We had fun at an AMA last weekend hosted by audiobook reviewer (and listener!) Brian Krespen. The other person in the hotseat was Steve Campbell who was narrating Department 9, the third Chimera Company novel. (I say ‘was’ because he’s just finished).
I admit to being nervous with these sorts of things, but Brian did a great job and it turned out to be a lot of fun. You can find a recording of the AMA on Twitter (below) and Facebook.
Also, if you’ve been following my occasional ramblings on the publishing industry, you’ll have read me pointing out that many traditional publishers in the Anglo-American markets survived the pandemic year of 2020 with profits up, despite physical bookstores being closed at several points. Some of this was a rebound as readers rushed back to the stores, but most of it was due to a shift online.
Not that I want bookstores to close, but the stats were a blunt pointing out of what should be an obvious fact: physical bookstores need book publishers a whole lot more than publishers need bookstores.
So I was interested to read this article from the Bookseller stating that over two thirds of UK publishing revenue came from online channels in 2020.
I haven’t seen the report’s detail, so I can’t verify what they mean by ‘publishing’ in this instance. But I expect it to mean ‘trade publishing’. In other words, books from traditional publishing organizations that would until recently have been sold overwhelmingly through physical bookstores.
Note that this is revenue, rather than the publisher profits that I’ve been mentioning recently.
Things sold online tend to be cheaper. Also tradpub trade organizations love to complain that Amazon is screwing them on their margins*, and a big chunk of those online sales will be paperbacks sold through Amazon. Despite both these factors, profits were up as well as revenue. All of which seems to suggest that online sales through Amazon were very profitable in 2020**.
‘*’ They could be right about the margins, but distortion is so common in pro/anti Amazon positions that I just don’t know. Amazon takes a 40% margin on paperbacks when they retail my books.
‘**’ Being nice to suppliers is way down on the list of Amazon’s priorities, and they can and do change their rules to suit them. Just because tradpub selling print books through Amazon looks like a sustainable business model in 2020, doesn’t mean it will be in the future.
My beard and I had a chat with Joe on the Unity 151 channel a few days ago. We discussed Chimera Company, On Deadly Ground, Time Dogz, knee injuries, Human Legion, foreign involvement in the Russian Civil War, audiobook narration, Salvage Title, Hit World and stamps of the early 20th century.
In other news round up, I’ve re-written and republished the two Reality War novels, Operation Redeal has come out in audio, and I’ve had three anthology releases since I last posted.
‘Monster at the Gate’is my story from In The Wings, a 4HU anthology. A desperate human scavenger operation encounters an alien on a quest for meaning. Those who survive the exchange of views are changed forever.
‘Laney’s Logistics Ain’t Recruiting’ follows the experience of an alien work experience girl in the Salvage Title anthology It Takes All Kinds. It’s more fun that I can express in one sentence.
‘Time Dogz’ is in On Deadly Ground, a science fiction anthology of heroic last stands. There’s a definite anti-hero vibe as Stiletto Caldwell and team are sucked into humanity’s last defense at the space battle of Saturn’s Gate. I liked it so much, I’m writing the novel now.
I’ve stories in four more anthologies due out early next year.
That is… they’ll come out if I actually write the things. I’d better get back to work… 😉
OK, it’s mid-June. I think it’s time to wrap up my 2020 retrospective with this bumper-sized final installment!
Let’s suppose over the next few years that some of the biggest publishers of fiction do make the switch from a business-2-business model to one in which they sell direct to the consumer. Additionally, some will develop digital subscription services. In other words, Disney+ for books.
What does that mean?
For publishing. For science fiction and fantasy publishing in particular.
And what might it mean for me?
Let us speculate.
A Third Class: Digital-First Authors
The gulf between the big international bestsellers and everyone else will become even more stark. In order to persuade readers to come to their platform, super big publishers need those marquee authors.
Big publishers have become more adept these last few years at monetizing their backlists, through digital channels. This accelerated in the pandemic years. Not just eBooks but audiobooks and print-on-demand paperbacks. This trend will continue very strongly. That deep backlist will be a big reason why readers will choose to stay in the subscription services.
Since the Second World War, there’s long been the distinction between “frontlist” authors who were released in hardback first, and lesser authors who are released in paperback first. (These days eBooks are usually launched at the same time as the initial print edition. If there’s a hardback, then the eBook is priced to match the hardback.).
That won’t change, but I think we’ll see a rank of even lesser authors become more common. These will be the digital-first authors (which is not the same as eBook-first authors).
Not only will their new releases not come out in hardback, but the paperback will be a print-on-demand version (which is what my paperback novels have always been). It may seem strange to describe paperbacks as digital. Obviously, the end product is physical, but major publishers are already using Ingram Lightning Source print-on-demand to cover sudden spikes in paperback and hardback sales that could potentially occur anywhere in their backlist. And they’re using initiatives such as Open Road Ignition to monetize their digitized back catalog.
