Tuesday 26 March 2013

Ignoble Facts?

The title of this post refers to the ongoing dispute situation between Barnes and Noble, the US bookstore retail giant, and Simon & Schuster, publishers.  B&N lately took a decision to react to the situation by refusing to stock S&S titles emerging in March/April, as far as I understand, and this seems to be borne out by authors who write for S&S reporting that their books which would normally have been ordered by B&N stores in this period not appearing in any store listings or on the shelves.

As with the previous occasional actions in which retail sellers have refused to sell certain products due to dispute with publishers (the temporary disabling of BUY buttons on Macmillan books by amazon, for example), what is most dismaying about these actions is that although superficially they seem to be corporate level tit-for-tats intended to show who's got what powers in the wrangle for more profits, the people who really pay a long term price are the actual people who make the products - authors, and in turn their editors whose fates are tied to the rise and fall of the writers in their stable.

Because an author's market power, shelf life and general saleability is generally most reckoned upon their sales figures for the previous recent years, unless they are exceptional by virtue of mass popularity or extreme artistic value - that is, the majority of us - any interruption to the appearance of stock in retail outlets has a dramatic and permanent knock-on effect in dented sales figures. This might be mitigated if indie sellers and other stores pick up the slack, but that will only work for when fans are prepared to find a book regardless of retail outlet.  It does effectively stall a huge amount of casual passing trade, particularly since the book retailers streetside are so few in number.  So thanks to this dispute there are many authors now who are going to get a reputation fall which will impact all their future deals with publishers and their current market visibility is going to be drastically reduced.  Nobody will care about the reason or that it had nothing to do with them, that never matters.

What I'm about to say now is purely from my own perspective as a midlist writer and someone who has been in the business for the last fifteen years.  There is a certain worldly wisdom about business which suggests that anyone who disputes the capitalist paradigm of expansion and profit - and how the requirements of that determine the behaviour of the people executing the grand strategy - is a fool who will be ground up and spat out by the machine.  To expect otherwise is to expect some other facet of human desire, such as the need to develop reliable units of allegiances, to trump a much more powerful human motivator - raw greed.  The most likely argument to be wheeled out in 'scientific' support of this is the rule of survival of the fittest.  It's not people - it's evolution what doin' it (cue the hasty passing of responsibility to Nature so that nobody has to face any consequences of their own choices).  And we can point to a lot of supportive evidence for that; I would guess the first example would be the rise and rise of amazon.com.

Originally I was about to argue that the pervasive, panicky sense of 'every one for themselves!' which seems to have bitten very hard lately - meaning that people tend to ally with whatever looks like the greater power in the moment and authors are never, historically, the greater power in this scenario - is actually exactly the opposite reaction to the one which would do the most good - 'all for one and one for all!'.  However, I wonder if what we are actually looking at is the dividing up of the spoils of a war that is already over, even though a lot of the participants haven't realised it yet.  Actually I think most of them haven't realised they've even been in one.

What amazon are good at, much more than anyone else, is spotting the advantages offered by the latest technological opportunities and exploiting them immediately, massively and to the hilt.  They are simply faster adaptors.  The result of their rapacious speed to the market has cumulatively, over time, given them colossal buying power in every retail sector they have touched upon.  To stick to books for the time being: to begin with amazon was an interesting online alternative to ordinary bookstores, which had, in the late '90s, already experienced a tough change in the general retail trend from many indies to a few large national or multinational chains dominating the outlets.

Whatever bookish ideologies people had - authors, publishers or retail sellers - they had to express these passions within the paradigm offered by the retail sellers and that meant it was going to be ultimately driven by profit because at these kinds of operation scales the demands of the shareholders -many, diverse and completely uncaring about the nature of the business concerned - are paramount.  So there was already a sense of division, between the product and its fans and producers, and the outlet stores.  The story of why this situation occurred relentlessly - bigger outlet stores offer cheaper prices and wider selections, slowly leaching customer interest and loyalty away from committed idealist indie markets. Indie suppliers then take on increasingly specialist roles and exist on the margins.  They can just about survive but in terms of the war for the sales, they're already out of it.

