Monthly Archives: June 2012

Health Care SCOTUS Ruling Reaction Thread

By now you know that the US Supreme Court has largely upheld “ObamaCare,” on a 5-4 vote. Here is the complete ruling.

I am traveling today so I won’t have much to say on follow-up, but my immediate reaction is: Interesting ruling, surprising grounds for upholding the law, the long-term political ramifications are probably even more interesting than the short-term electoral ramifications, and also, on a personal note, I’m glad to see the law ruled constitutional because I think lack of reasonable health care for everyone in this country has been a horrible state of affairs, and this is the first step in dealing with that.

Go ahead and leave your comments below. As a general rule, may I remind people of two things: One, treat other respondents in the thread with dignity and respect, two, actually try to discuss the ruling and its ramifications, rather than address it from a sports team point of view (i.e., “My side won!” “My side lost!”). And three, even though I will be traveling today, I will still be wielding the Mallet. So, you know. Keep it smart, keep it civil.

Got it? Then the floor is now yours.

The Rough Guide to the Universe on Google Play

Proof once again that often the author is the very last person to know about these things: the second (and most recently updated) version of The Rough Guide to the Universe, my astronomy book, is out and available on Google Play, although apparently not on either Barnes & Noble or Amazon. I don’t know why it’s on the one service and not the others, although if I had to guess it would be because the book was scanned rather than formatted into eBook form, and Amazon/B&N would prefer to have it in its proprietary formats. That’s just a guess, however.

The book is pretty inexpensive at $6 for the electronic version, although I would offer the caveat that because it’s scanned (presumably to keep the fantastic astronomical pictures and star charts in the book in a useful format), you’ll have better luck viewing it on a tablet or computer rather than a phone. I downloaded it and was looking at it on my Galaxy Tab, and it was readable and looked good. If I tried to look at it on my phone, I suspect I would get a headache from all the small text very quickly. And of course there would be the irony of taking a bright electronic tablet out with you to look at a dark night sky; you’d kill your night vision every time you looked down at the book.

Nevertheless, for those of you who don’t have the book and want it, or didn’t know that I wrote anything other than fiction and might be interested in seeing what else I write, this is a good intro. I’m actually very proud of this book; I had always wanted to write an astronomy book when I was younger so being able to do one was a genuine life goal. And as an added bonus, this book itself was very well received as beginner’s guide on everything that’s going on in the universe (and how to see it in the night sky). Check it out if you like.

The Redshirts Tour Final Dates: Lexington and Louisville

As hard as it is to believe, the long, crazy Redshirts tour is finally coming to a close with two more events, one in Lexington and one in Louisville. After this I go home and have to, you know, start living like a normal human again, including writing books and doing SFWA stuff. I don’t know how I will handle the adjustment.

Be that as it may, here’s what all y’all need to know about the last two events.

Lexington, Thursday, June 28, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 7pm. The final bookstore stop, so please come. As usual, I’ll have readings, special guests, Q&A, and the signings of books. It will be fun, and if everyone in Lexington does not show up, I will wallow depressively in complete and abject failure. You don’t want that, do you, Lexington? Of course not. So it’s all on you. Show up every other single town I have been to! You have the power!

Louisville, FandomFest, Friday – Sunday. I’ll be doing panels, Q&As and signings at FandomFest. Here’s my schedule.

Saturday 1 PM Humor in Speculative Fiction (Beckham Room)
Writers’ perspectives on the employment of humor in writing speculative fiction, tips, advice, etc.  Some great co-panelists here such as: Ernest Cline, Jim C. Hines, Laura Resnick, and moderator Lee Martindale.

Saturday 2:30 PM Spotlight John Scalzi  (Jones Room)
Moderated/guided by Michael Cruikshank of Joseph-Beth Booksellers, this session will focus on my work and career, with some questions fielded from the audience.

