Kameron Hurley, Charlie Jane Anders...

AND the writers who came before that, including Nnedi Okorafor, Elizabeth Bear, Nisi Shawl, Kate Elliot, Kandace Jane Dorsey, Jo Walton, Martha Wells, Laura Anne Gilman, Amanda Downum, Gwenda Bond, Suzanne Collins, Nalo Hopkinson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Sarah Monette, Naomi Novik, Caitlín R. Keirnan, Rae Carson, Linda Nagata, Catherynne Valente, Kelly Link, J.K. Rowling,...

And those who came before that: Emma Bull, Judith Tarr, Elizabeth Lynn, Jo Clayton, Robin Hobb, Suzy McKee Charnas, Pamela Dean, Ellen Kushner, Brenda Cooper, Tanya Huff, Janet Morris, Robin McKinley, Michele Sagara, Tricia Sullivan, Delia Sherman, Sherwood Smith, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Karen J. Fowler, Cecelia Holland, Nicola Griffith, CS Friedman ...

And the Grands and Great Grands and so on, like Pat Cadigan, Joan D. Vinge, Margaret Atwood, Kate Willhelm, Jane Yolen, Connie Willis, Andre Norton, Nancy Kress, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Lois McMaster Bujold, Doris Pischeria, C. L. Moore, Carol Emshwiller, Leigh Brackett, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Anne McCaffrey, Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken, C. J. Cherryh, Andre Norton ... all the way to Mary Shelley and beyond. AND everyone here:, here:, and here:

AND the coming wave of 2016: here are just a few - Ada Palmer, Laura Elena Donnelly, Mishell Baker, Malka Older... And the editors. And the critics. And the publishers.

And and and... (honestly, I asked five friends to list their favorites and after fifteen minutes had to beg them to stop because my buffers overflowed.)

Oh my goodness, you would think it hard to find women writing fantasy and science fiction given those blog posts and articles.


My Dark Age adventure, Shieldwall: Barbarians! is Young Adult, meaning, in this case, Sharpe or Conan but without the shagging, and with slightly more moral compass - really you can read it as being "in the tradition of" Harold Lamb and the Pulpmeisters of Yore and ignore the YA tag. When I wrote it, I had in my head "Robert E Howard does Rosemary Sutcliff (but not that way (though they would have made a lovely couple))".

It's also an old-school young officer story, albeit with a barbarian prince as the protagonist, and it's set in the Dark Ages during Attila's invasion of Europe. 

All this seemed like a good idea at the time.

Charlie said I would talk about self publishing. He also mentioned something about "shameless plugging". So, let me also tell you about writing a metric tonne of franchise fiction, my really very rapid writing process, and why I self published my book Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. I promise it won't be all sales pitch, except for the very last paragraph.

This time last year, I was recovering from having written four short (40K words; about the length of an old 1970s Lin Carter paperback ) franchise tie-in novels at a rate of roughly one every four months. Since each novel had to fit the setting, one of those months went on research.

These days, franchise novels, that is novels "tying in" to an existing story world, typically belonging to a video game, aren't disposable trash (if they ever were).

They're part of both the franchise's brand and that of the author, which is another way of saying that reputations ride on their quality. Not just reputations; nobody sane becomes a writer or an editor unless they like getting books right - there's no point in being (comparatively) skint and if you're not going to have fun!

Many, many, good writers mix franchise with original fiction. Two examples you might have missed are: Paul S Kemp, Star Wars fablemeister who also writes the exquisite Egil & Nix books  (which I will get to in part 3 of my Defence posts); and Howard Andrew Jones who writes Pathfinder adventures, but is responsible for the amazing Desert of Souls, basically Arabian Nights fan fiction and a good example of non-western Fantasy.

There are good reasons for writing for hire.

Over on Black Gate Magazine, I've just reviewed some Osprey "Dark" and "Adventures" books - fictional military history texts from a publisher that usually deals in facts. Two are squarely Traditional Fantasy; one about the mythical wars of Atlantis, the other about Orc warfare , complete with all the tropes: goblins, dwarves, trolls, dark lords and minions.... it could almost be a guide to one aspect of the Oglaf mileu...

