Nerding out over Tolkien in the very best way

So my friend Jonathan Crowe has this fanzine he puts out periodically called Ecdysis. It’s a fun little zine and you should all go and read it here. I might have an article in it about eagles.

No, Amazon isn’t doing the world any favours

stupidburnsA rebuttal to Matthew Yglesias

I haven’t written here in a while. That’s largely for three reasons. 1) My wife was pregnant and I was spending a lot of time just figuring out how to Dad. That process is ongoing now that my daughter is out in the world, but it was kind of a big deal around here. 2) There was also the most fraught municipal election in the history of the amalgamated city of Toronto going on basically for the last six months. Being a municipal politics nerd (yes, that’s a thing) I was a bit preoccupied by that. 3) The ongoing culture wars in genre were becoming exhausting to write about. Seriously, this particular SJW just needed a break from fighting in that battle because it’s a neverending cavalcade of misogyny, homophobia and racism that we seem to be dealing with. The Gamergaters and their ilk need to go away, and never come back. But, hey, The Amazon / Hachette thing is making the rounds of authorly social media once again and this article on Vox is just about the dumbest defense of Amazon I’ve ever read! That has almost nothing to do with the culture wars, but I can still get a chance to dust off the old snark. I’ll rebut it point by point.

Yes, publishing is big business, so what?

I’m not going to waste too many words on the first point because it’s a straw man argument plain and simple. There’s nobody sane criticizing Amazon because major publishers are mom and pops. Everybody even tangentially connected to publishing knows otherwise. This is simply not a significant part of the argument .

Amazon having competitors doesn’t mean it doesn’t have monopsony powers

Paul Krugman’s argument that Amazon, as the main buyer of goods, has the ability to manipulate the market as a monopsony is actually a very strong one, and more correct than those who have argued that Amazon is effectively a monopoly.

After all, Amazon HAS driven down prices. In fact, the opening volley of open conflict between the big four and Amazon happened when the big four (then five but there was a merger afterward) colluded with Apple in an effort to slow Amazon’s race to the bottom on book prices.

So, yeah, the big four tried to threaten to withdraw their products from Amazon if it didn’t stop pricing them into the ground. Amazon’s response was to cry to the courts that Apple was being unfair. Amazon derives its power in the market from being the dominant buyer and reselling the product, often at a loss, in order to grow at the expense of other companies. It’s a little bit insane, and it’s bad for the market in the long run.

And now for the obligatory self-publishing-or-bust section

I’ll lay this out simply: Every author needs an editor, cover art and marketing. Some authors are very good editors. They still need an editor. You just can’t edit your own work as well as another person can. You can’t. You’re too close. You miss things. Hell your brain infers details that aren’t on the page. And I’m talking both macro-level stuff (the setting looked fine in my head) and grammar level stuff (typed teh, never noticed even during proofing). Not every author can afford to hire an editor. Few authors are also cover artists. Many authors have day-jobs and don’t have time for the day job plus writing their books plus marketing their books, even if they know how. Some writers are not marketers by nature.

If you get rid of publishers you’ll turn writing into an art reserved for the wealthy and the deluded. I’d rather not see that.

Some publishers not being good marketers doesn’t make what Amazon does right

That much stands on its own. But furthermore books are more like commodities than you care to suggest. With the exception of a small cadre of “name” authors and the very different academic press market (which has its own set of pricing problems completely separate from Amazon’s) authors are sadly interchangeable. For the most part, for the mid list authors, their books get sold or some other similar authors books get sold instead and no consumer is likely to get too concerned. They want to read horror. If they can’t find horror book A they’ll find horror book B.

Frankly 99% of the working authors out there aren’t George R.R. Martin. If they don’t sell their books everywhere books can be sold they don’t get to influence the market. Instead they just lose money.

And, as I mentioned, some authors have no time to market their books. Even shabby marketing is better than absent marketing.

And what about authors who have no inclination to marketing? Should they just be excluded from their art? Honestly, there’s a deeply problematic misunderstanding of the lifestyle of the author in this section.

Advances are business, so what?

