Sunset 9/25/17

I may have bumped up the saturation levels a bit in this one.

I regret nothing.

Can You Tell My Earnings From My Amazon Sales? Spoiler: Nope, Not at All

There was thread over at Metafilter this week talking about book sales and author earnings, including a link to a study that purported to chart author earnings, based on sales at Amazon.  I have to admit I had a bit of a giggle over it. Not because it was attempting to guess author incomes, which is fine, but because the methodology for estimating those earnings came almost entirely from trying to estimate sales of the authors’ books on Amazon, and extrapolating income from there.

Here’s the thing: For non-self-published authors, the correlation between annual book sales and annual “earnings” as a writer can be fairly low. As in, sometimes there is no correlation at all.

Confusing? Think how we feel!

But let me explain.

So, I’m a writer who works primarily with a “Big Five” publisher (Tor Books, which is part of Macmillan). For each of my books, I’m given an advance, which in my case is paid in four separate installments — when I sign the contract, when I turn in the manuscript and it’s accepted, when the book is published in hardcover and when the book is published in paperback. This is fairly typical for most writers working with a “traditional” publisher.

Once the advance is disbursed, my publisher owes me nothing until and unless my book “earns out” — which is to say, the amount I nominally earn for the sale of each unit (usually between 10% and 15% of each hardcover, and 25% of the net for eBook) exceeds cumulatively the amount I was offered for the advance. Once that happens, my publisher owes me for each book sold, and that amount is then usually disbursed semiannually…

usually. There could be other complicating factors, such as if the royalties of the books are “basketed” (meaning the contract was for two or more books, and the royalties are not disbursed until the advance amount for every book in the “basket” is earned out), or if some percentage of the royalties are held back as a “reserve against returns” (meaning that some books listed as sold/distributed are actually returned, so the publisher holds back royalties for a payment period to compensate).

Bear in mind that most publishers try to offer as an advance a sum of money they think the book will earn, either over the first year in hardcover, or across the entire sales run of the work. Which means that if the publisher has guessed correctly, it will never have to shell out royalties. Sometimes they guess poorly, which means either they paid too much for an advance or not enough; in the latter case, that’s when the royalty checks come (please note that even if a publisher pays “too much” and the advance isn’t earned out, it doesn’t mean the book wasn’t profitable for the publisher — their bottom line is not necessarily heavily correlated to the author’s advance — nor does the author have to pay it back).

So what does this all mean? Well, it means that for a non-self-pubbed author, often none of their annual earnings from a book are directly related to how many of those books sell in a year (or any other specified time frame). In fact, depending on how the advance is paid out, three-quarters or more (even all!) of the author’s earnings from a book are disbursed before the book has sold a single unit.

Like so:

Book is contracted: 40% of the advance (“signing installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0.

Book is turned in and accepted: 20% of the advance (“delivery and acceptance installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0

Book is published in hardcover: 20% of the advance (“hardcover installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0 (there may be pre-orders, but the sales don’t usually start being counted until this time).

Book is published in paperback: Final 20% of the advance goes to author. Books sold to date: Hopefully some! But even if the number is zero, the final installment gets paid out (if so few books are sold that the publisher foregoes the paperback release, there’s still usually the contractual obligation to pay out).

Note these advances can be paid out over more than one year — I once got a final installment for an advance roughly six years after I got the first installment (it was a complicated situation). Likewise, once the book starts selling, it can be years — if at all — before the author starts earning royalties, and even then, thanks to the reserve against returns, what the author gets in those semi-annual royalty checks is not 1:1 with sales for the period the check covers (note: this sometimes works to the benefit of the author). Also note: Those semi-annual checks? Often cover a period of time located in the previous fiscal or calendar year.

All of which is to say: For a “traditionally published” author, at almost no point do what an author’s yearly earnings for a book directly correspond to how the book is selling in that particular year.

(Is this bad? No, but it needs paying attention to. Authors tend to love advances because they’re not directly tied to sales — it’s money up front that doesn’t have to be immediately recouped and can help tide the author over during the writing and the wait for publication. But it also means, again, that it can be years — if at all — before money from royalties comes your way. Authors need to be aware of that.)

To move the discussion to me directly for a moment, if someone tried to guess my annual earnings based on my yearly unit sales on Amazon (or via Bookscan, or anywhere else for that matter), they would be likely be, well, wildly wrong. At any moment I have several books at various stages of advance disbursement — some contracted, some completed but not published, some published in hardcover and some published in paperback — a few all paid out in advances but not earned out, and several earned out and paying royalties.

Add to that audio sales (another set of advances and royalties) and foreign sales (yet another) and ancillary income like film/tv options (which are not tied to sales at all, but sales help get things optioned) and so on. Also note that not all my sales provide royalties at the same rate — a lot will depend on format and how many were previously sold (if they are in print or physical audio), unit price (if they are eBook or audio files), and on other various bits that are in contracts but not necessarily disclosed to the wide world. Oh, and don’t forget my short fiction and non-fiction!

Basically, my yearly earnings as an author are a delightful mess. I’m glad I have an accountant and an agent and a very smart life partner to help me stay on top of them. These earnings have almost nothing to do with unit sales in any calendar year, and more to the point, never have, even when I was a newbie book writer with a single book contract to my name. I signed my first book contract in 1999; since then I have yet to have a year when my earnings from being an author approach anything like a 1:1 parity with my book sales in that same year.

