Monthly Archives: August 2005

The Soda’s in the Bathtub

In lieu of an actual entry today (which I don’t have time for), please to visit Marissa Lingen’s LiveJournal and this entry, in which she says something nice and perceptive about my writing, but also (and rather more importantly) says something useful for writers of the science fiction persuasion.

See you in September.

3.2 Followup

I installed Movable Type 3.2 on the 26th, and it took until 13 minutes ago for it not to automatically shunt all the comment spam I received into its “junk” queue, and the single comment spam that it didn’t shunt into the “junk” queue had a “warning” mark on it, meaning it was held for moderation rather than just being posted. As someone who was receiving (as previously mentioned) up to 500 comment spams a day, that just rocks.

Trackback Spam management has been nearly as good.

Well done, Six Apart. If you are using Movable Type, I truly suggest the upgrade. Back everything up first, of course. Then do it.

Scifi.com Interview

There’s a brief article about Agent to the Stars, up at Scifi.com, which includes a couple of quotes from yours truly.

As a fun excercise, and to show the curious how the publicity sausage is made, behind the cut you’ll see the full text I supplied to the writer (in answer to his questions), which he used to to help him craft the article and which he then mined for particular quotes. This rendering down of quotes and text is of course perfectly natural; when I interview people for news or feature articles, I will do much the same sort of weeding: 1,000 words might give you a hundred that you’ll quote, and the rest is to fill out the background information.

What is always interesting is to see which quotes get used, and how. I’d also note that this sort of article differs quite a bit from the straight-out interview article (like the one I did with Strange Horizons earlier this year), in which most of what you say is usually used, and a good thing, too, since if the same 10:1 ratio applied there, we would all have to have immense pity on the poor person doing the interview, crushed as they would be by the sheer mass of verbiage.

Anyway. Here’s the raw material for the Scifi.com article, for your compare and contrast pleasure. I’ll underline the passages of the text that were used in the article, so you can spot them quickly.

Continue reading

Back to School

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Having mastered the intricacies of kindergarten to a good and sufficient level, Athena has been invited back to attempt the rigors of 1st grade. Naturally we here in the Scalzi household wish her all the best in this difficult endeavor.

Yes, of course I’m being ironic. The other day at the school’s open house I got a look at her reading and math workbooks and flipped to the back to see what she was expected to have learned by next June. Been there, done that, wrote the Whatever entry. For a current estimation of where Athena is on the learning scale, here’s a question she asked me yesterday: “Daddy, if black absorbs all the light and warms things up, and white reflects all the light and stays cool, is red somewhere in the middle?” She also complains that she doesn’t know all the planets any more since they found that new one and they haven’t named it yet, flounce, flounce, huff. Having geek parents has its own set of challenges, I suppose. So we let the teacher know Athena might be just a little ahead of the curve there.

But we also let the teacher know Athena is, indeed, six years old, and prone to the usual six-year-old bouts of stubborness, silliness, sulky moments, antic outbursts and general “look! I have toes!”-ness that six year olds have — i.e., no matter what she knows already, she’s still a kid, to be treated as such, and more to the point, allowed to be such. Athena needs socialization as much as any kid her age, and at this point I’d rather she have that than to worry whether she’s learning enough algebra in the first grade to get her into Harvard a little over a decade from now.

The teacher seemed to get what I was asking of her: Try to keep Athena from being academically bored, but also try not to turn her into the class freak while doing so. Athena’s kindergarten teacher did an admirable job striking this balance, so I have high hopes we can do it again. We’ll have to see. Athena no doubt has her own opinions about the matter as well; I expect we’ll learn what they are presently.

Additional 3.2 Notes

Having now lived with Movable Type 3.2 for 12 hours, I will note two things about it:

1. It looks prettier than earlier versions (it features color on its little icons, which makes a surprising amount of difference, esthetically speaking).

2. Since I’ve installed it, I’ve had no blogspam of any sort, either in comments or in trackbacks, I suspect due to the spam-fighting plugins that come standard in 3.2. That’s down from an average of 500 comment spams and 50 trackback spams a day. While this makes me giggle like a happy child, it also makes me worry that some legitimate comments are being vaporized without me knowing.