Internally at the publishing houses the retail outlet battle meant they were going to start losing in a way they hadn't lost before - because fewer and more powerful buyers meant that they came under massive pressure to drive down their own sales prices, and in order to do that, to drive down their production costs in order to maintain cash flow.  This was inevitable and that they would have to capitulate, first to large book retailers, then to the supermarkets, was also inevitable for exactly the reason at the top of the page - publishers can only sell something on the shelf, they can't sell it directly from a warehouse in the middle of nowhere.  The only alternative to being screwed to the wall by giant buyers with huge potential markets (albeit limited ones) would have been to become a retail operation in their own right, but that would have required massive capital investment in infrastructure, outlets and etc - I doubt any of them had the cash for it, particularly when you consider they would have been competing with massively successful and rich companies already well established and dominating a limited market area.  So that wasn't going to happen either.  At this point the writing was already on the wall for traditional publishers or at least their old methods of operation.  The power moves to where the money flows from...and it was flowing from retail giants.

However, amazon's appearance forced even those giants to take a check - amazon made it simple to buy whatever you wanted from home without any effort at all, frequently at LESS than the on street price.  They could do that.  They didn't have to run any shops.  All they needed was a good internet site and some warehouses.  They didn't even bother having a dedicated distribution network.  They used the Post Office.

Yeah I know, you're wondering what this is all going to cook down to - bear with.  I'm getting there.

The results are well known.  Borders - gone.  More indie stores - gone.  A few onstreet retailers harried and pressed into trying to make more attractive deals - 3 for 1, BOGOF (buy one get one free), massive discounting.  The results of that and of supermarket mass-buying?  Squeeze the publishers for smaller unit prices.  But there is a limit to how low you can go and still make any money at all.  One thing that surprises me here is that publishers did not put UP the price on particularly desirable titles, as the only thing they actually hold of any value at all in this system is a desirable title - they have the bottleneck on that.  Not the cover charge, but the wholesale charge.  Their difficulty is the obtaining of desirable titles.  Authors make these, but the desirability cannot be determined until the product is already widely distributed and available, and nobody knows, ever, why some titles take off and others don't.  You can only be sure that if it's not available, it won't sell, and if nobody knows it's there, it won't sell either.

There is another aspect to this which publishers have historically traded on which is changing, and that is reputation.  In this age of anyone being able to publish anything via Smashwords and other related sites, what a paper-based publisher of long standing has is kudos.  They have already vetted out the rubbish, so you don't have to read it, and present only those titles that have been pre-selected for quality.  An author's own reputation is affected by the publishers they have had - some holding more respect than others.

The amazon-hate that can often be seen around, because of the effect their seizure of the market has had - putting a lot of people out of industries they loved and changing those industries - reminds me of the hate that Margaret Thatcher got for standing on the unions and snapping their hold on the mining industry.  From her perspective she was saving the national economy.  From the perspective of the miners she was ruthlessly taking apart their source of income, their social network and all the glue that held it together.  From amazon's perspective they're simply expanding and doing good business.  From the other end they're systematically taking apart the way that business historically operated (unspoken assumption here: which we all loved and revered and were nurtured by...).  And then, in the third corner, there's self-publishing via ebooks and print on demand.

Self publishing seems to offer something the miners could never have had - the chance to own and operate your own mine.  Customers even come right to the gate and buy the coal, so you don't have to lug it about.  All you need is a way to advertise your presence and guarantee the quality of your product...a lot of midlisters who have reasonable audiences already have that particularly those who are also successful bloggers and social networkers (ahem, so not me really but nvm that...) and who have been doing a lot of their own publicity for years thanks to the nonexistent budgets at publishers for all the reasons listed above.

Is there really so much added value in going through a traditional publisher for that kind of writer, when it means you can be subject to the No Sales For You situation at the drop of a contract because you're the unlucky tank driver in someone else's battle?  I guess there's safety in numbers - publishing contracts often pay out over the odds even for midlist books and don't earn out the advances.  Plus there are other people involved to take some of the responsibility for sales off your shoulders.  You also get editorial for free, instead of having to contract an editor to do that for you.  But it's close, and if you are driven and have the time and energy there's never been a better time to feel your own power on that score.  If you aren't - and most of us still aren't - then it seems like the vagaries of fate must just be dealt with as they come from one's position at the bottom of the heap: stoically.

However, lately amazon have been taking on writers themselves in a test of whether they too can cut out traditional publishers from the cash loop... I hope publishers are racing to make the most of their 'we can build you' attitude that seems to have been lost in the last 10 years of panic reactions to the assaults of the retail giants, because if amazon successfully pries away enough of your production stream...you don't need a wizard to tell you what's going to happen.