Does this matter? Well, it matters if you are, for example, trying to extrapolate what “traditionally published authors” make based on their annual sales, and are then comparing those “earnings” to the earnings of self-published authors. It’s ignoring that these are entirely different distribution systems which have implications for annual earnings. I don’t think one is particularly better than the other, but a direct comparison will give you poor results. Note also that’s true going the other way — applying “traditional publishing” income models to self-published authors will very likely tell you incorrect things about how they’re doing economically in any one year.

(And as a further note: Do likewise be aware of the caveats for anyone trying to extrapolate self-pub/indie annual author earnings from Amazon as well. It misses direct sales, which for authors who ply the convention circuits can be significant, and also may not fully incorporate how Amazon deals with payments in its subscription models, which are handled rather differently than actual sales, and which (unless it’s changed very recently) come from a pre-determined pot of payment rather than a straight percentage of sales. Hey, it’s complicated! Almost as complicated as the “traditional” model.)

Here’s one thing I suspect is true: It’s possible to make money (sometimes a lot of it) as a traditionally published author, or as an self-published/indie author — or as both, either in turn or simultaneously, since, as it happens, there’s no deep ideological chasm between the two, and generally speaking an author can do one or the other depending on their project needs, or their own (likewise, it’s possible to make almost no money either way, too. Alas). It’s not an either-or proposition.

But yes: Here is a grain of salt. Please apply it to anyone who tells you they know how much any author (traditional or self-pub/indie, but especially traditional) is earning in any year, based on Amazon sales, even if they’re  limiting it to Amazon sales. They’re just guessing, and you have no idea how far off their guesses are. And neither, I strongly suspect, do they. Only the actual authors know, and most of the time, they’re not telling.

Out For the Weekend

But don’t worry, Spice is here to keep you company.

See you on Monday (or maybe Sunday evening, if I feel frisky).

New Books and ARCs, 9/22/17

Just in time for the weekend, a new batch of books and ARCs at the Scalzi Compound for you to peruse. Which would you want to give a place in your own “to be read” stack? Tell us in the comments.

The Collapsing Empire an Audible Deal of the Day

And being an “Audible Deal of the Day” means you get to spend very little to get the book — in this case something like $3. The deal as far as I know is limited to the US and maybe Canada, and it’s only for today. So if you want it at this price, you need to jump on it. It’s perfect for the folks who love audiobooks, or for the folks who have never tried audiobooks but would be willing to give them a chance at a low price point, or for the folks who simply want Wil Wheaton to read to them in those dulcet tones of his.

Here’s the link to the audiobook. Enjoy!

The First Sunset of Fall, 2017

Featuring an Amish gentleman on a recumbent bicycle. As all the best first sunsets of fall do.

So long, summer. You did all right.

Today is International I’m Busy So Here’s a Picture of Krissy Day

And as luck would have it, I happen to have just the picture for such a day! What are the odds?

(Spoiler: They are in fact very good.)

Why I Had a Good Tuesday This Week

Because yesterday I got to hang out a bit with Alison Moyet, who if you didn’t know is one of my absolute favorite singers, both in Yaz, and with her solo work. We’d become Twitter buddies in the last couple of years and when I mentioned to her Krissy and I would be at her Chicago show she suggested we have a real-life meet. And we did! And it was lovely! And brief, as she had to prepare to entertain a sold-out show (and she did; the concert was excellent), but long enough to confirm that she’s as fabulous in the flesh as she is in her music. Which was not surprising to me, but nice regardless.

(Alison has also blogged about our meet-up as part of her tour journal, which you can find here. Read the entire tour journal, as she’s funny as hell.)

I noted to some friends that I was likely to meet Alison this week and some of them wondered how it would go, on the principle that meeting one’s idols rarely goes as one expects (more bluntly, the saying is “never meet your idols.”) I certainly understand the concept, but I have to say I’ve had pretty good luck meeting people whom I have admired (or whose work I admired). I chalk a lot of that up to the fact that while I was working as a film critic, I met and interviewed literally hundreds of famous people, some of whose work was very important to me. In the experience I got to have the first-hand realization that famous and/or wonderfully creative people are also just people, and have the same range of personalities and quirks as anyone else.

If you remember that when you meet the people whose work or actions you admire, you give them space just to be themselves. And themselves are often lovely. And when they’re not, well, that’s fine too. Alison Moyet, it turns out, is fabulous, and I’m glad we got to meet.

(Which is not to say I didn’t geek out. Oh, my, I did. But I also kept that mostly inside. Krissy found it all amusing.)

Anyway: Great Tuesday. A+++, would Tuesday again.

The Big Idea: Fran Wilde

Today, award-winning author Fran Wilde has a shocking confession to make! About something she said! Here! And yes, it involves her new novel, Horizon. What will this confession be? Will there be regret involved? Are you prepared for what happens next?!?

FRAN WILDE:

Dear readers of John Scalzi’s blog, for the past three years, I’ve been keeping secrets.

I’m not sorry.