So if you’re curious if your comments will make it through, and you haven’t previously commented since I switched over to 3.2 (which would have been on Friday afternoon, around six), leave a comment on this entry. If your comment doesn’t make it through, let me know.

Also, the previous moderating plugin (which blocked comments on entries older than a week) is now out, so now you can leave a message on any open entry with impunity. I’ve changed the comment announcements to reflect this, and to note some additional things.

And, yes, I’ve changed the background colors again. I think I’ll keep these ones for a while.

By and large I’m very pleased with 3.2 so far, although I know at least one person who lost most of her comments in the switchover. This didn’t happen to me this time, but it happened to me with an earlier upgrade; this time I downloaded my database to ensure that there would be some record once I inevitably screwed things up. Naturally, if you have Movable Type and are considering an upgrade, I suggest you back up also.

I’ll leave this as the top entry through the weekend, so again, if you want to confirm your commentability, this is a fine time to do it.

Antidote

For everyone truly disturbed and appalled by the picture of Athena earlier today, I offer this picture to soothe your jangled nerves:

athenanotpeeps.jpg

James Franks, I hereby request you post this picture on your office door as well, so all your shuddering co-workers can see that she’s actually a sweet, normal little girl. Also, I want to see if any of them stop and say “Uh, why does that bear have two heads?” Which I guess doesn’t really help my cause, here. Anyway.

Where It Comes From

In case you missed it — because it’s really just too good to miss — the picture of Athena promoting Scott Westerfeld’s new vampire book Peeps:

Now, you ask, from what side of the family does that look come from? Let’s ask her mother, shall we?

Hmmm. On second thought, you know, let’s not. Unless you’ve got some garlic handy.

Checking My Calendar…

And it appears today is not “National ‘Let’s Have the Bugshit Annoying Send E-Mail to John Scalzi’ Day.” And yet so many of them chose today to do just that. Is Mercury in retrograde or something? Did I not get a memo? Somebody tell me.

Peeps!

My pal Scott Westerfeld’s latest book Peeps hits the stores today, and it does for vampires what 28 Days Later… did for zombies, which is to put concept into a plausible and fascinating science-based context, gleefully messes with your preconceptions and then kicks the plot into hyperdrive and takes you along with it, as you go screaming all the way. It is excellent. And it’s a Young Adult book, which means it’s perfect for that sullen teen you know who complains there’s nothing good to read. Hand it to him or her and say “read it, or I’ll beat you with it.” Because sometimes, sullen teens need to hear that.

I’m not the only Scalzi who enjoys Peeps, incidentally. In fact, if you go to Scott’s site, you’ll see Athena posing with the book in a contextually appropriate way. Yes, yes, you want to see this. Yes.

(If you like the picture of Athena you see there, feel free to borrow it for your own site, as long as you don’t alter it other than for resizing. I’m sure Scott wouldn’t mind having the cover of his book plastered about teh Intarweeb. And neither would I!)

Google Talk Address

I’ve downloaded Google Talk and have decided to make it my public IM address, at which anyone can drop me an instant message (as opposed to my private IM address, which is on another service entirely, and which is reserved for family, personal friends, and for business associates). If you have Google Talk or one of the IM services through which it can be reached feel free to add me. The account I’ll be under is:

Scalzenfreude –at– gmail.com (replace the “–at–” with “@”, of course)

“Scalzenfreude,” of course, being the German term meaning “The joy of talking to Scalzi.”

Be aware that as part of my whole “submerged” thing I have going until the end of August, if/when you add me to your list of contacts through the next several days, the conversation we’ll have about it is most likely to be along the lines of me saying “You’ve added me to your list? Awesome! Thanks! And now I have to go. See you in September!” Please don’t be offended. I’m not brushing you off personally, I’m brushing you off as part of a larger aggregate of people. Come September I’ll be positively sociable, promise.

