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Mangling Myths

Or, how to be original when everything has been done already.

I was worrying out loud to Amanda and Sarah about being original, and they both teased me about it. We talked about how you can take material, and make it your own, and sometimes even better than the original. Sarah pointed out that Patricia Wentworth had lifted a plot wholesale from Dame Agatha Christie, and had done beautifully with it. And I think we can all come up with authors who paid homage, or wrote fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off well enough to tell a good story of their own.

While I have no urge to do either of those things, it is comforting to know I need to worry less about creating something entirely new than giving readers what they want. With Pixie Noir and Trickster, I was trying to write within a style, to blend Noir with the urban fantasy I actually enjoy. Not the sex in leather pants stuff, but the magic unseen behind the modern facade. It was a lot of fun.

Right now I’m working on the sequel to Vulcan’s Kittens, which means mythology. My own take on it, which mingles all the myths, pointing to a common root in them, ever-living beings with a very scientific background. I had fun writing the first one, and now that the plot of this book has snapped into focus, I’m rolling right along with it and enjoying it immensely.

In order to mangle my myths into something mine, I needed to know them better than I had. I had gotten a copy of Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Beresford Ellis, and I started to research the specific mythic figure I chosen for a central role, Mannanan Mac’Lir. But to my amusement, while I was looking at the foreword, I discovered that perhaps my fictional creation was not so far off after all. Oh, I don’t mean the parallel world and advanced science. But it seems that Celtic myth and Indian myths have a lot of common roots.

Ellis writes: “the fact that tmany of the surviving Irish tales show some remarkable resemblances to themes, stories, and even names in the sagas of the Indian Vedas, written in Sanskrit at the start of the first millenium BC, shows just how ancient they may be. The being which emerges as the Mother Goddess of the Celts – whose name is given as Danu and sometimes Anu in the Old Irish, and is cognate with Don in the Old Welsh, as well as surviving in the epigraphy of the Continental Celts – also emerges in the literature of Vedas, Persia, and in Hittite myth. The name Danu means “divine waters”. River names throughout Europe acknowledge her.”

He goes on to quote another authority, Professor Myles Dillon (Celts and Aryans: Survivals of Indo-European Speech and Society) as pointing out “parallelism between the Irish and Hindu law-books, both of them the work of a privileged professional class, is often surprisingly close; it extends not merely to form and technique but even to diction”.

There’s an interesting idea presented in this, and although it won’t make it into this book, except as the fantasy I have already spun, it’s something to tuck away for another tale, another time.

So who knows where I got this tale, which I cheerfully mangled to fit Mac’Lir’s past? I’m sure someone can identify it! A tiny snippet of The God’s Wolfling, as told by my teen boy to his new friend, the granddaughter of a god.

When Granny had vanished into the house, Linn looked at Merrick. “You okay?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I didn’t know… I was afraid she was going to say it was true.”

Merrick got up and leaned on the railing. “If she said it was true, I was going to have to believe her.”

“Oh.” Linn tried to think about this applied to Grampa Heff. “What did she mean about your great grand’s blood, this morning?”

He looked at her. “It’s how my family came to be in Mac’Lir’s service. When his first wife died, his second wife resented the children he already had, even though they were her nephews and niece. So she started trying to come up with ways to get rid of them. There was a wolf-pack that roamed near the castle, and she told Mac’Lir she was living in fear of the wolves attacking. So he allowed her to bring in two great hounds to stand guard in the nursery.

“He was away one day, and when he came back, he went straight to the nursery, as was his habit. To his horror, he found blood spatter on the stairs up to the tower where he’d left the children playing. He raced up the stairs, finding more and more blood, then the broken body of a wolf. Mac’Lir drew his sword, and leapt through the open door into the nursery. What he found there turned his blood to ice.

“The two hounds were in pieces, strewn about the floor. Four wolves were in the room, dead, or dying. Blood dripped from the ceiling, falling into Mac’Lir’s eyes, but his tears cleared them again. There was no sign of his children anywhere, except the carnage that might have been their blood as well. He saw the largest of the wolves lying on the floor move a little, and he lifted the great sword he carried, the one which could cut through anything, and prepared to drive it into the beast’s heart.

“The blood dripped in his eye again, and as he brought the sword down, he missed entirely, and only cleaved the thick boards of the floor. Then the wolf stagggered to his feet, and Mac’Lir saw that the gray beast had hidden the children beneath him, and they leapt up now, seeing they were safe, and hugged both their father, and the wolf, pleading Mac’Lir not to kill it.

“Later, the story they told him while the wolf was carried to the Great Hall and had his wounds tended delicately, was of the hounds setting on them. They hid under a bed, and peeping out while the dogs scratched and raged in vain, being too large to fit under, they saw the wolf-pack charge into the room. The wolves fought valiantly, until they too were killed. In the battle, the bed was upset, and the great wolf lay over them protecting them with his own body. When he went limp, the children were sure he was dead, and then Mac’Lir had come in.”

Merrick fell silent, looking off into the distance. The day had grown hazy with the heat of the sun, and the hills had gone from green to shadowed blue. Granny Clinch spoke behind them.

“You tell the story well, lad. That wolf was your ancestor, and your family has been devoted to Mac’Lir for centuries.”

Linn had guessed that part. “But why did they protect the children?”

“The wolves had a geas set on them. They were in the area to watch Aoife, Mac’Lir’s new wife.”

That was Granny Clinch. Merrick turned around and stared at her. “How do you know that? They didn’t even know that until much later, and we are forbidden to talk about it.”

“I knew who put it on them.” She answered calmly. “Who wants more tea?”

Diversity in Science Fiction

unproven conceptI asked fellow author James Young to give me a guest post on diversity, rather unfairly, as he is a new writer, and this is a sticky topic. But he was game enough to rise to the challenge and send his thoughts along. Thanks, James, and I know, there is no good way to tackle this topic. But it needs doing, and I appreciate your contribution very much. 

Diversity in Science Fiction

(Or “Y’all are about to kill us all with your shenanigans…”)

Diversity (n.)– The state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness: diversity of opinion.

Sorry for the dictionary quotation, but I’m just getting a definition out of the way before I set about getting myself uninvited from all the right parties.  Thanks to Cedar for maneuvering me into giving her a week off, I mean, asking me to guest blog.  Imagine my joy at opening up my “guest blogger” gift box and finding a topic for which there is no clean end to pick it up: diversity in science fiction.