Trilogies are a delicate thing. They are a community of books unto themselves. They inform and support one another; their themes and actions ripple and impact one another. They have their own set of rules. Among them: Write down the main character’s eye color or favorite food so you don’t forget it. You’ll regret using that hard-to-spell naming convention by the middle of your second book. Destroy something in book one, you’re not going to magically have it to rely on in book three — at least not without some major effort. Everything gathers — each choice, each voice.

Trilogies are, by intent, more than the sum of their parts.

And, when brought together, a trilogy’s largest ideas sometimes appear in the gathered shadows of what seemed like big ideas at the time.

In Updraft, book one of the Bone Universe trilogy, what began to crumble was the system that upheld the community of the bone towers. It didn’t look like it then. So I didn’t tell you when I wrote my first Big Idea.

Instead, the first time I visited this blog, I wrote: “At its heart, Updraft is about speaking and being heard and — in turn — about hearing others…”

That was true – especially in the ways Updraft explored song as memory and singing and voice. But it was also kind of a fib. I knew where the series was headed, and voice was only the tip of the spear.

I planned to return here a year later to write about leadership, and I did — and, I wrote about demagoguery too, and abut having a book come out during a charged political season. That was September 2016, Cloudbound, the second book in the series was just out, and wow, that post seems somewhat innocent and naive now. But not any less important.

Again, saying the big idea in Cloudbound was leadership was true on its face, but it was also a an act of omission. And again, singing came into play — in that songs in Cloudbound were being adjusted and changed, as were messages between leaders.

With Horizon, I’m going to lay it all out there for you. Horizon is about community.

Structurally, Horizon is narrated by several different first person voices — including Kirit, Nat, and Macal, a magister and the brother of a missing Singer. These three voices come from different places in the Bone Universe’s geography, and they weave together to form a greater picture of the world, and its threats. A fourth voice appears only through a song — a new song — that is written during the course of Horizon, primarily by one character but with the help of their community. That song is the thread that ties the voices together, and, one hopes, the new community as well.

And, like Horizon, for me, the big idea for the Bone Universe series is also community. How to defend one, how to lead one, how to salvage as much as you can of one and move forward towards rebuilding it.

In my defense, I did leave some clues along the way. I shifted narrators between Updraft and Cloudbound in order to broaden the point of view and reveal more about the lead characters and the world, both between the books (how Nat and Kirit are seen each by the other vs. how they see themselves), and within them. I shared with readers the history of the bone towers and how that community, and the towers themselves, formed. I showed you the community’s [something] – that their means of keeping records and remembering was based on systems that could be used to both control messages and redefine them. I made the names of older laws and towers much more complicated to pronounce (and, yes, spell SIGH), versus the simpler names for newer things. This community had come together, then grown into something new.

The evolution of singing in the Bone Universe is, much like the idea of community, something that can be seen in pieces, but that resolves more when looked at from the perspective of all three books together.

Remember that solo voice — Kirit’s — singing quite badly that first book? In the second book, Nat’s voice joins Kirit’s — a solo, again, but because we can still hear Kirit, and because we know her, it becomes a kind of duet. In the third book, three voices present separate parts of the story, and when they all come together, that forms a connected whole.

When you listen to a group of people sing, sometimes one voice stands out, then another. Then, when multiple voices join in for the chorus, the sound becomes a different kind of voice. One with additional depth and resonance.

That’s the voice of a community. That drawing together of a group into something that is more than the sum of its parts. It is an opportunity, a way forward, out of a crumbling system and into something new and better.  

That’s the big idea.

—-

Horizon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

View From a Hotel Window, 9/19/17: Chicago

Krissy and I are playing hooky today because we’re going to the Alison Moyet concert in Chicago, which necessitated a bit of a drive. Well, we’re here now, and the view from the hotel is lovely, nary a parking lot in sight. How is your day?

The Big Idea: Annalee Newitz

In her debut novel Autonomous, former i09 editor-in-chief and current science and tech writer and editor Annalee Newitz gets under the skin of the healthcare industry and thinks about all the ways it’s less-than-entirely healthy for us… and what that means for our future, and the future she’s written in her novel.

ANNALEE NEWITZ:

There’s a scene from the Torchwood series Miracle Day that I will never be able to wash out of my brain. After humans stop being able to die for mysterious reasons, our heroes tour a hospital full of people who are hideously immortal: their bodies pancaked and spindled and melted, they lie around in agony wishing for oblivion. For all its exaggerated body horror, that moment feels creepily realistic in our age of medicine that can keep people alive without giving them anything like quality of life.

Torchwood: Miracle Day wasn’t my first taste of healthcare dystopia, but it made a huge impression because it distilled down one of the fundamental ideas I see this subgenre: some lives are worse than death. This is certainly the message in countless pandemic films, where the infected are ravening, mindless zombies. Killing them is a mercy.

This idea takes a slightly different form in books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl. Both narratives toy with what it means when people are turned into medical experiments, like futuristic versions of the Tuskegee Study. We see some ruling class of people deciding that another class should serve as its organ donors or genetic beta testers. What if somebody were treating us like lab rats, as if our lives didn’t matter?

And then there are the false healthcare utopias, which I find the most disturbing because they remind me of listening to U.S. senators trying to sell the idea that they have a “much better plan” than Obamacare—even though I know people who will die under these “better plans.” Politicians have probably been pushing false healthcare utopias since at least the 19th century, but in science fiction its roots can clearly be traced to Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World. In that novel, everyone is medicating with Soma just to deal with how regimented and limited their lives are.

