‘All I’m takin’ is your time’ (which has no value, does it?)

Now, as some you may know I moved to Australia just over two years ago and settled on a magical little island off the coast — between Victoria and Tasmania. It’s a wild and wonderful spot, and I love it very much, and the people have been very kind and very welcoming. There are times when it’s a bit like living a permanent Amish barn-raising — it has a small population, there are lot of social activities, and the community finds willing and able hands, especially ones who want to help out not take over, are thinly spread. We’re grateful to be here, and try to do our bit and bit extra, especially Barbs, who is gregariously friendly, intelligent and easy to talk to (me, I am none of the above). Australia accepted us as special migrants with permanent residency heading for citizenship (which I’ll apply for in 714 days time – the day I am eligible. Yes, I am counting the days.). Australian writers have been a lovely bunch to meet, with the exception of two who’d be right at home in the NY literati (both fanatically politically correct and one sees me as a ‘threat’ because I’m competition in her state (which I’m not. I’m just a bloke who writes, and is more eager to support and build up other writers than compete. I’m really not interested. Nor do I think I’m the bees knees. I’m quite happy to be thought a hack who writes entertaining stories. She’s welcome to be the towering literati figure. More than welcome, in fact.) Australian sf/fantasy awards and cons still seem caught up in the idealism about writing of the seventies — where it’s not so much about connections and the wealth it takes to attend these regularly, as an enthusiastic bunch of fans.

In short: for me it has been a great move. And, filled me – as Algis Budrys put it in Rogue Moon – with the fierce patriotism of the new Australian. (He was of course referring to Americans, but it was the same thing, where those born to this do not realize as easily how rare and wonderful their country is) I know what a precious thing they have here in the egalitarianism and tolerance of Australia. I know just how valuable a society where ‘a fair go’ is central to people’s philosophy is, and how great it is to have a society where ‘a little Aussie battler’ (someone who gets up and tries again, and again no matter how often fire, or drought or the publishing industry or life in general knocks him down) is a term of liking and respect.

Like the descriptions of the 19th century US West and many colonial societies I think it is a place where you start afresh, make yourself and earn a living by hard work. And that is valued, especially here, where labor is pricy (the minimum wage is twice that of the US and for casual work about 3 times that). Incomers who get in and work hard at the kind of grotty jobs no one wants, can do well. Of course there are bogans and bludgers (among the new settlers too) who moan fiercely about these new settlers taking their jobs (which they don’t want to do). But by in large if you work, try to fit in, learn to be Australian, it’s a great place to be. My bit here, of course, is God’s own country, and I wake up every day, ready to kill the ‘Joe Witty’ bird for loudly beating up his reflection … and realize that means I’m here on Flinders, and that makes me glad to be alive and here again.

What I do is write. It’s why Australia took me and my family in. Given the way I feel about the place and the people, the obvious thing I want to do is give back. So: of course Australia has started coming out in my short stories, and CUTTLEFISH and THE STEAM MOLE. Anyone who does not realize the powerful and long lasting effect of writers and their books on the image of country is just is really, really dim. Movies and adverts may have far wider reach, but they tend to be short term phenomena. Books… books stick around for years, get passed around, and most people spend a lot more time in the world of a book than they do in a movie theater. The Australian publishing industry enjoys a trade barrier, which has both helped the local industry (in that, despite about 1/3 of the population of the UK, the writing scene is existent and even vibrant in patches, probably more so than the UK. South Africa, with about the same population as the UK, but no tariff barrier, has a publishing sector that could be favorably compared to a two week dead roadkill wombat, except for sf-fantasy, where it is worse.) and been very bad for it (like any monopoly this has inevitably been abused, and means local book prices are way way out of line with for example US book prices. Australians still read a lot, but there has been some killing of the golden goose for short term gain). Now, our migration — a subject which has a huge shoo-in local market — complete with three dogs and three cats and a 500 pound family rock, from a mountaintop in South Africa, to a remote island in the Bass Strait (one of the most dangerous pieces of water in the world) has been fraught with disaster, laughter, chaos, more laughter, and of course Telstra (another product of monopoly) and the rock. I thought I’d like to write a book about it. Now, this is mainstream non-fiction and really largely for an Australian audience, with of course some sf/fantasy readers and some South Africans. So I needed an Australian publisher of same. I spoke to some of my Australian author contacts, and rapidly found myself commended to one of Australia’s largest and most prestigious agencies.

