Greetings From Iowa City

It’s very pretty here today.

Reminder if you’re in town that I’ll be doing my event at 4pm at the former “Wedge” space at 136 S. Dubuque (I wrote 135 yesterday – my bad). See you there!

If you’re not in town, I hope you’re having a good day anyway, and, if you are on the east coast, that you haven’t been swept away by rain.

View From a Hotel Window: Iowa City + New Books and ARCs, 10/2/15

First, the view out my hotel window!

Well, it’s not a parking lot. The room itself is perfectly nice, however, so. For those of you in or near Iowa City, my events are tomorrow: I have a reading/Q&A at 4pm at 135 South Dubuque St (the former Wedge space, I am told) and I will have a signing there immediately thereafter). Come on down!

And now, new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound this week. Obviously I took the picture before I left. Here’s what we have:

What looks good to you? Tell me in the comments!

I Am On My Way to Iowa City

Because all the cool kids will be at the Iowa City Book Festival. And I’m a cool kid!


(That last all caps sentence was a reference to a recent spasm in science fiction about “cool kids,” which was very silly because people out of high school should not be using high school as a social metaphor on a regular basis, and it gets more embarrassing to use the older you get. A pro tip there.)

(Also, topic for discussion, speaking of high school and cool kids: You know you’re an adult when you watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and think to yourself, “You know what? Ferris really is kind of a prick, isn’t he?” Debate in the comments.)

Anyway, Iowa City! I’ll be there soon. If you’re there, I’ll see you there! If you’re not there, well, we’ll have to try to have fun without you. It will be difficult! But we’ll try.

In Which I Rank the Months, Because Why Not

In order from best to worst:

1. October: Halloween. Cool weather. Foliage.

2. May: My birthday. Spring in full bloom. Memorial Day starts summer.

3. December: Come on, it’s the holidays.

4. September: Start of the school year (traditional). Football, if you care.

5. June: Summer’s nice month.

6. November: The middle child of the 4th quarter. Thanksgiving in the US.

7. April: Usually Easter. Usually somewhat green.

8. January: New year, but first half feels like December’s hangover.

9. February: Screw you, Valentine’s Day, don’t tell me how to feel.

10. July: July 4th plus two weeks of errant fireworks.

11. August: Summer’s asshole month.

12. March: Drunks and mud.

Your rankings belong in the comments.

The Big Idea: David J. Peterson

Here’s a word for you: “Conlanger.” Do you know what one is? And what one does? And how they relate to some of your favorite fantasy and science fiction movies in the last several years? David J. Peterson, author of The Art of Language Invention, will catch you up on all the details — and they’re very cool details, to be sure.


I am a conlanger.

If this were the year 2000, one in every ten thousand or so people would know what that meant. Now in 2015, I’d say one in every four or so people have an idea what that means. That’s huge. And for those of us that are conlangers (or language creators, for the other three quarters), the notion that language creation is now a publicly discussed, if not understood, phenomenon is still surreal.

After all, it wasn’t too long ago that conlanging as an activity was still quite obscure. The rise in notoriety of language creation wasn’t gradual, but exponential. Starting with James Cameron’s Avatar at the end of 2009, and followed closely by Game of Thrones in 2011, conlanging’s star has risen more dramatically in the past five years than it had in the previous 900.

The meteoric rise of conlanging coupled with a sea change in how we interact with the internet (younger folks especially) has left us with a strange reality. Scores of new would-be conlangers are coming to the craft specifically because of examples they’ve encountered in film and television in the past five years. Further, because of how they use the internet (Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit—essentially media sharing and microblogging platforms), they’re finding each other, and finding discussions of well-known conlangs, but aren’t finding the older crowd—the original conlanging community.

The reason is simple enough. The older conlanging groups are housed on e-mail–based listservs or phpBB bulletin boards—platforms that were hugely popular in the 90s and early 00s, but which don’t seem to enjoy a lot of use anymore. Additionally, most conlangs by older conlangers are presented on personal websites—often with hand-coded HTML and CSS—which are all but invisible now that webrings and link lists are passé.

Now don’t think for a moment I’m bemoaning the current state of the internet—far from it! Sharing/resharing has changed the world, and changed it for the better. Reddit has really filled the hole that the death of newspapers had left in my morning routine.

The problem lies not with new conlangers, but with the old guard—those that aren’t transitioning to the new internet. Unfortunately, it’s the new conlangers who are suffering for it.

Going back to the year 2000, I was a brand new conlanger who didn’t know anything about the craft or anyone else who created languages. After a year of fumbling in the dark with my first language I found the original conlanging community, and that’s where I learned everything I know today. That’s basically what everyone did back then: Found the community, listened in, shared, received critiques, and improved.

The best part was, as a community, we all got a lot better at creating languages. Whether it was a language for a fantasy novel one was working on, or a “what if” project to test the limits of our linguistic capacity, the projects that came out of that period were stellar. And it makes me sad to think that while conlanging is currently at its zenith, much of this work is more obscure than ever.

With The Art of Language Invention, my purpose was twofold. The first was to give the uninitiated a window into the world of conlanging: to see what it’s all about, to see the work that goes into creating a language, and, maybe, to see if it’s for them. The second, though, was to build a bridge between the original conlanging community and the conlangers to come.

Obviously, the most visible part of this bridge-building is sharing the conlanging strategies, tips, and tricks I’ve learned over the years and included in the book. These, of course, are not my own invention: they come from the education I gained as a member of the early conlang community. Beyond that, though, I wanted to advertise the fact that other conlangers have done great work, and they have a lot to share—and a lot to teach.