Due to recent events, diversity in Sci-Fi is in the news a lot lately.  I mean, between some members of the Science Fiction Writer’s Association (SFWA) crowing about an all women Nebula slate, accusations of Hugo padding, the announcement of Tim Bolgeo being disinvited from Archon (gee, guess I won’t be driving to Collinsville), and the unveiling of a Kickstarter for a project entitled Women Destroy Science Fiction, I must have missed the memo directing the formation of a self-destructive, circular firing squad within our genre.  What both sides don’t realize (and boy howdy is that amazing for people who craft wastelands) is that the “Diversity War” is going to end up like Hamlet’s duel with his uncle: one side dead, the “victor” wondering why the lights are getting dim.  There are way too many options these days, and rather than listening to a bunch of spoiled brats whine about their feelings being hurt battle a cohort of wrongfully maligned people proceeding to take said idiots (and their enablers) to the woodshed, consumers are  likely to limit their Sci-Fi exposure to the leviathan franchises and gaming.  There are not enough hours in the day as is, and those without a dog in the fight aren’t going to waste their leisure time putting up with either side.

Given this, it’s time for the more mature side to stop trying to counter the other side’s idiocy head on.  There’s a saying about wrestling with a pig in mud, and it certainly applies to anyone who is going to try to bean count your characters based on race.  Yes, they’re guilty of exactly what they’re trying to accuse more traditional writers of, but no matter how many times it is pointed out that withholding publication without a given quota is in and of itself racism the other side will still do it. Zealots are funny that way, and unfortunately most site admins are more interested in appearing “fair” than in doing their jobs.  (Note: Fair is tossing out the asshat who is ruining the party for everyone, not letting him be rude because he has “just as much right to be there.”)

This is not my way of saying conservatives should concede the field.  Instead, I’m saying perhaps it’s time for the conservative, established side to vote with their check books and time in several ways.  First and foremost, it’s time to start organizing events that are truly diverse by example.  For example, there are people to the left of John Ringo who are perfectly capable of sitting on a panel without falsely interjecting race and gender.  Invite these people to every con possible, then buy their books when they put together a good story.  If you know of someone in an “underrepresented community” who loves Sci-Fi, take them to a con as a gift.  Word of mouth is a powerful weapon, so when this individual talks about what a great time they had at LibertyCon, perhaps it will make others question the larger narrative. In that same vein, if you’re a conservative invited to a convention where the hosts have a spine and a willingness to apply pepper spray to unruly protestors, go.

“But why should we go where we’re not wanted?”  Because if there’s one thing I have learned in a lifetime of being either the sole or one of two minorities in a room, there’s more gained by a minute of articulate discussion and quiet dignity than hours of rage.  Is it easy?  Hells no.  Indeed, sitting on a school bus while listening to fellow bus riders chant “Biggity biggity boo, the Klan is after you…” or having to flee another town because the local racist welcoming committee was sure to drive by and show me a noose was not easy (thanks Warsaw, MO!).  However, rather than screech about how I was oppressed, I found that the judicious application of logical jujitsu on the resident racist gained lots of allies in a given room even if the original idiot was unmoved.  You will never silence the screaming nimrod brigade who thinks they are owed something, but simply explaining your plot will probably convince dozens of folks on the fence that conservatives do not possess tails or horns.

With regards to telling the stories, do what’s natural to you and do not lose heart.  First off, despite what the current crop of thought police claim, science fiction was never a seething cauldron of racism and misogyny.  To cite a few examples, I must have missed the part where Honor Harrington was an oppressive male, Elizabeth Winton is as pale as Queen Elizabeth I of England, and Poul Anderson’s Emerald Moody and Hope Hubris could have qualified to lead an Einsantzgruppen.  Or alternatively, maybe the folks crying about a lack of diversity need to read farther afield, as I’m pretty sure space opera and military sci-fi have had minority characters for at least the last five decades.

Does the above mean that minorities, LGBT, and women are necessarily well represented?  Not just no, but Hell no.  However, the solution to this is not to demand all writers start complying with some arcane formula lest the powers that be freeze them out.  That sort of thing never ends well, and to keep with my Hamlet analogy there is a horde of proverbial Danes just waiting to waltz right into sci-fi’s current market space if that becomes the new norm.  Instead, perhaps the journey to having a more diverse character field has three paths.  In lane one, rather than yelling about how conservatives need to start “writing more inclusively,” the burning keyboard brigade needs to get off their collective asses and write stories themselves.  Second, established writers without these characters can provide help on how to break into the market, learn the ropes, etc. when politely asked.  Last but not least, we can stop defining characters by their plumbing, orientation, melanin content, etc..  Considering I still have the comment sheet from a prominent sci-fi magazine that says, “This character is black, but he talks like a white man…”, it is readily apparent to me that this is not only a widespread problem, but that people are apparently comfortable with it.  It is well past time to start having characters who are people, period, and through that mechanism create true diversity in our views of what the future holds.

James Young is a Missouri native who escaped small town life via spending four years at a small, well-known Federal institution in upstate New York. After being set free from the Hudson River Valley, Mr. Young spent the next six years of his life in various locations (both foreign and domestic) having the cost of his education repaid one nickel at a time. Along the way he collected a loving, patient, and beautiful spouse…and various animals that did not fit any of those descriptions.

After leaving the Republic’s employ, James returned to the Midwest to pursue his doctorate in history–a process that has taken approximately twice the time he planned. Currently living with the same great woman and roughly three times the weight of pets (in the form of a snoring, flatulent Newfoundland/Lab mix), Mr. Young spends his time researching history, working for the Republic (again), and plotting new and interesting ways to torment characters.

Check out James’s fiction on Amazon. You can begin with the free short Ride of the Late Rain, which opens his tales set in the Vergassy universe. 

Divided by a Common Language

It’s an interesting thing, culture. I get an unusual perspective, being an Australian more or less permanently living in the USA (naturalization is on the list of things to do, but it won’t make me less of an Australian. Just more of an American. I’m both, sort of).