And did I mention Oglaf (really very NSFW)? That um... raunchy... webcomic is a romp through a Dungeons and Dragons-esqu world, and derives its humour not from sending up the genre, but from the situations it creates.

Then there's Dungeons and Dragons itself, and a zillion tabletop and screen games that scratch the same itch. Nobody goes, "OMG. 'Mage' Knight. How clichéd!" They're too busy playing. Nor, for that matter, did anybody stop to complain when Terry Pratchett pretty much segued from taking the piss out of what I've been calling Traditional Fantasy, to using it as his sandbox.

Because Traditional Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval Fantasy is a great sandbox. Let me put on my (very minor compared to our godlike host) writer hat... (Clunk! Yes, it is a helmet)... there. OK, here's how I see it...

Charlie blindsided me by promising I'd talk about German Longsword. That's like saying, "He'll talk about his Blues band." 

It's just too big a topic!

So let me turn the tables and tell you about how swords led to me meeting Charlie, and how both Charlie and swords led to me becoming a professional author. The story is not what you'd think.

Back when the world was young, a large Goth (long hair and black clothes, rather than long hair, pointy helmet and lamellar as per Shieldwall: Barbarians!) threw me through a pile of chairs.

As he helped me up, I realised he'd cured the nagging shoulder pain I'd been suffering.

That miracle cure was the least of the many good things that stemmed from that moment. (Though if we'd turned it into an alternative therapy, perhaps we'd both be rich! Stand here madam. Try to relax while Igor lovingly hurls you through our stack of handcrafted homeopathic crystal chairs arranged on a bed of natural herbs according to a traditional feng shui pattern...)

My name is M Harold Page and I recently sold a short story with a dragon in it.

As I wrote the story, I could hear the voices of snarky snobbery in the back of my head:

"Oh look, LOL, you could reduce all Fantasy maps to a blotchy version of Europe but swap in Orks for Mongols.... OMG another book about E'lves and D'warves... (chortle) Historical fiction for authors too lazy to do research."


"Sigh. Isn't it time to explore other cultures?"

Yes it's pretty easy to snark at -- call it - Traditional Fantasy, and also to give it a political kicking critique. It is, after all, a genre in which everything is possible, and yet where it usually delivers European-style secondary worlds and archetypes.

I think the snarks and critiques rather miss the point. However that's for a different blog post. Instead let's consider the short defence of Traditional Fantasy, which is the starkly simple...

Not too long ago, someone in the twittersphere asked, "Whatever happened to psi? It used to be all the rage in science fiction."

The answer, essentially, was that John Campbell died and nobody believes in that crap any more. And anyway, it's fantasy.

Now here's the thing. If you accept Clarke's Third Law, which boils down in the common wisdom to "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," you kind of have to ask, "Do we believe psi is crap because it really is crap, or do we just not have the technology to detect or manipulate it?"

There's a lot of talk about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing right now, and some of it gets a bit heated.

I posted some thoughts on this, to the extent that both traditional and self-publishing have strengths, and that as authors, we're all on the same side, over on my own blog. I'm going to leave the post there, so no one can mistakenly ascribe my words to Charlie.

And I'll be back tomorrow with a more substantial post.

Read: Publishing - We're All On the Same Side

Charlie is traveling for a couple of days so I'm dropping by for a quick post. Remember me from last April? Dracula-movie guy? Vaguely familiar?

Anyway, I wanted to kick around a few ideas about ebooks; authors (and some real people) have been talking this subject to death for years--decades, even--so what's new to say?

Well, my book is new. My latest novel came out yesterday and I've been surprised by the way sales are running on It's a huge difference from last year when the early ebook and pbook sales were pretty much neck and neck.