The reason this is so important to me is that I hold no illusions about the position I occupy in the world of conlanging and how I got there. I was fortunate to be born when I was born, and fortunate that, after creating my first language, I found the early conlang community. After putting in ten years learning how to create languages, I was fortunate to hear about the competition to create the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones (not all conlangers did), so when I got my shot, I worked my choyo off to get the job—not just because I wanted it (I did), but to honor those that helped to inform my understanding of the craft.

Because outside the accidents of history, I am one of the old conlangers. You can still see my old website with hand-coded HTML and CSS here (and, yes, I like those colors, and I’m not changing them!). Some of my old languages were just okay; some were pretty good. No one would have heard of them, though, just as few have heard of Kash, created by Roger Mills, who died this past September. He put a lot of work and a lot of love into that language, and it’s quite impressive (I love Kash’s reciprocative reduplication pattern). Work like this is worthy of study and admiration and deserves to be remembered.

So, since I got the opportunity to write a book on language creation—to write about the art that has been my passion for over a decade and is now my livelihood—it was my big idea to let everyone know exactly what’s behind some of the conlangs you hear and see on the big and small screen, and to acknowledge and celebrate the conlangers who came before me and helped me to become who I am today.


The Art of Language Invention: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

What My Day Was Like

Look at contract.

Email agent about contract.

Look at another contract.

Let electrician in to do work in the basement.

Look at questionnaire accompanying second contract.

Talk to agent on the phone about contract.

Look at email about another thing that will require a contract.

Email other agent about that thing.

Let electrician out because he’s done with his work in the basement.

Look at thing that requires scheduling.

See possible conflict with other thing.

Email overseas editor about thing that requires scheduling.




Schedule this.

Schedule that.

Add a thing to an already-existing schedule.

Think about scheduling some October Big Idea pieces that haven’t already been scheduled because tomorrow is October.

Realize it’s 4:30.

Remember you thought about doing some writing today.

That was my day.

I Had Things I Wanted To Write Here But Got Swamped by Actual Work, So While I Catch Up, Enjoy This Very Important Cover Version of a Very Important 90s Song

You’re gonna love it. 

See, told you.

Who is this guy? He’s this guy.

The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer

Poets: Can they change the world? And what kind of world would it be if they could? Ilana C. Myer poses this question in her Big Idea, for her novel Last Song Before Night.


It began in a college class—long enough ago. The topic was poets in Celtic myth. The text was “Guaire’s Greedy Guests,” the tale of a man who suffers from guests for whom the term “imposition” is an understatement. The host must accede his guests’ every demand, is too scared to do otherwise, for one reason: they are poets. Poetry, in those myths, had power. With words they might bring any disaster on him they choose.

The idea of a terrifying poet is incredible to anyone who has lived in our world for five minutes. Even our Poet Laureate’s greatest power is, likely, to acquire a prestige position at a university. Yet here in Celtic myth was a different concept of the poet altogether. Kings sought the blessing of poets, feared them. A life might be transformed, or destroyed, through song.

There in that class was planted the seed of Last Song Before Night. I asked myself: What would it be like to live in a society where poets were powerful? Where they posed a threat even to the king?

Immediately I thought, first of all, as personalities they would be less like poets of our day and more like rock stars. The combination of charisma, skill, and societal clout would make someone larger than life. But they’d have the pitfalls of rock stars, too—the ego traps and rivalries that characterize the arts as a whole, especially near the top. And with such characters as protagonists, the conflicts must center first and foremost around questions of art: What it means, what it makes of us, how it connects us to the world. How through art we can craft illusions to hide from the truth of ourselves, or else discover it—at times in ways acutely painful.

When Last Song opens, poets are enjoying fame and wealth although their enchantments are long gone. They reap the rewards of being rock stars without the responsibilities of true power. Ultimately the protagonists will be forced to recover their lost enchantments in order to avert cataclysm—and this can only be done at great cost.

While Celtic myth provided inspiration, I was equally intrigued by the troubadours of twelfth-century Provence, with their intricate codes of honor and problematic ideation of women. That I ended up writing the book while living in Jerusalem, a city of near-eternal summer and Middle Eastern culture, was an influence that crept in through the back door.

Beyond the influences of myth, place, and history, what shaped this story was an intense drive to create something even when there didn’t seem to be a point—everyone knows it’s hard as hell to get published. Dedicating years and making significant life choices around the completion of this book always seemed, in light of reality, a form of madness. Inevitably, the questions I was forced to ask myself over the years—why I was doing this, what art means to me—became an undercurrent in the writing.

I had hoped, starting out fresh out of college, that through the process I’d discover concrete  answers. I can say honestly that this didn’t happen, but what opened up to me instead was infinitely more valuable in the end. I am excited to share it with you.


Last Song Before Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Weekend Clouds

And it was a good weekend for them. I was concerned that the clouds would prevent us from seeing the lunar eclipse last night, but as it turned out there was a gap in the cloud cover just as the moon was sliding into the shadow of the Earth. So we got to see it in all of its blood moon glory. I didn’t take pictures of that; I assumed everyone else would. I was not disappointed in that expectation.

I spent the weekend largely away from the Internets because I was working on a project and I didn’t want to be distracted. The project was a screenplay, specifically an adaptation of one of my shorter works. I did it primarily for my own benefit; I don’t expect you’ll see this screenplay out in the world, although you never know. Stranger things have happened. In any event I enjoyed myself and learned a few things, too. It’s nice when that happens.

How was your weekend?

Away For the Weekend

Because I’m working on a personal secret project:


No, not just sleep, actually. I do love sleep. But this is something else.