Last Monday was Memorial Day, the day Americans pay tribute to their fallen soldiers. Now, I’ve lived in this country for over ten years, and nothing I saw struck me as particularly distasteful or overblown. But then Amanda got an Australian pinging her on her Facebook feed with first a Bible quote (Matthew 5: 9 Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God) then a snarky comment that peacemakers didn’t and couldn’t refer to “fighters warriors or soldiers” and that this isn’t the middle ages.

Now my first instinct here was to apologize on behalf of the rest of the bloody country because most Australians aren’t frigging insensitive enough to make a comment like that a) on another country’s day of remembrance and b) to the mother of a soldier currently on duty outside the country. We might be rude, coarse, and crass, but we do have some decency.

What I did instead was attempt to hammer some sense into what turned out to be an appallingly thick skull armored with deliberate ignorance, but along the way I noticed – or possibly realized – something rather interesting.

See, while Australians and Americans nominally speak the same language, we don’t. Not really.

Americans tend to be very direct and up-front about things. If an American is proud of something, by Dog the rest of the world knows all about it. I’ve heard words like “loud” and “brash used, especially when Americans are busy displaying their dirty laundry and rattling the skeletons that the rest of the world thinks should be properly hidden away in the closet where they belong. What tends to get missed are the other words like “open”, “honest”, “friendly”. And “caring”.

Yes, Americans wave their flag a lot. Yes there’s a tendency towards sometimes overblown and often mawkish Facebook memes.

And yes, it does bother Australians – because the Australian cultural norms are just different enough it’s like a shoe that you can get on but doesn’t fit right so it’s a constant irritant. See, despite the often crude sense of humor and a general belief that there’s only one curse that’s beyond the pale (“no beer”), Australians tend to be rather private. And oddly modest.

Although modesty is probably not the best word to use, because it tends to be a strategic thing: always keep something in reserve in case. Don’t make a big fuss about how great you are, just get in there, do what you have to to the best of your ability, then go and have a beer. Pride is something that comes out on rare occasions but mostly kept to yourself.

Which means of course that American patriotism reads to Australians like jingoistic rah-rah bragging, while to Americans the Australian cynicism and love of taking the piss seems excessively harsh and even cruel. And we speak the same language! We use the same words – we just often mean different things by them.

Imagine how much fun a writer can have with two different cultures that follow this pattern. Two cultures that are on the face of things extremely similar: both descended from the same parent culture, both aggressively egalitarian (sometimes to excess in both cases), both with a tendency to put a lot of energy into work and enjoyment, both with a core belief in the worth of the individual. And yet so very different as soon as you look past the surface…

It’s enough to make me go all quivery with happiness at the thought of how much misery I could put my characters through… Then I remember that nobody would believe a fraction of the real Australia. I’d have to nerf so much just to make it believable.

Bugger.

Arriving

Someone in the comments here warned us not to think we’ve “arrived” just because we have put a book up on Amazon. He didn’t enlighten us on whether we should think we’ve “arrived” because we’re published by a traditional publisher, so it’s my sad duty to inform you that no, it doesn’t mean you’ve “arrived” I presume even if you were a best seller it wouldn’t mean you had “arrived.”

I remember the realization of this minutes after I sold my very first short story. I immediately wanted to sell the second. By the time I sold the novel, I didn’t expect it to feel like I’d “arrived.”

But it brings up an important point relating to the feeling that one is already a writer and doesn’t need to do anything more.

We all know people who feel that way. Mostly mega bestseller. And sometimes – not always – you can trace the decay of everything you used to like in their writing. This is often explained as “he stopped being edited” but I’m not sure that’s even it. I think some writers, sometimes, just stop trying. They color by numbers, or draw by the book. There is nothing new, original or interesting there. You see that a lot with overextended series, because there’s a tendency to be afraid to do something too different, lest the readers walk away.

I worry this might start affecting indie writers earlier. Not those of us who came from traditional, or at least not right away. We have the habit of being kicked in the teeth which probably both hampers our style and keeps us searching for something better.

Not to say that at some point we too won’t go “write, get money. Why struggle?”

What do I mean by struggle? Well, there are different types of struggle. When you start out, you’ll want to learn techniques. Say, how to insert description without bringing the story to a stand still. Study writers you admire, see how they do things, and learn to imitate them.

We had to do this, because when we weren’t breaking in, we kept trying to figure out why, and to improve. (This is not necessarily the right reason we couldn’t break in, btw. It might have been lack of contacts, or lack of the right political opinions, but we didn’t know this, so we studied technique.)

Even if you’re indie and selling pretty well, study technique, also. There is a good chance someone does things better than you do, maybe not everything, but individual techniques and bits. So, do that. For instance, I was listening to Waldo and Magic, and the way Heinlein builds the world, the way he sets everything we know about history and how magic works, without ever slowing down. I must learn to do that again, at least for shorts and novellas.

It is important to always learn, to get in the habit of learning.

But why if you’re selling?

Look – if you’re an artisan, you should perfect your technique. It goes beyond selling, and I believe it will help you sell.

Now, is your best option to imitate the people who were traditionally published? Probably not. It was when the publishers were selecting, because it meant that was what they liked.

Sometimes, granted, it was what the public liked. (For instance, I was told not kill children in my books because the book would sell worse. This was not a publisher hang up. The Musketeer’s Apprentice, in which I kill a 14 year old sells worse than any of my other books in the series.) But most of the time it was what the editor thought was or wasn’t cool. So, you knew where to find the samples of what they liked.

With indie, it’s more complex. Sure, you’ll know people (sometimes even in your genre) who sell more than you, and you could pick that, but–

But this is an hunch of mine. Just an hunch, not necessarily supported, but call it my intuition – I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think you should necessarily copy anyone. I mean, copy techniques and bits, but not the … important parts. Compete with yourself. See what you’re doing that isn’t right and look at other writers for hints. Copy some of it, but feel free to mix and match.

But most of all, for most of it, be yourself. Learn how to be yourself in your stories as hard as you can. Have a thing for funky greasy spoon diners. Throw them in the story. Your love for them will come through, communicate yourself.

Again, my example for how to be yourself, even while you’re doing a plot that you to be blunt, stole, is Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl.