This year it's not even close. Early orders for the Kindle edition of Circle of Enemies have been much, much higher than the physical book. The ebook cracked's Contemporary Fantasy bestseller list while sales rank for the mass market paperback barely moved out of five figures. A number of readers also told me that they ordered digital versions of the book after being unable to find it in a brick-and-mortar store on release day.

I realize this isn't anything like a complete picture of sales trends, but it is interesting in the same way Netflix is moving away from mailing DVDs. is so well positioned to sell digital files that one glance at their list of Contemporary Fantasy bestsellers shows one unsurprising fact: It's not dominated by books put out by New York publishers.

As I write this, the top three books are in the "Vampire for Hire" series, which are self-published, as are seven of the top ten.'s digital customers appear to be moving toward self-published books and away from professionally-published ones.

What does that mean for the future? Well, we're no strangers to love. You know the rules and so do I. A full commitment's what I'm thinking of. You wouldn't get this from any other guy. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling. Gotta make you understand.

Never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry. Never gonna say goodbye. Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.

We've known each other for so long. Your heart's been aching but, you're too shy to say it...

Okay, yeah, that was a rickroll. Hopefully, you laughed, which is more than you would have gotten out of my predictions of the future. The truth is, I don't know if anyone is really capable of calling the score on this one. Yeah the "book stink" people (the folks who are always talking about the way books smell) are the minority most of us expected, and ebook sales are growing, but the picture is more complex than that. Ebooks seem to be hitting mass market originals (like my books) much harder than hardbacks and trade-sized paperbacks, but how much more of a bite can they take? What happened to windowing? If ebook readers buy even more self-published books, will be less of a problem for brick-and-mortar indie stores? And what about those readers who really make a book into a mega-hit, the casual, two-book-a-year, everyone-else-has-read-DaVinci-Code-so-I-should-too people?

It's fascinating (if slightly painful) and I'm curious to see if the market finds an equilibrium soon. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling.

ObPlug: Here's a couple of links for those curious about my books: New book, which Charlie has very kindly blurbed | Sample chapter | Entire series.

Thanks for reading.

In the comments to the post where Charlie introduced me, I asked if anyone had a topic they wanted me to blog about. Andrew Suffield said he would be interested in hearing how the guest-blogging gig affects sales of my books. I confessed to being somewhat interested myself and I thought I'd look at the numbers. shares Bookscan numbers with authors, so I can compare sales for the week ending 2/13 (the day Charlie wrote the introductory blog post) and the week ending 2/20, which is the last one they have data for. I can also tell you that the numbers for that last week show a jump of...

::cue dramatic music::

Forty books even--22 for Child of Fire, 18 for Game of Cages.

Not that Bookscan covers every sale. Venues it doesn't report: ebook sales, sales outside the U.S.A., stores that refuse to share numbers with Bookscan, and probably a bunch of others I don't know about. Estimates are that Bookscan reports anywhere from 50%-80% of actual sales and it's impossible to judge where my books fall in that range.

To muddy things further, some other things have popped up that would have driven sales, so it's possible that not all those forty sales might have come from here.

Anyway, the point I'm making is: that's the best number I have, but it's not that accurate and it's not terribly important to me. What is important is that I've enjoyed guest-blogging here. Thanks for having me.

I had planned a very different post for this spot but instead I'm putting it on hold and, knowing me, probably means I'll never get back to it. It was an expansion of my previous post about assuming people want to live inside the books they read, and it was supposed to cover everything from the discredited canard that romance readers are starved for love to the idea that Joe Abercrombie or George R.R. Martin's readers are nihilistic cynics with a taste for depravity--or that reading a book about a "chosen one" reveals a yearning for authoritarianism(!)

But I don't want to write about that. It's too contentious, too disjointed and, frankly, too close to the subject of my previous post. (If only I'd thought to label that other post "part 1".)

Instead I'm going to offer a short post with a video embedded. Here's the preamble: We've all noticed there has been an explosion in subgenres. It's not just science fiction, fantasy, and horror anymore. It's paranormal romance, new weird, mundane sf, urban fantasy, MilSF, space opera, fantasy of manners, psychological horror, and so on and on. Not all these labels are new (several are very much not new) but there are more than I ever remember. Our books are being marketed to us differently.

