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The world has gone insane

Well, maybe not, but it sure as heck feels that way. The regular news reads like someone accidentally plugged in the “weird and gross” channel, otherwise sensible people are advocating seriously stupid stuff, and… Oh. Right. Election season in the USA.

I’m not American, although I live here. I watch the election shenanigans with a kind of bemused “WTF?” because it seems like there’s an unfailing ability to always get worse. Raging controversies erupt without anyone ever mentioning the underlying problem, people bitch about this candidate’s fortune or that candidate’s fundraising without ever stopping to ask themselves how in the hell this country can ever get good candidates when anyone who’s interested first needs to secure sponsors with very deep pockets who will inevitably want some form of quid pro quo. Usually with a heck of a lot of quid, and not much bloody quo. Bribery is legalized… they call it “lobbying” or “campaign donations”, and get pissy when their purchased pols don’t stay bought.

What really pisses me off about the whole mess, though, is that if I wrote this as a fictional government, not only would no-one bloody believe me, they’d claim it was impossible. Proof – if it were needed – that life is indeed stranger than we can imagine. Of course, life doesn’t have to follow the very strict rules of Story. Life can just happen. Coincidences can be just that. The evil conniving SOB can be a devoted husband (although most of them aren’t) and kind and gentle to puppies (this one is rather more common).

And of course, it’s been several days of hot weather in a climate where everything is designed to keep the heat in. Which our house has done exceedingly well, to the tune of 30F hotter inside than out. Of course, the guy who priced and sold us the central AC system had it done in “easy” mode, and the equipment simply does not fit where the sales-dude thought it would. Or rather, it could fit, but no-one would ever get in there for the maintenance that needs to happen. That at least I could write about, in one of those “everything goes wrong” comic pieces.

We’ve got two days to go before they’re done (unless they run into major problems – something I’m not ruling out). It will be nice to be able to sleep comfortably again. In the meantime, I need to avoid all news sources, try not to google anything that has even a small chance of being politicized, and possibly declare myself a politics-free-zone for the duration. Otherwise there will be stories of a woman going postal in a small PA town and impaling co-workers. And you know how hard it is to clean the carpets after that.

Yes, I am up to my eyeballs in the sequel to Impaler. Why do you ask?

Oh. Nevermind. I’ll just go and hide myself away in something nice and uncontroversial, like fifteenth century royal processionals.

Wild Wild Webs

by Sarah Hoyt

This last weekend I saw no less than two posts, both by people I consider sensible and occasionally brilliant, deploring the freedom of association and freedom of expression on the web.

Oh, that’s not what either of them thought he was deploring.  One of them bewilderingly taking off from what sounds like a zombie outbreak in Florida (but was, apparently one of the run of the mill effects of taking certain drugs) lamented the possibility of people with really bizarre fetishes and perversions finding each other.

The other one, (which I now can’t find because I spent the weekend in a virus-induced haze reading everywhere, yes, even that site on how to make tinfoil hats) sounding like the lords of the dying press (all kinds of presses, fiction included) lamented that anyone can say anything on the net, and people will be attracted by “the most bizarre conspiracy theories.”

This is the part of the blog in which I must regretfully inform two columnists I respect that they’ve gone insane.  The type of insanity is what I often refer to as “But it SHOULD be perfect.”

Let’s stipulate that the web will allow a lot of crazy people to get together.  I know from crazy.  I am a science fiction writer, with friends who are science fiction writers and the internet is a huge boon to us, allowing us to compare notes, to call someone with specific expertise, to commiserate and talk about our peculiar problems.  Normally, to get the type of network I command at my fingerprints, I would have to live in New York City.  And so would they.  Oh, our forebears in the field made do with snailmail, but it was a slow and plodding business.

But Sarah – you say, once more taking your life in your own hands by talking back to me before I have enough coffee – that’s not what the columnist was talking about at all.  When he talked about people with a rare perversion or fetish banding together he was talking about those real crazies who wish to eat human flesh or blend puppies into energy shakes.

I know what he was talking about.  What I’m telling you is to back up – slowly, don’t go making sudden movements around me before I have caffeine – and look at the whole picture.  Will the internet make it easier for that kind of absolutely repulsive crazy to get together?  Of course it will.  Easier, not “possible” because guess what?  One of my hobbies is reading about very weird crimes (mostly because I look normal by comparison.  I think.  Or something) and people with the most bizarre fetishes and obsessions have been able to get together and indulge them since there has been mail, transportation, or large cities.  Is it a reason to get rid of or control those things?  No?  Then why the net?

Well, because… easier.  Yes, and?  Look, what do you think the proportion of people wanting to eat someone else’s face raw is in the population?  By which I don’t mean the people who will say “I’m so mad I could eat him raw” but the people who actually want to do it?  One in two million?  Five million?  I doubt it’s more than that.  So even if the internet facilitates their getting together our incident rate might grow to… four?  Five a year?