I mean, it’s the same “mystery” as Peril at End House. A lot of Wentworth’s books are like that, and if you’re me, and you are into Christie, you’ll be able to trace what she stole. But most of the time she steals more closely. In Peril at End House, though, she took the puzzle, but not the rest. The scene is what we expect of Wentworth, not Christie: poisonous old female relatives, and a self-centered beautiful young woman, and a couple in love, and of course, Miss Silver. The result is … not as good as Peril, maybe, but then again it’s hard to compare because they’re not even the same genre. Christie’s is a cozy while Wentworth is, as always “woman in Peril”

I think that’s why it’s my favorite Wentworth. Because she made it HERS.

So… arriving. You haven’t. You won’t. Good writers keep struggling with their weakenesses, seeking to improve. Even if they’re selling. To the real public, and everything.

Struggle in what direction? Depends on what you’re trying to do. My struggle is, usually, to both increase pace and to get out of the way of the story and let it happen.

But that’s me. Yours will be different. Now go out there and be you as hard as you can.

More than one game in town.

Good morning, all. I hope everyone here in the States had a safe and wonderful Memorial Day Weekend. It has always been an important weekend in my family. There hasn’t been a generation, going back more than 250 years, when there hasn’t been at least one member in the military. On my mother’s side of the family, we can trace military service back to the Revolutionary War. Before then, too, but that’s another story. Many of those generations have seen family members wounded or killed in the service of our country. Add in the fact my son is now serving in the Air Force and, well, Memorial Day is very special to me. Which is why I broke one of my rules regarding social media last night and let loose on someone for daring to condemn the “flag waving” Americans do to commemorate the day. As a result, I didn’t get my post for today written ahead of time. So, apologies to you for being late but I do not apologize for my comments last night. Some of you know what I’m talking about. The rest of you, well, it’s now water under the bridge.

Which isn’t what you can say about the Amazon and Hatchette fight. I’m not going to rehash it. Cedar did a wonderful job discussing it on Saturday. However, I do want to add one thing on the topic, something all those bashing Amazon have conveniently overlooked. What is happening between Amazon and Hatchett is the first round of contract renegotiations between Amazon and the publishers involved in the price fixing suit brought by the Department of Justice. When the court ruled against Apple, it “issued a final injunction that requires Apple to retain the power to discount e-books for an extended period. The injunction also prevents Apple from simultaneously negotiating new no-discounting agency deals with the major houses, instead forcing the tech giant to negotiate with each publisher separately, in exclusive windows, staggered six months apart.”

As Publisher’s Weekly states, “if you were Amazon, would you sign a deal knowing that your competitor has the exclusive power to underprice you in the e-book market? At the very least, Amazon is sure to demand the same power to discount as its rival Apple is required to retain—even though Apple will likely not use its court-ordered discounting power.”

PW also points out that the settlements agreed to by the publishers, and enforced upon Apple in the findings against it, most favored nation clauses will not be allowed for five years. In other words, no agency pricing as we know it will be allowed during that time. So why, I ask, should Amazon fight for anything but the best terms it can get, especially if Apple has the right by court ruling to discount e-books? It doesn’t matter that Apple says it won’t discount these titles. Apple is a business and is known for being ruthless when it comes to its competitors. Why should Amazon trust it not to undercut its prices?

But there is something else authors with Hatchett, or any other traditional publisher, ought to keep in mind. A breakdown of earnings report has come out. You can follow the link to where Passive Guy discusses it or go here to see the original post. There is a lot of information there I need to go over when my brain is functioning better than it is right now — math is not my friend first thing in the morning — but one thing sticks out: approximately 46% of traditional publishing’s fiction dollars comes from e-books.

Let me repeat that. Approximately 46% of traditional publishing’s fiction dollars comes from e-books.

Now let me ask you this, traditionally published authors, how much of your royalty payments come from e-book sales?

Consider this. When it comes to royalties, traditional publishers still are not paying author’s a royalty rate that comes close to what they could earn if they self-published or went with small presses for their e-books. When pressed about this, publishers mumble about how expensive it is to make an e-book. They have to have covers and be edited and be set up for digital release and. . . .

But wait a minute. Do you really think those same publishers are actually editing, or copy editing or proofreading an e-book after it has already been edited, etc., for print? Do you really think they hire two different cover treatments? As for getting the book ready for digital release? That takes minutes now with the software available. So where is all the expense the publisher claims is there in making an e-book?

No, e-books are propping up the print side. Publishers just won’t tell you that. They mumble about how it is too hard to track e-book sales. Funny, I have about as much trouble believing that as I do the statement that in this day and age of computers and RFIDs and other tracking software and hardware that the only way they can come close to tracking hard copy sales is through the handwavium of BookScan.

What traditional publishing tends to forget — or at least refuses to admit — is that most people have no idea who publishes the books they read. The one real exception is Baen. But Baen is anything but typical when it comes to the publishing industry and thank goodness for that. So traditional publishing can’t rely on brand loyalty. These same publishers don’t understand that trotting out millionaire best sellers to extoll the evilness of Amazon, it doesn’t help their cause, especially not when those same millionaires are crying about how Amazon is hurting their bank account. If you want to get sympathy from the average reader, bring out the mid-lister. Oh, wait, the publishers can’t because 1) they make it so most mid-listers never earn out their advances and 2) they have metaphorically killed off most mid-listers. As a result, those who had a loyal following now have fans wondering what happened to the series they’d been reading and was suddenly dropped by the publisher.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to keep buying from Amazon. I’ll continue to sell my books on their sites as well. I’ll continue reading and researching what is going on in the industry so I can stay informed and make informed decisions about what to do regarding my writing and where to market it. And I’ll continue to shake my head and wonder at all those authors who aren’t out there asking their agents why they aren’t demanding higher e-book royalties and better contract terms. Traditional publishers, especially legacy publishers, have to accept the fact they aren’t the only game in town these days. If they don’t adapt, they will continue to bleed out money and lose authors and readers until they are mere shells of what they used to.

And that will be a loss to us all.

Or not.

It’s not a game

It isn’t a game.

I do not write for fun. I write to sell books. Now if I was writing to test my skill, to show off to my peers, to prove a point… I might choose to ‘play ‘on the highest difficulty level. That’d be a challenge. But as I write to sell, I want it on the lowest difficulty setting possible.