Why? I'm not a publishing insider, but I think I know where it came from. In the 1970's and early 1980's, food researcher Howard Moskowitz completely changed the way food was sold to the American people, and those changes spread out into the world and into other industries.

Here. Watch this short video. It's a TED Talk in which Malcolm Gladwell tells Moskowitz's story, it's under 18 minutes, and it may change the way you think about books, food, and happiness.

If you can't see the embed, here's a link to the TED Talk page itself.

This is why we have so many kinds of mustard and tomato sauce on our supermarket shelves, and I'm convinced this is also why book marketers (who after all are in the business of getting a book you will like in front of you) have continually been creating new subgenre categories.

Now, the industries are not completely the same. You can't create a novel in a laboratory kitchen, where you can vary the ingredients to find the ratio people like. Books are works of art. However, if the incentive is there to find a more precise label, they'll do it.

Another difference between books and food is that some of the new subgenre labels have come from the audience itself. They name for some new thing--too often by putting "-punk" at the end of a word--and that becomes the new flavor, the new genre.

Another important point from the video is that consumers do not always know what they want. This isn't exactly a revelation to readers, who are always discovering unexpected pleasures inside book jackets: Did I know I wanted to read a mash up of James Bond, Office Space, and HP Lovecraft? Hell no. But I did, very much so. I mention it because it's something that should be said often. Readers don't always know what they want. We should be trying new things constantly, just in case we come across our new favorite flavor, and good writers create the niche they will occupy.

Finally, I close out with this quote from Gladwell when he was talking about upscale and downscale condiments.

"Mustard does not exist in a heirarchy." Meaning, we all have variable tastes, and none is objectively superior to the others.

What do you think? Is it a revelation? Complete BS?

...this is that post about the future of web publishing that I promised Charlie I would write.

As many of you probably already know, I am a writer. I write science fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult, nonfiction (notably book reviews and criticism--which are actually two different things), short stories, novels, poetry--basically, anything that will sit still long enough for me to slap a keyboard on top of it.

As of the end of this month, I have published sixteen novels, a handful of novellas, and almost a hundred pieces of short fiction. It's been critically well received, garnered me some praise and a handful of awards, and has performed modestly well in terms of what the publishing industry refers to as "the numbers."

Like every other narrative-prose writer on the planet who does not have the covers pulled up over her head (and believe me, the temptation is enormous) I am trying to figure out how the heck to continue doing what I am good at--what I have spent twenty years learning how to do at a professional level--in the face of developing technology.

I do believe that books (both paper and electronic) are here to stay, for a long time to come. Paper books are a mature technology: they're a durable and inexpensive way in which to archive information. While modern books are not the thousand-year technology that a medieval or even Renaissance book was, they can still endure for many years undegraded. Ebooks, meanwhile, are tremendously portable, revisable, and information-dense in terms of bits per pound. They adapt admirably to multitasking--I often read on my laptop between IMs or emails, for example--and you can carry six hundred of them in your carryon as easily as one.

But ebooks are not optimized to the web, because the web can do all kinds of things that a print book cannot--and an ebook often can.

I'm currently engaged in a crowdfunded side project with a group of other SFF writers and visual artists (and a computer geek or two) that's attempting to explore some of the options for things a web-optimized written narrative can do. That narrative (what we're calling a "hyperfiction environment") is called Shadow Unit. While it exists in various places around the web (a wiki, some livejournals, some web pages linked to pieces of fiction), the launchpad is here.

We've been at it for three years now, and we've learned some very interesting things.

  • A hyperfiction can be nonlinear.

So that might seem self-evident, but it's one of the most interesting things for us as writers. While the main narrative of Shadow Unit (the "episodes," a serial comprised of short stories, novellas, and (so far) two short novels) is linear, it forms a kind of scaffolding on which other shorter stories are hung. Meanwhile, the characters who maintain blogs maintain them in real time, and they are interactive--as long as participants respect the fourth wall and their privileged information, and engage with the characters as if they were real people.