Anyway, back to our new class of second-class authors. They will primarily be sold by the direct-to-consumer online sales channel and not through bookstores (same as me).
For these authors, success at the launch of a book won’t be the all-or-nothing of recent decades. Slow burn success will be much more common. Without the need for the publisher to manage print runs, distribution, and accessing shelf space in bookstores, releases will be much easier to project manage and the gap between finishing a book and having it available to buy will be shortened.
One of the most biting criticisms of OldPub is that they are slow and inflexible with their book releases.
I don’t buy into all the criticisms of OldPub, but this one is right on the nose.
Consider this. If I were to sign a three-book deal with Penguin Random House today, I don’t expect they would squeeze me into their release schedule until 2023 at the earliest. And then there would be one book per year. I probably wouldn’t know whether they would want me to write more in the series until 2024 or 2025.
Contrast that with the five-book deal I signed with Theogony Books last summer. The fifth book will be published on July 2nd. Twelve months after I pitched the idea, all five novels will be written and on sale.
Admittedly, I cheated. I’d already written one and a half of these books, but they will all have new artwork, be newly edited, have been run through beta teams etc.
As an author, it’s very useful for me to quickly get information on whether a new series is selling well. It gives author and publisher a chance to write more of something that readers are buying (If there’s more story to be told, that is. Readers are unforgiving of milking a dead horse – if you’ll excuse the mixed and slightly revolting metaphor).
As a reader, I won’t start a new book series until several books are available. Having to wait a year between releases ruins the point of having a series with shared characters. A series that releases a new book every month, for example, is a significantly higher quality reading experience over one that waits until you’ve forgotten most of previous book before releasing the next one.
And with so many books available at a click of a button, readers are far more demanding of quality than ever before. For a lot of us, a series that comes out once a year is no longer good enough. (Unless the series is already well established. Harry Dresden’s had a break for a few years, but that doesn’t seem to have done him much harm with his return in 2020).
With digital-only authors, the publishing schedule is decoupled from the logistical challenges of selling physical copies through physical bookstores. This is where NewPub has been dancing rings around legacy publishing for the past decade. But when OldPub embraces digital-first authors[1*], they will finally be able park their tanks on NewPub’s lawn.
The Empire strikes back.
If this works as I predict, will this ring the death knell of NewPub?
Because the fundamental reason why NewPub has been so successful will remain unchanged.
The degree to which NewPub has seized the Anglo-American market share from OldPub in the last decade varies enormously across different segments of the book market.
NewPub hasn’t just seized market share; it’s also grown new audiences and even developed new subgenres. Science fiction romance, black urban and black romance, LGBT romance, military science-fiction and space opera, erotica of all descriptions: these have all grown. What connects these was the attitude from OldPub circa 2010: a combination of lack of interest, lack of understanding, and at times borderline contempt. For sure, most of the old major publishers did some of these things some of the time, but not with enough consistent quality or quantity to satisfy the audience demand.
A decade later and OldPub has tried to muscle in on these readerships with mixed results.
For science fiction in particular, the success has been limited. That’s why I don’t think any of these changes I’ve predicted will affect my career much. The structural changes will win OldPub new readers in some areas, but not in mine. Legacy publishing still doesn’t value these modes of writing or the readers who enjoy them.
And so readers will seek out books by authors and publisher who do value them.
The Shadow Charts.
Publishers don’t value potential readers?
As I read that back, I worry it might sound like hyperbole. I mean, really? Publishers don’t value people who buy books?
Let’s delve into this a little deeper.
Consider the article I wrote in 2020 on The World of 99.
In my journey, viewed through the lens of 99p books, I looked at the Amazon UK bestseller chart for space opera and looked back at the publications of the British Science Fiction Association to see how many of the bestselling authors in the charts had ever been mentioned by the BSFA. Bestsellers from major publishers got reviewed. So did some local favorites, particularly Titan Books and Angry Robot. That’s about it.
To be clear. I like the BSFA. I think they do great work. I’m picking on them because I happen to know more about BSFA publications, not least because I used to be a member. Sometimes they did news publications too, but they have always produced extensive review publications for books published in the UK.
I’m sure you’d get the same results if you substituted Locus Magazine, newspapers such as The Guardian, or the review pages of any of the science fiction short fiction magazines.
If you look at most of the Amazon subgenre bestseller charts and tracked the authors who make frequent appearances (as I have been doing informally for years), it will soon become apparent that most of them are unknown to old school SF & F literary fandom, or to established outlets of what might describe itself as critical review, such as the various BSFA publications or Locus.
I have not the slightest doubt that here in the UK, most authors who have been successful enough to become full-time writers of science fiction or fantasy in the past decade have never been reviewed or mentioned by the BSFA, nor have they been approached to be guests of honor or panelists at old school conventions. [2*] The audience for these conventions simply don’t know who these authors are because they aren’t plugged into the world of science fiction and fantasy literature, only certain divisions of that world.