Yes, an advance isn’t a charitable contribution. Again arguing this is a strawman. Advances are more akin to futures stocks than to charity. A publisher is gambling that the future earnings of a book will be greater than the outset of cost for the advance on the book.

In exchange authors who dependably move copy get a slightly more stable income. It’s actually kind of win-win. And frankly it is NOT a loan. So to suggest that authors should take on debt (whether or not they can) to live while they wait for their royalties to roll on in is perverse.

Cheap books aren’t necessarily good for anybody

Amazon’s manipulation of the market does drive down costs for consumers. But books weren’t that expensive to begin with. I mean seriously, I read more than most consumers, and I buy print frequently. I buy hardcover and trade paperbacks when I buy print almost exclusively – IE: the expensive options – and you know what? \

It’s not an expensive hobby.

I don’t need to pay pennies for my four books a month, and most consumers can afford their one or two even at $10 for an e-book.

Yes, publishers profit from book prices. So what? They’re a business. We covered that at the top.

Authors ALSO profit from book prices. How do you think publishers can afford to gamble $50,000 or more on an unknown product that might or might not pay off? They do it through scale. It’s a sad truth big publishers can afford big advances. Small presses, as much as I love them (and I DO love small presses) can’t afford big advances.

Amazon’s reckless growth without profit model is harmful to everybody. It hurts publishers, it hurts authors, it hurts competing distributors and ultimately it hurts consumers.

Because when the choices remaining are un-edited and un-curated chaff and the vanity projects of the wealthy consumers will find their options for alternatives extinct.

Yes, Racism is Still a Problem in SFF

I’m feeling pretty ill today – a weekend long bout of insomnia culminated in me not getting a wink of sleep pretty much at all last night and I’m in a foul mood. As such, fair warning, but there’s going to be some snark in this post and, unlike yesterday, probably very few extended tongue-in-cheek Shakespeare allusions.

I made the mistake of blundering down the rabbit hole of comments sections on SFF Fandom blogs last night and this morning. What I found sickened me. There’s big problems with discussions of race, ethnicity and, yes, racism in SFF. And what’s more, it’s not just restricted to certain well known agitators with pseudonyms that rhyme with Smocks Smay.

 Down the Rabbit Hole

My first mistake was reading into the comments of an article talking about the recent departure from SFWA of John C. Wright. I know, I know, don’t read the comments. Never read the comments! But I couldn’t help myself. Things took a turn for the surreal when Wright himself appeared in the comments thread and accused another person in the comments of being one of the Pod People from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and speaking in “Newspeak” because of that person’s membership in ” a faction known as Political Correctness.”

Now, a note, this particular conversation had nothing to do with race. It largely centered around Wright’s characterization of SFWA when he said: “Instead of men who treat each other with professionalism and respect, I find a mob of perpetually outraged gray-haired juveniles.”

So, yeah, it was a gender thing. And the gender thing is also a huge thing. But if this particular privileged white male is going to take jabs at the community when it gets sexist, I have an equal obligation to point out the racism I am becoming increasingly aware of, and uncomfortable with, within fandom.

Swarthy Cult-Fiends and Sallow Easterlings

In some ways one of the most difficult realizations of my early adulthood was recognizing the racism inherent in some of my favorite authors – notably H.P. Lovecraft (who was REALLY concerned with ideas of racial purity as demonstrable by “The Shadow over Innsmouth”) and J.R.R. Tolkien, who created a war in which tall, heroic, white (in the case of the Elves, super-white) people fought a war against sallow Easterners and dark orcs.

As time goes by it becomes more difficult for me to ignore the tones of yellow peril implicit in that construction.

But, even though these two authors probably did more to shape fantasy and horror than any others in the twentieth century, it’s easy for us to put them firmly in the past. Sure, there are race issues in those old books. But that was the time and it’s not like we’re racist. Right? Right?

The Yellow Peril Never Went Away

And yet, there exists, in print, a long series of novels set in a future wherein China has overrun the world. Africans have been exterminated by the heavily othered Chinese conquerors and Europeans are forced to integrate or face expulsion into a stygian hellscape of cannibalism and darkness.