So - originally pissed off mightily by the effects of the B&N decision,  I wanted to write a lamentoblog crying about how nobody loves each other enough to make a socialist world work.  I was going to stand up for the 'all for one' vision and say that people should take responsibility and not try to claim that Nature Dunnit when the consequences of their choices mean things they like end up failing and falling over - yeah I'm looking at all you people who bleat about how terrible the situation is whilst still having everything shipped to you at the cheapest possible rate regardless.  (I'm still strongly behind that last point, nobody was born capitalist or forced to buy anything at one store rather than another).  But instead I've ended up thinking that, given how things are, it could be worse for midlist writers even though it looks bad.

At least there is the opportunity to take things much more into your own hands than ever before.  At least this option should free you enough from the terror of being dropped off the shelf entirely so that you can voice a few more protests about being considered last by an industry that only exists at all because you make their stuff.

To those personal friends of mine who are being smacked hard with the S&S dispute that must seem like cold comfort, and it is.  But it's better than no comfort at all.

Saturday 6 October 2012

S'Been a Long Time

Since I posted here.  I was thinking, about the novel I'm writing, which led one thing after another on a very long journey - pretty much around the entire Hundred Acre Wood.

I also paused to write three short stories in the interim.

You can find them respectively:

On Teresa Derwin's fanzine Andromeda's Offspring : I wrote a Lila Black story for her which started turning into a novella so it may appear in a longer and better worked out version sometime later.  "Blood and Ink" - so many more possibilities than I had time to explore...

In the new anthology from Comma Press - so new it isn't listed or out yet but I will notify when it is.  This is a follow up anthology to "When It Changed" in which I also had a story written with and by and for actual scientists!

The third one, "Pwnage", will appear next year in the Technology Review SF edition, again, I'll flag after publication.

They were all fun but so diverting.  That's what happens when the grass looks springy on the other side of the fence and you're just a gal who cain't say no...

And meanwhile the next two months will be filled with an short but exciting project that thrills me through my childish soul.  I can't tell any details, but let's just say it involves some robots in disguise...

I have always loved those.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Erotomania's End

Well, I haven't posted in a long time. I was away thinking.  Also I played some games.  And read and did all that stuff writers do when they're very slowly plodding away on something, or, in my case, trying to establish human sexual identity and power relationships as 'a problem' in scientific terms, and then 'solve' it.  I know what you're going to say...you're going to say, "A problem like a maths problem?  Isn't that a little bit too Amy Farrah Fowler, even for YOU?" 

Yes.  Really it is.  However, in my defence I say -

But I was all SCARED about just writing from the juggernaut front of my heart and brain because well, the Science Fiction critics of my (let's face it mostly inner) world scare me and I wanted to stand on some big unassailable hill of Factology to mount the defence I was sure I'd have to make...

Yeah, never mind that not actually writing the book to completion does kind of have the same effect (avoidance, much?).  And what horrors must the thing contain to elicit such a reaction?  I bet already imaginations are turning to some fevered dream combining the art of Witchblade, a Mitzi Szereto anthology, the bits of Laurell K Hamilton that you don't want your Mom to find and the Hite Report.  Yeah.  No.  Well.  Maybe.  And if it was like that what a great thing it would be: I'd read it!

See, in my mind it's like that.  In reality it's not so much, although I kind of wish it was.  What I really ran up against wasn't the Mighty Sages of Science Fiction (don't laugh, they're sensitive) but a big monster from my childhood, not unlike the Assumptions About Everything Especially Parental Views And Peer Ridicule and Social Norms Like In The Daily Mail that pollute every synapse of my pathetically brainwashed grey matter so that for me to write my probably quite normal and mildly interesting book I first have to get over the kind of anxiety that used to propel our ancestors across some Proto-Serengeti in terror of their lives. 

M John Harrison made a note on his blog about that kind of thing recently, noting his escape.  HOW I ENVY YOU, MIKE!  I've been out rebelling and plotting said escape a long time without actually managing it: I thought I'd know when it was a done deal by the sudden sense of peace and uncaringness that would come along whenever I was about to write what I thought was a Big Deal Thing.  I would sit calmly with my cup of tea, staring at the middle class suburbs and easily type out line after line without a second thought or the need to rush off and pretend to be a Sith Lord in a virtual universe every twenty minutes. 

I expect you're wondering about the Erotomania bit of the title by now.  I confess, I spent six months reading nothing but romance, erotica, women writing about feminism and sex and immersing myself in anthropological, mystic and anecdotal blah de blah about same.  In the words of a well known MMO Achievement: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been!

And now I certainly have things to write about in my half done novel.  Who would have thought you could be passionate about passion?  It's my last, great hope for....  Anyway,  hurrah for ploughing through the steamy doldrums of the creative sea!