Which leads us to the next point:

  • A hyperfiction can be interactive

Self-evident, right? But tricky. The people playing along have to be willing to separate their in-character and out-of-character knowledge, just as they would in a roll-playing game. But if they are willing to do that, it allows ARG-like possibilities to emerge. There are several instances in Shadow Unit where the narrative (which sometimes happens in real time in the stories as well as the blogs) was significantly affected by things the fans did or information that they provided to the characters.

  • A hyperfiction can be multimedia.

Shadow Unit has not exploited this particular element particularly well. We've got some music, some web pages, some visual art (and we're working on more), but most of the people involved in the project are writers first, so we've not been as successful at broadening out into things like comics, video, and audio as we would have liked.

  • A hyperfiction can be confusing.

It's easy as heck to lose people in the corners. Hyperfiction by its nature is sprawling--it rewards curiosity, investigation, peering into corners. (Reading dozens of blog comment threads for scraps of narrative, for example, is much easier at the beginning of a five-year narrative run than the end.)

It will help, in the future, to develop protocols for mapping hyperfictions (a sort of table of contents, perhaps, graphically represented in the form of a web? Shadow Unit has done this with a "suggested reading order" page on the wiki, but experience has revealed this to be helpful but not entirely adequate.).

On the other hand, some of the fun is the discovery, and the fan community delights in sharing their discoveries with each other, so we intentionally hide stuff in inobvious places. There's a balance to be struck between the fans who adore logic puzzles and the ones who just want to read a damned story, and accommodation must be made for both.

We do this with a BBS where (a) can show off their finds to (b).

  • Fan engagement is key.

We have discovered that the more we gives the fans the keys to the enterprise, the more they enjoy it. There's a wiki, a BBS, interactive blogs--and a thriving and integrated fan community. We've creative-commonsed the whole endeavor, and fans have put together Kindle versions and programmed Shadow Unit Google widgets that sound the alert when new content appears.

  • Keep the content coming.

Something new every week is ideal. Two or three times a week would be better, but we are mortal and all have other work.

Also, keep clever with the content. We've run contests (an Easter-egg hunt, a vidding contest), put up websites, mailed out boxes of goodies "from the characters" to their internet friends, run episodes in real-time day by day with blog posts that reflected the narrative as it happened, and so on.

And there's room for playfulness. One of the characters wrote a short story about his alternate life as a Texas sheriff and posted it to his livejournal for "Down The Rabbit Hole" day, as an example.

This is part of what makes hyperfiction unique and wonderful--along with the nonlinearity and interactivity. It also keeps the creators scrambling to come up with ever niftier stuff.

  • Making it pay for itself?

We're donation-funded. (We decided early on not to sell advertising, but that may someday change.)

So far, we're making beer money, and the site is paying for itself, but not for our time. First season was better than second, but then, the bottom fell out of the world economy in our second year, so it's nonconclusive--and we just started our third year, which so far seems to be more on the level of the first.

Merchandise has largely been break-even so far, though we are planning dead-tree versions of the primary narrative arcs, and those should be out this year. We'll see if anybody wants them.

So we haven't cracked the number-one problem of making a living telling stories in the information era, but this was an experiment, and we're still playing with variables.

  • Have a plan.

Since we're keeping an enormous number of balls in the air, it's essential that the team have a plan, that somebody or at most two somebodies be in charge of keeping track of how the narrative is adhering to that plan, and wow, is shared-calendar software a godsend.

Also, everybody has to be prepared to work together to cover crises and pitch in when something breaks.

  • A hyperfection presents the opportunity for extraordinary richness.

It's astounding how real this world has become to me, and to others. Because I am not the only one writing the characters, because they have lives outside the story arc (they live in and around Washington, DC, and lately have been blogging up the storm of the century) they feel like friends to me rather than people I made up. I hear similar things from the fans--that it's a unique experience to be able to drop a fictional character an email and get a response, or to get a package from one in the snail mail.