This matters. In my experience, people who work at the larger publishing companies share a similar taste in books to those who set themselves up as old school [3*] critics and commentators and tend to write for publications such as the BSFA. The reason these outlets don’t discuss the authors in the bestseller charts and their books is simply because they aren’t interested in them [4*]. I don’t think publishers will be either. They won’t have anybody on their staff who really gets them.
You see this very clearly in my current wheelhouse of space opera and military science fiction.
As I said earlier, even the major OldPub publishers publish military sf.
A lot of it is game or movie/TV tie-in, which is treated as almost an entirely separate form of literature. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Most of the majors have a military sf slot that they quietly fill without making much of a splash about it. Take Ian Douglas, who has written some great mil-sf in that slot for Harper Voyager. His Star Corpsman books are well worth a look. This is military science fiction adventure with a contemporary twist but essentially played straight (by which I mean it isn’t trying to cast scorn on the genre).
And slots are how the major publishers view the world. We’ve got our Terry Pratchett slot filled. Check. Our obligatory mil-sf author slot. Check. Now, let’s move on and spend our time considering books we’re actually interested in…
Back to the scorn shown for tie-in books.
Case in point: one of my favorite authors is the marvelous Karen Traviss (her book The Best of Us was my standout novel of 2019). By my reckoning, in the past decade, she’s picked up more New York Times bestseller and USA Today bestseller entries than any other UK science fiction author. That’s 13 titles on the New York Times bestseller lists, including two at #1.
Drawing a direct line between these gongs and popularity or book sales has its problems, but on this one measure at least, Traviss is the most successful British science fiction author of the past decade.
Not merely the most successful amongst the women, but she beat all the men and anybody else too.
Have any of these New York Times bestsellers ever been mentioned by the BSFA?
BSFA and British old school fandom has spent a lot of time in the past decade talking about the importance of championing fiction by women authors. Have they ever mentioned Karen Traviss and her phenomenal success both here and internationally?
When I was in the BSFA, I don’t recall at the time our most successful female author being mentioned. When I put together a fancy hardback compendium of British military science fiction in 2015, I wrote several articles about contemporary British mil-sf authors and looked for review and commentary on Karen Traviss. I found from the BSFA an online transcript of a radio interview from 2011 and an online review of her first novels, which hadn’t been published in BSFA’s review publications because they were at the time published only in the US (which is perfectly reasonable).
Beyond that, the only mention I could find were spiteful tweets sent by prominent BSFA writers in response to that 2011 radio appearance. Ironically, the most abusive individual in this thread went on to create a website to highlight women authors… and then pour scorn on most of them for not writing the way that he, a man, desired. Really, you couldn’t make this kind of thing up, but it was this kind of rancid bigotry that led to me quitting British old school fandom.
Why am I banging on about tie-in books?
Because franchises such as Star Wars and Halo are dismissed as pale shadows of proper fiction, rather like superstore own brands compared with offerings from the likes of Heinz and Kelloggs. While a few Warhammer 40K authors are fêted at UK conventions, their publisher, Black Library, is not really regarded as a being ‘proper’ publisher.
Warhammer 40,000 is arguably Britain’s most successful ever science fiction literary brand, but as far as I can tell, none of its books has ever been reviewed by the BSFA and the setting was only mentioned once in this excellent article by Stephen Baxter. (Baxter was in my view by far the most accomplished and insightful of the article writers for the BSFA).
In other words, tie-ins can be safely compartmentalized by OldPub and old school fandom as distinct from ‘proper’ literature and then sneered at while publishers still making money out of them.
Many popular subgenres and authors — and, of course, their readers — are treated with open contempt. The only valid way to write in space opera and military science fiction in the minds of these people is to subvert the genre.
It’s a phrase that comes up constantly in the OldPub world. If I were to attempt to acquire a literary agent for my space opera or mil-sf in today’s environment, I would have to talk about how I ‘subvert the genre’ in my pitch. If I didn’t, I would be wasting everyone’s time.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong in shaking things up to do something new. And if you don’t like something you perceive in a book or genre, then that can give the creative energy to write an inspired response. I’ve done both myself.
Iain M Banks, for example, was of the opinion that space opera was overwhelmingly written by right-wing American capitalists and imperialists. So he set off out to explicitly write a socialist space opera with his Culture novels. Very successfully in my view. Whether or not he was accurate in his assessment of space opera is immaterial, so long as it drove him to deliver the goods.
However, we are not talking here about an occasional attempt to try a new way.
New titles big up how they subvert what has gone before and show up their alleged flaws, and by implication the flaws of their readers.
These days those flaws are increasingly regarded as moral ones. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered the ludicrous and insulting idea that space opera is merely the wish fulfilment of right-wing, fascist, Americans. Bad people write these books; bad people read them.