False healthcare utopias can take many forms, and they overlap with more familiar dystopias too. Some deal with surveillance. In the chilling novel Harmony, Project Itoh imagines a future Japan where the government monitors everyone’s microbiomes by tracking everything that goes into and out of their bodies (yep, there’s toilet surveillance).

Sometimes the false healthcare utopia is just a precursor to a more familiar zombie dystopia like 28 Days Later. Consider, for example, our extreme overuse of antibiotics. Though it appears that we can cure pretty much any infection with antibiotics, we’re very close to living in a world where antibiotics no longer work at all. One of the most terrifying books I’ve read this year is science journalist Maryn McKenna’s book Big Chicken, which is about how the agriculture industry depends on antibiotics to keep animals “healthy” in filthy, overcrowded conditions. This is creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are coming for us, pretty much any day now. That’s right–penicillin-doped chickens are the real culprits in I Am Legend.

I’m fascinated by how many false healthcare utopias depend on coercive neuroscience. Often, brain surgery is involved—we see this in John Christopher’s Tripods and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, both about so-called utopian worlds created by neurosurgical interventions that restrict freedom of thought. Maybe these stories focus on brains so much because these are fundamentally stories about lies, and brains are, after all, the organ that we use for lying.

When I started work on my novel Autonomous (out today! yes it is!), I knew I wanted to explore the lies of the pharmaceutical industry and its gleaming ads promising a better life to those who can afford a scrip. One of the protagonists, Jack, has become a pharmaceutical pirate so that she can bring expensive, patented medicine to poor people who need it. But she also sells a few of what she calls “funtime worker drugs” on the side, to fund her Robin Hood activities and keep her submarine in good repair.

Those funtime drugs are why things go sideways for Jack. She sells some pirated Zacuity, a “productivity” drug that I loosely based on Provigil or Adderall. It gets people really enthusiastic about work, but it has some unexpected side-effects that the pharma company Zaxy has suppressed. Now Jack has to stop the drug from killing more people, while also evading two deadly agents sent by Zaxy: a robot named Paladin and a human named Eliasz.

So Autonomous is chase story with some hot robot sex, but it’s also very much a book about how pharma companies sell us an idea of “health” that is actually really unhealthy.

Today pharma companies market drugs the way Disney markets Star Wars movies, and for good reason. Drugs like Adderall and Provigil are supposed to make us feel better and more competent—or at the very least distract us—for a few blissful hours. Just like a movie. I’m not trying to say there’s a problem with taking drugs (or watching movies) to feel good. Nor am I saying that people don’t need anti-depressants and other meds to treat psychological problems. The issue is when these drugs are overprescribed for enhancement, and “feeling really good” becomes a terrible kind of norm. Pharma companies want us to believe that if we aren’t incredibly attentive, productive, and happy every day, there must be something wrong. This paves the way for an ideal of mental health that almost nobody can (or should) live up to.

There’s another, deeper problem that’s caused by selling medicine as if it were a form of entertainment. Nobody would ever argue that going to see the new Star Wars movie is a right. It’s just a luxury for people with disposable income. If we see medicine like that too, it’s easy to fall for the lie that our healthcare system is great even though it only serves the richest people in the U.S.

In the world of Autonomous, the pharma companies are full of guys like Martin Shkreli, jacking up the prices on medicine because they can. They get away with it because so many people in the U.S. believe that anyone can get medicine if they really deserve it. Only a lie of that magnitude could make it seem fair when working class people can’t afford to treat AIDS-related complications. Or cancer. Or a heart infection.

Autonomous is a book about lies. But more importantly, it’s about what happens to the people who see through those lies and try to do something about it. Everyone deserves to have medicine. It is a right, not a privilege. Until we recognize that, I’ll be hanging out with the pirates.

—-

Autonomous: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Today in I Need a Better Class of Detractor

Well, specifically this silly person said I would never earn out [x] amount of money I got as an advance, and also that I would in fact never see [x] amount of money, because of reasons they left unspecified but which I assume were to suggest that my contracts would be cancelled long before I got the payout. As [x] amount of money seems to suggest this silly person is talking about my multi-book multi-year contracts, let me say:

1. lol, no;

2. [x] was not the sum for any of my contracts (either for individual works or in aggregate) so that’s wrong to begin with;

3. It’s pretty clear that this silly person has very little idea how advances work in general, or how they are paid out;

4. It’s also pretty clear this silly person has very little idea how advances work with long-term, multi-project contracts in particular, or how they are paid out;

5. Either this silly person has never signed a book contract, or they appear to have done a very poor job of negotiating their contracts;

6. In any event, it’s very clear this silly person has no idea about the particulars of my business.

Which makes sense as I don’t go into great detail about them in public. But it does mean that people asserting knowledge of my business are likely to be flummoxed by the actual facts. Like, for example, the fact that I’m already earning royalties on work tied into those celebrated-yet-apparently-actually-cursed contracts. Royalties, I’ll note for those of you not in the publishing industry, are paid out after you earn back an advance.