And, final note, fans of World of Warcraft might like to take a loot at this book  which is what I wrote on me holidays, along with Adrian Tchaikovsky and a bunch of other trippers...

Wednesday 6 July 2011

That Whole Discussion About...

Women in SF.  Thought about this a lot.  Didn't write anything in any of the long conversations because mostly it felt like all the positions had been covered by someone else.  However, in conclusion to this phase I feel that there are two major factors operating across the board.

The first one is the old vision of Science Fiction as that emotionless thing with spaceships that men do as the mental equivalent of going out to the shed and tinkering.  This is a very strong and persistent meme which will probably be around a long time, not least because there is quite a bit of 'shedness' still in SF to act as exemplary material and many counterexamples have gone off to label themselves in other genres more suited to the readers they are aimed at.  This masks the real number of women writing SF. 

I realise the above is subject to the quota mark of 'How much SF does it take in a book to actually include it in the category' and I'm a liberal includer so this might not be much of a help.  But on to the next point which is -

I could be persuaded there is a gendered bias in operation here, but not just a socialised one, a biologically based one rooted in a few bell curves about how you prefer to perceive your world and what you think is important to notice.  It is possible that SF trends in the type of story, focus of characters and general tone plus content is genuinely not very attractive to a large part of the female population compared to, say, fantasy or paranormal romance or crime thrillers or modern novels.  So, given a wide choice of reading there is a trend towards picking out of our genre, even if many books inside it would be perfectly acceptable to those women. 

I tried some years ago to have a discussion about this with various people but it never got anywhere, mostly because I have no hard evidence about the above, only a lot of anecdotal observation and my own introspection.  Add that to the difficulty of articulating the subtleties of one's own perceptive framework and trying to weed out the learned from the innate and scientifically this has a long way to go before it's out the door. 

My thesis basically is that there is a very broad (and by no means all inclusive) trend that divides the genders in how they perceive reality which is based in the unconscious automatic processes through which certain things are selected as Important and Worthy of My Attention and other things are not.  I suspect that tendency is rooted in some ancient divisions which could probably be easily overridden in any individual lifetime by the judicious application of self awareness and inquisitiveness on the part of anyone.  But it's there, a maybe-genetic maybe-cultural legacy and it does determine the look and feel of the stories and writing that men and women produce and prefer.

Well, so far so bland, what to do?  Can't do anything about any of it, except continue to be open to ideas and help others to be the same.  For that reason I feel that both quotas and condemnation are unhelpful since both smack of control.  More flies with honey than vinegar, eh?

Wednesday 25 May 2011

White Rabbit Object

I'm back - late and rather quieter than before due to a horrible stomach bug but back and still internally leaping about with the giddy spring fever feeling I got last Thursday night when I realised that one of my books was in a glass display case at The British Library.  (Natural History, for those of you who wondered).  Am foolishly, madly thrilled and excited beyond all sane reason.  I wish my Dad could see it.

Anyhoo, that's enough about me.  The reason for my discovery and consumption of far too much free wine at said Library was the opening of the Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It exhibition.  This is something of a landmark moment for SF which has formerly often been treated with great condescension by literary establishment powers-that-be.  However, as China Mieville stated during his opening speech, it does rather look as though our alienation is over.  As much as we have been critically and socially dismissed it seems the era of the nerd is upon us and the culture is finally taking us if not to its heart then at least into its front parlour where we can be introduced to others.

Speaking as someone who was never outside the genre I have to say that this is both delightfully gratifying and at the same time deeply disturbing.  I used to have a long and bitter vengefulness against the literati - a nebulous set of non-named individuals, critics, writers and publishers who existed as a kind of cloud-computed object hovering at the limit of my awareness, unified and identified by their disparaging attitude to SF.   This acted like rocket fuel on my personal ambitions to write SF that wasn't only good in its own right but also kicked their butts on their own hallowed turf.  Spite as might?  You betcha.  And now?  Seems my task here is done...and not by myself really, but by the many other writers from both sides of the erstwhile divide who have been busy taking up each other's tools and crafting busily.  And by this exhibition which doesn't only suggest a history and evolution of SF which is generous and wide-ranging but also, by its existence, implies that it is safe to pop up from the rabbithole.

Why I go off in search of another hit of the crack that is artistic alienation (and I suspect I'll find it easily in that freshly renewed skirmish of They Might Be Writing SF But They'd Better Do It Properly) if you have the time and ability to do so there are weekly events as well as the exhibit itself to enjoy down at The Library.  And I would go to all of them if I lived in London.  If not you can still watch the Discovery Channel for their tie-in programming.

