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.


1) I am confused about the timeline here. From your Web site, I gather that Agent to the Stars was written awhile ago, yet it is only being released in book form now? Please explain.

Here’s the story. In 1997 I decided I wanted to see if I could write a novel — not sell a novel, just write it — so I decided to do a “practice novel,” which would be written simply to see if I could manage the novel form. I deliberately chose a relatively “light” story and banged it out. Once it was completed, about three months later, I made a couple attempts to shop it around, but in early 1999 I decided to put it up on my Web site instead and offer it as “shareware” — people could read it for free and if they liked it, they could send me a buck. And they did: Between 1999 and 2004, when I made it “freeware,” readers sent in $4,000. Most sent more than the suggested $1; one guy sent in $200, which prompted me to ask him if his finger slipped when he typed in the amount on PayPal (it hadn’t).

I never really expected to sell Agent, which was fine — my plan was to keep it up on my Web site as a “free sample” and as advertising for my other books and novels. But in January of 2005, after the release of my novel Old Man’s War, Subterranean Press publisher Bill Schafer contacted me and asked if I would be interested in doing a hardcover edition of the novel. I told him I would do it if I could still keep the text online. He said sure, and here we are.

2) Why only a limited number of copies? Why not 2,000 signed copies and whatever else is demanded? Did you sell all of your signed copies? How many? 1,000? 1,500? 2,000? More?

Well, Subterranean Press is a small press that specializes in signed, limited editions, so that’s one reason. The other reason is that the entire text of the novel is still available for free online (at scalzi.com/agent), so the signed, limited edition is really for people to have as a collector’s item. This is a slightly different approach than other folks who have released their books as free e-texts: Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross released free e-texts of their most recent books *and* released their books in non-limited hardbacks. Those books are doing well on the sales front, from what I can tell, which suggests that releasing the e-text doesn’t cut into book sales and could indeed help. Having the book available as a free e-text hasn’t hurt sales of Agent, either; we sold several hundred in the pre-order phase, and now less than a month after release we have only a couple hundred copies left to sell.

In addition to the text, we did gin up some other reasons to get the book — first, the rockin’ cover art is by Mike Krahulik, of the extremely popular Web comic Penny Arcade (penny-arcade.com); it’s his first book cover, so the book is a collector’s item on that front as well. Second, to show our appreciation to Mike, Subterranean Press is donating 10% of the purchase price to Child’s Play, the charity put together by Penny Arcade, which provides toys and video games to children’s hospital across the US. I’ve also pledged that if we sold out the press run of 1,500 by the end of the year, I’ll kick in an extra $350 to Child’s Play directly out of my royalties. I’m happy to say it looks like I’ll be taking that particular financial hit. I do think these donations have spurred a few sales.

I’m not opposed to doing a larger run of Agent at some point, but I wouldn’t want to undermine the value of the limited edition for those folks who got that edition, and I’d still want to have the text available on my site. If a publisher is open to a low-key mass market paperback version at some point, I would be willing to listen. At this point, however, I’m perfectly content with the versions that exist.

3) Is it still your experience, as agents and publishers told you, that humorous SF is a hard sell? Why or why not?

It is, but that’s because, as the old joke goes, “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” It’s hard to be funny in any circumstance; science fiction seems to have a particularly hard time of it, which is a little puzzling, since it’s clear that science fiction fans have a great love of humor. Some of the problem has to be laid at the feet of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which has so long been the primary concept of what sf literary humor should be that it seems that when other attempts at humor are made, the response is “This isn’t funny — it’s nothing like Hitchhikers!” And of course, writing a flat-out Hitchhikers wannabe is right out as well, because Douglas Adams does Douglas Adams better than anyone else. And now he’s dead, so we’re in a conundrum.

I think it’s not insignificant that Agent sold only after Old Man’s War sold; Agent could then be marketed as “the new book by John Scalzi” that also happened to be funny, as opposed to “a funny SF book from a guy you’ve never heard of.” It also helped that while OMW was reviewed and marketed as space opera, it also had a strong vein of humor running through it, so when people came to look at Agent, its type of humor didn’t take them entirely by surprise. I think it’s also not insignificant that it’s a small press book — a small press doesn’t have to worry about generating massive sales, just good small one, so it can be flexible regarding humor and other themes that are potentially problematical from a marketing point of view.

I would imagine I would have fewer problems in the future selling humorous science fiction books, but the reason for that will be that publishers who might be interested in me know that humor is one of the things I bring to the table, along with other things that perhaps make me more initially marketable.

4) About the book: Your concept is intriguing. Do you have any experience or inside knowledge about the Hollywood game? And how did the story come to you? Are you commenting on the state of Hollywood today, or anyone or anything else for that matter? Are the characters based on people you know or knew? if so, who and why? If not, why not?

I have some personal knowledge of Hollywood because I was a full-time film critic for many years, and still write freelance DVD reviews and industry commentary for newspapers and magazines (and have a book on film coming out — more on that in a moment). I also have friends who work in agencies, management companies and film studios. The characters aren’t based on any person in particular, but I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if some of the people I know saw a little bit of themselves there.

It *is* a commentary on Hollywood in the sense that LA really is the cultural capital of the world: Other cultures hunger for Hollywood, denounce it, rebel against it or try to emulate it, but nobody ignores it. It is the culture every other culture must respond to. It’s worth noting that “Hollywood Culture” is not the same as “American Culture,” especially these days, when overseas grosses make up more than half of a film’s box office take, movie studios are owned by the Japanese, some of the expensive films are funded by byzantine German tax shelters, and the most anticipated movie of the year is being made by a New Zealander. But it was always this way: Our biggest film studios were begun by Russian Jews, some of the greatest directors Hollywood ever saw fled the Nazis, and Hollywood has always cheerfully cherry-picked actors from all around the world. It’s been a global culture from the beginning, which is why it’s so hard to fight — and why it would be perfect for aliens who want to introduce themselves to us.

5) What’s next for you?

Immediately, I have a non-fiction book coming out: The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies, which covers the history of science fiction film from the first SF film in 1902 through to this summer’s blockbusters like Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds, and lists “The Canon” — the 50 science fiction films every serious science fiction film fan should see. I’m very excited about this book. In December, the trade paperback version of Old Man’s War comes out, followed by the hardcover release of its sequel The Ghost Brigades in March 2006 (both will be a Sci-Fi Channel Essential Pick in January), which I am writing as we speak (wheee!). I am also guest-editing an issue of Subterranean Magazine, which will be published in spring 2006. And then in the second half of 2006 I’ll have another novel, The Android’s Dream, hit the bookshelves. So it’ll be a busy time over the next year. And busy, of course, is good.

4 thoughts on “Scifi.com Interview

  1. You’re pretty good at giving interviews (lots of practice from both ends). You give lovely pull quotes and lots of background info that can be woven in. Thanks for linking to the interview, I enjoyed doing it.

  2. Thanks, Dawn. I do indeed try to be a good interview, partly for my own self-promotional reasons, and partly because I know what it’s like to be an interviewer trying to pry answers out of a difficult subject. That’s no fun.

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