Though lip-service is paid to putting antagonists and protagonists on both sides of this sprawling series of novels, it is made abundantly clear that the European characters stand in for change and dynamism. The Chinese characters for stasis and tradition.

In the first volume of this series, the author wrote an afterword in which he stated that his decision to use the laughably outmoded and inaccurate Wade-Giles transcription for the Mandarin speakers in the novel over the much more accurate Pinyin transliteration was because he found the former “far more elegant” to the latter which he refers to as having “harder forms”.

It’s worth noting that Pinyin was developed by Chinese people for the transcription of Mandarin in the second half of the 20th century, while Wade-Giles was the product of a British diplomat who served as part of the diplomatic corps to China during the Second Opium War.

This series is an especially egregious example, but let’s face it. Despite the high-minded rhetoric of exploring the bounds of the future many SFF narratives boil down to the same sad story.

The others are coming.

They have no cause to love us.

They will destroy what we hold dear.

Because they think differently from us.

And no two ideologies can ever exist side by side in peace.

(Note: I’m not calling all of these racist. However each of these examples depends upon an enemy who is entirely other and effectively uniformly antagonistic. There are many, many more.)

 Back to the Rabbit Hole

But this all serves mainly to contextualize my thoughts when I continued down the rabbit hole. Because I did a bunch more clicking, and a bunch more comment reading, and then I found this gem:

These two vast, {India and China} ancient societies withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation, so life was much the same from one millennium to the next. Centuries slid by with little to mark them beyond the feuding of maharajahs.

The evidence given for this sweeping generalization was a highly simplistic interpretation of the dismantling of the treasure fleet of Zheng He.

One could just as easily say of Europe that this vast, continent spanning and ancient society withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation through the application of religious persecution. After all, look at the Spanish Inquisition.

This view disregards that there were progressive and conservative governments in China and in India over the five thousand years of their recorded history. It disregards the Chinese invention of the compass (~1040 AD), gunpowder (9th century AD), the printing press (~220 AD) and paper (8 BC). It disregards the advanced state of classical Indian mathematics (the use of Zero, the development of Brahmagupta’s theorem, and a host of others). It is based on a Eurocentric view of the decadent east that has more to do with the effective deployment of European military power in Asia during the colonial period than anything legitimately from the history of either place.

One of the two authors of this work has also been criticized for writing a novel in which the protagonist, a woman of colour, “has inherited a mistrust of Afrocentrism, a profound and much-rehearsed disbelief in the significance of racism in shaping her career, and a deleterious approach to the various tokenistic women’s and minorities’ committees and functions that bedevil her academic life. ”

This, to me, reads altogether too much as, “there’s no racism here, and anybody who says otherwise is just one of those free-speech suppressing PC Pod People.”

I’ve written before here about the need to treat art as operating within the context of both the creator and of current culture. If our art is created by a person who, on one hand, advances a narrative that places an Eastern other as inferior to a progressive West; if that person then creates a protagonist who appears to exist to challenge the validity of affirmative action and to push forward the hackneyed belief that we live in a post-racial world, we should look at the latter through the lens of the former.

The only reason that we live in a world where racism isn’t as powerful as it was fifty years ago is because of fifty years of hard-fought battles and hard-won victories. Leaving the battle half-way to won and declaring racism is over doesn’t make it so.

There’s a huge debate about the place of politics in SFF right now.  A lot of it is predicated on a disagreement about the difference between free speech and consequence free speech.

More than a few people in Fandom would be happy for the debate to go away. After all, we want license to love the things we love. There is nothing harder than to look at something as dearly loved as the Lord of the Rings and to admit it has a race problem. This doesn’t mean that these individuals in Fandom are racist; it does mean that they would rather not feel forced to examine the racism that exists within the field. Doing so would invariably interfere with them loving the things they love. I still like reading Lovecraft (well, some Lovecraft) even though I know how truly disgusting his views are. I have to live with that – and it does interfere with my own comfort with those parts of my own fannishness.

I still like Star Wars.

But I like to think that the aspiration of the SFF community is to BE the future; to uphold an example of a better possible world. We do live in a more pluralistic world than fifty years ago. And Roddenberry was a part of that – SFF was a part of that. But we shouldn’t stop. We shouldn’t allow the conservatism of progressing age to distract us from the angels of our better nature. We have to improve ourselves. And self-improvement can be painful.

