Daily Archives: September 24, 2009

YBF, PoD and Other Such Acronyms

It was noted to me last week that this year’s edition of Year’s Best Fantasy is published by Tor.com (that is, the Web site, as distinct from Tor Books), and that it is Publish on Demand — which is to say, when you order the book, the call goes out to a printing machine, which whomps it up for you, and then presumably shipped to you whilst it is still warm. I was also asked what I thought of this particular delivery system for books.

Well, I think the more accurate question to ask is: Is it a good delivery system for this book? In the case of YBF, at this point in the series life cycle it may very well be. In a general sense “Year’s Best” anthology numbers have been declining year to year, and in the particular case of YBF, over the last couple of years it’s been distributed by a small press, which almost certainly had an impact on the series distribution and sales numbers. At this point, a shakeup in the way things are done might be in order. That being the case, there are worse things than for this series to hook up with a young and hungry imprint which also happens to be nestled in the bosom of one of the planet’s largest publishing empires.

In a larger sense there are trade-offs. The first trade-off is that when you have a PoD book, at this point you’re writing off bookstores. I imagine one could special order the book from one’s favorite brick-and-mortar store, but on a practical level, the only way to get this book is to buy it online. As someone who has sold books primarily online before (most of my limited work through Subterranean Press, for example) I think it’s doable but it comes with implicit assumptions. In my case, the stuff I do with SubPress is primarily pitched to people who already know my work, not new readers. This fine because the runs are generally meant to be limited in scope. I think in the case of YBF, they’re also going to find themselves primarily pitched to people who are already fans (both in the sense of “SF/F Fandom” and “fans of the series”).

In the short run I don’t suspect it will be a problem; in the long run it may be. One of the reasons that offering stuff primarily to existing fans is not an issue for me is that I still have ScalziProduct™ in the bricks and mortar channel to reach new people, and that my personal presence online, via Whatever/Twitter/Facebook, is still generating new readers. I’m expanding my audience, in other words. YBF also has to do this. It has an engine for this in Tor.com, which I suspect strongly is still growing, but it will still be a challenge.

As for PoD in a general sense, at the moment I think it’s still primarily going to be a small volume business; with one or two exceptions the online sales channel is still tiny relative to the other places books sell through. It will almost certainly grow, although I don’t suspect my as much as some people suspect or possibly hope; I think in the long run most of the lunch PoD is eyeing is going get eaten by eBooks.

That said, for the right project, pitched to the right audience, a PoD book could do just fine. Perhaps YBF is that project.

The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

If you read science fiction short stories, the name “Paolo Bacigalupi” has become a familiar one recently, in no small part because it keeps cropping up during awards season: four Hugo nominations in five years, Locus and Sturgeon award wins, and general praise from all quarters.

The work in short fiction is the foundation for Bacigalupi’s debut novel The Windup Girl, set in a world where aggressive genetic engineering sometimes leads to crop blights and food shortages — “calorie plagues” — and where that pretty girl you see walking down the street might not be human at all. As with Bacigalupi’s short work, The Windup Girl is already generating enormous praise (“clearly one of the finest science fiction novels of the year,”  wrote Publishers Weekly, which gave the book a coveted starred review) and is already a contender for the next awards season.

So it’s interesting that this book finds its start in something very humble indeed: The work of garlic farmers…

PAOLO BACIGALUPI

The Windup Girl is set in a future Bangkok where sea levels have risen and oil has run out, and where a company man named Anderson Lake is on the hunt for a hidden seedbank. The Thai Kingdom, unlike almost every other country in the world, has managed to fend off the calorie plagues with aggressive isolationist polices, and now—much to the surprise of the calorie companies, who control agriculture—the Thais are engineering their own competing seedstock. Lake wants access to the genetic gold mine of the Thai seedbank, and to find the man who is engineering their plague-resistant crops. Obviously, this isn’t in Thailand’s best interest, and mayhem ensues.

The novel is partly inspired by couple friends of mine who are garlic farmers. Every summer they dig up their garlic crop, separate it into bulk garlic and braids, and sell the majority of it. But a few garlic cloves–the biggest, fattest, finest ones–get saved for planting the following year. The cloves they retain guarantee the future of their garlic farm, and the slow improvement of the crop as it becomes bigger, hardier, and more productive over successive generations. That garlic, grown on a single mesa in Colorado becomes more unique and more productive with every season. It’s the slow version of genetic engineering.

Contrast with this with a major agricultural company like Monsanto or ADM. As opposed to a creating a unique product from a unique place, they’re interested in creating uniform products that will be sold everywhere. And because of profit concerns, they need to do it quickly, with the best technologies available. Of course, engineering something like Roundup Ready soybeans isn’t cheap, so they would very much prefer that farmers not replant the seeds that they develop, because it’s not very profitable if a farmer just keeps recycling the product s/he bought twenty years ago.

These two versions of genetic engineering, both of them for profit, and both of them aimed at increasing crop quality over time, fascinate me. They each have merits, depending on what sort of outcomes you expect from food production, but around the time corporate research created something called the Terminator gene so that farmers could never replant their seeds, I started feeling a little concerned about where we were headed.

Based on what I’ve seen of global food companies, and my own–admittedly megalomaniacal―impulses, I started scheming about how I’d run an international food corporation if I really wanted to get profits rolling. First, I’d want to get rid of competing crops. So I’d manufacture food blights to kill anything that wasn’t my own genetically resistant seedstock. Then I’d bring out the Terminator gene, so that no one could ever replant my patented seed. And then of course I’d jack up the price, and wallow in all that money.

In The Windup Girl, the calorie plagues that some food executive created in a moment of inspiration have evolved and gotten out control. Corporate genehackers are just one step ahead of the next blister rust mutation. Crop blights have jumped from plants to people and now spread with horrifying speed through human populations, and as food becomes more and more centralized in its production and desperately needed in the world, agricultural corporations have become the most powerful organizations on the planet.

Depending on your level of paranoia, this will seem either nuts or all too likely (just don’t put me at the helm of an international corporation). But profit scheming aside, the thing that fascinates me about complex technologies like genetic engineering is how many things can go wrong. Good ideas, even the best ideas, have unexpected and disruptive consequences, and I like seeing how those cascading effects work out in society and on people. As a writer, I love it when things go wrong. So The Windup Girl takes place in a world almost everything has.

—-

The Windup Girl: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read sample chapters of the novel. Read “Windup Stories,” two Hugo-nominated tales set in the same world (pdf link).

Moon’s Oscar Chances and More

I’m answering mail in this week’s AMC column, talking about which science fiction movies have a chance at next year’s expanded Best Picture nominee slate (including Moon, pictured above), offering suggestions for good cheap SF films, and speculating on how long 3D will stick around this time. Go on, you know you love to read me ramble on about such things. And of course feel free to leave questions of your own for future “mailbag” entries.