That's the baseline so far: we have learned that this stuff is really cool. And that there's tons of unexplored potential for similar narratives out there.

Sometimes I feel that, to what hyperfiction will eventually become, Shadow Unit is the equivalent of very early television--shot like a stage play, not yet quite exploiting its medium, balancing between fish and fowl.

Which is one of the reasons, I suppose, that our mascot is the platypus. Because what we've got here is weird and curious and hard to classify, but hey, somehow it works, and I, at least, am finding it utterly fascinating to spend time working on.

(Note: In the following rant, I'm sticking to American currency and prices because (a) they're relatively familiar to non-Americans, and (b) they're where I've got the hardest data. Not to mention (c) being where the market I'm talking about is — or isn't.)

I've been ruminating for a whole long time now about the dog that didn't bark in the nighttime world of publishing — the coming ebook revolution, which has been coming now for something like 20 years and counting without much sign of actually arriving.

In point of fact, ebook sales figures are dismal. At best, they tend towards 20% of hardcover sales by volume — and that's for ebooks that are available in open formats that are not tied to a particular hardware platform, and that are not crippled by DRM (digital rights management) encryption schemes that prevent users from reading them on more than one machine. DRM-infested ebooks sell an order of magnitude fewer copies, in many cases not even covering the cost of taking the existing typeset masters and saving them in an ebook format.

The performance of the ebook market is in fact piss-poor. It can be explained in part by readers' natural aversion to DRM (if you change mobile phone or laptop, why should your entire library evaporate?), but also in part by publishers' idiotic aversion to the idea of trusting readers.

When you look at the "pirate" ebook field, things are a lot livelier. There are any number of locations on the internet where you can grab hundreds or thousands of novels, for free! — albeit in violation of the authors' copyright. These books are either produced by scanning a paper copy and feeding it through OCR (optical character recognition) software, or by cracking the DRM on an encrypted ebook. Lots of people download books off the net, but one thing even the proponents of ebook DRM agree is that it doesn't seem to have had any economic impact on the sales of dead tree editions. In fact, there's a lot of evidence from research into music file sharing that people who use "pirate" ebooks actually buy more of the real thing. (Eric Flint volunteered this source: The Effect of File-Sharing on Record Sales: An Empirical Analysis, by Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strump, published in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of Political Economy.)

So what's going on?

As Cory Doctorow has observed, the common complaint that readers don't like staring at a screen for hours on end doesn't hold water; we actually spend a lot of our time staring at computer screens, PDAs, and tiny little displays on mobile phones.

Let me stick my neck out here, with an opinion that goes against the conventional wisdom in publishing circles.

In the pre-internet dark age, there was a subculture of folks who would get their hands on books and pass them around and encourage people to read them for free, rather than buying their own copies. Much like today's ebook pirates, in terms of the what they did (with one or two minor differences). There was a closely-related subculture who would actually sell copies of books without paying the authors a penny in royalties, too.

We have a technical term for such people: we call them "librarians" and "second-hand bookstore owners".

Library lending was tolerated by authors and publishers because it was widely accepted that in the long run, people who borrowed our books from libraries were more likely to read them than people who had no access whatsoever. And having read, they were more likely to become regular readers and to eventually buy — if not the books they'd already read, then the next one on. Library users were often poor, or casual readers, or young. I remember latching on to the local public library when I was five or six years old. I read my way through most of Andre Norton's childrens range before I was eight, and I certainly didn't pay for them. I couldn't pay for them; I didn't have enough pocket money to make a habit of buying books at anything approaching the rate I could read them until I was in my teens, and even then, I was mostly limited to second-hand paperbacks.

So, in the dark pre-digital age of the 1970s, I was an avid supporter of that period's equivalent of your demonic ebook pirates. And y'know what? I defy anyone to tell me I was wrong to do so. Or even to assert that it hasn't, overall, been a good thing for the SF field, because it got me into the habit of reading, and these days, with a disposable income, my biggest problem is finding bookcases to stick all the new hardbacks I've bought over the years since my teens.