Sunday 11:30 AM  Exploring Genres Science Fiction  (Beckham Room)
Open panel discussion on science fiction, ranging from space opera to hard science fiction, in terms of where it is now and where it is heading in the near future in the writing/publishing world.  Co-panelists include Timothy Zahn, Debra Dixon, Stephanie Osborn (a writer who had a career working at NASA) and moderator Lee Martindale.

Sunday 1:30 PM Guest of Honor Signing (Expo Area/Joseph-Beth Booth)  
A full hour and a half reserved  to sign/meet and greet fans.  The signing area is by the Joseph-Beth Bookseller exhibit, and they will be stocking all of my titles for the attendees to purchase.

And then I go home. Forever. Or until ComicCon. But never mind that now.

So: Lexington! Louisville! See you soon. Very soon. Like, uh, in 24 to 48 hours soon. Yes, that’s it.

 

Nora Ephron

Every time I see that some jackass out there is positing that women aren’t actually funny, I think about Nora Ephron and I laugh at their stupidity. Nora Ephron was funny, and was funny in multiple media, and was funny in a way that most people can’t be. She wrote great, smart and observant essays, novels and films, and as an extra added bonus, directed some of the latter as well. Ephron was marvelous with characters, with words and with how to break audiences’ hearts and mend them again. She could have a bitter edge when she wanted to, mind you (see: Heartburn). But most of her film work, at least, was pitched more warmly than that. She wrote two of the great romantic comedies of the last quarter century — When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle (which she also directed). Anyone who look at either of those and say, yeah, that’s not funny loses any standing to tell anyone else what is funny. The deli orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally is flat out one of the best bits in cinematic comedy history. Guys, think you can write a funnier scene? Prove it.

Goodbye, Nora Ephron. You were funny. You were smart. You will be missed.

Because I am the Biggest Idiot in the Entire Idiotic History of Idiocy

I have left my MacBook Air at an airport. AGAIN.

(sighs)

Boy, I tell you, if I did not have a contractual work due, a family and people I love, a moral sense that recoils against self-abnegation and a sense of proportion about the tragedies of this life, I would totally kill myself right now. Because I am that much of an idiot.

Anyway. Lost and found reports filed with both the airport and the airline, the Air remotely locked with my contact information provided, and I’m currently working on the Acer, i.e., the temp laptop I bought the last time I lost my MacBook Air. Now we wait — again — to see if it shows up — again. If it doesn’t, then in a week or so I will file an insurance claim and then somehow try to find the strength to move forward. We’ll see if I make it.

My Exciting Life of Excitingness

Look! I’m at an airport again! 

For those interested, my trip to NYC went very well. I came in primarily to be interviewed at the New York Times — no, not for a job (although if they ever need another columnist, all they have to do is let me know) but in the wake of Redshirts. It was my first trip to the new Times building, so that was exciting, and I thought the interview went very well. I will of course let you all know when the profile goes live.

Flying in for an interview and then flying back out in a single day is a little wacky, but I’m actually glad we did it this way because it gets me home to my family tonight and lets me spend all day with them tomorrow before I head off to the last two dates of the tour. It’s nice to spend time with family, you know? Also, I don’t know. Whirlwind jet-set appearances are kind of fun. At least today.

Off to NYC Once More

This time for interviews and business meetings. No public events, sorry. But if you see me walking about randomly, you know, because it’s so easy to spot individuals on New York’s uncrowded streets, be sure to say hello.

I may pop in here later today if I get a moment. This may involve me writing in a coffee shop. Yes, I know. Try not to point and laugh at me.

Not Bored With Me Yet, Are You?

No? Good. Here are three links for you.

1. The AV Club reviews Redshirts, offers some really big spoilers (so, you know, heads up) but also says this: “Redshirts pushes the limits of parody, then revels in the audacity of creation.” That’s going to the publicists, I’d say.

2. If you like hearing me talk (and talk and talk) then you’ll love this audio interview for Locus, in which the fabulous Karen Burnham interviewed me while I was in Houston. We talk about the tour, humor, the current state of science fiction, and other such things.