But Sarah, you say – man are you chatty early – “Four or five a year is too many.”  Maybe.  What makes you think people who are that far gone from human norm aren’t doing it anyway, with unwilling strangers?  How do you know it’s not “increased incidents” but “increased knowledge.”  And while we’re at it, how do you know that getting together on the net and talking for hours about face-eating won’t prevent these people from doing it?  The studies on this type of thing are murky.  On one side, some people get pushed into it.  On the other, some people will be perfectly content to discuss the proper circumstances to eat face and let out their obsession that way.

Which will it be?  How can you know?  And you do realize how tiny a proportion of the population we’re talking about either case, right?

Yes, but why should we allow it at all?

Because there is the flip side.  And the flip side is very important.  The flip side actually affects the lives of the majority of the people, the sanity of our policies, the health of the republic and the ability to be free.

And this is where I read, in some astonishment, the second columnist opining that the internet allowed people to go too far from “normal” – by which he meant going too far from group consensus – and fall down the rabbit hole of weird ideas.  He thinks that the only upside of the internet is letting small groups, whose obsession is physics or some abstruse portion of chemistry to discuss it, but what about those groups that will use it to come up with some odd theory about public events, conspiracies, or history?  Those people are tearing consensus apart and making us maaaaaaaaaad.  Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!!!!!!!

Okay, that’s not what he said, exactly, but it’s what he implied.  This was all the more baffling since this columnist is on the right, but is clearly longing for the days of uniform media where they each repeated each other’s story until people were afraid to think – let alone say – something that shattered the consensus.  In my lifetime at least (maybe the columnist is older?) the consensus of the mass media – a consensus enforced in ways ranging from professional ostracism to professional disdain – has been at the very least “soft left.”

What do I mean they repeated each other’s story till people were afraid to think or say differently?  Well, the columnist says as much in the column.  If you came up with a different opinion people would tell you “you’re nuts” because it wasn’t something that was in the media – back when the media had gatekeepers.  I’ll go further than he did and tell you that when the media had gatekeepers, entertainment had gatekeepers that read from the same missal.  For that matter so did education, partly led by the fact that schoolbooks were slow and expensive to produce.  They ALL echoed each other.  If you put something into a novel world-building that went against the consensus of “what everybody knows” you couldn’t publish it.  So novels, movies and all our entertainment also reinforced this concept.

Which means, of course, that we were kept sane and told the truth, because journalists and editors are always responsible, admirable people in the service of the greater good, right?

Sorry.  I got a bit of irony stuck in my throat.

To begin your education, google Walter Duranty.  Second go and find some popular entertainment from the early eighties.  Not news, but fictional world building which was downstream from that.  Mystery after mystery and, yes, science fiction after science fiction novel, explains how with Reagan in power we’d be a glowing crater.  It would be the end of the world and the superior Soviet system would win.  How was that fact checking and future analysis, then?  While you’re at it, and in a nostalgic mood, go watch ANY television series from the nineties.  Gee, those militias surely committed crimes.  And they were all racist, white supremacist militias, too.  You’d think there were several arrests of those per day in every small town and city, right?  Would it surprise you to know that the white supremacist militias of the sixties nineties never rose above the normal background noise they constitute in normal, civilized society?  It wouldn’t surprise me.  But then I actually knew people in the militia movement, and most of them leaned Libertarian and the one issue causing them worry was ONLY the fear their weapons would get banned.  That was pretty much it.  They liked the second amendment.  But you should have tried saying that in the nineties.  You’d have got “Are you crazy buddy?  There was that thing in Waco.  Oh, and the bombings in Oklahoma, and I see tv crime shows, and I KNOW– Say, if you’re saying that, you must be one of them.”

Want more?  Get your favorite newspaper, or the newspaper of your town, go back and count the number of headlines in the last three years that announce the economy is recovering; no, it really is recovering; the economy is totally recovering; this time we mean it, the economy is recovering.  It’s amazing with all this recovery that I’m sitting here writing this instead of out there, trying out my new Cadillac.  More?  Look up Fast and Furious, and tell me why it’s not in every newspaper throughout the land, twice a day and why the TV stations aren’t talking about it.

Conspiracy?  Buddy, you don’t need a conspiracy when you’re in an industry with a few thousand people nationwide, where publishing something that goes against the current means when you get laid off there might not be another job for you.  I know this.  I am in one of those industries.  I know how far I’m sticking out my neck.  I know very well why I’m now working for only one publishing house, itself considered a pariah by the others.  I always knew it.  I was on the blogs for ten years under a cover so deep you couldn’t penetrate it, all the while maintaining a conventional persona for my editors and agents.

Yes, having news funnel through a small number of gatekeepers kept it uniform and built consensus.  THAT was exactly what was wrong with it.

Did it keep devotees of UFOs and Space Invasions from falling down the particular rabbit hole of their own illusions?  Sure it did.  Kind of.  Here’s the thing, people obsessed with something that odd have been in touch with each other for years.  I know, because sometimes I have to research this stuff.  (It’s a professional hazard.)  As long as I’ve been writing, you could get that stuff – it might be in purplish mimeographed sheets, but you could find it and order it.