Now, let's talk about ebooks.

I'm not going to flog the already-dead DRM horse; I've been there before and both sides of the debate are fairly well covered.

What I'd like to point out is that the economics of the commercial ebook market are sick.

Right now, many of the largest publishers charge a cover price for ebooks that is 80% to 100% of the hardcover price. Virtually nobody except Baen (and now a couple of other publishers who've dipped a toe in the Webscription market, and some self-publishers) is even thinking about trying to establish what an ebook is really worth in the market.

We know roughly what it costs to produce a book, and we can point to the areas where ebooks are cheaper than paper editions (no dead trees and ink, for one thing; no warehousing or distribution for another) and more expensive (downloads, website maintenance). But we don't really know what an ebook is worth to the readers, because the market that could give us meaningful feedback on pricing has been strangled in the crib.

My take on ebooks is that they are — and should be seen as — the cheapest form of disposable literature. They're not cultural artefacts (pace Cory Doctorow); you don't buy them in signed, slipcased, limited editions. They're like stripped mass market paperbacks without even the value-added of doubling as wood pulp wall insulation once you've read them.

Now, there exists within writing and publishing circles a neurotic fear that sooner or later (probably In Five Years' Time — that seems to be the normal window) a cheap digital paper based ebook reader will come along, that makes the experience of reading text on a screen no different from the experience of reading a lump of dead tree stitched inside a piece of pigskin. And, as the horror story has it, we will be In Big Trouble, because the pre-existing availability of pirate ebooks will lead to enormous proliferation and a total crash in the value of books. Some pretty smart people believe this story, and the result has been to give it more credibility than it actually deserves. And it leads them to draw what I believe to be faulty conclusions; if you want an example, look no further than this column by Jerry Pournelle. (NB: I don't want to single Jerry out for specific opprobium, and I think it's only fair to note that what he's really talking about is the DMCA. However, I think this article typifies the received wisdom among many writers on the subject of ebooks, piracy, and DRM, which is why I dragged it in here.)

It's the received, prevalent wisdom — and it's a load of rubbish.

First of all, if overlooks the point that publishers don't manufacture ebook readers; the consumer electronics industry does. And the consumer electronics industry will not cut off its own nose to spite its face by producing an ebook reader for $20, if it can produce one with extra bells and whistles that sells for $350. We've had the tech for a $20 (or $50, anyway) ebook reader for a decade; it would resemble a grey-scale palm pilot, albeit without even the PDA functionality. But the parts are dirt cheap these days! If a manufacturer thought they could sell the beast, they'd be churning them out by the bucketload — and it's perfectly possible to read ebooks on a 160x160 green screen. I used to do it all the time in the mid to late 1990s. The reason nobody makes such a beast is because it's simply not profitable to do so. Explaining why this is so ought to lead into a long essay on the cost structure of consumer electronics, but basically, unless the Chinese government decides to subsidize its indigenous manufacturers in order to deliberately destroy the western publishing industry, it ain't gonna happen.

Secondly, and more devastatingly for the sky-is-falling promoters of the "pirate ebooks will doom the publishing industry" theory, until ebook readers cost no more than a hardback, 90% of readers will ignore them. And that's regular readers, not the folks who own four books (and one of them is a Bible). Expecting people to cough up $200 for a reader so that they can then pay $25 for new novels to read on it — as opposed to buying the novels for $25 (less discount) in hardcover and having the cultural artefact — is, well, it's just bogus.

We might see such a device (at $200) take off in the book club market. Imagine you join the e-book club. Your first sign-up gets you an ebook reader loaded with five titles for $20. Then you have to buy a book a month for the next year before you can leave, and you're paying $20 a pop. After a year you've got 17 novels and an ebook reader, and you're out $240 for a $200 reader. Most abook-clubbable people will stay in (they're set up for the club and they've already got a small bookshelf on their reader) and over the next year the club can make the profits to pay for that first year's loss-leader.