See you all on Monday.

New Books and ARCs, 9/25/15

Last weekend of September starting soon, and to see off the month, here’s this lovely stack of new books and ARCs for your delight. What looks good to you? Tell me in the comments!

John Boehner’s Stepping Down

And honestly, can you blame him? He’s had to ride herd on an increasingly dysfunctional GOP Caucus in the House for four years now, a group that sees actually shutting down the government to get its way as just another political tactic. That’s got to have taken its toll on the man, who I believe at his heart does see government needing to be useful, even if he and I have rather different ideas about what “useful” means in this case. It can’t be fun being Speaker of the House these days. There’s less chaos in a kindergarten, and at least when you’re in charge of a kindergarten, when everyone’s cranky, you can make them take a nap.

So now he’s done, or will be soon — he’s resigning at the end of October as I understand it. I’ve seen people wondering if the Pope, who spoke to Congress yesterday and whose presence in Congress Boehner has apparently worked toward for years (ironic he got his wish with this particular pope, but even so), might have been an influence on what seems like a sudden decision to resign. I don’t suspect directly, no. I don’t think the Bishop of Rome pulled him aside and said, “dude, what are you doing? Get out while you can,” but I think Boehner may  have felt that this particular event was a highlight of his tenure and maybe it was time to go out on a high note, and while he was still young enough (he’s 65) to do something else with his life. I think maybe it crystallized his thinking, as in, why not leave now? It’s a valid question.

I don’t think Boehner’s departure from the Speaker position is going to do the House GOP or the GOP in general any good. I suspect whoever replaces him will be to Boehner’s right and more willing to use the House as a bludgeoning tool to get their way, which will be an interesting dynamic coming into an election year, and I use “interesting” in all its connotations. Right now the House GOP is on the verge of shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood; even if they dodge this particular bullet it will likely be by a stop gap measure that means there will likely be another possible government shutdown a few months down the line. The optics of shutting down the government are never good, and it’s better-than-even odds that the next House speaker won’t have the wit to recognize this. We’ll see.

I live in Boehner’s district and I’ll be very interested to see who replaces him, both short- and long-term. Boehner’s been the representative here since 1991 and he’s never gotten less than 61% of the vote (his first election), and there hasn’t been a Democrat in the OH-8 seat since the Depression. This seat is so safe the Democrats didn’t even run someone against him in 2012. Everyone including me assumed that he’d be in that seat until he was rolled out on a gurney. That being the case, I don’t think anyone’s been lurking in the wings. I mean, I’m sure someone is, in some way; I just don’t have the slightest idea who it might be. In one sense it doesn’t matter, since the GOP could run a dead raccoon in this district and it would still get 60% of the vote. But in another sense, well. Boehner was actually a good fit for OH-8, politically: rock-ribbed Republican rather than unhinged reactionary. I’m mildly worried whoever comes in will be more of the latter than the former.

People have jokingly suggested that now would be a fine time for me to enter public service; my response is thanks, no. I have no ambition to be a US Representative, for many reasons, among them that I would have less time for writing and also because while franking privileges are a compelling perk, overall the pay/perks package is not as good as what I get now. Also, the idea that what I would actually be doing with most of my time is begging for money from people who want me to vote their way, i.e., institutionalized bribe-seeking, depresses the shit out of me. I’m not a fan of the job as it functions today, basically; it seems very far away from what it’s supposed to be, which would be me acting as an actual representative of the people who live in the district.

But even if I were interested in the job, I’m unelectable in OH-8. I’m not a Democrat, so I don’t have that strike against me (I’m registered independent), but I am generally what passes for liberal in the United States. OH-8 is religious and conservative; an agnostic pro-choice dude who believes the rich aren’t being taxed enough is gonna be a hard sell. I’m not going to bother to make it. I have other things to do, and I like those other things I have to do. So, sorry, folks: Not running. Try to contain your disappointment.

As for Boehner, I hope that he does something other than become just another lobbyist. He and I don’t have a lot in common politically, but he generally seems to be a decent human being who means well and tried to do what he saw as best for his district, his nation and Congress. He’s still young enough to do something more with that impulse. I’d like to see him to do that.

The Big Idea: Tade Thompson

For today’s Big Idea, Tade Thompson takes the immigrant experience, plus the problems that crop up when you tell a little lie at the wrong time, and puts them together for his novel Making Wolf. What do we find out? It’s here, below.


Here’s the thing: if you’ve ever moved from one country to another, going back is always a fraught experience. Migration must be worth it, so when returning to the home country you must show off success either in terms of money or status, preferably both.

So what happens if you’re a lowly store detective, but you have to go home for a funeral? You lie. It’s harmless, right? Usually. But in my story the protagonist Weston pretends to be a homicide detective without attending to his audience. He’s kidnapped by a rebel faction and asked to solve a cold-case, a politically radioactive murder that nobody really wants solved unless the finger points at someone else.

What follows is a weird, violent and frightening journey through a country that has become unfamiliar and alien. The amateur sleuth is a time-honoured tradition in crime fiction, but it is usually voluntary. Weston has to solve a murder to keep himself alive. Then there’s Church, his guide in this journey, a personification of the chaos, who might just be responsible for executing Weston should he fail.

I had to create an alternative time line and an imaginary country because Making Wolf is based on aspects of my own childhood in Nigeria and I don’t want to offend individuals who may be identified. The way memory works tells us that what we think we remember is mostly fiction, so the Nigeria I think I’m remembering may no longer exist, or never have existed in the first place.