And here I found I was back in NY publishing-world. Slow, chaotic, needing repeated prodding and certainly not inspiring, let alone worth 15% of anyone’s income. In other words much the same experience I and many authors in the US or elsewhere had had getting into the gate-keepers to the distribution monopoly – which is why, now the monopoly has been broken, they’re up a certain creek without a paddle frantically offering to ‘assist’ authors with e-publishing. The experience made me appreciate O’Mike all over again. And eventually the best they could do was a publisher’s ‘maybe we’ll consider it if you write the whole book first.’ Well, at that stage, our finances were battered by the move, and the state of US publishing. I couldn’t afford ‘on spec’ books. So the project didn’t go away, it just got back-burnered.

As time passed and I learned more about the island that we’d come to live on. I write fantasy which has a strong historical basis and there are few places in Australia with a wilder and more romantic and tragic history than Flinders. It’s a place that was uninhabited since the land bridge drowned about twelve thousand years ago, and, as it was visible from Tasmania, but there were no fires (elsewhere, you could see the fire-smoke of other tribes), it was the land of the dead. The mythical islands, rather like those of Celtic mythology. And then the first white settlers came – sealers – as often as not Irish or Scots, taking wives from the Tasmanian Aboriginals, living a tough life out in a wild, lawless place. Even now the locals are rather like the occupants of Aran or the Hebrides in many ways, and belief in the second sight is more the norm than otherwise. There were shipwrecks a-plenty, and disasters and heroism too. It was a refuge-place, where you came if you wanted to be at the end of the earth, beyond the reach of anything. A perfect spot for a fantasy writer… and the perfect setting for an Australian fantasy with roots in both the old world and the new. I had the idea for CHANGELING’S ISLAND, got inspired, wrote up an outline and the 10-20% of what would be a YA fantasy, with an Australian lead character (it would be very easy to switch this for say an American lead character which would make it very sale-able… for a lot more than in Australia, to anywhere but Australia. But I want to write a book about here, for here). I sent it to the local agent… Who did nothing at all for six months. I was busy writing, so didn’t chase. Eventually, I did. She promised to send it on to their YA/fantasy person. She didn’t, until the next prod about 3 months later. This one sat on it for months too. Then yesterday I got the single most bizarre semi-rejection I’ve ever had. The agent is ‘not entirely sure it works for me’ – and could I write a few more chapters so that she can make up her mind next week?

My jaw nearly hit my keyboard. This is Australia. Labor is valuable… except, it seems, from authors. I suppose you do still have the work once it is done, but this not a publisher out to make you an offer or not. This a gatekeeper to the gatekeeper. The assumption 1)that I could just drop whatever other work I had, to rush (after about a year of their doing nothing) and give her a few more chapters so she could make up her mind whether to try and sell the book, and 2)that I would be happy to donate, conservatively, at floor-sweeper rates (because I’m an author, and they’re worth less than floor sweepers) 500 dollars worth of work-time when she isn’t even enthusiastic about it… well, you can see the value put on an author with a third of a million copies sold, and a slew of books. Heaven help you if you’re a noob. I’m no tall poppy, but this denigrates any author.

I politely wrote back and said, sorry I had a deadline and paid work took precedence. I would have to get to it, if and when I could. I’ve got four more books on contract. Once they’re done, I want no more to do with this proposal-and-contract system. Fortunately, we’re nearly self-sufficient, our living costs tiny, and I’m getting to a position where I no longer have to contract ahead, and hopefully with independent e-books, where I can tell them to pee (generously) or get off the pot very quickly.

I will be writing the Flinders Family Freer Migration saga. I will be writing CHANGELING’S ISLAND. I will not let these little obstacles stop me.

15 comments

  1. You go, Dave!
    The Australian publishing world has had its cozy little monopoly way too long. I forsee much screaming when ebooks finally come into their own in that part of the world (particularly with small publishers and independents removing those antiquated region barriers…)

      1. And I for one will be cheering. I love the country, and there’s a whole lot of Australia in what I right (usually the attitudes of my characters, for some strange, strange reason), but someone who doesn’t fit in NYC sure as hell ain’t going to fit in a much smaller little monopolistic mutual circle of onanism. (trying to preserve blog PG rating here… or I’d call it rather more bluntly).