Amazon, Books and Bubbles

Sad AmazonAccording to Melville House the investment luster is wearing off of the never-make-a-profit elephant in the room of publishing, Amazon.

The thing with Amazon is that it made a decision early on to forego profits in exchange for continuous, rapid growth.

You know what else grows and grows without deriving any benefit for its hosts? Cancer.

Ok, I know, that was an easy shot, but with the recent closure of the World’s Biggest Bookstore I’m in a grouchy mood. World’s Biggest was just about the original big-box bookstore. And it’s not the only large bookstore closing its doors in Toronto. If even big boxes can’t survive in a post-Amazon world that bodes poorly for anybody who ever wanted to walk into a bookstore, browse for an hour and come out blinking in the sun with an unfamiliar book.

This quarter Amazon reported a profit of $108 million; but off a revenue of $20 billion that’s well below where any other company of its size would be expected to be. And Amazon is poised to lose as much as $455 million next quarter. But they’ll continue growing!

Investors have been willing to allow this mass expansion for a long while. Now they’re finally departing, and investor reluctance over Amazon has splattered over onto other major online ventures like Netflix and the big-three of social networking.

Frankly, a lot of these companies may be over-valued. The behaviour of Facebook and LinkedIn post-IPO surely points to that. But here’s the thing, Wall Street has long gambled that Amazon will eventually have All-The-Market and will thus be able to return them All-The-Money (or at least all the money in he lucrative selling physical objects or their electronic reproductions to people market).

This reckless backing has done massive damage to the book market. It was the death of Borders and Barnes and Nobles. In Canada it led Chapters Indigo to downsize its operations and to aggressively pursue integration with Kobo.

Other writers are concentrating on the risk that Amazon’s change in fortunes might pose for the tech sector – warning signs indicate it might perforate the wall of the new tech bubble. As much as I don’t want to see Netflix go the way of Pets.com, this isn’t my core concern.

What worries me is not what damage might be done by slowing Amazon’s growth, by investors forcing a change in practice where the giant is required to make a profit (you know, by doing something shocking like raising the price of books to something near what they’re worth).

What worries me instead is the damage done.

Heady investors gambled on the idea that they could promote a monopoly with Amazon. They’ve very nearly got what they wished for. And it gutted an entire industry. Melville House points out that Amazon is very likely in the “too big to fail” category of business now (and how I wish that was a concept that we could expunge from our collective consciousness). But while I can’t count on Amazon to be allowed to collapse under the weight of its own hubris, I can hope for a receding Amazon – an Amazon that doesn’t undercut the very publishers whose books it sells.

And I can hope that this will be yet another cautionary tale about the toxic nature of an economy built on the backs of naked gambling, devoid of care for the end products, the users or the content creators.

Marketing Categories: The Genre Question

I read an article from Quill and Quire today that talked about a new marketing category that has evolved – new adult fiction. It described how an author had trouble selling her book because it featured a protagonist in her 20s.

The article said that this presented trouble for publishers because YA conventionally deals with high-school age protagonists, while adult fiction generally features protagonists who have reached full adult maturity.

It made these works difficult to categorise… until somebody came up with a name for it.

My first novel is a coming of age story featuring protagonists who have recently entered adulthood. The arc of the protagonists is one which centres around the assumption of adult responsibility: finding a path, choosing sides in political conflict, learning to be a leader, to make priorities, building stable relationships.

I’d been calling it a young adult novel when I described it because, well because once you’ve written a book, marketing categories matter.

They matter because they will affect the metadata that goes along with the book. That metadata will in turn influence E-Marketplace recommendations and will determine where a book shows up when browsing.

They matter because book stores and libraries care about marketing categories. They matter because society, in general, implies certain assumptions about a book based on its category.

And that’s where things get difficult. Because the assumption might not be a correct one. Let’s take, for example, the division between Science Fiction and fantasy. Where would we place a book like Ecko Rising? The book starts off in a pretty standard near future / cyberpunkish vein, with a protagonist, augmented with cybernetics, fighting against the ruling corporate elite of a dystopian England.