On the other hand, it kept people looking at headlines from saying “But I don’t think the economy is getting better.”  It kept people looking at raw unemployment numbers from telling the less math-advantaged “Hey, there’s something seriously wrong with the way these numbers are tallied.  I think real unemployment is closer to fifteen percent.”  Because even if people came to believe they were right, what was the point?  If they opened their mouths and said anything – oh, like, say, “the superdome during Katrina was NOT a haven of murder and rape” – people would think they were insane.  If these things weren’t true, why would ALL newspapers say exactly the same?

THAT is what the precious “consensus” was keeping.  Yeah, it might build a community (of the deluded) but it also made you lack the real data you needed to live in the real world.

At least it kept crazy ideas from circulating, though, right?  Ideas that had no plausible basis in reality and in fact went against observed fact…  Which is why the phrase Grassy Knoll has NO meaning in American pop culture.

Yes, the net is or can be wild.  Yes, it might allow consensual cannibals to gather and do their thing.  It also allows people like me and my colleagues to talk to each other and help each other to better plots or more plausible science in our books.  It also allows people like me and my friends to have a social life and not feel like we’re out there on the fringes of thought and behavior alone, because we think reading about dinosaur digs is comfort-reading and we spend our spare time comparing two obscure medieval authors most people never heard of.  There might be a danger in that.  As I’ve said in the past, by allowing outliers to meet and marry other outliers, it might eventually lead to speciation (maybe) but in the mean time it leads to less human loneliness and misery.

Yes, the net can encourage conspiracy theories and little pockets of insanity to form.  But most people have their own internal bullshit meter.  I knew exactly the moment when the geology site I was reading for information on the climate of Pangea went off the deep end – it was when it talked about the spaceship full of intelligent dinosaurs who would come back and…  How do I know that’s bullshit?  Well, because it would require WAY too much silence from too many people who have nothing vested in keeping silent, including RETIRED NASA scientists.  Also, it had nothing to do with the climate of pangea, which is what the rest of the page was about.  And how many “films” of dragons or mermaids show up every week on you tube?  Most people recognize the “grey cotton wool” look of faked or odd footage.  Heck, so many people can tell photoshoped pictures that those get outed too, including a few put out by places like Iran.     And if you think “oh, come on, Iran.  No one would take them seriously anyway.”  I’ll remind you our own CIA data – let alone what was published – exaggerated the financial (and demographic) health of the USSR right to the end.  Because, you see, they were going off official figures.  Anything else would be crazy.

But it also allows respectable, well thought out minority opinion to be heard, and to get in touch with people who will verify it.

Yes, the media and entertainment and even to an extent the scientific establishment before the net was cohesive and formed a beautiful picture.  No one ever asked the disturbing questions such as “Since every packet of international aid is predicated on the population of the country, and since even in our own country we count people we think should exist…  What makes us think that small, third world countries aren’t manufacturing statistics wholesale?  What makes us so sure population is still climbing?  Wouldn’t the world-wide economic crisis be consistent with a falling and aging population?”  (Coff, not that I mean anything by those questions, of course.)  And no one with better knowledge and more time ever set out to investigate and prove or disprove those crazy questions.  So we never knew.  Or rather, we knew a lot of things that just weren’t so.

But… what does it matter?  Go read Puppet Masters.  Devote sometime to the period labeled Masquerade.  What you think you know can kill you faster than what you don’t know.

The Wild Wild Webs is wild – it is also uncontrolled, and therefore allows each individual to think for him or herself.

Knowledge is not just power.  Real data is important to navigating times of catastrophic change, where knowing only false things might destroy you.  For instance, if you know Amazon is evil, you might never read your traditional publishing contract closely enough.  On the other hand, if you’ve read on a crazy site or two – say this one – what publishers have been slipping into contracts, you’ll read very closely indeed.

The lives we save might be our own.

Echoed over at According To Hoyt

Stand up, speak out and take control

Yesterday I had occasion to go to the local Barnes & Noble. I’ll admit, I don’t go there often. These days, when I do it is because I’m meeting someone there. Part of the reason is the decline in customer service. Part of it is the continuing decrease in the number of books in the store. Part is simply visual. When I walk into a bookstore, it is nice to be able to tell it’s a bookstore without having to walk into the back half to find a book.

After a successful meeting, and there will be an announcement about that later this week, I wandered the store with a friend. Part of it was habit. I’m in a bookstore. I love books. I had a few bucks in my pocket. So why not see if there’s a book I want to buy?

But the other part was curiosity. So many author friends have been dropped by their publishers or have had series killed because “they just didn’t connect with the readers”. Well, there’s one way to judge the veracity of that comment and that is to see if the book(s) is still on the shelf. So imagine my surprise — not! — to find the books for almost every one of the authors I was looking for still on the shelf. Gee, does that mean these authors are popular in Hurst, TX or were the publishers shoveling so much horse excrement? Considering how bookstores, and we are talking the large chain bookstores, order their books, it is a very safe bet that the answer is the latter option.