3. And if you finish that audio interview and still have a hankering for more of me yammering incessantly, I will hearken back to another interview I did, this one with Mur Lafferty for her world-famous podcast I Should Be Writing. This was recorded on the day Redshirts came out, so I talk about that, including the DRM flub, and other topics.

If you are bored with me, uh, dude: Why are you here?

The Effects of Tour Brain

At the Fourth Street Fantasy convention this weekend, friends and fellow writers have been asking me how I’m doing. My answer is “things are great, but I have tour brain.” To which they nod and offer me sympathetic smiles. They know from tour brain.

But maybe the rest of you don’t, so let me explain. I’m on my third week of touring for Redshirts and I have a week to go. It’s not a solid month on the road — I’ve been back home a couple of times for a couple of days, which is excellent for doing laundry and reminding wife/child/pets that I live there — but it’s still a lot of time.

This is both something I signed on for and something I’m grateful to have. Touring, especially as extensively as Tor’s been touring me, is expensive and the results are uncertain, so not every writer gets to go on the road to promote their book as I have been able to do. Likewise, I told Tor to flog me like a rented mule when the book came out, and they took me at my word. And to be clear, I am having fun this tour. It’s been fantastic to see people and to see the enthusiasm for the books. So I want to make sure you all know that I think being on tour is a very good thing.

But it eats your brain. All the travel plus being “on” plus being focused on the peculiar task of publicity means that you end of being a combination of tired, wrenched out personality-wise and a little muzzy-headed when it comes to things that are not immediately about the tour or your book. When you have have a moment to sit still, what ends up happening is you look a little dazed, as if you were bonked on the head by a pvc pipe, and then your conversational ability drools out of your face and you do a suitable approximate of everyone’s favorite genial but slow uncle, sitting in a corner, waiting for someone to come get him and tell him it’s time for corn flakes. At the very least, it’s what happens to me.

There are other effects as well, one of which you have have noticed here. Athena, my daughter, noted to me that the blog’s a little less interesting than average for the last couple of weeks, in part because there’s not a huge amount of variety of topics here. I told her she’s correct, and that’s partly because I haven’t been doing anything else but touring and resting. I am aware of the major events of the work in the last couple of weeks, but I wouldn’t say I’m thinking about them to any significant extent; right now, for outside information, my brain is set on “receive” rather than “process.” As a result the couple of times I’ve sat down to write about some national event, I’ve ended up staring blankly at the WordPress backend for five minutes before saying “screw it” and either playing my guitar or taking a nap. In one way it’s liberating not to think about all this crap — What? Obama and Romney blah blah something something? You don’t say! — but I recognize it’s less interesting for the rest of you. Sorry.

(Also, from a practical matter, writing on controversial/current topics means riding herd on the comments, and I just don’t have the time or mental energy to do that when I am touring. Which means — surprise! — for the duration I’m writing about the tour and/or relatively non-explody topics.)

Again, it’s worth it — the results of the tour have been a more than fair trade for the time and energy put into it. But it’s also true that when I am finally done with everything on July 1 (that’s when I drive home from Louisville and FandomFest, my last tour event), what I’m likely to do is sleep for three days straight. Hopefully my tour brain will then be erased. Just in time for ComicCon.

This Weekend’s Adventures in Minneapolis

A reminder to all and sundry that I will be in the Minneapolis area this weekend, both to participate in the 4th Street Fantasy convention and also to do a signing at Uncle Hugo’s bookstore on Saturday. Here’s how it is going to go down.

Saturday 1pm – 2pm: Signing at Uncle Hugo’s. This is naturally open to anyone and everyone, so come on down, get a book from the fine folks at Uncle Hugo’s, and I’ll be delighted to sign and personalize it for you. Please note that I will be doing a signing only and not a reading. But I promise to be chatty whilst I sign books! So that’s something.

Saturday 3:30pm – 6pm: I have two panels I am on at 4th Street: “Accessibility, Genre, and Depth” at 3:30 and “Collaborations & Shared Worlds” at 5pm (here’s all the programming for the convention). Otherwise I’ll be hanging about there starting Friday and through Sunday, so if you are attending, come say hello. I will not be having a formal signing there, but I’ll quite happily sign books you might have.

