The Family Assassin

My sister asked me to send this to her, and I figured, well, as long as I am sending this to her, I might as well repost it here. It’s another from the long-lost Scalzi Archives.


Thoughts on the Family Assassin

Every family should have an interesting skeleton in the family closet. In my family, it’s John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, who, of course, was the President of the United States during the American Civil War. Booth assassinated Lincoln not long after the cessation of hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy, by sneaking into the President’s box at Ford’s Theater (the show: Our American Cousin) and shooting him in the back of the head with a pistol. Booth then leaped from the box to the stage, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus it is with tyrants”) and “The South is avenged.” He broke his leg but managed to escape nevertheless. However, eleven days later, he was discovered in a barn, burned out, and then shot (by himself or by a soldier, it’s unclear). He died shortly thereafter. Some maintain that Booth’s body was never positively identified, so it’s possible he actually escaped. Either way, he’s dead now.

For the record, I’m not a direct descendant — my line goes through one of his nine other siblings, making him something along the lines of a great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle. Whenever I mention my relationship to him, though, people’s eyes get wide, their jaws go momentarily slack, and some people actually back up a step, as if a long dormant assassination gene might suddenly fire up, and they’d be the unlucky recipient. I get a kick out of that. Then I go for the extra point my mentioning that John Wilkes and I have the same birthday: May 10, 131 years apart. By the time I mention I get edgy handling pennies and five dollar bills, people begin to wend their way to the nearest door.

You might infer from this page that John Wilkes Booth is my favorite ancestor, but in fact, that’s not the case. There are several other ancestors who I hold in far higher esteem, or that I at least find more interesting. To begin, there’s John Wilkes, the rather infamous British radical, journalist and politician who was famous for continually being expelled from the British parliament, and for being a member of notorious Hellfire Club (motto: “We were into orgies before orgies were cool”). John Wilkes Booth was named for him, which probably was an early strike against the boy.

In Booth’s own time, his brother Edwin was far more notable: the first great American Shakespearean actor. Edwin did the definitive Hamlet of the mid-19th Century, playing him for 100 days straight during 1864 and 1865, stopping not long before his baby brother John put a cap in Lincoln. Lincoln’s assassination wreaked havoc on Edwin’s career, as you might imagine. And yet Edwin kept hitting the boards until he died in 1893. In the long run, Edwin is more interesting than his brother because he was famous for what he achieved rather than for who he killed (as I was writing up this page, I happened across an 1890 recording of Edwin Booth reading from Othello — it’s scratchy and muffled, and you can barely make out the words. But there it is, across the span of 108 years — the voice of a stage god. Hi there, Uncle. Nice to know you).

Somewhat closer to my own time is my own great-grandfather, William Booth, who may or may not have died before I was born; In any event, I certainly have no memory of him being alive. William didn’t do anything that would have gotten him noticed by humanity at large — he wasn’t a politician, an actor, or an assassin. What I find interesting about him is that the man left a paper trail of poems and writings, which — being that I am a writer by profession — have made me feel a strong connection to him. Here was the sort of guy who would write poems castigating FDR in his annual Christmas cards to the family, but who would also pen delicate, romantic poems to his wife, my great-grandmother. We have copies of those poems, spanning decades. I admire that — that he stayed in love for so long, and that he realized that it was important to keep telling his wife that we loved her (you’d be surprised how many people forget about that part).

John Wilkes Booth, on the other hand, I don’t especially admire. The best you could say about him, was that he wasn’t a bad actor — no Edwin Booth, mind you, but not bad (he was especially well regarded in the deep South, and did several tours as a headliner in those parts). Other than that, though, there’s not much there. On a personal level, he was something of a lout — when he died, they pulled the pictures of five different women off his body (one was of his fiancee, Lucy Hale, daughter of — ironically — an abolitionist senator). Booth was also big on slavery, which bugs me. It’s embarrassing to have someone in your family tree who thought it was all right to own other people. And let’s not forget that, when it comes right down to it, Booth was just plain nuts. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been taking shots at Lincoln in the first place. It’s just as well he’s been dead over a century — he’s not someone I’d’ve wanted to meet. Sure, he might be fun at parties, but I’d worry about him trying to hit on my wife, and I couldn’t introduce him to any of my black friends.

There’s another thing that bothers me about John Wilkes Booth, which is that he did such a poor job of the assassination. Now, let me just say this, before we go any further: Killing the President of the United States is bad, and no one should do it, ever. So, kids, if you’ve been thinking of gunning down a President, stop now, before the Secret Service has to come and hurt you. Listen to your Uncle John, here. Having said that, if you are going to whack a President (and remember, you shouldn’t), you really ought to have thought out your escape plan better than John Wilkes did. I mean, come on: Shoot the President, then leap out of the box, onto a stage — 30 feet below? What sort of plan is that? He’s damned lucky he only broke his leg.