The big box stores have gone to stocking based on numbers across large regions and, as is too often the case, national numbers. Stores are told when to pull books from their shelves, not from a regional manager but from national. The standard shelf life for a novel can be measured in weeks and months, especially if that novel isn’t on the NYT’s best seller list. So, to find books that have been out for several years still on the shelves — and yet to know that the series has been dropped by the publisher because the publisher says they didn’t sell — means either the publishers are completely incompetent, which is possible, or they are crooks, which is also possible.

I’ll give you one example because I did facebook about it last night. Yes, I was a bit snarky about it, but not nearly as snarky as I wanted to be. Part of me wanted to call out the editor involved by name but, well, Sarah is a nicer person than I am and suggested that I might want to think about it some. Well, I have and I still want to call that editor out. After I have another cup of coffee, I may.

Any way, the series in question that I found on the shelves without any problem was Sarah’s Refinishing Mysteries. Dipped, Stripped and Dead was published in October 2009. There hasn’t been a time since then when I haven’t been able to walk into Barnes & Noble — and even Borders before it went under — and not find DSD. Yesterday was no different. Here’s a book that has been out for two and a half years still on the shelves. And not in the sales area. Oh no, it was in the main stacks and selling at full price.

Oh yeah, these aren’t the same books that had been there months ago because they weren’t signed. Sarah, when she was here in September, went to the BN and signed the copies in stock. These weren’t signed. So the publisher can’t say the books aren’t moving.

But there’s more. The second book in the series, French Polished Murder, was also on the shelves. FPM was published in May 2010. So, it has been out two years and is still on the shelves.

And yet, the series didn’t connect with the reader.

Sorry, Berkley (which is a division of Penguin, one of the Big Six), I just don’t buy it. This is either a case of the publisher robbing Peter to pay Paul — in other words, using monies earned by mid-list authors to support the monies they have paid out to best sellers as much too inflated advances which results in the publisher having to drop the mid-lister and hope that author doesn’t ask for an accounting — or it is a case of a particular editor thinking she could kill Sarah’s career by dropping the series. My personal belief is that it was a bit of both.

Part of me, on finding the books, could only shake my head. After all, the kind of incompetence the find represented amazes me. If a book is selling, you don’t cut the author loose. You especially don’t do it if that author is making you money and you are a publisher in trouble. And Penguin is. Remember, Penguin was not only one of the five publishers named, along with Apple, in the Department of Justice’s price fixing suit, but Penguin is one of only two publishers not to settle with the DoJ. Penguin also faces litigation filed by a number of states’ attorneys general.

Another part of me was angry. Not so much for Sarah and her fans because I know the series will continue through other channels, but for those authors who find themselves in the same boat as she is with this series but who don’t understand they have options.

Then the fury set in. This publisher is still making money on Sarah’s books, and on books by the other authors they have cut off just as they did Sarah, and yet telling these same authors there are no sales or minimal sales. If challenged, they blithely claim they made the decision based on the Bookscan figures. OMG, give me a break. Folks, if you haven’t figured it out yet, those figures are inaccurate not to a single decimal point but into double digits. They do NOT track every sale from every physical bookstore, nor do they track sales from every online outlet. But publishers are willing to pay for their reports because these lower figures work to the publishers’ benefit.

Then there are the onerous contractual terms these same publishers are trying to force on their authors and, all too often, do. Look, you will find authors telling you you can strike out those terms you don’t like or negotiate limits on them. Guess what, boys and girls, that only works if you are one of the publisher’s darlings or a best seller. If you are the work horse for the house, it ain’t gonna happen. Instead, you will be giving them right of first refusal, your right to publish with any other house under your name (not all publishers require this yet but more are going to it), ALL digital rights and other rights, even for technologies not yet invented, etc., etc., etc. And what do you get for this? Minimal payment.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you are a writer, it is time to grow a backbone. Review your royalty statements. If you have been cut loose by your publisher and you think the statements are as much a work of fiction as your books, then demand an accounting. Gone are the days when questioning your publisher meant you could and would be blackballed by the industry. If you are offered a contract by a legacy publisher PLEASE take it to an IP attorney with publishing experience and have him vet the contract before you sign it. If you have been cut loose by a publisher mid-series, take your contract to an IP attorney and see if you can continue the series on your own. If you can, and if you think the series was selling, then by all means continue it. You have built-in fans already.

If you are a self-published author who suddenly finds himself offered a contract by a legacy publisher, consider your options carefully. Think about those golden children of self-publishing who signed with the big name publishers and who have seemed to disappear into obscurity.

If you are a publisher, get your head out of your butt. Seriously. Or quit gazing in rapture at the lint in your navel. Your ivory towers are tarnished and in need of repair. If you continue to abuse your authors and readers as you have been, you will fail. When that happens, you will find few mourners because you will have alienated much of your “family” and “friends”.

Remember, there are options out there that have nothing to do with the Big Six publishers, options that include small presses that know how to treat their authors all the way to self-publishing.