See all you Minnesotans (and a few out-of-staters) soon!

How to Build a New York Times Bestseller (or Maybe Not)

A question from the gallery:

Now that Redshirts has become a New York Times bestseller, to what do you attribute its success? Anything that could be replicated by the rest of us?

To answer the second part first: Maybe. To answer the first part second, there are several factors which I think came into play, which I will lay out below. But be sure to stick around for the end, because I will have a point to make there.

So, here’s how I think we — and by we I mean me and a whole bunch of other people at Tor Books and beyond — made a NYT best seller:

1. I wrote seven other largely successful science fiction novels first, two of which (The Last Colony and Fuzzy Nation) were NYT best sellers in their own right, albeit on the paper’s extended list. Which is to say Redshirts didn’t pop up out of nowhere. I’m in my seventh year of being a published novelist, I’ve published regularly, stayed (and built an audience in) a single genre and — this is important — I’ve been fortunate that all the novels I’ve published so far have generally been critical and commercial successes, meaning that so far at least I’ve not had to spend time rebuilding a fiction career that’s had a setback. All of which contributes to a certain amount of personal momentum going into Redshirts out of the gate.

2. I wrote a commercially accessible book. Independent of the quality of the book itself, the concept of the book is accessible and easy to understand, both to devotees of the genre and — again, this is important — to those outside of it. I can explain the book to anyone in a sentence (“The crew of a starship realize they’re doomed if they go on away missions and try to change their fate”) and almost everyone who has not lived under a rock for the past 40 years knows enough about televised science fiction that the possibilities for the book open up in their head.

In her Live Journal review of Redshirts, spec fic writer and fan Marissa Lingen (whose opinion I respect quite a bit) was puzzled why, in 2012, I would essay the concept of red shirts, because it’s not exactly a new idea out there in the world. The answer to her question, however, is implicit in the question itself. The idea of “red shirts” has been out there in the world for long enough to reach a level of cultural critical mass, which made it a good time to write a novel about it — which is a thing that hadn’t been done yet. Jokes, skits, short stories and subplots about them? Yes. A novel where they are out front? Not really. And as it happens a novel is a fine format to dig into the concept more than one might be able to do in a short story, skit or subplot, which is a distinct advantage in this case.

3. I wrote a book that didn’t suck. A commercially successful book does not necessarily have to be well-written, but it doesn’t hurt things if it is. Redshirts is well-written — or, perhaps more accurately, it’s written in a manner which is easy for most literate humans to read, with efficient prose and a light, speedy style that rewards swallowing the book in big gulps rather than sipping it slowly. Even more simply put, it’s designed to be fun to read, and to read fast. These are fine qualities for a novel to have when one is hoping for commercial success.

4. I had the support of my publishers and they executed flawlessly in production and promotion. The book was given a fantastically accessible look by Tor Art Director Irene Gallo and cover designer Peter Lutjen. My publicist Alexis Saarela wrangled strategically advantageous interviews and appearances leading up to the arrival of the book and plotted a month-long book tour to help push the book and to get me in front of readers and booksellers. Tor’s marketing folks and bookstore representatives were canny in building excitement for the book prior to release. My editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden rode herd over all of it and helped tweak strategy and kept me in the loop (which is actually important). On the audiobook side, Steve Feldberg at Audible helped put together an audio package that that included Wil Wheaton reading the book — a perfect match for the material, both in terms of Wil’s acting history and also his affinity for the material.

Having publisher support is a huge deal. As with anything else, it’s not determinative regarding success — anything can succeed or fail — but it increases the options available to you and the number of potential paths you have for success. In my case, this publisher support follows on points one through three: I have a good track record and I gave them a book that was marketable. But after that it’s about what they do on their end, and in this case, they nailed it, and are continuing to do so.