Bad people like me. And if you’re here because you enjoy my books, in the eyes of these bigots, that means you are a bad person too.
I’ve personally had a one-star reviewer describe my books as (and here I clean up the language for general consumption) fascist fantasies in which I rewrite history so that the American military wins a clear victory in Afghanistan, relishes killing a lot of brown foreigners, and saves the Middle East for a rapacious American oil industry.
Excuse me… what?!?!
This was for the Human Legion books. If you’ve read them, you’ll know how utterly ridiculous that comment was. But the reality is that we are in the middle of a culture war, and increasingly being neutral is not an option. This reviewer had probably spent years soaking up the hatred and contempt so often expressed for space opera that doesn’t flag itself as subverting the genre. I doubt they bothered to read my book. More likely, they saw the cover, slotted me into their perverted narrative, and decided that I was an evil person who had to be canceled.
In the past few paragraphs, I’ve been writing about space opera science fiction because they are the subgenres I know very well. But this phenomenon of publishers who do not understand their own audience, or who view their customers with scorn, is not limited to these sub-genres.
Wherever you find self-publishing and NewPub have been successful, you will find the underlying reason is that traditional publishing disdains books and readers in these areas.
And that is ultimately why if OldPub moves successfully to subscription models and a direct-to-consumer mindset, then the effect on my ability to earn a living as a science fiction writer will be limited, so long as I stick to sub-genres where OldPub is institutionally incompetent.
After all, who wants to read books published by people who hate you?
At the start of this trio of “New Year’s” ramblings, I posed the question of how was it that I had been able to make writing and publishing science fiction my livelihood for the past decade. (Admittedly only barely managing at times, but I know dozens of people who started out like me but have made far greater financial success).
NewPub brings with it enormous advantages in nimbleness, speed-to-market, a more audience-focused approach, and so forth. If my predictions are correct that OldPub embraces a direct-to-consumer mindset, I may lose some of those benefits, but I will retain the advantage of understanding my potential customers more than OldPub ever could.
Other authors may have a tougher time ahead. I think some of the legion of successful NewPub urban fantasy authors will have to fight hard to retain the sales they’ve claimed from OldPub. But not military science fiction and un-subverted space opera, which is where I write at the moment.
Sure, it will become more difficult to write outside of that field, something I want to do. However, I am so grateful for being able to do what I love for a living that I cannot reasonably complain about any such restrictions.
That’s not to say the future will be easy for anyone. For me, the principal competition for my readers’ time comes from my fellow NewPub authors. It is they who push me to improve my storytelling with each new novel because, frankly, that’s what they are doing, and I have to keep up. Readers’ quality expectations are rising higher with every year, and if I can’t satisfy them, there will be a wealth of other authors who will.
No one owes me a living as a writer. I have to earn it.
For me, it’s a good kind of pressure. It gives me a motivational buzz, and it’s clearly not just me.
Good science fiction books have been published in every year. But in the naughties, I found myself drifting away because so much of it was frankly mediocre. I grew tired of making allowances for sloppy writing, intellectually shallow grandstanding, and plots you could sail an Imperial star destroyer through.
Books I read now are much better written. So much more thrilling. Above all, it is the storytelling that has improved.
My contribution to this is extremely small, and yet it is there. I am proud to be a part of this trend.
And that leaves me with the prediction for the next few years of science fiction and fantasy of which I am most certain.
As a reader of science fiction, there is nowhere I would rather be than right here in the 2020s.
I’m suggesting that the major publishers (other than Amazon Publishing) might transition from a mix of hardback-first and paperback-first authors into hardback-first and digital-first.
That would be new. But several major publishers have already attempted a different kind of digital-first publishing over the past decade.
These were junior imprints run alongside existing imprints for which all titles would be digital first. This tended to mean eBook first and then possibly a limited-run paperback edition for bookstores. No audiobook. There were hints that success in these junior imprints could lead to promotion to the major imprints and at least one example I could find of a science fiction author who was promoted to the main Harper Voyager imprint. In other words, these would be slush pile feeder leagues.
I recall halfheartedly looking into submitting to Harper Voyager Impulse, who began publishing in 2014. At the time, it wasn’t obvious that the main Harper Voyager imprint was succeeding in establishing new authors who wrote in a similar genre to me. So how would a junior version of something that wasn’t very successful do any better?
These junior imprints would take the lion’s share of their authors’ royalties. What would they do in return that the authors couldn’t already do for themselves?
I hope some Voyager Impulse authors got the start they were looking for, but it wasn’t obvious anyone did.
When Impulse was running, I did check in a few times. The covers sometimes looked very cheap. The few covers I thought looked okay were using stock art, which I knew because I was using the same art! The Amazon sales rankings were unimpressive, although that could mean I wasn’t looking at the right moment in time.
More likely, the books just didn’t sell. I hope I’m wrong.