Perhaps, considering the state of the industry and the terms legacy publishers are demanding from authors, the creators, it is time to call for a strike. I don’t know, but I am moving closer to doing just that. There is a reason why Kate classifies editors for the big houses as minor demons in her ConVent books. There would be no publishers without authors and yet the legacy houses treat us like we are the lowest rung on the ladder. Not only to they not value our work the way they should, they also seem to think we don’t have the capacity to think and reason and question. To a large part, that is because we have allowed them to think that. Worse, too many of us have started thinking that way ourselves. That has to stop.

So, here and now, I am asking each of you to read your contracts and have IP attorneys look them over. If your agent seems more worried about keeping their relationship with editors and publishers than in looking after your best interests, reconsider just who that agent is serving. If your publisher cuts you loose, don’t be afraid to demand your rights and your contract gives you the right to a full accounting. In short, it is time for writers to take control of their careers again. The tools are there. All we have to do is use them.

So will they all quit DRM and what will it mean to writers and readers?

I got asked, in an e-mail interview this week, if I thought that Tor’s abandoning of DRM (hailed as daring and groundbreaking by all sorts — and a mere decade after the daring and groundbreaking Baen which everyone in publishing studiously ignored, despite the fact that it’s been a resounding success.) would have other publishers following suite. Of course Tor owns a stake in Baen, and thereby Macmillian could be/ should be party to their finances. Baen is severely hamstrung by various historical deals which damage their distribution and hamper their freedom of movement… which the boards and CEO’s of Tor and Macmillian ought to know.

Whether they do, I have no idea. Whether they’ll follow suite… I think it likely. What will come of this… I don’t know. But logic says…

Most of us tend to think of these things in terms of money and logic, usually the two operating in some kind of tandem. This might often be true in business. The reality is that it’s a lot more complex in publishing. Some people see this as a good thing, and oddly most of those who do are beneficiaries of the disconnects. I believe old STASI agents still mourn the passing of the good old days too. Let’s look at why publishing is different.

Firstly, simply because it could be. A small number of publishers and an even smaller number of wholesalers controlled almost all access to the market. If as a producer (writer) you wanted to sell books, you had to go through them. If you want the technical term for this it’s a oligopsony (which means very few buyers, who restrict the ability of producers to sell). Given a choice of an oligopsony or monopsony, the former is a far worse option. They act as a cartel, and producers gain nothing by breaking with one of the oligopsony. They get the same or worse from the others. A monopsony… you only have to break once. Now there are some people who say better the old devils we know, than the new ones we don’t, and that authors simply cannot succeed without one or another evil large corporate. And the publishing/distribution traditional large evil corporate has to be better than Amazon. Well your milage will probably depend on whether you’re a darling of your big 6 publisher or not, but right now the one is offering 14.5% and no visible accounting and settlement up to 18 months later for e-books. They’re known to be late on their contractual payments. And contracts are written by Beelzebub as an extra. And they offer editorial and cover services which are valued at about 10% by their accounting. And the other offers 76.5% (6.5% of that if you send them the customer – not offered by the former.) Transparent accounting and 3 month settlement. The contract is only written by a junior assistant to Beelzebub. You have to provide your own cover and editorial. Well, you may see this differently of course, but I’d like to see suppliers use this situation to at least force all the big evils – including the traditional ones, to offer around 60%+ 10% worth of editorial and cover, +6.5% referral fees, with 25% as their share from their sales. Logic and money says that’s what a competitive market would be doing right now. And the 25% +10% is more than the publishers take home to do the business with, right now. So why isn’t it happening?

I don’t know. But the other complex factors come into this. The first one is simple. Many of these companies – Baen included, are tied into legacy contracts and legacy costs. Most of these add trivial real value in money terms and certainly add vast costs. They may be hard to get out of for contractual reasons. They may be hard to get out of reasons that have nothing to do logic or money — being based in New York as an example. In the 21st century this makes about as much sense as a coal-fired car. Try suggesting to a publisher (or those working in the industry) they move to Detroit.
The second is of course that some business people have risen to the top of publishing. BUT in a cold-blooded ‘I want to be a successful rich businessman’ application of logic sense, it’s not likely they’d have chosen the book trade. Look, there are a number of reasons for going into publishing. But straight financial selection of the very best motivated by that isn’t one of them. Historically anyway, you would have got a lot richer elsewhere. Which is an important fact to remember when you try to work the future steps of companies in the book world. The people controlling them, unless they transferred in (and in this case, the very best money-driven ones won’t come and stay in publishing) chose to be there for other reasons. They might be there simply because they love reading. They might be there because daddy did it. They might be there because if you live in East Coast literary circles it is something to aspire to. They might be there for ideological reasons (we must use literature to drive our vision). They might be there because with a liberal Arts degree jobs in more lucrative areas are closed to them. They might be there because they love living in New York and that’s one of the possible employers… or any combination of some or all of the above. The important thing is they didn’t go into it make as much money as possible. I don’t have a problem with that. But it means deducing their next steps off logic and money is pretty futile. Logic and money would have dropped DRM years ago and gone into direct online competition with Amazon, and used (and paid commission) to authors for sending them traffic years ago.