The final point against John Wilkes Booth is that he shot Lincoln. Not that he shot the President of the United States, but that he shot Lincoln, a man who by any measurement stands as one of the Great Men of world history, a man who is richly admirable in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start (yes, he has flaws. So what). Compared to Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth is a gnat. It’s a rather morbid measure of Lincoln’s greatness that anyone remembers John Wilkes Booth at all. The vast majority of Americans, after all, would be hard pressed to name the guy who drilled William McKinley, if indeed they remembered who McKinley was in the first place (by the way, it was Leon Czolgosz. Got that one? All right, smarty pants: Who shot James Garfield? Hmmm?).

Be that as it may, he’s still more interesting to have swinging in the family tree than most ancestors. He and Lincoln have both been dead long enough that it’s not actually unsettling for people to contemplate the fact that I’m related to a murderer. It’s not like I’m related to Jeffrey Dahmer or Charlie Manson. I can make jokes about it all without having to worry about upsetting anyone. Should I ever meet up with someone who is related to Abe Lincoln, it’s more likely that we’ll consider the encounter as amusing, rather than a revival of an age-old family feud. Someone once idly mentioned to me that being related to John Wilkes Booth would keep me from ever become President of the United States myself. Fact is, so many other things disqualify me from that position that my tangential relation to Booth would be the least of my worries. Though I suppose if I were ever elected, and were then subsequently assassinated, people would figure that I had it coming.

You would think that not that many people would admit to being related to John Wilkes Booth, but in fact, I know of two other folks (obviously, I’m excepting my own family members): my pal Marty (who, despite the name, is a woman) in Chicago, and another pal, Helen, who is in Los Angeles. Interestingly, we all have jobs in the creative sector: I am a writer, Helen is a screenwriter (she wrote Reality Bites, one of the big moments in Gen-X cinema), and Marty is an actress. This is in keeping with the Booth theatrical and creative genes, we figure — better that than a gene that causes us to leap from theater boxes and stalk heads of state. Helen and I, both of whom have a penchant for black humor, has formed a little club called the Booth Society; our motto (besides Sic Semper Tyrannis, and complementing it) is “Let’s Hope It Doesn’t Come to That.”

You can probably figure out what “that” might be. So far, it hasn’t.

In Case You’re Wondering —

At the moment I’m fiddling with fonts. Don’t be surprised if the site looks slightly different.

Update: Mac users, it should look different. PC users shouldn’t notice a difference at all. Of course, depending on what fonts you have on your computer, your mileage may vary.

Selling Science Fiction Books in 2005

I’m finding the aftermath commentary to the Stupidity of Worrying About Online Piracy very interesting; apparently this subject is something people are thinking about, particularly for its long-term implications, much of which boils down to: Being willing to not worry about online piracy may work now, today, in 2005, when people are still lugging around those laughably obsolete objects known as “books.” But what happens in a couple of years when the literary equivalent of the iPod hits the market, and physical books become a thing of the past, and the only copies of everything are digital — and some pirate has your entire canon of work uploaded in the P2P networks? How will you make money then? You won’t be so happy about all that piracy then, will you? Where is your God now, Mr. I-Don’t-Worry-About-Piracy monkey boy? Huh? Huh? Huh?

You know, these are all really fascinating questions, and I’m sure at the next WorldCon or other science fiction convention I’m at I’ll be on a panel discussing these things with other folks, and we’ll all be very interesting and thought-provoking on the matter, and who knows, maybe something we say won’t be completely full of crap. However — and I want to be very clear on this, so allow me to use some profanity to bring the point home — in a very real and fundamental sense, I don’t fucking care. Right now, it’s 2005, I’ve got one science fiction book published and two more coming in the next twelve months, and my primary concern is selling those books in the here and now. Today I am looking for ways to get my writing in front of people, perchance to convince these fine people to purchase that writing.

Pursuant to that, the following data points.

1. Old Man’s War has been out for six months and despite what I am told are very positive sales for a first-time unknown writer, not once has it been available at my local bookstore, whose science fiction/fantasy section is jammed into a corner of the store as it is, well outside the main traffic pattern, and is confined to one and a half shelves, of which three-quarters of one shelf is reserved for Star Wars/Star Trek/Tolkien crap. This one bookstore serves its town, and the towns directly north and south of it. So effectively, my book is not physically available anywhere in a 30-mile radius from my home — except at my local library, to which I donated a copy. Yes, I live in rural America, but not everything in that 30-mile radius is rural.