(Also, I’m not at all likely to have a voice chat with people I don’t already know, especially right now, so trying to contact me that way is not likely to get any response at all. Sorry.)

Anyway, if you’ve ever wanted to experience me in an IM setting, there you have it.

Making Multiples

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The Scalzis are multiplying!

For the folks who ask how I did this sort of picture, it’s actually pretty simple. First you set your camera on a flat surface, so it doesn’t move. You snap multiple pictures of your subject without moving your camera one bit. Try to make sure your subject doesn’t occupy the same space in any two frames. Then you open the pictures in photo-editing software that allows for layers, and paste the pictures in separate layers. Then you simply edit down the topmost pictures to contain only your subject. Since your camera didn’t move, your backgrounds are consistent, so even if you edit them out of one picture, they still join up with the backgrounds in the other pictures.

And then you’re done. The only fiddling you may need to do is with color correction, although if you avoid the flash and use only natural light, you’ll have less of a problem with this. in the end you may have a few artifacts, but a lot of those will be “fixed” when you shrink the photo down to display it on the Web (i.e., you lose the tiny details that prove the picture’s a fake).

And that’s how that gets done.

Amazon Shorts

Online bookseller Amazon has started something called “Amazon Shorts,” in which selected authors are selling short stories and essays in electronic format for 49 cents. How is it for readers and authors? I decided to find out.

First on the reader end: I went and bought one of the Amazon Shorts (The War of Dogs and Boids : A Coyote Story, by Allen Steele). Anyone who already has an Amazon account will find the purchase process very easy. As soon as you purchase the story, you can access it in one of three ways: You can follow an html link, which pops up the formatted story online, you can have it e-mailed to you in plain text e-mail, or you can download the story as a pdf. I tried all three. The html version looked and read fine, and the text e-mail popped into my mailbox with typical Amazon near-instant speed. The first time I tried downloading the pdf I hit a glitch, but I downloaded it this morning without any problem and like the html document it was well-formatted and quite readable. Amazon says that once you’ve bought an Amazon short, a copy of it remains in your Amazon “digital locker” forever.

As far as I can see there is no digital rights management protection on these shorts. Depending on the author’s point of view this is a good or bad thing for them (I’ll get to that later) but it’s an unqualifed good for the reader: It means that once you buy an Amazon short, you actually own the damn thing and can format it how you choose, whether that means printing it out or stuffing it into the PDA-readable format of your choice or whatever it is you want to do with it. The idea that Amazon keeps a copy of the story for you on a permanent basis is also very nice, since as long as you’re able to sign on to Amazon, you’ll never have to worry about where that short story file is. As a reader, I like that someone at Amazon has made the executive decision not to treat its customers like potential criminals and chose not to DRM these shorts to the point of non-usability. To the extent that I buy short fiction and essays online, that philosophy will make a diffence.

Amazon’s price point for the stories — 49 cents — seems to me entirely reasonable: Low enough to be an impulse buy, but not so low that no one makes any money off the thing. I don’t know what Amazon’s cost is in doing this (anecdotally it appears to have some sort of staff devoted to formatting the stories in their various iterations and maintaining the Amazon Shorts area), but not having to create paper versions of the shorts is a clear advantage, since the actual distribution costs for electronic documents are miniscule.

At this point the major drawback to Amazon Shorts for readers is the lack of material; only a few dozen Amazon Shorts are available at debut. Amazon is soliciting new authors to participate, however, so one suspects that there will be more material quickly. And for the record, the story I downloaded was pretty darn spiffy.

So as a reader, my initial experience with Amazon Shorts was very good: Easy to understand, easy to use, good quality material. I do expect I’ll wander through the area again soon to see if there are any authors or stories I want to try.

But what’s good for a reader is not necessarily good for an author, so now let’s turn to the author point of view and see what the advantages and disadvantages are. Bear in mind that what follows is based on somewhat incomplete knowledge of the specifics of the Amazon Shorts program, since I am not a participant myself. This is all first draft stuff. I’m also going to cover this from the science fiction and fantasy writer perspective, as that’s where my experience is.