How am I getting royalties on a work tied to contracts that this silly person has assured all and sundry I will never earn out? The short answer is because I’ve earned out, obviously. The slightly longer answer is that my business deals are interesting and complex and designed to roll money to me on a steady basis over a long period of time, but when you are a silly person who apparently knows nothing about how book contracts work (either my specific ones, or by all indications book contracts in general) and you have an animus against me because, say, you’re an asshole, or because of group identification politics that require that I must actually be a raging failure, for reasons, you are prone to assert things that are stupid about my business and show your complete ignorance of it. And then I might be inclined to point and laugh about it.

In any event, this is a fine time to remind people of two things. The first thing is that I have detractors, and it’s very very important to them that I’m seen as a failure. There’s nothing I can ever do or say to dissuade them against this idea, so the least I can do is offer them advice, which is to make their assertions of my failure as non-specific as possible, because specificity is not their friend. I would also note to them that regardless, my failures, real or imagined, will not make them any more successful in their own careers. So perhaps they should focus on the things they can materially effect, i.e., their own writing and career, and worry less about what I’m doing.

Second, if someone other than me, my wife, my agent or my business partners (in the context of their own contracts with me) attempts to assert knowledge of my business, you may reliably assume they are talking out of their ass. This particularly goes for my various detractors, most of whom don’t appear to have any useful understanding of how the publishing industry works outside of their (and this is a non-judgmental statement) self-pub and micro-pub worlds, which are different beasts than the part I work in, and also just generally dislike me and want me to be a miserable failure and are annoyed when I persist in not being either. Wishing won’t make it so, guys.

Bear in mind speculating about my business is perfectly fine, and even if it wasn’t I couldn’t stop it anyway. Speculate away! People have done it for years, both positively and negatively, and most of the time it’s fun to watch people guess about it. Even this silly person’s speculation is kind of fun, in the sense it’s interesting to see all the ways it’s wrong. But to the extent that the unwary may believe this silly person (or other such silly people among my detractors, and as a spoiler they are all fairly silly on this topic) knows what they are talking about with regard to my business: Honey, no. They really don’t. They have their heads well up their asses.

Or, as I said on Twitter:

And actually the dog has been in the same room as my contracts, so in fact she might know more. Keep that in mind the next time a detractor opines on my business.

The Big Idea: Douglas Wynne

In Cthulhu Blues, author Douglas Wynne wants you to catch the waves. Or perhaps more accurately, to appreciate the fact that the waves already have you — and show something else between them.

DOUGLAS WYNNE:

Back when I was studying music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music, I had a mystical epiphany that didn’t even involve recreational chemistry. It came to me in the classroom while looking at a handout the instructor had passed around. She was about to present an overview of AM and FM radio technology and wanted us to take a look at the wave spectrum within which those broadcast frequencies are nested. On the left, the diagram showed the subsonic vibrations elephants transmit through the ground to communicate over long distances. Moving to the right, it worked its way up through the octaves of audible sound waves and then on to ultrasonic, radio, microwave, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays.

My education up to that point was far more focused on playing guitar than on physics, but I had read about how even matter is essentially composed of waves—or particles, depending on the method of measurement—vibrating at high enough rates to create the illusion of solidity. Still, seeing it all laid out like that, bottom to top, made a profound impression on me. It reminded me that all human perception is just a glimpse through the slats of a fence, a fragmentary picture of a reality we can only experience with a biological bias and a crude, albeit ever expanding, set of tools to fill in the blanks.

It’s a humbling idea. One that I later remembered I’d first encountered in the horror story “From Beyond” by H.P. Lovecraft. In that tale, a scientist discovers alien life forms writhing in the air all around him by tuning his perception with a resonator device he calls “The Ultraviolet.”

When I set out to reimagine the Cthulhu Mythos for the SPECTRA Files trilogy, this idea of exposure to special frequencies opening up human perception to other dimensions and entities was a major element I wanted to explore. After all, the closest thing to real magic I’ve experienced in my own life is the way that music—invisible wave patterns in the air—has the power to open the human heart to unexpected dimensions of feeling.

Music plays a major role in the SPECTRA books. There’s a cosmic boom box that houses a lab-grown larynx, a grand piano that acts as a portal to infernal realms, and a sea organ borrowed from a real architectural instrument in Zadar, Croatia, that plays haunting chords when the waves roll into its chambers. But the main character, Becca Philips, does her work higher up in the wave spectrum. She’s an urban explorer and photographer who shoots infrared photos of abandoned buildings in flood-ravaged Boston. Becca finds an eerie spirituality in the ghostly light emitted by weeds and vines in that range. But when her photos pick up fractal tentacles seeping into our world from an adjacent dimension, she is caught between cultists employing weird tech to evoke monstrous gods and a covert agency that suspects she might be one of them.

From water to sound to light, there are waves rolling through the entire trilogy. But the wave spectrum isn’t the big idea, perception is: how we see the world and our place in it.

Becca Philips is a character defined by her sensitivity. She experienced loss at an early age and continues to suffer from recurrent depression compounded by Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s her sensitivity to light and shadow, her unique way of looking at the world, that makes her a great photographer. And it’s her unique perception that entangles her in the unfolding apocalypse and puts her in a position to do something about it. In book one (Red Equinox), she willingly exposes herself to the harmonics that align the human plane with that of the monsters, an act which makes her more vulnerable even as it dispenses with the illusion of a benign reality so she might be empowered to save others from what lurks just beyond that thin veneer. Becca chose this vision as an act of heroism and chose to keep it when offered a drug that would make it go away. But sometimes the cost of courage is that your contact with dark things changes you and makes you one of them.