If I could not write about these matters, I’d have to make everything up, transforming people and places beyond recognition. My speculative fiction background kicked in and I threw worldbuilding at the problem. I created an alternative time line in which the Nigerian civil war had a different outcome, and I created a new country between Nigeria and Cameroun. I was good to go.

What I do remember accurately is the experience of danger, the pervasive paranoia and the constant negotiation of relationships with powerful people. Conspiracy theories were everywhere. The threat of sexual violence was omnipresent, and if you threw a stone, you’d find a victim.

The ingredients were there for a noir narrative: a disconnected detective, a baffling milieu, an ambiguous relationship with the police force, a femme fatale, a murder, and a conspiracy. Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane were staples of my childhood literary diet, and it was fitting that Making Wolf emerged as first-person and gritty. Weston is not Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer, but they do share similar experiences and some DNA strands.

Speaking of DNA, the usual CSI techniques are not available in my narrative. It’s a brute-force investigation depending on leg work, brain power and dumb luck.

At its heart, crime fiction is about the social contract. We agree to live in peace with one another, and if someone comes along who won’t play nice, we sanction them. We use crime fiction to tell ourselves that no matter what happens, if someone breaks the contact, we will find the person and break them. This doesn’t happen all the time in real life, but we would like to believe it does, and so we tell ourselves stories about it.

Making Wolf is one of those stories.


Making Wolf: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Look What Facebook Has Done To Us, Starring Me and Sara Benincasa

So Facebook went down briefly earlier today, and naturally I had to make a joke about it.

A few minutes later Sara Benincasa posted a suspiciously similar tweet:

And, then, as they say, it was on:

Let’s hope GMail stays up. For all our sakes. But especially Mr. Fluffkins’.

(PS: Sara has a new novel coming out in November. I hear it’s pretty good. Maybe you should pre-order it or something.)

The Big Idea: Douglas Sun

And now, just to shake things up, here’s a Big Idea about a video game — which is based on a book, so don’t panic, we’re not going too far afield. Today, Douglas Sun talks about some of the challenges of a adapting a literary work into a video game: Veiled Alliances.


When it comes to adaptations of novels, it’s a given among readers that the movie won’t be as good as the book. The movie is going to leave out a lot of cool stuff, because it just won’t fit. Movies don’t have the same narrative flexibility and depth as novels. Games are great in and of themselves, but for most readers, it’s rare that you’ll find a one that’s as satisfying as the great (or even good) book on which it was based.

Kimberly Unger and I are working on a Big Idea dished out in small pieces, and our goal is to create adaptations that are just as cool as the book. We aren’t making movies as such. Instead, we’re going to use video game technology to combine the visceral power of moving images with the psychological and intellectual depth of literature. We call it our “subtext engine” — just as video games use a software engine to drive 3D animation, we’re using a software engine to create movies that will have the richness of books.

Our first step in testing this idea is the pilot episode of a 12-part adaptation of Kevin J. Anderson’s novella, Veiled Alliances. This 6-minute “appisode” is embedded in an app for tablets and smartphones that will house and play the remaining appisodes in the series. I’ll admit up front that it’s a test run, and it won’t have the full set of features that we eventually want to include. We’re still looking for the resources that we need to fully flesh out our vision.

But we know that using a video game engine to drive the animation will open up new features that don’t exist in conventional cinematic narrative. The action plays out in a fully three-dimensional environment and you’ll be able to interact with it. You’ll have the freedom to move the camera around, so that you can view the main action from any angle you want, or even just explore the background. Additional features will use sound effects, audio tracks (think mini-soliloquies that overlay the action, instead of stopping the action) and dynamic visual symbology. In its final form, the subtext engine will produce machinima, but richer and with more contextual depth than a typical machinima (or animation, for that matter).

You’ll be able to customize your experience, so that you can turn off or ignore features that don’t interest you. You can just watch the video straight through, with nothing fancy going on, if that’s what you want. But we think this cognitive multitasking will create a richer experience that you’re used to getting with visual narratives — one that captures the feel of literature more than any other graphic or cinematic form.

Veiled Alliances turned out to be a fortuitous vehicle for testing the subtext engine. Kevin J. Anderson allowed us access to this prequel to his Saga of Seven Suns series because our experiment in multilayered narrative interested him, and it’s a good fit. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface of the story — as a prequel, there’s a lot of foreshadowing that hangs over the characters’ hopes and dreams, and there’s a lot of intrigue, where characters conceal as much as they say to each other. This is particularly true of Chapter 14, which we chose to adapt for the pilot. In it, a prince of the Ildiran Empire and a colonial governor with responsibility for a group off human refugees, returns to his homeworld to discuss what is to be done about them, only to find that the Emperor (his father) and the heir-designate (his brother) have cold-blooded plans for this newly-discovered alien race. It’s one of those scenes where what the characters say only touches the surface of what they bring to the discussion.

In writing the script, I had to make the usual decisions that come with adapting prose fiction to a visual medium. Not every little action or line of dialogue made it in. But the subtext engine will allow us to take much (if not most) of what gets edited and work it in through the interactive features, so that everything that the characters and their world bring to the present narrative moment can co-exist as they do in novelistic storytelling.

The modern novel (and its sibling, the short story) is an extraordinarily supple artistic form. It combines showing and telling to capture how the human mind multitasks, regarding itself at the same time as it reaches outward in space and time to give context to the here-and-now with unique grace. Kimberly and I are familiar with video game engines because we’re both hardened game geeks and industry pros, but our backgrounds are also literary — we’re both English majors (I followed that path all the way to the tenure track at Cal State Los Angeles before leaving the academy), we both harbor dreams of writing the Great Futuristic American Novel, and so for both of us, literature is that first love you never forget. Working on the subtext engine and creating the Veiled Alliances app completes the circle for us, combining literature with machinima to bring out the strengths of both.