First off, the question is: How does the author get paid? Amazon’s own FAQ is mum on the matter, which is never a good thing. I asked around informally and heard back from more than one knowlegable party that Amazon is not paying authors upfront — what it’s offering is a fairly substantial cut of the sales gross. I was not able to get a definitive number here due to hedging from at least one of my sources, but the numbers I’ve seen hinted at suggest something in the 30% to 50% range. Amazon asks for a window of exclusivity of at least six months for each story. So in effect, the deal is Amazon gets first world rights in return for a cut of the sales revenue. As most writers know, this sort of payment system is rather different from how short stories are usually paid for. Traditionally a publisher offers a certain amount based on story length (in science fiction, SFWA considers professional pay to begin at five cents a word), and the author gets that amount as a flat fee up front, with no additional consideration.

Normally, the question of whether a short fiction writer should get paid upfront or as a cut of revenues isn’t actually a question at all: Short fiction writers should get paid, up front, always. The reason is simple: Publishers aren’t to be trusted with money, and the sort of publisher that would ask the writer to share the risk and costs of publishing is to be trusted least of all. The writer’s job is to write; the publisher’s job is to publish and sell the work. Yog’s Law: Money flows to the writer. If the money does not immediately flow to the writer there is a big problem.

Should Amazon be considered any different than any other fly-by-night “publisher” who offers to publish first, pay later? We’ll have to see, but provisionally, I can think of a number of reasons why the answer here would be “yes.” First: Unlike any number of nebulous “publishers,” Amazon does not appear to be saying that author payment is contingent on some vague profit goal or on whether the magazine/site sells advertising or whatever; what it appears to be saying is “you get a cut from the very first sale” — Meaning that as soon as Amazon starts taking in money, the author starts making money. If indeed this is the case, then Yog’s Law is not violated.

Second: Unlike any number of nebulous “publishers,” Amazon is Amazon, the industry leader in online retail, with a well-established history of working with (and paying) third-party vendors, which in this case is what the author would be. Amazon has nothing to gain by attempting to scam authors out of their work without paying them, and rather a lot to lose, since if it did so it would anger publishers, agents and authors, from whom Amazon derives one of its main sources of income, i.e., books. The proof of Amazon’s business practices for Amazon Shorts will be at the end of however Amazon has structured its payment periods, when the participating authors get cut a check. But until that time, given who Amazon is and its history in business, I’m willing to assume they’re not out to screw the authors.

The question authors need to ask is not “will Amazon pay me?” the answer to which I sincerely expect to be “yes.” What the question should be is “will I get more for my short story through Amazon Shorts than I’d get from traditional short story publishing?” And to answer that question, let’s go to the math.

Let’s say I write a 5,000 word science fiction short story, and miracle of miracles, I sell it to Asimov’s. Asimov’s pays five to eight cents per word, meaning I’ll get somewhere between $250 and $400 for my story (given that I’m a reasonably new SF writer with no short story record, the $250 figure seems more in line). The good news is I’m assured of at least $250; the bad news, such as it is, is that there is no way I will make more than $400 (this formulation disregards future sales through reprints; we’re talking one sale at a time). Either way, my job as a writer is done — the publisher takes the story, promotes it and presents it to its audience.

Now, let’s say that instead of selling the story to Asimov’s, I instead put it up as an Amazon Short (NB: This presumes that Amazon, in its wisdom, has accepted me into its Amazon Shorts program — for the moment, at least, it is invitation only). The good news is that theoretically there is no end to amount of money I can generate with this one sale — as long as people keep buying the story, I keep earning my cut. The bad news is that it’s entirely possible no one will buy the story and I will earn no money at all. Indeed, in order to make the Asimov minimum wage for the story (and given the stated royalty range above), I’ll need to have between 1,000 and 1,700 people buy my short story. Are there 1,000 to 1,7000 people willing to shell out fifty cents for my short story? See. That’s the question.