The internet, and particularly Amazon’s Self-Publishing facility (all the rest were happy to co-operate with Traditional Publishing, where a pseudonym… wasn’t permitted. You dragged your old sales figures and past with you.) means you, Joe or Jane or Vla’hurrrg Author, are free to appear to be anyone to the buyer. Amazon doesn’t care if your real name is Nostrl Glooba, you are green, come from Alpha Centauri and need to be in a wheelchair, worship the twin demons ping and pong, and are a trasgender poly-amorous lesbian… and you want call yourself John Smith, a whitefeller from Ohio, 100% mobile, Catholic, (cis)male, Hetero and married with kids – or vice versa. This is very different from traditional publishing, and the Arts establishment in general which really does care. Personally I find the former refreshing, and commendable. YMMV.

Now, according to John Scalzi the easiest level of life is being white male. Numerous other folk will tell you that this ‘privilege’ (bit puzzling this this. I always thought privilege was something I was given and could choose therefore to accept or refuse, and it could be taken away. That was enjoyable. ) makes life easier. I believe it does apply as a broad rule for life… in Chechnya. Of course, being able to speak Chechen, and being a Sunni Moslem are also essentials. Publishing there is not a large business. Comparatively, across humanity, being white and male comes a long way down on being other things in many, many places. This is, of course also the reality in niches within humanity, the professions and the seeming infinite micro-climates of life as we really experience it and live it. Being thought to be a white male is no advantage in Romance writing (because I know quite a few exist, but they hide the fact), but would be in writing Chechen religious tracts. It’s all very well saying it helps with avoiding arrest in Chicago, or getting help from a mechanic in Nebraska, but I’m a writer of internet space . That’s my niche.

Here we can choose. After all, as no one ever has to know Nostrl Glooba is really John Smith (or vice versa) – or if you feel they’re all bigots who discriminate against a common Alpha Centauran/US name… you can be a success, and then, a la Tiptree, show them how wrong they were. And speaking personally, again, I really do not care what my readers think I am. I care about them liking the story and being prepared to pay for it, and the next one. I want it as easy as possible, and if faking being something I’m not will work to overcome reader prejudice to get them to at least try it, I’d consider it.

So – I am a writer of sf and fantasy: what IS this lowest difficulty setting in my niche?

Well, let’s run the numbers and see:

Earlier this year I answered a post on the numbers of new releases from publishers divided by sex, and looking at ‘newness’ Back then the traditional publishers were skewed marginally female, and if you took out the long established authors and just did the 3 book or less than 10 years in publishing – very skewed to female. It was a long process as I had to check every author, and obviously specific numbers change month by month, and I’m not prepared to invest the time again so soon. But let’s look at one large publisher as a sample. I picked on Tor (what? I never called it a scab. You’re hearing things, Beside my mother told me not pick at them, but to leave them to heal). I discounted graphic novels or things that obviously weren’t novels, or weren’t sf (stock car racing). I counted Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory out as one of each. Overall I ended with a 57 % male : 43 %female ratio. Simply taking those I knew, I came up with about 5% ‘PoC’ so the real figure may be higher. As it happens I knew the sexual orientation of some authors (it’s not a secret) and based on that the figure is around 4% non-Hetero. I could be getting that wrong too. Taking ‘New’ authors (names that haven’t been around forever – or if they have I failed to recognize them – sorry this time I didn’t bother to look up every one, just the ones where gender could by name or initial be confused. Consider it a reasonable guesstimate) Female 69% female to 31% male.

So: given those more or less hold up from last time, one can say there was a historical advantage in traditional print – at least in longevity in print of male authors. If you limit the oldies to pale male it’s around 50:50. There appears to be difference between the predicted ‘PoC’ number based on demographics, and merely looking at Hispanic seeming names, I’d guess pretending to be one of these is a poor strategy – but of course they won’t let you pretend and demand to know who you are, although they will let you fool readers. As we don’t have an official number for homosexual people it’s pretty hard to say if they’re over or under accepted by traditional publishers. I’ve seen the 4% stat quoted but I don’t know. But overall, if you wanted to enter traditional publishing now, it looks like being female has some advantage. That could be an artifact from the number of entrants.

Then we look at the awards. Well, we’ve just had the Nebula awards, which were 100% female won. I think 25% would qualify as PoC (but with 4 winners, less than 25% = 0). Not sure of the orientation of all of the participants, but 3 of 4 mention husbands in the easy-to-access material. So if you want to be a Nebula winner, that was, this year, obviously not the easy game on male and white. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your point of view… based on their effect on sales the Nebs are if anything, cash and reader negative, so we can therefore assume that yes, if you want readers, and money, either it doesn’t matter or yes, ‘male’ can still be considered the easy level. But let’s see what the actual sales say. Maybe I’m wrong and they’ll all be at the top of the sales boards.

Hmm. Using the Kindle top 100 sf & fantasy bestsellers as a filter: the answer is no. Now because I’m just an author being curious, not a fisheries scientist being paid to be thorough, this – as with the rest of my figures here are not a deep systematic statistical analysis. Those top 100 figures do change by the hour, and I only looked at the top 40. In the hour I did in –between 10AM and 11AM my time – the male: female ratio was… 57.5% male to 42.5 female. Not really statistically significant, about the same as Tor’s new releases. Taking that as ‘new’ writers (and I did actually search every one) That’s 51% male to 49% female – not substantively different to the actual proportions of men and women… and quite different to Tor’s female bias. As I say not conclusive, but certainly means that it is unnecessary to change my name to Davina to gain advantage. A purely visual assessment, and reading the bios… subjective, and quite possibly wrong – but also all the readers have to go on – all appeared to be white. And where a partner was mentioned (almost always) all heterosexual (and, it seems often married with children, and not all young). A sample of 40 bestsellers in that hour is not definitive, but a fair guess, being white, and heterosexual doesn’t hurt either.

So I guess John Scalzi is at least semi-right for once in this subset: as far as getting readers are concerned white male has a microscopic – probably not significant in a larger sample — edge on white female, despite the discrimination at the publisher and arts establishment level against them. It does say that readers probably don’t care, just as Amazon doesn’t, and traditional publishers and arts establishment do. It would need participation clues too, to see how issues like orientation and ethnicity affect the numbers. I think it’s probably quite complex, and may relate to the type of book being produced. If you’re say… Korean and write a book that will really appeal only to other Koreans it probably won’t be a bestseller, although it could do well for you. If you write a book that appeals to, and shows the interesting side of your culture, to other ethnicities, it could be a bestseller – there are plenty of examples of just that. But in general, your chances as straight white male of writing a book with character that can be identified with to a large section of the US English reading population are higher, and Alex Dally McFarlane will have to go on dreaming of all books suddenly not having binary gender as a norm.