I knew from the start that as a sensitive, Becca would also be susceptible to the telepathic dreams of Cthulhu slumbering on the ocean floor sooner or later. I knew she would struggle with her sanity and ultimately have to make a judgment about the sanity of mankind at large and whether our supremacy on the planet is ultimately for the best. As a vegetarian and animal rescuer, Becca sees the value of all life. But when you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss looks into you, and in Cthulhu Blues Becca finally has to grapple with the question of whether or not the Great Old Ones might be better for life on Earth than mankind in the long run. The crux of her crisis is that the same empathetic eye that drives her to save animals, children, and civilization, also opens her to the possibility that the cultists might be right to topple the human race from its throne. She has to ask herself what it is in the spectrum of consciousness that sets humanity apart. If we’re not at the top of the food chain anymore, what makes us unique and worth saving?

I’ve always thought it’s our capacity for compassion. Our ability to see others, even the wretched and subhuman, the animal and the alien, with a kind eye. But if we retreat into the tunnel vision of fear at the first scent of crisis, then what do we have left that makes us the good guys? When you’re caught between a militant covert agency and a radical religious cult, are dark gods really worse than white devils?

—-

Cthulhu Blues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|JournalStone

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

New Books and ARCs, 9/15/17

If you were wondering if any new books and ARCs have come to the Scalzi Compound recently, the answer is, why, yes, they have. And here they are! Tell me which titles here intrigue you, down in the comments!

A Spiderweb Collection

This morning was dewy and we have quite a lot of spiders around the Scalzi Compound (it being a rural area and full of bugs, you see), so I went out with my camera and took pictures of some of the webs, and occasionally, the webs’ architects as well. The collection of images is here, if you’d like to see them. Obviously for the spider-sensitive, this collection will feature arachnids, so be aware. I’m making this its own album and will probably add to it over time, so if you like spiders and spiderwebs, check in from time to time.

The Big Idea: Claire Eddy, Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Anoud and Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby

Here in the US, our fate and fortune was tied up in Iraq for many years. But what does the future hold for that country now? Iraq + 100, an anthology of Iraqi science fiction, offers several views of possibilities. Now, the acquiring editor and three authors from the anthology talk a bit about the book and the futures therein.

Claire Eddy, Senior Editor at Tor/Forge

I got a submission last fall from a small UK publisher and once I started reading I couldn’t stop. The editor of the anthology, Hassan Blasim, asked a simple question–how could you imagine your nation 100 years from now?

The question posed to Iraqi writers (those still in their homeland and those who have joined a world-wide diaspora), has produced an amazing project, a roadmap of what their country might look like following the disastrous foreign invasion of 2003.

Simply put, I believe that Iraq+100 is a piece of fiction that has the potential to make a difference.

I don’t say this lightly.  I am very passionate about all the projects that I take on, but Iraq + 100 has a particularly special importance to me. These writers have given us not just wonderful stories, but the collection itself has a unique voice that I think deserves to be heard. Storytelling has always had the power to not only entertain, but to inform and change hearts. I truly believe that this project has the ability to do these very things.

I think a project like Iraq + 100 would do well at any point in time. In the environment that we find ourselves now, however, I think this book has a much bigger potential.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi, author of “Najufa”

My story “Najufa” is based on my first trip to the Iraqi Shi’a shrine cities of Najaf and Kufa as an adult with my father and mother in 2010. The tensions that drive the relationship between the narrator and his grandfather in the story is based on the tensions I had with my own father during that trip. My father was born in the east African island of Zanzibar, as a result of his father escaping Najaf during the British occupation of Iraq in 1920 for taking part in an insurgency then. My father returned to Iraq in the sixties, went to medical school in Baghdad, and would visit Najaf and his relatives there often.  However, my father did not travel to Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power from 1979 to 2003.

I expected the trip in 2010 to be a nostalgic “home coming” for him, but as an old man in his seventies, he seemed oblivious to the whole place or experience. He was more concerned with drinking tea and relating his life experiences to any random person in the tea house than visiting the shrines.  I compared his indifference to the spirituality inside the shrine complex to my observations at the same time of the younger pilgrims there, some who wanted to leave after a few minutes of praying, since their mobile phones are not allowed within the confines of any shrine, as terrorists use them to detonate explosives remotely.  Everyone had to check in the mobile phone outside the shrine, like a coat check, and without phones, that generation became fidgety.  After 2003, regardless of whether one was from Iraq or the “West,” what united us all was addiction to technology. In the story I wanted to project the evolution of how we will become the technology 100 years later, even in an ancient shrine city in Iraq.

Anoud, author of “Kahramana”

Kahramana is a slave girl in a story from A Thousand and One Nights which originates from the Abbasi Era in Mesopotamia, a golden age of enlightenment after which the region fell under conqueror after conqueror and women were further marginalized.

A Thousand and One Nights is one of the few literary examples I recall from the region where women are strong, dangerous characters that move a plot. Usually we’re either ‘damsels in distress’ needing the actions of men or we’re ‘conniving’ and ‘seductive’ inspiring men to act. Women did not swing a sword, not exactly. No surprise there, most of the authors are men.