Money only starts to talk to them when desperation sets in. And even there, the other motivations may trump it. Take for example Charlie Stross’s post on DRM and Amazon. Charlie is no fool, and is definitely interested in making a good living out of his writing… but inserted a diatribe about Libertarians into his post. Now, bluntly, it added no large value to the post. You might agree with it, or not. But cut that paragraph, and the post would not have not made sense. So: it might have gained him some support from those who hate Libertarians, probably delighted a few people in legacy publishing… but it certainly lost him a percentage of readers forever. His choice and he seemed happy with the outcome. If he needed every last reader… would he still have done it? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. But that adequately describes the situation in Legacy publishing and what they’re going to do with DRM, and more particularly what that means for the future. Because I’m willing to bet they’re NOT prepared to sacrifice or even compromise on those motivations. They want to continue to live in NY and have the NY office, they want to continue to flavor their selection of books with their ideology, and push ones which they think the public ought to read. They will do almost anything but admit they’re following Baen’s lead, because, prior to Amazon, Baen was the Bete Noire.

So: yes, I think they will follow Baen… because they can follow Tor, and pretend they’re not. And only desperation forces this. BUT… I think that most of them will fail to successfully capitalize on this change (which would allow them to sell directly from their sites disintermediating Amazon) simply because, like it or not, Amazon operates on money and logic, which will trump the other motivations when it comes to making money. They won’t be prepared to pay authors referral fees, and they won’t offer nearly as good royalties, they’ll continue to play favorites and not let the market decide what is a favorite. They will try to continue doing business the way they could when they controlled 98% of access to retail space, and authors were cheap fungible widgets. Which means the dahlings will stay with them. So will the insecure… or some of them. And reality, logic and money might just knock them acock. It’s a bit like Syria, right now. A small group controlled the works, about 10% benefited, about 10% were only mildly persecuted and fear worse, and the rest had no voice and no access to power… the challenge isn’t likeable or better, and while the entrenched lot have the tanks and brutality they might go on clinging to power. If they can hold on long enough, they can do an Iran… they hope.

Do I want to see all of them fall? Wouldn’t mind a few, to provide stark lessons, and perhaps serious investigative accounting. But what I’d like to see, really, is following the money and the logic — and serious competition for the best producers. ‘Best’ defined ‘that what the public — or at least a worthwhile segment of it want (and if you get the right book to the right reader, there are a lot of segments. But you’re selling them what they want, not telling them what they must have. That’s a leap too far for many).

On sex, Cuttlefish and YA.

First off, here’s the cover reveal for STEAM MOLE. It’s an odd thing to say, but here I think the sequel story may be even better than original.

Secondly I wanted to talk about sex.

Or rather the lack of it.

Actually, I have no objection to sex. I can’t say it’s why I read books, but as a biologist, I can gaurantee that any possible variant from BDSM to onanism or necrophilia, I’ve seen more extreme examples than you’re likely to know exist. And as long it’s between consenting adults, and you’re not disturbing the salmon, have fun. It’s your life, your body and your neuroses. I must admit it’s a sport where I’ve always prefered to be a player than a spectator, but whatever blows your hair back.

Where this starts to come unstuck for me is with juveniles, and with predatory behavior, where someone uses their experience, money, access to drugs/alcohol or position to exploit the weak and vulnerable.

So why am I talking about this on a writing blog? Well, I have recently ventured into the YA field. After all there are many people who probably feel 14 is above my mental age, purely based on the fact that I like doing stuff that may involve mud and excitement, and don’t mind if some of the mud or dirt comes along as long as the excitement does too. And this of course is not what reasonable adults do. They want to live Dilbert lives. So when I was exploring the field I did a lot more listening than talking and discovered that 80%+ of the readers were female. And most of the writers, at least in current crop. Moreover the writers as a general rule felt this was just fine (there were a few dissenting voices) but it was girls turn now, and boys could ride at the back of the bus. If they didn’t like it they didn’t have to read it. And in the group I was listening in on the idea that the genre needed more BDSM and more gay stories was floated… and no one said ‘boo’. After all (and I forget the exact age 14 or 15) 50% of all teens had lost their virginity. We needed more books to help the ones who were into self hurt, or dog-collars and beatings, and how to put on condoms and rubber gloves. They needed to know they weren’t alone…

At this point I wrote a long comment, sin-binned it, and quietly withdrew. Possibly asking when those into bestiality and necrophilia were going to be reassured they weren’t alone was less than tactful, as was the bit about duct tape, so just as well. Because I feel this too is predatory behavior. And worse, its targeting juveniles who just don’t have the confidence or experience to say — especially about things they’re nervous and embarrassed about ‘Oh BS.’ Who am I to preach what age is right or behavior you should follow? The trouble is that kids assume written stuff IS normality. They know the story is fiction, but assume the setting is real (unless of course it is sf/fantasy, and even there they assume the interactions between people are real). By the time you’ve been around the block a few times you know quite a lot more context and are usually better at working out that Ms Average isn’t having it off four times a night with seven partners. That Ms exists, But she sure isn’t AVERAGE and if you wish to role model or spend your allotted 15 minutes with her, good luck, and can I recommend the full rubber body suit, let alone the glove. But just as kids need to know that different tastes exist, they don’t need to feel pressured into ‘that’s normal’. And trust me on this, if that’s really 14 year old average… then the girls must start at 10 because there is no way that is accurate for teen males. My teen sons and all their mates are not that far behind me, and I remember the lies and exaggurations of my own teen years all too well.