We’re pleased with what we’ve accomplished so far, and excited about what we expect to accomplish in the future, given sufficient resources. Our adaptation of Veiled Alliances will be available in the iOS store and Google Play, and will work just fine on either tablets or smartphones. We’ll also put a playblast trailer on our YouTube channel. Check it out; let us know if you think we’re onto something.


Veiled Alliances: Visit the game’s site.

eBook Sales and Author Incomes and All That Jazz

People are pointing me to this article in the New York Times about eBooks sales slipping and print sales stabilizing, and are wondering what I think of it. Well:

To begin, I think it’s lovely that print sales and book stores are doing well; it was touch and go there for a while. I’m also not entirely surprised to find that many younger readers — the “digital natives” — like and often prefer physical books. That’s certainly been the case with my daughter (who now, as it happens, works at the local bookstore). She’s sucked into her phone as much as any person her age, or indeed, as much as most people alive, it seems. And yet, when she reads books, and she reads a lot of them, print is her preferred medium, and was even before the bookstore.

With that said, it’s worth noting this bit in the article:

It is also possible that a growing number of people are still buying and reading e-books, just not from traditional publishers. The declining e-book sales reported by publishers do not account for the millions of readers who have migrated to cheap and plentiful self-published e-books, which often cost less than a dollar.

Indeed, a couple of days before this particular article, my Twitter feed was alive with retweets of data showing that publishers’ share of Amazon ebooks sales had decreased while indie sales had increased; since the data had come from a source that is unabashedly pro-indie (and less-than-subtly in my opinion anti-publishing), it also came with rhetoric implying that publishers were doomed, doomed, and so on.

So a couple of things here. First, if we are talking overall book sales, I do think we’re missing a lot if we’re not bringing indie sales into the discussion. There’s a hell of a lot going on there and it’s one of the most exciting places in publishing right now, “exciting” being used in many senses of the term. But no matter how you slice it, if you’re lightly sliding over its existence, you’re not accurately describing the current publishing market.

But, second, I don’t think declining eBook sales from publishers means they’re doomed, doomed, either. This is in part because (and this seems to be a point of some confusion) there’s more to publishing than maximizing eBook sales numbers in the short term. Publishers, for example, might decide that it’s in their long-term interest to stabilize and even grow the print market, and price both their eBooks and print books in a manner that advantages the latter over the former in the short term.

Why would they do that? For a number of reasons, including the fact that Amazon is still 65% of the eBook market in the US, and publishers, as business entities, are appropriately wary of a retailer which a) clearly has monopsonist ambitions and tendencies, b) has been happy to play hardball with publishers to get its way. Investing time in strengthening alternate retail paths makes sense in that case, especially if, as the article suggests, consumers are happy to receive the book in different formats for an advantageous price. If people fundamentally don’t care if they read something in print or electronic format, as long as they get a price they like, that leaves publishers a lot of room to maneuver.

Which is not to say I think publishers are blind to the potential advantages of the digital space. Note well that publishers have not been idle addressing the digital-only market; numerous publishers now have digital-only (or “digital-first” with publish-on-demand print option) imprints, and several, including Tor, my primary fiction publisher, have started imprints devoted specifically to novellas, a format that is now emerging from a long commercial slumber thanks to digital formats. I think it’s entirely possible that publishers have as their long-term strategy imprints and initiatives that primarily address particular media, with some imprints, books and authors primarily digital-facing and some primarily print-facing, depending on where their data tells them money is to be made with each book/author/imprint/whatever.

The short version of all of the above is: I’m sure publishers are happy about print doing well, and I would be mildly surprised if publishers are too deeply concerned with the short-term dip in digital sales, especially if they are investing in positioning themselves for the long-term. Again I remind everyone that many if not most of these publishers have been around decades and have seen changes in the market as significant as the one we’re going through today. They’re tenacious bastards, publishing companies are.

While we’re on the subject of publishing and writers, people have asked me what I thought about the Author’s Guild survey that shows author incomes down substantially from what was reported in a 2009 survey, with full-time authors seeing a 30% decrease from $25k to $17.5K, and part-time authors reporting an even steeper drop. Added to that, this NPR piece noting the relatively meager sales of some of the books nominated for this year’s Man Booker prize. Between the both of them, it’s enough to make writers a little gloomy.

My first thought about the latter is to note there is not nor ever has there been a strong correlation between “literary excellence” and strong sales, nor when it comes to awards should there necessarily be. The Man Booker is a juried award, if I remember correctly, so awareness through sales isn’t much of a factor in terms of what gets onto its long and short lists. So, no, it’s not really surprising some of the finalists haven’t sold that much prior to the announcement. They’ll probably sell better now, however.

It’s also not a huge surprise that most books don’t sell that well. That, at least, is a consistent fact through time. Kameron Hurley notes the lifetime sales of the average published and self-published book here, if you want to look. The rise of self/indie publishing is kind of a wash on this, I suspect; it allows you to price a book very cheaply, but it also means the market is swamped and it’s harder to stand out. It doesn’t matter how low you price your book if no one ever sees it out there, etc.

But with respect to writer incomes dropping via the Author’s Guild survey, this is one place where I wish we had better (which is to say more comprehensive and in some way independently verifiable) reporting from indie authors, because I suspect there’s a lot of money not being reported out there, not only in terms of direct indie/self-publishing unit sales, but through other avenues like Kickstarters and Patreons, which I anecdotally see adding a non-trivial amount of income to writers’ bottom lines. I suspect these are avenues that a lot of writers who are used to particular income paths are either not aware of, or exploiting — or perhaps can’t exploit because their established audiences are used to paying in them in particular ways. I’d love to see the figures on who crowdfunds, in terms of age; my suspicion is that it skews younger.