And then the novel curves into left field as the character is suddenly and without explanation dropped into a fantasy setting with centaurs, wizards, warriors and a teleporting tavern.

The tension between the sci-fi protagonist’s expectations and the fantasy world he inhabits becomes a key element of the story. But what is it? Is it sci-fi or is it fantasy? This actually matters because science fiction and fantasy have distinct tropes and if a reader expects one set of tropes and suddenly gets another they may not be pleasantly surprised.

Now in this example, the subversion of expectations is handled elegantly by Ware, who allows the protagonist to voice the science fiction expectations only to find himself by turns frustrated and enthused by the differences between the expected world and the one he is in.

Of course some stories don’t have to actually pull a bait and switch to meander over genre lines. Look at any comic book: Power-armour clad scientists duking it out with gods carrying magic weapons; aliens and wizards collaborating; time travellers and mutants and mystical prophecies all jumbled together. There’s some very interesting and fertile ground for stories in the spaces between genres.

But how to sell them?

That’s been a perennial problem for comics, which have struggled against the idea that they are somehow “lower” artistically than other stories basically forever.

In the end, I think Quill and Quire gets it right. Authors will generally, eventually, find a home for good work. In time, no matter how hard it is to sell, somebody will probably at least give it a shot. If they do, and if they sell successfully, hey, voila a new marketing category is born.

And then everybody will be complaining about how many awful steampunk zombie mashup retellings of classic novels they keep seeing in their bookstores, no matter how bold the initial concept of something so bizarre might be.

So, I guess, I’d say this – write your story and write it well. Never, while writing, consider the marketing category. You can pigeonhole your book after you’ve finished it.

Because you will have to think about it. And that’s when it’s time to assemble your elevator pitch. But in the meantime don’t sweat it.

No, EBooks aren’t dying

Earlier this week, Rough Type posted this chart and the lit parts of the internet went up into the perennial debate over e vs paper.

And certainly it’s a pretty doomish looking chart. You see a peek of 252% growth in Q1 2010 and then you see that growth drop to 5% by Q1 2013. That is a precipitous decline.

But does it matter?

Here’s the thing, ebooks are a new technology. E-ink readers didn’t even exist prior to 2006. The Kindle wasn’t released in the USA (let alone late-adopting countries like Canada until 2007). And, of course, iPad came in 2010.

When a new technology (for that matter, when a new product at all) comes to market there are waves of purchasers. First we get early adopters who buy the product when its first being introduced. Then, as word gets around about the product it will go through a period of rapid growth. And then, after a while, the majority of the people who are going to get onboard with the product have done so.

This is the mature phase of a product lifecycle and it is perfectly normal. It was going to happen eventually. Basically what it means is that the existing readers who were going to adopt ebooks have done so. It doesn’t mean that they are buying fewer ebooks, just not more.

Eventually the product will decline, but a very rapid adoption doesn’t necessarily imply a rapid decline from maturity. Industrial printing, the key technology for mass-market print books, kicked off in the 1800s and was reaching maturity less than two decades after it really got going and, by worst case scenario, print books didn’t reach the decline phase of the market cycle until… well… about 2011, when the Borders bankruptcy shook the entire book industry.

That was nearly two centuries of maturity following two decades of growth.

So perhaps we can start worrying about ebooks in a few decades, when accelerating technological change produces a medium for mass market stories as transformative as ebooks were.

Until then, don’t sweat the fact that the ebook market has matured. It was going to happen eventually.

I think I’ve chosen a side in the Amazon / Apple conflict

It looks like Amazon is getting into a bit of a price war with Overstock. And it looks like this could be very bad for authors and publishers, both in the short-term an as part of a larger trend.

A little while ago I weighed in on the Apple / Amazon model over agency pricing and the ruling that this was a price-fixing deal. At that time I said that I wasn’t sure which side I came down upon with the whole thing.

But if we’re going to be seeing more of this without agency pricing perhaps I do know which side I’m on. I am still unconvinced that agency pricing is that good for small presses or anybody other than Apple and the Big Five. But with that being said, with things like this happening this soon after the court ruling in Amazon’s favour I am beginning to think that, perhaps, Apple and the consortium with the Big Five is the lesser of two evils.