But let’s assume they’re right for the purpose of argument. If 50% of 14 year olds (and everyone lies about sex so I doubt any figures not obtained by direct brain examination) are out having sex… They’re not reading. “Hang on, it’s just a really exciting bit about pipe-cleaners…”, “we can use the dental dam at the end of this chapter.” Not happening. The percentage of heavy readers in this 50% is small. And yes some of them probably would like a little reassurance and instruction. Is that the right target for ALL the books?

The other 50% — make that 80% of young males, might like to. Or not want to, or not yet, or not be able to with a partner of their own age. They’re doing quite a lot of reading. Well, the girls are, the a lot of the boys got bored at the back of the bus and either moved straight to adult books, or found other habits. Making them sit at the back of the bus didn’t make them all eager readers of angsty girls experimenting with whatever. It didn’t even make them keen readers of sparkly vampire books with no experimenting until after marriage. There’s a little mystery for the ‘we need more BDSM and whatever’ crowd. How come those books were just so popular?

So I decided… to hell with the lot of it. I set out to write books I would have liked as a teenager. And that I would like my teenagers to have available to read. Yes, I would have read -with wide eyes and probably locked in the loo – some of the current crop. But I wanted adventures, gadgets, and, oddly perhaps, ideals and courage too.

Cuttlefish was written accepting that a lot of my readers would be female. It was also written assuming that the kind of female reader who wasn’t out doing her best for the 50% would probably be brighter than average, and used to stigma from that. I wanted to quietly show that wasn’t odd or bad. Once again the stats show that brighter – or better achieving kids come from families that care about them. I wanted to show too that this wasn’t odd or bad – and that what you saw of your parents wasn’t the whole of them. I used various ‘vehicles’ if you like, to show how this alienation is common – and how it relates to current fashion. Clara suffers from being Irish. And from having divorced parents. In current parlance, these mean nothing. But this set of norms – like having sex – moves. It means nothing, and that is the point. You need to judge the individual on their merits. My aim was to show rather than tell this. Actually about the only time I resorted to tell and show was about an issue that I feel really strongly about. I’ve spent time as a volunteer. I’ve been the guy out firefighting. Out hunting the mountainside for lost hikers or once a child. Out looking for lifejackets in the water. I’ve seen the faces, the exhaustion, the despair, the desperate hope. And I’ve been with the people who get forgotten but shouldn’t be. The ones who made hot drinks and food for those waiting, for those trying. And I’ve seen how that helps. Sneering at this contribution is very new-age feminist. It’s bizarre , but somehow they see this as sexist. Yes, it often is women doing this. But it is not ‘women’s work’. It’s we each do what we can (and I have done it gladly, and will always again if that is what I can do to help) and by God there is no dishonor but vast respect from me to those who do this. It was why I put Clara and Cookie at the heart of one scene, to show something that is forgotten and cheapened, and should not be.

But I didn’t want to write a girls only book. For starters ignoring half the market (or possibly more, seeing 50% of those girls have no time to read) is dumb. And for a second, who in their right mind does not want as many people as possible to read? I wonder at the sort of women who want their daughters to grow up into a literate overclass? Can you imagine suggesting the inverse? And can you imagine what a society with the strongest most aggressive (thanks testosterone) part are less educated and read is going to do to itself? You’d have to be stupider than pig-dung to want this. So I wrote Tim. Once again he’s supposed to engage the kind of kid who probably reads. He’s an outsider. He’s the smallest of the boys. He’s smart. And despite the fact that he had Jamaican father… he’s just like them. What I was trying to get across here was the concept of judging someone by their actions and not appearances. And I was trying for something they’d maybe not have thought of: Tim is scared. Often. He doesn’t like blood. He doesn’t let it stop him. I was trying to show something of what courage really meant, and that ‘gung-ho’ and never a fear in the world isn’t courage. Courage is being scared, but doing the job because someone has to, and never questioning that that someone might not have to be you. Tim is, if you like, the sort of man we’d like to be. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t screw up or get scared, or question his own worth. But at the end of the day he deals. And he takes loyalty and commitment and love about as seriously as is possible. He’s no imaginary paragon. I’ve met a lot of Tims over the years, and they are what I believe society ought regard as heroes. Usually they end up as just that decent bloke… until things go pear-shaped.

So: if these are your values, or values you’d like your kids to accept as norms… you could do worse than read Cuttlefish or buy it for them.

Oh and there is no sex. There is teen romance and it’s serious, between people to whom relationships matter and commitment isn’t lightly given. Of course they’re both interested in sex. But that’s not all that it’s about. I know that’s bizarre but I think that’s not a bad concept to introduce as perfectly possible and normal too.