  2. Well, yeah, that’s a monopoly industry at “work”. But from reading around, it would appear that the Universal response of publishing companies around the Western world to the challenge of new market conditions is to double down on their “gatekeeper” functions while[e|st] searching frantically through old contracts for ways to take advantage of writers. If you had to wait a year before, now it’s two; if the advance was $5K, now it’s $2K; and First North American Rights clearly include ebook sales in Mongolia, right? And we’re planning an electronic edition, any day decade now, so it isn’t out of print and you don’t get your rights back…

    Your stuff is quirky enough to fall into the self-fulfilling-prophecy cycle: it won’t sell as well as Patterson and Cussler, so even if they print it it won’t end up on the shelves next to Patterson and Cussler, so — aha! — it won’t sell as well as Patterson and Cussler, which they will be happy to point out at the next contract negotiation… Is there a Lightning Source equivalent in Australia? You badly need to be out of the machine and selling stuff directly to readers.

    Regards,
    Ric

    1. You’re dead right there, Ric. I find myself shaking my head and blinking to see if when I focus again I’ll see something that shows the intellectual capacity of retarded gerbil out of this lot. Common sense, let alone genius, says right now is the time to break out the dusty copy of Dale Carnegie and start competing. They are still in a good position to do so, even if it does mean ‘not business as usual’. The most bizarre thing to come out of this, and I believe it is widespread, but i know of two cases personally are where these huge corporates are engaging openly in piracy — pushing out e-books to which the rights have clearly reverted. This can only end in tears — punitive ones — one hopes.

      I haven’t looked into Lightning Source yet.

      1. I love the Internet 🙂

        Sitting here in Texas, I typed “au book publishing service” and got everything from job printers (you send them a .pdf, they print and assemble it) to “LoveOfBooks.com.au”, which looks like a vanity publisher trying to break out of the niche. (Note that if vanity publishers in general are able to get their thumbs out, they already have a good start into the self-publishing market.) A couple have offices in Hobart, which would make it a little easier for you to visit with cricket bat (dispute resolution tool) in hand, but they all work through the Internet.

        Lightning Source won’t do anything for you but print — you have to do all the work: page layout, cover, back cover, font selection(s), the whole nine yards. Thing is, all that is at worst doable, it’s merely labo(u)r and perhaps some expensive software. The hard part is distribution, of course, and LoveOfBooks at least advertise getting into Bowker, which is a start. For entry into the US market, LS do something similar — they’re actually owned by one of the big distributors. They do charge for the service.

        Options are many and growing. I hope you find one that suits you.

        Regards,
        Ric

  3. I had the idea for CHANGELING’S ISLAND, got inspired, wrote up an outline and the 10-20% of what would be a YA fantasy, with an Australian lead character (it would be very easy to switch this for say an American lead character which would make it very sale-able… for a lot more than in Australia, to anywhere but Australia. But I want to write a book about here, for here).

    I read one of your YA fantasies (Without a Trace). Can I prepay you for the book?

  4. You are absolutely right about the power of books to form our opinions about places. For Australia, for me, it’s Arthur Upfield’s mysteries. I’m looking forward to an updated look at the place, especially knowing how much I’ll enjoy the stories you write.

    As fast as e-readers are spreading, you may never have to deal with the current Australian Industry. And if you do, you have the example of the US industry’s flailing about and trying to ensnare writers to keep you alert and wary.

    1. And I suspect when Amazon opens Amazon.com.au – which will happen, wildfire will have nothing on how fast it is going to shred the Australian industry.
      The book thing — it’s insidious and not obvious so I think it passes a lot people by — but I suspect the capacity to influence is probably an order of magnitude higher than any other method… if it is done well. If it is done as propaganda preaching it has a negative effect IMO.

  5. People don’t know that something in unacceptable if they’re never told. Even when you think that it would be obvious to anyone who thought about it, it’s not. Because they don’t think about it.

    Reminds me of a couple of guys my husband worked with in the Philippines, Americans married to Filippinas. Nice guys. *Kind* guys. But you have someone willing to wait on you and pretty soon it just seems natural. Human beings given the opportunity are inclined to be lazy.

    I’ve never understood how publishers could sit on submissions for months or even years and do business, or ask for rewrites and what not without a contract, but they’ve been allowed to do so forever, so how would they ever realize that it’s abusive?

    1. Precisely Synova. No one has dared – for a long time – to point this out, because the penalty was simply you’d cease forever to be published. The trouble is that the industry is still largely in the ‘denial’ phase. Tell them, and they tell you that YOU are the problem. Everyone LOVES them. Oddly there is some degree of Stockholm Syndrome there. There are authors who rush to defend what is clearly abusive.

  6. Nice one, Dave. I have lots of pointy sticks in the backyard if you want to send a few to the agent with instructions:)
    Sounds like a great concept – some people can’t recongise a good idea if it runs them over in an 18-wheeler. The only qualification needed is to be opinionated and sure they are right (not actually right, just sure they are).

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