After three years, Harper Voyager Impulse went quiet. Checking up on them for this article, it seems the digital-first imprints were renamed One More Chapter. I think the romance digital-first imprint, Avon Impulse, did pretty well and the Avon type of titles now dominate One More Chapter. It looks from here like a success, but only for romance and some thrillers. Not for science fiction and fantasy, for which Harper Voyager seems to have abandoned the digital-first idea for the time being.
[2*] Most UK authors going full time aren’t known to the BSFA.
I want to point out that this shouldn’t be seen as authors whining because they’re feeling unfairly snubbed, if nothing else than because most professional UK science fiction and fantasy authors I know don’t appear to be aware of either the BSFA or of the old school fandom behind conventions. Clearly, this hasn’t been a barrier to their success.
As with everything in publishing, there are notable exceptions. For example, Chris Nuttall attends some old school conventions, but I suspect most people don’t know who he is, despite being one of the UK’s leading science fiction and fantasy authors.
Anne Charnock’s self-published A Calculated Life (2013) was picked up by Amazon Publishing’s 47 North, the ultimate NewPub publisher. Not only have her books been Amazon bestsellers ever since, but the author is prominent at British fandom conventions and in BSFA publications.
I met Anne briefly at Eastercon in 2016 and had a lot of questions I wanted to put to her. Unfortunately, our timetables frustrated our desire for a good chinwag, which I’ve always regretted. She seemed a very pleasant person, and A Calculated Life is an excellent read, the kind of book that richly rewards paying close attention and reading between the lines.
I can’t think of anyone besides Anne who ticks both boxes of going full time via NewPub and is also well known to the BSFA.
From experience, I understand that the question of what constitutes a full-time professional writer, can get heated. (I myself publish other authors, and in 2016 it was that income that kept me afloat financially). But if we’re considering authors who earn, say, at least three quarters of their income from book sales/ advances, then I can’t think of anyone besides Anne who ticks both those boxes.
If you know otherwise, tell me!
[3*] ‘Old school fandom’
I bandy this term around a lot, so I’d better explain what I mean.
As a working definition, I see ‘fandom’ as describing communities that form around a hobby or pastime. In other words, when you go out and interact with other people who enjoy the same thing as you, that means you are a part of fandom for that thing.
If you play board games with friends and family, that’s just enjoying your pastime. But if you also read, comment on, and write game reviews at boardgamegeek.com, or sign up to your local Blood Bowl league (as I’m about to do) then you are committing fandom.
When I write ‘old school UK science fiction and fantasy fandom’, I mean a loose collection of clubs and conventions with origins in the 1930s. It’s pretty much a parallel story to what happened over that period in the US and elsewhere, although more concentrated.
Today, it centers around the British Science Fiction Association, British Fantasy Society and Eastercon and Fantasycon conventions, though there are plenty of other components, such as the Arthur C. Clarke Award. In size, I estimate it comprises somewhere around 2,000-3,000 individuals.
Confusingly here (as in the US), it refers to itself as ‘fandom’ without prefix or qualification, even though it’s fairly small.
To put size in perspective, I went to the Salute tabletop wargaming exhibition in 2014, at ExCel, London. I don’t know the attendance, but for 2013 it was 14,000. Half the exhibits were science fiction or fantasy and none of them were connected with Warhammer or 40K. All those attendees were engaged with fandom, and the science fiction themes seemed to me to be getting the most buzz.
This was, of course, a form of science fiction and fantasy fandom, and with headline numbers much larger than the old school literary variety.
The EGX game convention often heavily features science fiction; attendance for its 2017 event at the NEC, Birmingham was 80,000.
Doctor Who and Harry Potter fandoms are also hugely popular.
And so are Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. I just looked up current estimates of active 40K players and got answers of somewhere between 500,000 and a million. Certainly, the UK contribution to the Warhammer 40K flavor of science fiction fandom is much larger than old school literary fandom.
None of that is intended to minimize the worth or contribution of old school fandom, particularly in the way a core set of individuals organize and run conventions every year, which I find enormously impressive. There is also a strong link between old fandom and OldPub. Knowing the right fandom people and winning good reviews or awards can open doors in the OldPub industry.
However, I prefix this branch of fandom with ‘old school’ partly because it is only a small component of the SF&F fandom that extends beyond literature, but also because it is increasingly detached from what is going on elsewhere in literary science fiction fandom.
[4*] People who write for the BSFA aren’t interested in science fiction unless it’s ‘their’ science fiction.
I don’t say this lightly. When I was in the BSFA, I knew several senior figures who helped to run the club. I was tremendously excited about all the new authors coming out of nowhere and building our publishing niche by adding to the readership. Our backwater of publishing was undergoing a huge shake up and expansion. I couldn’t understand why no one else seemed excited by this.
For a while, I thought that because I was one of the few people in the UK who straddled both old and new publishing, I could help bring both tendencies together.