My feeling about Amazon Shorts is it’s best suited for writers who already have a significant and self-sustaining fan base. i.e., writers who are rather popular already. In the SF/F genre, I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that if Neil Gaiman or Orson Scott Card or Connie Willis dropped something into Amazon Shorts, they would be likely to make a fair chunk of cash in short order. Some other writer whose name recognition is slightly less luminous — a comfortably mid-list writer, in other words — might not see a difference one way or another. But strictly in terms of the money, most writers (and I would include myself here) would probably be better off going to the venue where the money is offered up front, unless said author is ready, willing and able to flog the Amazon Short to all and sundry on a regular basis. If you’re not an inveterate self-promoter, this probably won’t be your bag.

Aside from the money issue (heh), there are other things to consider. Writers who are paranoid that pirates will steal everything they ever write (arrrr!) will blanch at the utter lack of DRM on the Amazon Shorts, although I submit in this case, as in most cases, writers should worry less about piracy and more about obscurity; most writers will never be pirated because not enough people care about their writing to pirate it. There’s also the matter of whether having a copy of a story permanently for sale on Amazon will have an impact on the story’s resale value; I can see a situation where an anthology editor might choose not to pick a story originally published as an Amazon Short because he doesn’t wish to have to compete with an a la carte offering of something in his book.

Let’s note the potential upsides as well. For one thing, the Amazon Shorts page that accompanies each short is an excellent spotlight for the author: Allen Steele’s Amazon Short page not only has the story available for purchase but also features biographical details and links to all his longer works available on Amazon; in essence it acts as a potential gateway to more (and more substantial) sales. That’s an advantage no print magazine can offer. It’s also, simply, another sales market in a world where the short fiction market is both small and not especially well-paying.

I’m not sure whether the Amazon Shorts staff acts as an editorial gateway, accepting and rejecting stories submitted by the authors, or if it merely accepts authors into the program and then allows them to post what they want. If it’s the latter, I can see some authors choosing to present short stories that way because it allows them to skip the aggravation of rejection and/or pernicious editing to present their stories to their fans (whether this is actually a good thing for the writing itself — or for the fans — is another question entirely; most writers need editors and the occasional rejection).

One other thing I see Amazon Shorts (or something like it) offering writers is flexibility in writing forms. By its very name Amazon Shorts is designed to promote shorter works, but I don’t see why one couldn’t do more with it. One could easily serialize a novel there and allow readers to pay by the chapter. Alternatively, one could dispense entirely with the novel form and create an ongoing serial story, a persistent fiction world with story arcs and characters dropping in and out of the action. There’s no particular reason something like that couldn’t work, should someone choose to do it.

I don’t imagine something like Amazon Shorts will constitute much of a threat to traditional short story markets because in terms of money and other less tangible benefits, most authors will continue to be better served by those markets. But I do see Amazon Shorts as a potentially healthy alternative market for writers, and particularly for authors who bring their own fandom to the party. As long as the money is flowing to the writers, new markets are a good thing.

(Update: Author Nick Mamatas offers his perspective here. Not entirely surprisingly, his perspective is “not only is this glass only half full, there are invisible shards of glass floating in the water.” I’ll post more author blog links when I see them and/or I get around to it.)

Y.A.S.P. (Yet Another Sunset Picture)

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You know, I actually promised myself tonight that I wasn’t going to take a picture of the sunset. But in the end I couldn’t resist. It looked too much like a sunset painted by this guy, and I knew none of you would believe me unless I actually went out and snapped a photo of it. So here we are.

A Brilliant Goodbye

Hunter S. Thompson is in those fireworks. His ashes, anyway (and if they weren’t entirely ashes before, they are now). Damn, that’s an awesome way to go.

I personally intend to be cremated, since weighing my survivors down with thousands of dollars of wholly unnecessary funeral expenses is not really the way I wish to be remembered. Then I want my ashes formed into the shape of a garden gnome, the kind that ironic hipsters steal and then send all over the world, photographing each place they go to and sending pictures back to the owner (which I assume would be someone I know). I think that would be fairly amusing.