Weird Creatures

by Chris McMahon

I’ve always been inspired by nature, but when it comes to Fantasy creatures I have always let my imagination guide my inspirations. But there are creatures in nature that are at least – or sometimes perhaps more – bizarre than the ones created in Fantasy fiction. Why not study nature for inspiration?

I’ve always been fascinated by the prior epochs when the Earth’s atmosphere had a different composition. At one point the oxygen was up to 30% by volume, allowing the stupendous growth of insects that are currently limited by the skin-diffusion breathing mechanisms that fuel their metabolism.  Once there were dragonflies with wingspans of up to a metre!

But there are plenty of weird animals around now. How about the Blind Cave Fish that uses its highly developed sense of smell and tactile organs on its head and sides to track predators and prey from minute changes in water pressure (not true ‘radar’ as is often stated, but pretty impressive nonetheless)? Or the electric eel.

How about the denizens of the deep like the Angler Fish that uses a bioluminescent lure to attract prey into its fearsome  mouth? The sea has quite a few – what about the Giant Squid, or the bizarre Oarfish, the longest bony fish alive?

We take bats for granted, but stop and think about how damn amazing their echolocation is. What other creatures could evolve it?

Here is a list of 25 very weird looking animals. My favourites being the beautiful Leafy Sea dragon, the repellent looking Star-nosed Mole, the face-dangling Proboscis Monkey, ever popular Narwhal, perpetually surprised Aye-aye and the aptly named Blobfish.

What is your favourite weird creature?

The real reason I write

It’s not just because I can’t not write. No, every now and again, something like this comes along to smack me between the eyes with the unpalatable truth: I write because I’d make a godawful Dictator of the World.

Seriously.

It’s a disease we oddlings are prone to. When you see patterns most people miss, and connections most people miss (usually they’re thinking “what is this mad person talking about?”), you tend to overdo it and start getting all utopian about how the world would be much better if only… And forget that many, many people have thought the same thing before us, some of them pretty damn smart, and many many people have tried to make things better – some outright bastards, but again, some of them pretty damn smart – and not one has manged to impose a better world from On High. Why would I be any different, hm?

Which of course is where writing comes in, and letting people I trust read it. If the world I’ve built is horribly off-kilter in a way I’m peculiarly blind to, they’ll smack me, and deservedly so. I freely acknowledge I can be ridiculously dumb for a smart person – even for a dumb person sometimes. Which is why I have no intention of mocking Ms Moon for her proposal. I’d bet she’s only seeing the potential benefits, not the potential problems. Besides, I’ve thought worse. (Yes, I did change my mind. I just don’t know what other flavors of ‘worse’ are still hanging around in there).

Being a bit on the odd side is one of those two-edged sword situations. On the one hand I’ve ended up standing outside a lot of human interaction, which allows me to observe from a more or less neutral perspective. On the other claw, because I’ve ended up standing outside a lot of human interaction, I’ve got bugger all idea what it feels like from the inside. So my observations could well be flawed. Think of an alien watching NYC traffic from above. Without the knowledge that the vehicles contain individual thinking beings, each of which has a destination and some degree of urgency about when they get there, our hypothetical alien is likely to reach entirely the wrong conclusion about what it’s seeing. I’m not quite that far off, since I belong more or less to the same species and have at least some experiences in common.

I suspect this is common to everyone, but it’s a bit more pronounced in the oddlings who end up being writers (also many of the other oddlings out there). Yes, I do wonder if things would be better if some rule was imposed from above. Then I start working through that notion in a storyline, and usually discover that no, things would probably end up getting worse because people are always going to be people and everyone will do what seems to them to be the best thing they can do right now – and no-one ever has all the information, much less the ability to sift through it all.

Which is a pretty roundabout way to get to the idea that the worst evil comes from utopian visions. You want to write a nightmare world? Write a utopia from the perspective of the poor bastard in the middle of it.

Why is this so?

Take someone with a utopian vision – say, eliminating poverty. It’s a worthwhile cause, at least on the face of it, so someone who comes up with a more or less feasible-looking plan to do it is likely to get support. And because it’s a worthwhile cause, anyone who has objections has to be bad in some way, even if it doesn’t look like it on the surface. Who wouldn’t want to see the end of poverty, after all? (By this point, if the lightbulbs aren’t all on and the little buzzer isn’t busily going DINGDINGDINGDINGDING because damn it you know where this is going, you might need caffeination). So now, our utopian has effectively demoted a bunch of people from “disagree with me” to “bad”. They’re on the road to people as things, a road that leads to the massacres that have followed damn near every idealistic totalitarian. At least if I write it, I’m not trying to make it happen, and not adding my name to the long, long list of political mass murderers.

All things considered, it’s better for everyone that the concentration camps and the fields of blood stay in my books, and never get to visit reality. Besides, when I write it, I might figure out that it’s a bloody stupid thing to try, and not worth my while attempting. Besides, I’d never get elected. I can’t lie to save my life, unless it’s a story.