5. We released a large chunk of the book early and for free (and promoted it). Releasing the prologue and the first four chapters of Redshirts on Tor.com and then through electronic retailers gave fans a sneak preview to get them excited about the book and also helped to give readers who were not familiar with my writing (or not sure a book about red shirts would be to their liking) enough of a taste that they could decide whether to commit to buying the whole thing. This helped drive presales, which were a significant portion of the first week sales, particularly electronically. I also and anecdotally believe that offering that first chunk of the book probably trimmed back the desire to illegally post the book online; we made it easy for people to read enough to know whether they wanted to support the book or not that posting the whole thing was in many ways superfluous.

6. We released the eBook DRM free (and when retailers slapped DRM on it inadvertently at first, made it easy for people to get the DRM-free versions we promised them). I suspect there is a significant number of people who bought Redshirts to help make the point that trusting one’s readers and letting them own their electronic versions of the book was the right thing to do, or for whom the DRM-free status of the eBook was the thing that tipped them from maybe getting the book to definitely getting it. I like it when people make statements like this, and hope they keep doing it for all my Tor releases in the future.

7. Jonathan Coulton wrote a kick-ass theme song. Jonathan Coulton’s audience and mine overlap heavily but are not completely congruent, so having him write a theme song and having that out there for his fans to pick up on helped the more curious ones to check out the book (and vice-versa; hey, did you know you can buy the song for a dollar?). Likewise, for my fans, it gave them an awesome earworm a week ahead of the release, which I think had a positive effect on sales.

8. The book came out just ahead of Father’s Day. Given the number of books I signed that featured the inscription “Happy Father’s Day,” I think that Redshirts was a popular gift for this particular holiday, and that probably had an impact on first week sales.

Finally,

9. I have a big online presence and that allows me to let lots of people know about my upcoming work. We’ve talked about this before, right? Right.

And now that you’ve stuck through all the reasons that I think allowed Redshirts to hit the best seller list, here’s that caveat I warned you about:

10. This is not the only path, or a guaranteed path, to the NYT list (or to writing success in general). All these things worked for me this particular time. There are lots of writers who have written more books than I — and have admirably successful careers — who have never hit the NYT list. There are lots of people who write accessible, readable books who don’t hit the list. Lots of books have strong publisher support and don’t make the list. And so on. Likewise, there are books that come out of of nowhere, writers with their first books, books that are terribly and/or challengingly written, which hit the list. There are no guarantees about anything.

Keep in mind that the NYT lists are not just about raw sales: the New York Times uses its own secret sauce of sampling and algorithms to build its rankings, and beyond that rankings are influenced by other relative factors. It’s why, for example, Redshirts dropped off the Hardcover Fiction list in its second week despite selling as many books in its second week as Fuzzy Nation (which made the extended list) did in its first week. Mysterious are the ways of the NYT best seller lists.

Also keep in mind that a book can be successful and never chart on a bestseller list. Old Man’s War is my best-selling book but it didn’t get anywhere near the NYT list in any format. All it does is sell, week after week, year after year. Likewise, prior to Old Man’s War, my most successful book was Book of the Dumb, which sold over 100,000 copies, many through Costco and Sam’s Club, which at the time the book was released didn’t have their sales sent into BookScan. From the point of view of bestseller lists, it was as if those books were never sold. I still got paid for them, however. Which is nice.

Ultimately, I think the secret of any success, writing-wise, is just to write the book that you want to write. I didn’t write Redshirts in a calculated attempt to scale a list; I wrote it because I thought I would have fun writing it and maybe people would have fun reading it. I did, and for the most part it seems people do. In that regard it’s a successful book. Everything else, including the NYT list, is frosting on the cake.

The Big Idea: Anne E. Johnson

When confronting the incomprehensible universe, it’s sometimes useful to have something to cart stuff around in. Simple, proletarian wisdom, or something more? Anne E. Johnson argues for “something more,” especially as it relates to her science fiction novel Green Light Delivery.