To. The.  Library...     *bounce*  *bounce*  *boing* 

(The title of this blog refers to the code that hacked the computers in Jurassic Park and let all the monsters out by the way.  It's a reference to the library exhibit, a white rabbit object of unknowable consequence...but I always like it when monsters get out.  Is our task really done?  No, not at all.  Even if the humanistic side of the task - to gain recognition as artistic equals - was a done deal the wider goal of producing mindbending fiction about our relationship to ourselves and our own machineries will never be over.  The T-Rex of SF is free to roam and ravage unhindered.)

Wednesday 4 May 2011


A friend, the lovely and talented Adrian Tchaikovsky, writer of fantasy, recently posted this link to me, because he knows I'm really interested in gaming and the way that it affects our lives, particularly because I'm a writer and many games are providing lots of experience and narrative that books and stories have to compete with.  Check it out.

The Escapist Gamification Video

At first I would have completely gone along with all of this - when I first encountered World of Warcraft years ago it seemed a really obvious trend.  But now, having played a lot more games and stuck with that one (with a few breaks) I'm not so sure. 

One thing  I have noticed is that Warcraft, just for example, is now as boring as a secretarial job, but for me as a has-no-time no-raid casual player, it also feels like being the secretary to a bunch of people higher up the ladder who are getting all the bonuses and dishing out all the crap.  Yes, you Leet people, I mean you.  Partly that's the grind mechanics of the game and partly the element of the player base who reacted most powerfully to the gamification tactics outlined in the above video.  It's Skinner evolution.  Well, ouchie.  This is borification.  I’m down now to RP as my only escape fun (am now pretty immune to reward systems of any kind) and that relies on other people turning up and having enough energy to think of a storyline - and if we had that we'd probably be doing something else anyway.  

So, by contrast, writing is now looking like an ultimate game pastime, just like it used to years ago when there was no telly worth watching except for the odd programme.  I can't even muster the enthusiasm to open the boxes on really great games that I already bought.  I'd rather read.  The rewards are so much better.

On the other hand if I did have to go back to work as a secretary I wouldn't mind game rewards for the filing etc.  I realise this is what a wage and bonuses are supposed to represent but perhaps they were never administered at a level you could see in operation in real time with a little progress bar and an achievement chart with lolcats on it.

I wait for the real world rewards of genuine social pleasure, or at least benign self interest, to reach out and eat gamification.  But then, I am getting old and cranky and have been inured by years of service to the machine.  What do y'all think?

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Aussie Rules

Finally the schools are back in session and I have time to write my report on Swancon/Natcon 2011, held in Perth WA.  They were kind enough to invite me as their guest and I had the most wonderful time.  Not only was the hotel all spanking new and special (Hyatt Perth) with the nicest staff I've ever come across but from the con committee to the WA fandom everyone was just so darn lovely!  Was there something in the water?  I prefer to imagine all Australians are simply like this and it wasn't all because they had to be nice to me - so nobody shatter my illusions...

Also guest starring there was Ellen Datlow, The Editor (she gets caps for her epic status), who was a teacher of mine back at Clarion West in 1996.  We had a lot of fun catching up on old times and making new friends from the Australian community.  Since neither of us look a day older than we did in 1996 it's hard to believe we've come so far in our careers :P  And appearing with us was the delightful Sean Williams - where has he been...oh, in Australia, right...  But for you Ausfans from the UK, mark your calendar for June 4, he and Garth Nix are appearing at Hay-on-Wye.  (And I'm there on the 3rd as part of How The Light Gets In!).  So don't miss us!

We met up with Aussie horror writer Kaaron Warren and went on an exploratory shopping trip around Perth's antique shops (mostly closed due to holiday weekend alas) but we found the most cute and unusual dresses in one of the weirder stores.  If you have been at a loss as to what to do with Auntie Edna's embroidered tablecloths or would like to look cute in unique vintage items check out this lady's designs at Unsunkfunk.  For the crazy shoe people in you I also attach this link to Robert Tabor's Site though it has nothing to do with Australia - Ellen this link is specially for YOU!

And lest you think it was all clothesmania, frippery and champagne I can confirm reports that weighty discussions were had about the state of publishing, feminism in SF and all that other interesting jazz, not to mention the late night chinwagging and wine swigging that feeds the soul even as it pickles the liver.  More about these meat-feast topics in later blog posts however.  For today the children are in school and I have to actually write something....oo novel experience!