I thought authors acquiring a multi-million selling status would excite people, but that counted for nothing unless the author in question was the right kind of people writing the right kind of fiction through the right publishers.
I pointed out the new crop of British small publishers and thought others would want them to succeed. I remember when Swordworks hit a million sales. I thought that was exciting, but I couldn’t interest anyone.
That’s not to say that anyone in British old school fandom has done anything wrong in the slightest. Rather, my disappointment (which you can no doubt detect) stems from the desire to be a part of a community interested in the full diversity of science fiction literature. As I’ve written before, I wanted the BSFA publications to be the KERRANG! of science fiction, but its scope is narrowed to those segments of science fiction publishing that happen to interest a small inner group.
Perhaps that was always inevitable, but I hope that British old school fandom will one day embrace a more diverse perspective.
Feb 15th, 2011 was when I went full time as a writer, pushed into it initially on account of being made redundant from the place I’d worked for 20 years.
A decade later and I have five novels coming out in just the first half of this year and I’m hoping to reach my three-hundred-thousandth sale before year end. To my surprise, I’ve survived my first decade in the biz!
Since the people who read my blog are among my firmest supporters, I want to thank you for making this possible.
Back in 2011, the plan was to write full time on a new novel for few months and submit to a publisher. I had one specific in mind [#1]. I intended a break, not a new career. I needed just a little time away to do something different, made possible by the (statutory minimum) redundancy package that I could eke out.
Time off felt extremely indulgent, but I’d had an unhealthy relationship with work for a long time. Work-related stress had led to a nervous breakdown in 2004 (the docs called it chronic anxiety, if I remember rightly). I was well on the way to another. I desperately needed a break.
That was the plan. It didn’t work out that way. I mean, I did go full time writing for a while, but the whole Kindle/ eBook thing had just exploded and I got sidetracked into publishing books. And then eBook design work. I guess I never felt comfortable with spending even a few months where I wasn’t earning any money.
To start with, the eBooks I published were some of my previously published short stories, so that my Amazon page wouldn’t look so empty. At the time, already-published short stories were practically worthless for all but a tiny number of authors, and I knew a lot of authors with some great stories. So I hit on the idea of reprinting short stories as eBooks.
That grew into publishing novellas.
And then novels.
The vehicle for that was Greyhart Press. We haven’t published anything new since 2014, if I remember rightly. But there are still some titles up and we sell a few each year. I am mightily proud of those books.
They didn’t sell enough to cover the bills, though. My own writing had taken a backseat during the Greyhart years, and I made one last throw of the dice at the end of 2014 with Marine Cadet. Last time I counted, that book had sold 43,000 copies, and there were another 13,000 copies downloaded when I made it free for five days in 2015.
So I kept going.
Along the way there was the big fat color coffee book of British Military SF, some awesome artwork from my friend Vincent Sammy, I’ve killed aliens and gotten paid over in the Four Horsemen Universe, two Lego book covers, played a small role in helping JR Handley get his start in the business, rabbited away in numerous podcasts and a few booktubes, went to a convention as a guest a couple of times, and generally had a gas.
I’ve encountered abuse, crooks, violent threats against my family, bullies, lies, numerous examples of double standards and hypocrisy, and met more than a few jerks. And that’s just on the UK side of the science fiction pond.
I’ve also met wonderful people and made firm friends. There have been a few individuals in particular whose generosity has been so immense that it’s humbling. Absolutely humbling. The world of science fiction publishing still has its good ‘uns.
In addition to the Greyhart Press books, by the middle of 2021, there will be twenty-one novels in print that I wrote or co-wrote. Twelve self-published and nine published by other publishers. People call me a hybrid author. I like to think of myself as a Chimera author 😉
Best of all, I’m thoroughly enjoying my writing. I look forward the next ten years as a writer.
Talking of interviews, I did one recently over on Unity 151 channel for their writer’s journey series. I like to kid myself that I’ve learned something about writing over the past decade, and here I spend about an hour talking about story structure, pantsing, writing quality and a whole bunch of other stuff.
I said I’m a Chimera writer. The cover art in this post comes from the first three of the five Chimera Company novels Theogony Books are putting out over the next few months. Vincent Sammy wielded the crayons with help from his pod of highly trained dolphin illustrators. Here are some links to the first one.
BTW: For anyone waiting for the final 2020 retrospective, it’s basically written but needs tidying. Will be available very soon.
[#1] I had an agent of sorts and had gotten some interest from UK sci fi and fantasy publisher Solaris during 2009-10. They’d sat on a manuscript of mine for a year before saying, “No, not that one but please pitch us your next novel because we’re interested in you.” For the first few weeks of 2011, the plan was all about Solaris.
I was under no illusions that this would lead to a career. Solaris wouldn’t pay much in an advance and even if I got an acceptance during my time away as a writer, I’d be back at work in a ‘proper’ job before the book would be published.