Still very interested to hear other opinions on this. I’m less divided now, but not undivided.

Thanks to Raw Dog Screaming Press for providing the link to the original article.

Copyright Kills Middle-Aged Books

Yesterday the Atlantic ran an article called “The Hole in Our Collective Memory” about the impact of copyright on middle-aged books. In short it’s not good. Publishers are hesitant to put up books for sale a few years after they come out and the sales drop off rapidly until you get to public domain, at which point they spike again big-time.

But, of course, changes to copyright law have been steadily expanding the period of time before a creative work enters the public domain.

Extended copyrights do not benefit artists. They benefit the occasional estate holder and they benefit large corporations who depend on franchise IP for continued profit.

We need to reopen the copyright debate – but not with a concentration on tightening restrictions on fair use, nor on smacking down those evil pirates.

No, we need to reopen debates like when work should enter the public domain. I tend toward the “no more than 20 years” camp. And I don’t mean 20 years from the death of the artist, I mean 20 years from date of publication / initial distribution.

20 years is plenty of time to make money from one work of art. After all, do we all aspire to have exactly one book in us? What do you think about copyright? Let me know in the comments.

*EDIT NOTE*

I have re-examined my position since this article was posted and now lean more toward life+20 years than 20 years full stop. Sometimes we need to admit when we’re wrong and I think I was when I wrote this.

Not afraid of pirates

Boing Boing recently posted an article about Penguin’s policy which restricts access to digital galley copies.

At the heart of the issue there are two items – the first is that the work of layout artists has value, and that layout and book design are value adds which publisher contribute above and beyond an author’s work.

As Doctrow did I can kind of buy that. But like Doctrow I agree that it’s a bit of a cop-out. That value add is one of the top reasons to have a publisher. Without publishers contributing that value we’d all probably be self-pub by now.

But, of course, the big elephant in the room is the risk of piracy.

If a galley gets out beforehand, especially one with little or no DRM the book could end up leaked. And once a book gets leaked there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Here’s the thing though. There’s basically three types of people who pirate stuff:

  1. People who will never buy your product. They might pirate it but they will never be customers. Them pirating your book doesn’t cost you any money because they weren’t ever going to buy it.
  2. People who might buy your product. This is the hardest category. Try-and-buy pirates might choose to buy the product, they might not. People in this category are the ones everybody worries about. My argument is that the best way to convert try-and-buy pirates into customers isn’t to use DRM. It’s the opposite. Make it easy for them to buy your product. Make the product reasonably priced and put yourself out there enough for them to feel connected to the product creator. Don’t be a faceless machine.
  3. People who want to buy your product but can’t. This is your own fault. See above in point two on making it easy to buy the product. Develop your supply chain to get the product into their hands.

So either pirates are non-customers or prospects. Why are we punishing prospective customers out of spite about non-customers?

So, yeah, I’m not worried about pirates. And the truth is that Penguin probably shouldn’t be either.

P.S. Belated props to Tor/Forge books for going DRM free.

We can do better

One of my favourite authors and “PC Monster” Saladin Ahmed shared this chart recently and I was a little bit disgusted.

The chart shows a breakdown of people reviewed by the New York Times by skin colour and ethnicity. The big blue part are the white people. Everybody else are represented by all those little wedges there.

Yeah, that really stinks. Out of 742 books reviewed only nine were written by Hispanic authors – that’s 1.2% of the books reviewed. According to 2010 statistics, 16.4% of the population of the US is Hispanic.

Similar disparities exist with other groups – 4.2% of reviewed authors were African Americans – the same statistics listed the African American population at 12.6%.  When there is under-representation at a rate of three to one (or worse, 10 to one) this strikes me as problematic bias.

We, in the literary community, can do better than this. We should be seeking out diverse voices, not ignoring them. It can be hard to find work written by diverse voices sometimes and this is part of it. If the books aren’t reviewed they don’t get distributed. If they don’t get wide distribution people don’t read them.

And that’s not even considering straight-up censorship of minority writers, which still totally happens.