A Thousand and One Nights did reflect on the norms of its times in the sense that women were spoils of war and slavery existed and was accepted. But women and slaves in those stories, like Kahramana, could be dangerous, independent, smart. Their husbands or keepers were their subordinates in the plot. They had little or no power to move the story along.

My story is more of a pun on A Thousand and One Nights. I make fun of the status quo between east and west, refugees and those on the receiving end. I chose her simply because Kahramana resonated with me as a child. I often passed by a fountain in Baghdad’s Kahramana Square that fascinated me. The fountain was built by a famous Iraqi sculpture in the 1970s to depict Kahramana (sometimes called Morjana) the slave girl from the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

Kahramana was standing tall on top of a pile of large jars holding a jug and pouring down onto the jars underneath her feet. According to the story the slave girl was slaying the thieves by dousing them with boiling oil on then sealing each jar shut. We, as Baghdadis, were celebrating a woman slyer. We, in a country where women need men’s permission for anything. And I, the push-over little girl, found her both disturbing and amazing. She just stuck with me.

Though I have come a long way from the timid ‘good girl’ I was raised to be and I like to think I can stand up for myself, I still get pushed around because I’m of the wrong gender, I behave inappropriately for my social class, am of the wrong nationality, standing on the wrong side of a border. It’s fucking endless. And when I want to fly off the handle I remember Kahramana standing over the heads of thieves in a Square in Baghdad, killing them all, indifferent.

Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby, author of “Baghdad Syndrome”

The idea for Baghdad Syndrome was unclear at first, thinking about it brought hopes and fears together. Hence, I began to imagine a future in which Iraq heals with a scar, the scar is the syndrome.

Baghdad Syndrome is a collection of physical and mental symptoms reflecting what people in Iraq are going through. Inspired by my last visit to Iraq, I looked more worried about the future than people living there, I saw the syndrome in almost everyone! The heart rate increases with every sudden explosion, and fear of loss. The depression comes from uncertainty, where people do not really know whether they will return home if they went out. Hallucinations and nightmares, due to the verge of reality with unbelievable events. Yet, their faces were smiley, living the moment and kept smiling to survive. Amusingly the painful reality was turned into humour. The blindness in the Syndrome is a metaphor to the endless electricity cuts in Baghdad, leaving a city that loves lights in darkness. Another darkness is the sudden loss of beloved ones, a point in life where nothing else could remain the same afterwards.

The inspiration to link the syndrome with genetic mutations came from my work. During that year (2014), I was writing a report about health-related human rights in Iraq. Revising international reports showed that health was underrepresented. Back then I contacted the Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq, it was a hopeless attempt because having no internal governmental connections means the request will be overlooked. Yet, I received a prompt reply from a local employee striving to share internal reports from several parts of the country. These reports demonstrated increased rates of congenital malformations in newborns in areas still compiled with war wastes. However, the symptoms of Baghdad Syndrome are far away from being a relatively immediate physical impact.

Writing about the future was not an easy task, I needed a link to tell the story. My style of writing is through the lenses of ancient history and riddles. My emotional link with Scheherazade’s statue in Baghdad had always inspired me, I had the sense she was watching and telling stories about what’s happening around her. With my admiration of A Thousand and One Nights, I thought Scheherazade could be my witness and say my riddle this time. When I had the context, the syndrome, and Scheherazade, I could write part of myself in each character in the story to finalise it. After finishing the story I realised, I always sketched the statue with a background of buildings and a pigeon around! Looks like my version of the future was in my sub-consciousness after all!

—-

Iraq + 100: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Books-A-Million|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby on Twitter. Follow Ibrahim Al-Marashi on Twitter.

Fogbow!

The conditions are not usually right around here to capture a fog bow in a full arc, but this morning I got lucky and also had my phone camera with me. It records panoramas, which was useful because the fog bow was just too wide to be captured in the usual 16:9 frame of the phone camera. So here we are: a fogbow, which I am posting here for posterity’s sake, and also because it’s pretty. Good morning, world.

The Big Idea: Axie Oh

From traded video tapes to the printed word, author Axie Oh’s debut novel Rebel Seoul has had quite the journey. Here she is to tell you how it all came together.

AXIE OH:

The “Big Idea” for Rebel Seoul was super soldiers, specifically female super soldiers, but let’s go back to the beginning.

In 2001, I became addicted to Cartoon Network’s Toonami, a television programming block that brought English dubbed anime into the West. The block ran late at night in what was called the Midnight Run. So, as an 11-year-old schoolgirl with reasonable parents, I had to set a timer to record the shows on the VCR. To make it easier, my friends and I would take turns recording the shows and would meet on the weekends to exchange tapes like some sort of grade school smuggling ring.

My two favorite shows were Sailor Moon and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. Though both anime, these shows were in vastly different genres. Sailor Moon, about a Tokyo schoolgirl with magical powers, was in the “magical girl” genre, which as the name suggests, featured girls with magical powers, while Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, about young men who pilot giant robots called Gundams, was in the “mecha” genre, which focused primarily on robots and elements of science fiction.