Occasionally, I imagine the possibility of submitting to Solaris one day. There’s a satisfying logic to the idea. I wouldn’t rule it out, but since I drifted away from that idea partway through 2011, it’s always been a distant prospect.
The traditional publishing model hasn’t changed much since the introduction of paperbacks in the wake of the Second World War. [#1]
Hardbacks are the golden eggs-laying machine of this model. And the primary way that readers should buy their books is through the brick-and-mortar bookstore.
Paperbacks sell more units, but the margins are lower, so publishers strive always to present hardbacks as a premium product and sell premium titles in hardback first to squeeze the maximum out of the market.
Beneath a little froth of genuine excitement for new ventures, such as interactive books and, yes, eBooks, the publishing model is encrusted in place by the sediment laid down by the generations of publishing professionals who went before. Publishing is highly conservative in this outlook.
Which confused me when I first got into writing and publishing, because so many of the people I encountered in the industry are intelligent and inventive in their own way.
Some in the NewPub world regularly sneer at their OldPub counterparts as stupid. I think that’s neither fair nor accurate. In fact, I think they underestimate their peers and competitors. The Oldpub people I know of enjoy relative plenty in both resources and smarts. Nonetheless it is true that on occasions they appear too shackled to tradition to deploy either effectively.
They’re coming for us on both flanks!
One reason I think 2020 is probably going to set in train a step change is because the conservative publishing model has come under heavy assault from two flanks.
In part 1, I looked at the realization that publishers don’t need bookstores. I’ve put some numbers together to support that in the footnotes. [#2], [#3], [#4]
The old model is being assaulted on another flank too.
Step away from the books!
My family faced a long and miserable winter lockdown. They’ve had to put up with me for starters. So as a Christmas present to them, I bought us an Xbox One console and an Ultimate Game Pass monthly subscription.
I played Halo for the first time ever last week. Twenty years late to the party, but I’m totally addicted now. The game didn’t cost me anything extra because it’s available through Game Pass, Microsoft’s subscription service for Xbox games. There are several hundred games available through Game Pass.
Earlier in 2020, I bought my first ever music subscription. Amazon Music Unlimited.
I already had an Audible subscription. It was different to the other subscription models, allowing one free audiobook per month. At the end of the year, Audible introduced a new ‘listen to as much as you like for free’ subscription model in the US.
As another Christmas present to myself, I bought the new Harry Dresden novels. For me, Jim Butcher is a unique author because he is the only one whose books I will happily buy outside of the Kindle Unlimited subscription service. I make a few very rare other exceptions — mostly for research purposes or to check out award winners. Since 2015, though, I have acquired the bulk of the novels I read through Kindle Unlimited.
Last year we acquired a Netflix account. We already watched a significant proportion of our TV through the Amazon Prime subscription service.
Console games. Novels. Movies. TV. Music. Audiobooks. All of them, subscription services and many of them with exclusive content.
What we don’t have is Disney+, which launched at the end of 2019. Among the key attractors is exclusive content. If you want the new Star Wars TV show, The Mandalorian, you have to get Disney+.
Disney owns the intellectual property. It owns the subscription service. From start to finish it owns the content and the platform through which is it delivered. It keeps all those dollars to itself.
And crucially it has the titles big enough to get people to subscribe to their service just so they can get at goodies such as The Mandalorian.
Bear in mind, the major book publishers are owned by larger media international conglomerates. And in the world of international media, books just aren’t that big a deal.
Late in the year we saw Disney announce more exclusive content to their platform.
Warner Bros announced simultaneous theatre and streaming service releases in 2021.
Okay, that last might be to head off the uncertainty around Covid and movie theatres, but the genie is well and truly out of the bottle on that one.
Big publishers don’t need bookstores.
Film studios don’t need movie theatres.
And we already knew that producers of TV shows don’t need the traditional TV broadcasters when the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime can make their own content and deliver it exclusively through their channel.
“Content is king”, was a popular expression a few years ago.
Maybe. But if you also own the platform through which the content is distributed and consumed, then you can upgrade your kingship to Supreme World Boss.
The Penguin Random House version of Disney+
Late in the year we saw the largest publisher in the Anglo-American market, Penguin Random House, take over Simon & Schuster.
They both have big mailing lists of consumers and direct-to-consumer operations. The latter has always been an apologetic, half-hearted affair because the publishing mindset has always been adamant that hardback sales are the most important thing. And hardbacks get sold through bookstores.
If Penguin Random House went all in with a direct-to-consumer approach, it would be turning their back on the bookstores… and then spinning around and plunging a dagger through the heart of their partners for the last century and more.
It would also require a change of mindset.
The larger OldPub publishers don’t actually sell to readers.
It may seem strange to say that, but they actually have a business-to-business mindset. They sell to other organizations. Bookstores. Libraries. Book clubs. They sell movie rights. But they don’t sell stories to readers. That’s what their partners do.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re a book nerd. Maybe you know who publishes the books you read. But normal readers do not.