Would this money I suspect is going missing substantially move the needle in terms of overall author incomes? I don’t know. I suspect it might, but it’s possible not as much as some people cheerleading indie/self-publishing would like to admit.

I’ve noted before that I think in general there are three kinds of authors: Dinosaurs, mammals and cockroaches, where the dinosaurs are authors tied to an existing publishing model and are threatened when it is diminished or goes away, mammals are the authors who rise to success with a new publishing model (but who then risk becoming dinosaurs at a later date), and cockroaches are the authors who survive regardless of era, because they adapt to how the market is, rather than how they want it to be. Right now, I think publishing might be top-heavy with dinosaurs, and we’re seeing that reflected in that Author’s Guild survey.

What we’re missing — or at least what I haven’t seen — is reliable data showing that the mammals — indie/self-publishing folks, in this case — are doing any better on average. If these writers are doing significantly better on average, then that would be huge. It’s worth knowing.

Update, 2:52pm: This excellent point on eBook sales from Tor editor Beth Meacham:

The Big Idea: Christopher Barzak

For today’s Big Idea, Christopher Barzak takes you to the family farm and explains how a little bit of his own personal history informs his latest novel, Wonders of the Invisible World.


Wonders of the Invisible World was an attempt to save my family.

Which is a little ironic, because the protagonist of the novel—Aidan Lockwood—is also charged with the duty of saving his family. Specifically, he’s charged with the duty of saving them from an ancestral curse that has been brought upon them by a decidedly nasty act of hubris that his great-grandfather commits nearly a hundred years prior.

My attempt to save my family wasn’t so much to rescue us from an ancestral curse, so much as to rescue us, somehow, from the passage of time, from the way anyone’s family fades over time, as the shadow of mortality grows ever closer, until it eclipses not only individual lives, but the life of a family unit.

I was thirty years old when I began writing this novel. I’m forty now. In between the span of those ten years, I published two other novels and a collection of short stories. I moved to Japan to teach English. I earned an MFA while teaching full time at a university after I returned. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever clear away enough time and space for a continuous span of concentration I need to complete a novel. But I continued to work on multiple drafts of this book, because it was a story in which I was preserving details from the landscape of my childhood: my grandparents’ farm, where I grew up among a large, extended family that all made their homes either on the farm or nearby it.

No, Wonders of the Invisible World isn’t necessarily about my family. The Barzaks aren’t cursed like the Lockwood family is. But when I was thirty and began trying to write a novel that might capture some of the essence of my family life, it was because, at that point, every time I’d visit my family, I’d see another piece of our shared past fading away. I watched my grandfather unstring the barbed wire fences that outlined his various pastures and orchard. I saw the last tree standing in the orchard cut down. I watched as his remaining stock of cattle were sold off, and I watched as my grandparents’ farmhouse itself, well over a hundred years old now, begin to crumble around them before they themselves passed away in recent years.

The big idea for me was to capture the essence of a way of life, rural and agrarian, before it passed away completely. So the setting of Wonders of the Invisible World is largely based on my family home. The orchard, the creek that flows through it, the pastures and the cornfields. Even the farmhouse in which the Lockwood family lives. I’ve often used the places where I’ve lived for a long period of time as settings for my books, but this time it was more personal, acting as a totem of sorts as I wrote the book.

The big idea, though, that I wanted to capture for the reader, who has no interest in my personal connection to the story necessarily, was to capture the essence of the passage of time, of a young man—seventeen year old Aidan Lockwood—who discovers an ancestral family secret, and in the process of reclaiming memories of his own childhood that have been magically obscured by someone trying to protect him, discovers parts of himself that he’d never known before.

In a lot of ways, discovering one’s family history is a way of discovering yourself. So many things about the formation of our personalities and processes for thinking are determined, to some extent, by the families that create and shape us. Wonders of the Invisible World is a young adult novel, and in this way I felt like the plot I invented reflected, literally, the way a young adult begins to see the members of their family more clearly as they come of age. To see Mom and Dad as more than the role they play as parents. To see grandparents as people who have shaped their own parents. History, at least for me, only came alive as I became a late teenager; and in discovering more about my own family, I felt like I was discovering myself, my place within the story my family inhabits.

Ten years is a long time to work on a novel in stop and go fashion. It wasn’t ideal. It made me question the story every time I came back to it, when some small amount of time for that kind of work became available. I wrote three drafts, threw them all out. Started from scratch on a fourth, and finally found the shape of the story I needed to hold everything I wanted to address inside it. What was the key turning point? Realizing that in order to contain all of the bits and pieces I wanted in the story, I would have to make my protagonist suffer from a spell (a literal one) of forgetfulness, in order for the act of remembering to become a magical event in and of itself.

There are so many more bits of magic in this novel than those I’ve mentioned. There’s a white stag, the specter of a man in a black suit, harbingers of Death, a voice that comes from a dead apple tree, visions and dreams that come to Aidan Lockwood unbidden. It’s a personal story that pushes outward into the epic, encapsulating a hundred years of his family life. I’m not sure if I really did, in the end, manage to save my family by writing this book, much as I tried (perhaps pure memoir would be better for such an act), but I do know that Aidan Lockwood manages to save his. And after ten years of struggling with him throughout his journey, seeing this story contained in the bound pages of a book feels at least a little bit like redemption.