But 80% of readers don't do book clubs. I've seen my book club sales, and they're piss-poor (except in France, which is different).

Basically, the universal ebook reader is a non-starter — at least for this generation — for the same reason that it's near-as-dammit impossible to sell hardcover midlist novels for more than US $24; consumers don't like being milked.

Now, having demolished the myth of the $5 ebook reader being just around the corner, the second problem the publishing industry has with ebooks is their misapprehension of exactly what the "pirate" ebook field is costing them. Some otherwise fairly intelligent folks in the SFWAs anti-piracy committee think they're potentially costing up to 30% of their revenue stream. I'd like to call bullshit on that.

There's a figure I've heard quoted (unfortunately I don't know the source so I can't cite you chapter and verse on it) to the effect that the typical dead-tree book has, over its life cycle, an average of four readers. Moreover, sell-through in paper is around 50-60%; that is, for every book sold to a customer, 0.8 to 1.0 other books end up being returned or pulped. So the real figure is more like ten readers per book actually printed by the publisher.

Think about that. Today, publishers try like crazy to tie ebooks to a single reader via DRM, in their misplaced zeal to reduce profit leakage; but for the economic hit from piracy to equal the economic hit from libraries and second-hand bookstores and friends lending friends books, the unlicensed distribution channels would have to be shifting nine ebooks for every one that is sold commercially.

And you know what? I don't think most of the ebook sharing subculture is even about reading the books in the first place — it's about collecting, and participating in a gift sub-culture where your kudos is governed by how much stuff you can give away. Yes, this probably sounds alien to a lot of you. All I can say is, you haven't spent enough time monitoring alt.binaries.e-books.flood and the other pirate ebook distribution channels. There are folks there who, of a weekend, post more books than I could read in a lifetimes. Random, eclectic, nonsensical collections of books, some of which are hopelessly corrupted and most of which are poorly proof-read. These folks are not reading what they put out. They're not putting it out with helping other people read the stuff as a primary goal, either. There's another dynamic at work, and no scheme to stop or reduce ebook piracy stands a chance of working until we understand why it's happening.

Interestingly, Baen's webscription titles are under-represented on the ebook warez newsgroups. I don't think this is an accident. Books that come up most often are either scanned and OCRd paper copies, or cracks of DRM-locked ebooks. If you look at the posters' activities in terms of proving status within a gift economy this makes sense; OCRing a book or cracking DRM takes time and effort, and is a demonstration of putting effort into something — it's a high value activity. Whereas posting something you grabbed off Baen's library of for-free books, or paid $5 for is just stupid — it's like turning up to a a wine and cheese evening your friends are running on a "bring a bottle" basis with a bottle of Buckfast or Mad Dog 20/20. It's cheesy, tasteless, and looks cheap, and that's how the ebook pirate elite will view you.

So, it's time for me to advance some tentative conclusions about why the commercial ebook market is broken:

  • Most current ebooks are grossly overpriced relative to their utility to the reader. eBooks are actually disposable literature, like mass-market paperbacks only more so.
  • We are not going to see cheap ebook readers any time soon because publishers need them, but consumer electronics manufacturers don't.
  • Readers won't buy expensive ebook readers because they're reluctant to pay over $25 for a novel at the best of times. Only bundling a metric shitload of high-value content with a reader will make it attractive.
  • Insofar as there are no lending libraries or second-hand bookstores for ebooks, ebook piracy is the equivalent niche to those traditionally tolerated outlets.
  • Historically, only 25% of readers paid into the authors revenue stream. A 75% piracy rate may therefore be seen as a continuation of business as usual.
  • The pirates are not motivated by profit but by a poorly-understood social phenomenon connected to status in a gift-giving forum.
  • We do not know what ebooks are worth to readers, but the relative lack of Baen product in the usual places suggests that if unencrypted ebooks are readily available at an affordable price (i.e. less than an MMPB) then demand for the pirate edition will be reduced.
  • Which leads to the next question:what is to be done?

    (To be continued, when I get around to it ...)



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