2. Anecdotally, I hear my book is hard to find in bookstores, period; this is partly a reflection of its strong sales (i.e., when it is in a bookstore, it doesn’t stay long) and partly (I suspect) a reflection of Tor’s printing strategy for the book, which has been of multiple small printings (the largest being the first printing of 3,800 copies), that keep Tor from having an overprint situation for a new, untested author (which is to say \you probably shouldn’t count on finding the hardcover of Old Man’s War on the remainder table. Sorry). I can’t and don’t fault Tor’s logic here — the last thing I want as a new author is my publisher having rather more copies of the book than it can sell — but the regrettable side effect of this is that people can’t browse a book that’s not on the bookstore shelves.

3. The Kroger supermarket nearest me, whose (actually fairly extensive) book section functions as the bookstore for its town, not only doesn’t stock my book, it doesn’t stock science fiction at all, and aside from Harry Potter and Eragon (good job Christopher Paolini!), no fantasy, either. Not stocking my book is entirely not surprising (remember: first-time unknown SF writer in hardback), but not stocking any science fiction or fantasy at all? What the hell? For comparison, the store is generously stocked with romances, contemporary thillers, and westerns. Yes, westerns. You thought that genre was dead, didn’t you. Surprise! The Wal-Mart and Meijer near me have remarkably similar stocking patterns.

What do these data points tell me? Clearly, that I shouldn’t expect people to discover my book in the conventional ways, because the book isn’t there. Now, some or all of these issues may be alleviated when the book goes to softcover; the reason Tor bought the book, as I’ve noted before, was that it believes that this is the sort of book that can crack the “no SF in supermarkets” barrier, because — yes, we can admit it here among friends — it’s a Heinlein-esque adventure without all that scary edgy stuff, and maybe you can shove that next to the Clancys and the Grishams and sell it. If it were a car, it’d be a Chevy, and I see a fair amount of Cheveys in the Kroger parking lot. So we’ll see. But that’s tomorrow, and this is today.

In terms of promotion, well, I would love to promote Old Man’s War in the Old School ways. I’m not a snob, and I’m not stupid — there’s an incredible amount of promotional power in “old media.” Way back when, when I met my editor at Tor for the first time, he asked me if there were any media I thought the publicity department should approach for the book. You know the first place I suggested? AARP Magazine. Because the book’s about an older American, and the magazine has a subscriber roll of 21 million. It doesn’t get much more old school than AARP Magazine, and I’d be a friggin’ moron not to put the book in front of that audience. I still want to, hint, hint, Tor publicity department. But again: new writer, writing science fiction. I have been absolutely blessed with reviews in the Washington Post, in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and in Entertainment Weekly, and it’s a minor miracle I got those (not withstanding AARP Magazine, Tor’s publicity folks rock). Most science fiction writers, even the established ones — and even the good established ones — would be happy with that. Right now, this is what I have to work with in terms of the Old School presence.

New School, I have options. I have this Web site, which pulls down some nice visitor numbers; I have the AOL Journal, which does the same. I have had good press from prominent bloggers, whose recommendations have translated into real sales with aclarity, because their readers trust their recommendations. Right now, there is no downside in letting someone go onto Amazon and reading as much of the book as Amazon lets them — they are on Amazon, after all, and one does typically go to the Amazon site to buy things. The chances of turning a sale there are good, and inasmuch as we’ve already established looking at a physical copy is difficult, this is the next best thing. There is no downside in offering an entire novel’s worth of writing for free on my own site; why not let people get a feel for my style? If you like Agent chances are pretty good you’ll like Old Man’s War; it’s a different set-up and story, but, well, I’m me, and for better or worse, that’s how I write.

Will these methods work in the future? Don’t know. And, mostly, don’t care, because they’re working now, and now is the timeframe I need to sell my book in. I don’t doubt that a dozen years from now, getting my books out to readers — and making money from them — will require different things and take on a different form than it does now, since among other things most of the ways I’m promoting my books now didn’t exist a dozen years ago. But here are a couple things I expect to be true in 2017: That people will still want to be amused by creative types, and that the more enterprising members of that class will have found new and exciting ways of extracting money out of people who wish to be entertained. As so long as I’m not dead or somehow deeply mentally damaged between now and 2017, I expect to be in the latter camp. I guess we’ll find out. In the meantime, I’m happy to do what works.