ANNE E. JOHNSON:

Sometimes life hands us things we don’t want. Things we don’t understand. But we have to deal with them anyway because, well, that’s life. We face inexplicable, nonsensical situations forced on us by destiny, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s pretty funny, if you think about it. And that’s the big idea in Green Light Delivery.

Webrid is just a guy, an everyman. He’s big, hairy, macho, and sort of lost. He has a menial job in the city of Bargival on the planet Bexilla, carting items either to deliver or to sell on consignment. But suddenly he finds himself tapped for a big job he doesn’t want. And he can’t exactly refuse it. A robot embeds a laser in his skull, and in order to get rid of it, Webrid has to take it…somewhere. If only he can figure out where.

Making Webrid a professional carter was integral to the big idea: For one thing, it helped the mechanics of the story. Webrid is being used by some entity (he doesn’t know who until the end) to transport something from one place to another. He’s accustomed to that concept because carting is his job. This helps him accept the ridiculous assignment that fate hands him. And because he doesn’t know who his client is, exactly what he’s carrying, or quite where he’s supposed to deliver it, Webrid feels like a pawn of fate, the toy of a snide universe that’s just playing with him.

Another reason I chose Webrid’s profession was for its humorous value. The ironic twist is that he doesn’t need his pushcart for this particular delivery, since the laser is stuck in his head. Yet he takes his cart with him everywhere out of habit and nostalgia, even when he travels between planets. It annoys everyone around him, but turns out to be a fateful choice. That cart is useful for all sorts of unexpected reasons.

The low-tech nature of a hand-pushed cart also appealed to me. I specifically wanted the city of Bargival to be like a major American inner city in the 1970s, not a gleaming city of the future. This isn’t the future, anyway; it’s an alternative universe, and the government is a mess. Things are falling apart. I was tickled by the vision of a big lug of a guy pushing a metal cart through streets that also had robots flying around them. And I wanted a person with no tech skills to be entrusted with one of his world’s most cutting-edge gadgets. He’s the last person anyone would expect to carry this thing.

Green Light Delivery is meant to be entertaining, but in truth, it grew from my sardonic belief that destiny is ridiculous and we are often not in control of what’s in our lives. Yet, most people persevere, which I realize on my less cynical days. Let Webrid be a lesson to us all: With a determined attitude, a strong-axled cart, and friends who can help you with the science stuff, nothing fate shoves in your face is too big to handle.

—-

Green Light Delivery: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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

And Now, Some One Star Reviews of Redshirts

As part of my continuing mission to remind authors and other creative people that there is nothing they will ever create that will be universally loved, here are some choice comments from one-star reviews of Redshirts, my current, fastest-selling and in many ways most enthusiastically received book:

“Sophomoric is the kindest word I can come up with. Boring might be another. Flat characters describes in 2 words, waste of money in 3 words.”

“DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME READING THIS….and if you ignore my advice, and read it anyway, I will happily send you a note saying ‘told you so!'”

“This is an onanistic, shallow and very disappointing book.”

“First time in a decade I was actually unable to finish a book.”

“The only reason I didn’t burn this book is because I borrowed it.”

I actually have an overwhelming desire to send this last dude a copy with the inscription “BURN ME.” But then I’m pretty sure I would go to Hell. Because book burning? Bad.

Once again: How do I feel about one star reviews? I’m fine with them. I’m sorry these folks had an unhappy reading experience, but the point is that no matter what I wrote, someone would have had an unhappy reading experience. I know this because there’s not a novel I’ve written that someone hasn’t seen fit to complain about, often at length and sometimes with the vitriol usually reserved for politicians of the party one does not like.

It’s part of the territory, and the sooner one as a creator comes to grips with it and accepts it as part of the process, the better off one will be. I think as a creator you owe your audience your best efforts, but if at the end of your best effort some of them are still not happy, the best response is, oh, well, maybe next time. You will never make everyone happy. If you try, you’ll likely create something mediocre, and then nobody will be happy. Least of all you.

One-star (and otherwise negative) reviews happen. Accept them, own them, and then move on from them.