Wonders of the Invisible World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Last Sunset of the Summer, 2015

And with it begins Yom Kippur. Tomorrow is the autumnal equinox here in the northern hemisphere (at 4:21am my local time). Busy day.

It’s been a good summer for me. Hope it was for you, too.

Nobody Likes An Asshole (Except Maybe Other Assholes)

Adam-Troy Castro has a post up called “Writers: The Long-Term Benefits of Not Being An Ass,” which I encourage you to read, with the awareness that the advice has works equally as well when you substitute any other profession for “Writer” (or indeed, you can also substitute “human” and it works just as well).

Also, let me just second nearly all of what Adam-Troy is saying there. Folks, the fact is that people’s tolerance for working with complete assholes is pretty low. In the field of writing, in my experience, being an asshole is generally neither here nor there in terms of how an audience sees you (they’re focused on your output, not your personality), but it has a lot to do with how much slack those who have to work with you will cut you. And when no one wants to work with you, it makes it harder for your audience to find you.

And yes, if you sell millions of books, then you probably get to be as big of an asshole as you want to be and people still have to put up with you. But not many people sell that much. The list probably doesn’t include you (sorry. It doesn’t include me, either). It’s been interesting recently to watch writers who sell relatively little who have nevertheless decided being a complete asshole to other people in the industry was a winning move. They are either extraordinarily confident they will never be dropped by their current publisher (which is not a smart thing to assume when you sell relatively little), or they hope self-publishing will save them (also not smart).

(Or they’re simply convinced that it’s not them who’s an asshole, it’s everyone else. In the latter case, well, you can believe that, but if everyone else outside your tightly-sealed little group disagrees with you, then you still have a problem.)

Or, and this has been suggested to me before, there’s the theory that being a complete asshole is a marketing strategy to build an audience. My thought on this is, well, okay, but the sort of person who gets off on watching you be an asshole is probably an asshole themselves. And while I suppose that an asshole’s money spends just as well as anyone else’s, I’d still be uncomfortable actively cultivating that particular market. Again, generally your audience doesn’t care about your personality, but if you make being an asshole a selling point, to the particular market of assholes, then that’s the market you’ll be stuck with, you know? Then you’ll always have to be an asshole. And, you know. I can be an asshole just like anyone else. But I try to limit the total time I am one. It’s tiring. I can’t imagine having to do it all the time.

So, yes. Listen to Adam-Troy. Try to be a decent person, to the people you work with and even the people you don’t; Remember how you treat people on the way up is how they treat you on the way down; Maybe you can be an asshole if you sell millions, but you probably don’t and even if you do, you should still try not to be one. People remember. And people talk. And people choose who they want to do business with, and who they want to help.

Duran Duran, Neil Gaiman, and Beginnings

I’m both a friend and fan of Neil Gaiman, and a former music critic. So for years I’ve known about, but had never seen, Neil’s very first published book, the 1984 quickie biography of Duran Duran, arguably the biggest band to emerge from the first era of MTV (“You know! Back when they actually played music!” the 80s kids grouse, shaking their canes in unison). It’s a difficult find because a) it was a quickie bio of a pop band, not exactly meant to survive through the ages, b) apparently the company that published it went under shortly after it was published, so there were never that many copies to begin with. The fact that Neil’s become NEIL GAIMAN also adds to the rarity as collectors snap them up. Decent copies of the book fetch hundreds of dollars; at this moment on eBay there’s a copy whose description all but implies the tattered book is smudged with a then-14-year-old girl’s kisses which is being offered for $130. And while I like Neil, I’m not sure I’m willing to part with that much in order to see the thing.

Fortunately, there’s now a “Neil Gaiman Rarities” eBook Humble Bundle (which, at the time of this writing, is on its last day — pick it up here if you see this within 24 hours of this post’s publication), and Neil stuck in the bio as part of the bundle. As soon as I saw that it was in there, I slapped down my money (more than the $15 required to unlock the tier that included the bio, I’ll note) and made a beeline to download the pdf version.

How is it?

Oh, my friends. It is glorious.

It is glorious primarily because it is a triple-treat bit of nostalgia. One, it’s a nostalgia piece for the 80s, and of a certain stripe of 80s British music journalism, a tone and feel I personally most associate with Smash Hits, the magazine me and all my we-want-to-be-too-cool friends in high school would read to find out what Morrissey and Pete Burns were up to (apparently they were friends! Pete would come round for tea! or so I recall). Two, obviously, it’s a nostalgia piece for Duran Duran, who when the book came out were at their most Duran-iest, which is to say, with the original line-up, before Andy and Roger left, with those first three studio albums and all those Russell Mulcahy videos.

Three, it’s a nostalgia piece for Neil, although I suspect as much or more so for him as the rest of us, because here Neil is 24 years old and a journalist and almost no one has the slightest idea who he is. He hasn’t become NEIL GAIMAN and won’t start being that guy for a few more years yet, when Sandman kicks in. Nevertheless this is a reminder that everyone who is someone comes from somewhere and starts with something; this is where Neil begins as an author of books. For anyone who is a published author, a book like this is going to be evocative of their own first book, however many years back in the timestream that is.

Yes, yes, you say. Fine, nostalgia, whatever. Is the book itself any good? It’s Neil Gaiman writing but can we see the NEIL GAIMAN he became in it?