Where this really got interesting for me, however, was something I did out of curiosity about comments made on Cedar Sanderson’s excellent post by Michael Perry – the fellow who rebrands public domain books and came and moaned about how mean Amazon is – comments on price. I split the top 40 by gender – and worked out the median and average prices.

Overall median price was $3.99 (and I divided GRR Martins 5 booker by 5). Average was $4.43 – median is better measure here, as the sample is small, and a few expensive books skew it badly

Female median price: $1.99 – eight books at 99 cent books, and one $1.99. (at 35% royalties) the rest at 70%

Male median price: $4.99 — one book at 99 cents, and two at $1.99 (at 35% royalties) the rest at 70%

Now as Amazon ranking work on total earnings (no one knows fully how they work, bar someone at Amazon, and God, and neither are telling me – but dollar sales value is part of it) we can work out that some of those female authors did outsell the male competitors ranked above them. They also took home much less money. I’ll leave you to reach any conclusion you like – because we just don’t know. We do know that the market will at bestseller level support noobs who charge $2.99 or more, of both genders. It is interesting. Also worthy of note was just what genres there were, and who wrote them. I noticed a complete lack of ‘hard sf’. Military-ish sf – by indies, male, and priced at more than $2.99 + was the nearest it came. The upper end was mostly gritty fantasy. Zombies Werewolves and vampires are still around. Time travel cropped up a couple of times – I thought it was deader than the moon, but time-travel + romance does seem to be doing Okay. Three of female $0.99… had naked male torso’s on them. Obviously a good market for that. I wonder if Davina could write it. The other thing that struck me is that you’re obviously not playing in this league if you attract less than 50 reviews. And as final point while there are some recognizable names – Brandon Sanderson, Diana Gabaldon, GRR Martin through recognized big houses, there were – right up there at the top of the list – several full 70% earning indies. And there were some big names selling for $0.99.

But I still don’t know what the easy setting is. Do you think I’d be better off as Nostrl Glooba from Alpha Centauri?

A Quick Post On Pricing

Yes, I know, chapter, but this weekend family and overdue stuff are killing me.  Also, I STILL haven’t gone back and got the thing retconned, so it’s hard to go forward.

Meanwhile…

On the threads of Cedar’s post yesterday, the question of pricing has reared its head.  We’ll leave aside the very funny idea that we should price books at a bazillion and never mind what the market signals say.

Instead, let’s start by admitting that one of the advantages of self-published ebooks is that you can change the price back and forth.

I’m not going to go into the various “schools of pricing.”  At some point two years ago, Dean Wesley Smith had a post on pricing in which he said that you should not price anything, even a short short, for less than 2.99.  Someone who used to come to my blog (and who has since quit over my calling him annoying — which he was, though not badly.  But political baiting the day after an election and people threatning dismemberment made me use the word directly and he took offense.  Which is fine) told me he had all of his at 2.99 and why didn’t I try.

At the time ALL I had was short stories.  So I went ahead and made it 2.99.  Not only did I make more money, I sold more copies of each story and more stories.  For a while my income from Amazon pegged at 400 a month or so.

Now, I figured this was because people were using the 2.99 threshold as a sign of “this is not total crap.”

the money drifted down to about $200 as I was busy and not putting new stuff up, but still respectable.  Then came the summer of 13.

One thing I’ve noticed (and I keep in touch with a lot of other indie-writers) is that book pricing is very sensitive to economic movements — actually probably more indicative than our official numbers which are beyond cooked.  I don’t know what happened in the summer of 13 — aka “the summer of death” — but something did.  It was like suddenly people were willing to troll in the 99c bin, risks and all, because they couldn’t afford the 2.99.

How bad was the die off?  well, I even had a few reprint novels up, but from about June through September, my sales dipped to around $12 a month.  Yes, you read that right.

I was talking to Cedar and Amanda and a few other people, and we decided to lower short stories as an experiment.  Just 1.99 unless the stories were under 5k, in which case we’d make it 99c.

Suddenly I started seeing sales again BUT ONLY ON THOSE STORIES LOWERED.  This is a market signal saying “I want to read you but I can’t afford you” and my income went back to around 200.  Until I published WF, when it multiplied (thank heavens.)  Tax day there was another “of death” which might continue through summer.  I’m still doing okay, but my income this month is half of last month, which means I need to get new stories out.  I suspect without the one original release I’d be trolling the bottoms again.

Now, original releases vs. old books.  Old books, reissued, won’t make much. Part of this is that Amazon links it (even if you have a new edition) with the old edition showing used books at 0.1.  Yes, this is very annoying.  No, I don’t think it’s nefarious.  Amazon, weirdly, has a “big publisher bias” and treats their editions as “real.”  I know.  Makes no sense.  Maybe a few more bites in the butt by the big five and they’ll see the light.

I was of two minds about releasing WF, because up to that point my “best seller” sold 20 books a month.  Okay — it’s completely different.

Witchfinder sells more like 20 books a day as a high and 4 a day as a low (this weekend has totally sucked.)

Pricing on novels is… tricksier.  A survey found the ideal price is between 4.99 and 6.99.  I priced Witchfinder at 6.99 because it’s a fat fantasy and its printed edition is… obscenely expensive.  Most of mine are 4.99 or 5.99.

I lowered Ill Met By Moonlight to 2.99 and it has got me some buys on it.  OTOH it has not “pulled through” to the rest of the series to any noticeable extent, so I’m not sure it’s worth it.  I was making the same from a third of the buys before.

With musketeers, I lowered Death of A Musketeer to 3.99 and it hasn’t even got IT sales.  I swear it had more at 5.99.  So, it will probably go back up.

I am planning to release a new book in the Musketeer series probably in fall.  I’ll let you know how it affects those sales — of the whole series.

For now, I’m just watching the signals, talking to other writers to find if my bust or boom is universal or just me, and then proceeding accordingly.

But 99c?  Unless it’s under 5k words, I wouldn’t.  And over 6.99 you lose sales for every dollar.