I equally loved both of these shows. In Sailor Moon, I found an adventure story with an all female cast, a story of romance with a dashing boy who oftentimes was in distress, and a heroine to believe in, to see myself in (she was blonde, but she was Asian!) and to love with a fangirl’s unwavering devotion. In Gundam Wing, I found an intelligent war story of rebellion and sacrifice that moved me to the core, a cast of beautiful boys to swoon over (be still my adolescent heart!) and some amazing visual eye candy in the Gundams themselves – massive robots blowing up stuff Is. The. Shit.

This was the beginning of my love, not only for anime, but for media in all its forms: TV shows, films, video games, Korean dramas, K-pop, comics, and of course, books.

Rebel Seoul is the second book I’ve ever completed, and my debut novel. Before Rebel Seoul, I’d written a young adult fantasy, as well as several short stories and flash pieces, some of which can be found in obscure pockets of the Internet.

The inspiration for Rebel Seoul came from a dream. In the dream, a girl stood at the top of the tallest building in Seoul, South Korea, listening to a song as it drifted through the wind. The girl was crying. Somehow I knew she had never heard a song before. It made me think, what sort of person would have never heard a song before?

Answer: A government experiment, obviously.

I then built a world and story and characters around this dream image (or gif, really) that stayed with me through each revision of the novel, although it never made it into the novel itself. I imagine it’s in the prologue before the first scene. The government experiment became a super soldier project called “The Amaterasu Project,” where girls were transformed into weapons with codenames: “Ama” for girls with psychic and mental abilities, “Tera” for girls with physical abilities like increased strength and quick reflexes and “Su” for girls with both physical and mental abilities. I wanted to make the idea “big,” so I added giant robots.

So there I was, the big idea: female super soldiers piloting giant robots!

In a way, I feel like I combined those two anime I loved when I was a child. The girls were now the pilots saving a war-torn world.

As a 1st gen Korean American growing up in the U.S., I didn’t have a lot of mirrors in popular media. Discovering Toonami and watching these shows was one of the first times I ever saw people like me – beautiful, strong, courageous people – as heroes. Perhaps this is another big idea, or perhaps this is the big idea, that I wanted to write a book where my 11-year-old self could be the hero.

—-

Rebel Seoul: Amazon|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

19 Years

Today marks the 19th birthday of Whatever, and once again I’m left to reflect that it’s a hell of a thing to be doing anything for as long as I’ve been writing here. Nineteen years ago today was four presidents back; Krissy and I lived in Sterling, Virginia; Athena, who is now in college, was about three months out from being born; and I had written but a single novel, which at the time only three people besides myself had read, and which was seven years from actual print publication. It’s odd to think of what a very different time it was.

It’s also odd to think of how very few of those first set of blogs, the ones that were up and running in 1998, still exist out on the Internet, in non-archived form, anyway. Out of my regular 1998 blog reads (or “online diary” reads, since the word “blog” had no currency then), only James Lileks is still putting posts out there on what could be called a regular basis. Most of the rest of the sites are shuttered and the ones that aren’t, update sporadically if at all. I don’t think it’s at all surprising that James and I have kept at it regularly all this time. We both come out of newspapers and I suspect we both think of our blogs as another news hole to be regularly filled with… well, something, anyway.

Also, unless you’re trained for writing or at least posting every day it’s not that easy a thing to do. People back in the day who started blog with endless enthusiasm would often realize that the infinite maw of a blog could be daunting, especially when you felt like you were throwing words out into the void and who knows who was catching them on the other end. This is the secret sauce of Facebook and Twitter, incidentally. You follow all your friends, they follow you, and then when you post, you know who your audience is and (more or less) that they’re actually listening. And if you don’t post on Facebook or Twitter for a day, or a week, or whatever, well. Someone else in your friend circle is. The pressure is off. It’s a much more congenial set-up for someone who isn’t hypergraphic by nature.

This last year has been an interesting one to try to write here regularly, in no small part because while our current administration certainly generates lots of heat and controversy, in many ways it’s difficult to say anything pertinent or insightful about it; once one is done saying “well, this is what happens when you elect an incompetent and incurious narcissistic bigot to the highest office in the land” the first few dozen times, everything else seems repetition.

Rather than being energized to fight the fumbling, shambling fascism of Donald Trump and his pals, I’ve found myself dispirited by it. It’s neither interesting nor fun to chronicle the stupid and malicious. I’m glad it’s not my job to be a full-time political writer in this era. Nevertheless I swing away at the current administration, although less than I imagined I would (here, anyway; the brevity of Twitter lends itself to my level of engagement). Fortunately there are always cats and sunsets and talking about writing.

If I had to describe the last year of writing, here and elsewhere, it would be to say that it’s been a year of recalibration, and trying to stay engaged and creative while the world is on fire. As I’ve noted before, it’s not like this is a new sort of thing — writers and other creative sorts have had to learn how to keep at their gig in awful times before, including some times that have been objectively rather more awful than this one. That said, this time certainly isn’t great, and presents its own set of challenges. I suspect it’s not just me doing some recalibration these days.

Be that as it may, and once again, I’ll keep on writing here. I still like doing it, and I still have an urge to write on many topics, and post pictures of pets and family and sunsets. And people still come by to see what I’m up to. It works out. And thank you for coming by.

This time next year will be the 20th anniversary of the site. I’ll have to figure out something special for it. I have some ideas. I’ll let you know what they are when I get them sorted.