Maybe a little? I think maybe there’s some expectation management that needs to be put in place. To wit: it’s a quickie bio of a pop band. The thing is 132 pages long, and most of that is pictures. It ain’t exactly Mystery Train, nor would it be fair to suggest it was supposed to be. I don’t know the specifics of its compilation, but I would be a bit surprised if Neil had more than a couple of months to cobble the thing together with bits and anecdotes from newspaper and magazine articles. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that Neil spent any time with the band itself, back when the thing was put together (he does go to a concert, however, where he’s frustrated by the inarticulateness of the band’s fans, which leads, somewhat amusingly, to him being upbraided for his snobbishness by a fan on a train, after the concert).

The nature of bio — short, full of facty tidbits rather than personal connection, probably written fast — mitigates against actual, shall we say, art. Neil gets in a clever line here and there, and his penchant for sardonicism via phrasing and pacing is in embryonic form in the text. If you know Neil Gaiman’s mature writing, you can see some of what he does in that, here. If you were reading it cold, I don’t know, maybe you’d see it? It’s hard to say.

As noted above, the tone of the text owes as much to a certain style of journalism as it does to Neil’s native writing gifts and discipline. I doubt that anyone who read this in 1984 slammed it down on completion and said “My God, this is the voice of a man who will become one of the most beloved fantasy authors of our time!” On the other hand, I doubt that if you got into a time machine and told that same 1984 reader that Neil did go on to become one of the most beloved fantasy authors of our time, they would look at you in horror and wonder what sort of dystopian hellscape allowed such a thing to occur. I suspect they would go “Really? Huh,” and then ask you why, if you indeed had the privilege of a time machine, you would waste it on such a trivial errand.

Which is to say: The bio’s not bad. It’s competent — possibly more competent than its editing, which occasionally allows for paragraphs to appear more than once. It’s light and it’s a quick, mildly informative read. Neil jams in the Duran Duran trivia (you can tell it’s the eighties because we learn all the band members’ astrological signs) and even attempts a bit of criticism with the albums and the videos, although none of the criticism is really that critical; there are a couple places where Neil is all “well, that one was a bit dodgy, wasn’t it?” but that’s about it. This is not an actual complaint on my part, because again: quick bio of a pop band, aimed at its fans. If Neil had gone off on a rant about how none of the lyrics of Seven and the Ragged Tiger actually mean a single goddamn thing Jesus what the hell is going on in Simon Le Bon’s head besides cocaine and Cristal I suspect his editors would have pulled him aside to let him know to trim it up otherwise he’d be murdered by a roving pack of Duran Duran fans. And thus would the history of comic books and fantasy literature have been irrevocably changed.

(Although, seriously: Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Nothing there makes even the slightest lick of sense. “The Union of the Snake” is just friggin word salad, man. We can say it now, here in 2015.)

But, you know. I didn’t read it expecting it to be brilliant stuff, and I don’t find it glorious because of its prose. I find it glorious (aside from the nostalgia value) because it’s 2015 and I know who that 24-year-old writer is going to become one day, even if he doesn’t. I know that 31 years down the line, the kid writing about these other vastly more famous kids — Neil is the same age as the Duran Duran members — is going to be in his way just as famous as any of them, individually or possibly even together, and he has absolutely no idea. It’s probably not even on his radar, because how would it be? All he knows is that someone said (more or less): “Hey kid, write a book on Duran Duran,” and he said “Yeah, okay, I can do that,” and inside he was probably thinking this is it. I’m on my way. Because when you get your first book, that’s what you think: Here we go.

I wish I could get back in that time machine to 1984 and tell 24-year-old Neil about this. “Neil!” I would say. “In 2015 you will have 16 times as many Twitter followers as Simon Le Bon!” And he would say “Those words all make sense individually but not as a sentence,” as politely as possible and then he would back away quickly from the very odd American blathering nonsensical terms like “blog” and “Internet,” who is telling him something about people named “Amanda” and “Anthony” (two people named Anthony, actually) and suggesting that black really is going to be a good look for him, just wait and see. Poor 24-year-old Neil, accosted by creepy balding Americans from the future. Perhaps best to let him be.

I also find it glorious because 24-year-old me was not at all unlike 24-year-old Neil: A journalist, writing about famous people and not really knowing how vastly different his future was going to be from his then-present. In fact, one of the famous people the 24-year-old me wrote about and interviewed was a guy named Neil Gaiman; I wrote a whole newspaper story about the hip new medium of graphic novels just so I could have an excuse to call him up and talk to him (I didn’t know how to pronounce his last name so when his daughter picked up the phone and I asked to speak to him, I could hear her say “Hey dad, someone wants to talk to Neil GUY-man!”). My own first published book wasn’t a quickie bio, but a book on online finance, now also out of print and utterly unrelated to the sort of work I would become known for (it’s also competent and a quick, informative read).

I don’t want to press the comparison too heavily, mind you; Neil’s, uh, a little bit further along than I am (and Simon Le Bon has twice the Twitter followers I do). But I am saying when I read the Duran Duran bio, I smiled, because I remember being someplace very similar to where that kid was, back then.

As I said, the Duran Duran book is an exercise in nostalgia. But a nostalgia that does not suggest that the past was a better time than now; just a different time, gone but not entirely forgotten. Here in the present, within days of each other, Duran Duran, 35 years into a career, put out a new album, and Neil has put out a new edition of his own (in collaboration with Amanda, his beloved wife). Times have changed, and times are good. The bio chronicles the start of a band and of a writer, and both are still going strong. I like that I’ve seen the beginning, and the latest, from each. The world has not heard the last of either.

(Reminder: If you’re seeing this within 24 hours of its publication, you still have time to pick up the Duran Duran bio, and other rarities from Neil, through the Humble Bundle. Totally worth it, plus you help the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and literacy charity The Moth. Go get the bundle while you still can!)