I’m judging by my own financial condition.  I used to buy six to seven books a week.  BUT our insurance has gone up, college tuition has gone up, food has gone up.  I’m buying a lot of used books at the thrift store for 50c, and I’m restricting myself to about 4 ebooks a month.  And trust me, you’re more likely to get a sale from me if you’re 4.99 or under, because, well, I can route around that damage and not feel it in the budget.

If you’re pricing your books at 9.99 it’s possible you’ll make more than double if you lower it to 1/2 that price.  It’s worth a try.  You can always put it back.  The same with raising your shorts to 1.99 or 2.99 (if erotica, for instance.)  You try for a  month, it doesn’t work, you lower it again.

And that’s the beauty of indie and ebooks.

Amazon is a Business

Forgive me if I seem a bit impatient. The stupid has been strong this week, and although normally I’m the quiet, nice one, I’m a bit exasperated by now.

(but less so, now. Many thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the instalanche. Welcome to any new readers! I’m not Sarah, but sometimes we seem to share a brain.)

I’ve already covered the gaffe Archon made, on my blog. Now, I’m talking about the recent wave of anti-Amazon posts, usually made by people who don’t know what they are talking about, and don’t bother doing a modicum of research before they panic. Yes, Amazon and Hachette are fighting. Yes, authors are being harmed, and that’s sad. However, this is hardly a reason to boycott Amazon, and if you know anything about business, it’s not even particularly noteworthy. Let me note here that Amazon is not evil, Amazon is a business.

For one thing, it’s not one-sided. I urge you to follow and read that link before you continue.  Hachette doesn’t care about those authors you are angsting over. They only care about their profits, and if you actually know a traditionally published author, you know they don’t see very much of their share of those profits. Should someone’s career end over this, Hachette will just snag another candidate out of the pool of eager manuscripts.

But, but, Amazon is killing Indie bookstores! Pish, and posh. Before them, Barnes and Nobles and Borders did it. Or have you forgotten that oh-so-cute movie about that angsty issue? Ah… I see you have, and don’t care. Neither do you care about the incalcuable harm publishers do and have done to authors. Instead, you’d rather shoot yourself in the foot.

Go ahead. More for those of us who understand business, and finances. I make between 70% and 35% for every ebook sold through Amazon. I make less than that through other venues (such as B&N) but still, I make immensely more off of every sale than any traditionally published author will ever see from Hachette, or any other publisher. I have print versions of my books I don’t make that high a percentage from, but you can order my books in any bookstore, and there are a few which carry a copy or two at any given time. You can find more idea on how to do it right here.

Unlike these yahoos, I don’t feel the need to fraudulently slip my book onto a shelf somewhere. I do shop at the occasional bookstore, but I am far more likely to order from Amazon. Why? because they have what I want. It’s that easy. Plus, being cheap is nice, too. I can’t afford to walk into a bookstore and buy all the books I read on a weekly basis in paper. Not to mention our poor little house would be overflowing and collapsing. Yes, I bemoan not having time to read. That doesn’t mean I don’t read. With ebooks, I can take chances on new authors and books, that I wouldn’t do on a paper copy. So Amazon offers me a lot more than free shipping and the luxury of not having to go to a store. I love Amazon.

So do a lot of other people, like all the readers who neither know nor care who publishes their favorite author. Outside the industry, who knows this little piece of data? Very, very few readers. They don’t need to know, they just want an entertaining story or a well-done non-fiction book. And they want to be able to afford it. Face it, kids, the economy ain’t great. It sure as heck isn’t ‘recovering’ nor does it appear that it will any time soon. So you would begrudge your readers from seeking the best deals? Are you willing to pay top-dollar for every book you read? Didn’t think so.

Publishers are toxic. I read on my facebook feed an author terrified that she was about to have her fourth editor in as many books with her publisher. She’s afraid this book won’t sell well enough to justify keeping her on. Me? I hire and fire my editors based on their performance and merit, I am in control, not them. Another author, when the news broke that Orbit wouldn’t be giving away the Hugo-nominated books as most publishers do, begged that readers not be angry with his publisher. He said he would be blamed, lose his job, and be black-balled by other publishers, if the readers reacted angrily. (Do I really need to mention here that Baen is the exception which proves the rule?)

Look, I was in an abusive relationship. I know how hard it is to get out of. For one thing, you start to believe that you have no value. This is not true. Stop listening to publishers when they tell you you need them. You don’t. Maybe that was true, once, but reality has changed, and they are terrified. It’s making them do stupid things, like Hachette fighting with Amazon instead of negotiating. Or Apple, in the case it lost last year, over price-fixing. Or didn’t you notice that all the big publishers admitted guilt in the DOJ case? Time to open your eyes and see that it isn’t you, my author friends. You do offer something to the world. Whether it is an amusing story to lighten the burden of readers who are faced with uncertainty and risk in this bleak economy, or a well-researched and sourced non-fiction book which offers a balanced perspective on some topic. Stop letting yourself be treated as disposable, and start recognizing that it isn’t Amazon who is your enemy.

There are safe places. We won’t let them hurt you, and we offer help to those who are willing to work toward independence. I know there is a school of thought which says that those who are in an abusive relationship want it, and will go back to it, no matter how much they say they want out. I say perhaps. And perhaps all they need is a little support. It can be done, I’m living proof.

Social Cues in the Decoding of Current Events

Earlier in the week, I noticed, in a sort of vague, “oh, that’s what’s going on?” kind of way that there’s some truly epic foolishness being perpetrated. (I was a little bit distracted, as I assisted Mrs. Dave in bringing Working Title Pascoe into the world. Mommy and baby are doing fine, and everybody is tired. I may have said this before. That’s happening a lot, lately.) Jason brought it up first, that I saw. Amanda mentioned it, a bit. Kate hasn’t touched it, that I’ve seen. Probably safest for all involved. And Sarah is actively avoiding the subject, as she has books to finish. And if she goes anywhere near this one, progs will be feeling the impact sometime in the next decade or so. Weaponized wouldn’t even begin to describe it. The Int’l Lord of Hate and MadMike have both touched on this. Specifically. Incandescently.

Tim Bolgeo – Uncle Timmy to pretty much everybody – (and one of the biggest names in southern fandom) was stripped of an invitation to a particular convention because an as yet anonymous individual dug through archives of Tim’s e-zine, the Revenge of Humpday(I thought it was a newsletter. It’s not? But I find his ideas intriguing and wish to subscribe. Ah, well.) for something “offensive.” Great furor was raised, the Legion of the Perpetually Offended was marshaled and wailing and gnashing of teeth was brought before the concom. Consequently, Uncle Timmy’s invitation was rescinded. All this took about a day.

Look, this is right out of Larry’s Internet Arguing Checklist, arguably (hehe) the single most important guide to understanding how people are wrong on the interwebs. Right away, we have 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Then, the cowardly troll skipped 6 and 7 and jumped directly to 8. Since the claim of racism is more or less meaningless these days – as it’s applied by one faction to more or less everything any out-group person says or does – I almost wonder at why it’s even still used, let alone so thoroughly overused.

For this isn’t about racism, per se.

It’s about social cues, and how they’re utilized to separate sheep from goats. Tribalism is human nature. From the early early days when we likely did it as much by smell as by any other sense, we’ve worked pretty darn hard to figure out who is part of Us and who is part of Them. Race is an easy (and, frankly, illusory) cue, and – in the States, at least – becoming less and less useful as a means of discrimination. This is great, and doesn’t get celebrated nearly enough. Location has, historically, been a much bigger deal. Those folks from the next valley over are weird and do things differently than we do. Steely Dan, those great analysts of popular culture, got it exactly right in the lyrics of Barrytown:

And don’t think that I’m out of line
For speaking out for what is mine
I’d like to see you do just fine
But look at what you wear
And the way you cut your hair

It’s certain that the object of the song “ain’t from ’round here,” and that while the speaker is, well, liberal enough to tolerate their presence, he’s not going to go out of his way to actually interact with the object in a meaningful way. After all, he can “see by what you carry that you come from Barrytown.” You’re Them. Enemy, at least potentially, or historically.

The coward-in-fan’s-clothing who outted Uncle Timmy is doing the same thing, only far less honorably. This is a method the GHH Brigade and the LotPO have utilized again and again. Demonstrate that someone is Other. Make lots of noise about how evil this is (not dangerous, not bad, but evil) and then call up the specter of shunning to encourage the behavior they want. Mike Resnick is evil. OSC is evil. Tom Kratman is evil. Vox is evil. Larry is evil. Now, Uncle Timmy is evil. None of these have – so far as I know – killed anybody. The ones I know personally don’t torture small animals or children for fun. They haven’t actually advocated for genocide, outside of fiction or satire (and if you choose not to make those distinctions, think shame on yourself). And yet, a multitude have, on little to no evidence, called for violence to be done against them. At least have them ejected from “polite society.”
Odd, coming from people stridently advocating for greater diversity in fandom.

One thing we can learn from this is how societies work. As I said, and then left unsupported, this is about social cues. Progs, and their Marxist forebears, use certain shibboleths as cues of in-group-ness. Every group does that. Each tribe develops a jargon, and rituals, and we can use this to our advantage. In your writing, ensure your societies have certain pieces that distinguish them from everyone else around them. Part of this phenomenon is organic, and accretes over time. Sun-worshippers may demonstrate a penchant for gold jewelry and stone in fiery colors. A loose-knit community of asteroid miners may have a marked preference for certain brands, or a specific sublight drive technology. And always, a way of speaking that tells them that they’re part of the group.
Those are easily visible examples. More important, are demonstrated ways of thinking, and the behaviors that follow from them. Unquestioned (and often unquestionable) assumptions. “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.” The aqueduct brings water; why ever would we want to go to the trouble of building a windmill over the well? The beastmen swarm right after the harvest. Who knows why; the gods’ ways are inscrutable. We use the plasma torch to slag salvage; who wants to learn a different way of doing things? And when a stranger – or a home-grown Odd; often treated as more or less the same thing – suggests something different, or novel, the gates close.

In writing, this is ripe for conflict, which is what we want to keep the story moving along. Is the marshall going to try to strong-arm our protagonist out of town? Will the underdog faction of the local political scene enlist our hero as their champion? It’s the drive down the main drag of town and all eyes turn to follow, and all faces are closed to analysis.
Ultimately, this kind of behavior ossifies, and a community follows tradition for its own sake, which far outweighs other concerns. This appears time and again throughout history, often right before a particular polity enters a period of upheaval. Think about the Reformation, or of Western Rome’s crumble. We’re seeing a bit of that in our own time (it’s possible this process is more or less constant) as certain groups hold ways of thinking more sacred than ways of life.

What’s the upshot? For scifi fandom, it means self-identifying factions are going to grow more and more insular as time goes on. We’re seeing this, as they justify abominable treatment of individuals who have done nothing to deserve it (in fact, who have often done a great deal for fandom, both directly and indirectly) using in-group shibboleths and the thinnest of “evidence.” On an individual level, we can continue to make choices where we’ll spend our money and energy. I plan to have nothing to do with Archon, as they’ve demonstrated a distinct lack of honor and credibility.

For writing, we can continue to learn from history. Read broadly, and glean situations ripe for plot twists. Learn to understand human nature. Who, if not the author, knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Then twist the plot. Hard. Turn a portion of society against your hero. Make their road just that much harder: drop them into a situation in which they become the Other, the “ain’t from ’round here” fella. Set the social cues against them. What happens when a sun-god’s paladin follows an evildoer into a town full of earth-goddess devotees, and blends in? What does a star marshall do in the clannish society of asteroid miners several AU from the system primary? When she publicly insulted the first-among-equals kind of leader, who also happens to be her father/uncle/whatever.

And maybe, just maybe, apply that understanding of social cues and fraught situations to the less-logical-than-fiction “real” world. Inject some logic into the rampant foolishness.

Mea Culpa

First of all, I apologize. Today’s post is going to be late. I have no excuses, but I do have a couple of reasons. This week, you see, has been personally momentous in a way heretofore yet unexperienced in my life. Working Title Pascoe is breathing air. The young master seems inordinately healthy, actually. Mellow, even, though I’m mostly waiting for him to tap into his inner fiend and discover the joys of inopportune timing. Mrs. Dave is doing well, though we both seem to be a little short on rest, at the moment. For some reason.
As to today’s post, I am working on a thing, and that thing will be up later. I need to do some things to maintain sanity this morning, and then WT has an appointment with a pediatrician. I’d have thought they got enough information from him during the torture sessions at the hospital. The young man is chatty enough. We shall see what further secrets he has to divulge.