Most readers with most books have absolutely no idea who publishes them.
Why should they? It’s a book! Books are all made the same. It’s the words inside that distinguish them. And sometimes the artwork on the front.
In the science fiction and fantasy world, we have imprints such as Harper Voyager, Tor, Gollancz, Orbit and Head of Zeus. I’ve read books from all of them and there’s no pattern of ‘this publisher publishes this type of book’. The publishers are completely indistinguishable from each other. They don’t stand for anything in particular, which means they stand for nothing. Which publisher publishes which author is entirely random.
There is some consumer branding elsewhere in SF publishing, though it’s very rare.
Black Library brands very strongly, but that’s a tie-in to strongly branded games (they do publish some superb books, by the way).
I think Ace/ Roc has more of a tendency toward what I might loosely call adventure fiction than most other TradPub imprints.
Other than tie-ins, Baen Books is by far the most powerfully branded of the larger SF publishers. It stands for something. You can talk about a ‘Baen kind of book’ in the way that you cannot talk about a ‘Tor kind of book’. And talking as someone whose sold books into their audience, I can tell you from experience that Baen has fiercely loyal customers of the kind that Penguin Random House can only dream of.
It’s cover art is a case study in branding excellence. Even without the logo, you can pretty much tell a Baen Book title from its art. It’s no coincidence that Baen (and Black Library, for that matter) are very different from the other major SF publishers because they place direct-to-consumer sales at the heart of their business model.
The newly merged Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster will publish many of the bestselling authors in the world of English language publishing. I don’t want to keep repeating that long company name, so let’s refer to them as Ultra Penguin.
I’ve no idea who those authors actually are because, as I’ve just explained, big publishers don’t really want to sell to consumers.
Scratch that! I’ve just looked a few up and by happy coincidence, the only OldPub author I follow, Jim Butcher, will be published by Ultra Penguin.
Suppose they launched an online store. UltraPenguin.com. Tie it to an app akin to the Kindle Reader app. Why not sell UltraPenguin eReader devices around it too? (All they have to do is reskin one of the many existing designs). If you want the next Dresden Files book (written by Mr. Butcher) it’s exclusive to the UltraPenguin.com platform and the UltraPen app for the first 18 months. Hardback, ebook, paperback, audio. All exclusive to us.
And, by the way, if you pay the $10 per month UltraPen Subscription, you get $5 off the cover price and can read eBooks of the previous Dresden Files books for only a dollar each. And we have half a million backlist titles in our eBook format that you can read for absolutely free.
Would that work?
On Dec 2, 2020, Disney+ announced 87 million subscribers, just over a year after its inception. Disney predicts around 250m subscribers by end of 2024.
Jim Butcher’s one of the most successful authors around, but I don’t think he could swing those kind of numbers.
Not on his own.
But a quick look at the Penguin Random House website shows some other authors who sell more than a few copies.
Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, Paula Hawkins, Peter F Hamilton, Danielle Steele, Lee Child, Philip Pullman, John Grisham, Matt Haig, Naomi Novik, Ken Follet, Seanan McGuire, Timothy Zahn, Laurell K. Hamilton, Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, Mercedes Lackey, Emily St. John Mandel, Clive Cussler, William Gibson, CJ Cherryh and Brandon Sanderson.
I got bored so went to S&S: Kathy Reichs, Lynda La Plante, Phillipa Gregory, Catherine Coulter etc. etc.
Plus Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain.
You get the picture.
Disney+ has been so successful because it has a mix of brand new shows that people really want (Mandalorian) and a deep inventory of older content people also want (Disney Animation, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel etc.).
UltraPenguin has the equivalent draws for books.
Some of the authors would be dead set against it. I expect the Author’s Guild would be too.
I didn’t say it would be easy, but the logic has made sense for years and Covid has reinforced that. UltraPenguin is big and ugly enough to infuriate its suppliers and retailers and get away it. So long as they delight their readers, they could see their corporate profits rise like never before.
And if they lead, others will follow.
In fact, there is already precedent. Cengage Learning is a US textbook publisher. They set up digital subscription services for their books, kicking off in 2017. In terms of revenue, it’s been hugely successful, but not all the authors have been too happy. They already settled one lawsuit with another class action awaiting trial.
But if you consider the huge back catalog of book titles acquired by the major fiction book publishers before the advent of eBooks, most of them didn’t explicitly cover digital sales. Yet that didn’t stop plenty of that backlist becoming available on the Kindle Store.
Author groups have also been complaining for years that the standard publishing contract has been amended so that publishers lay ever greater claim to the IP rights of the books they acquire. It’s future proofing so that they have the rights to do things with their IP that they haven’t currently conceived of.
I’m not ignoring the huge amount of resistance there will be to this, but if there’s enough of a push, something like UltraPen.com could happen. [#6]
I used to work in big corporates with senior board members, and I know how this works. If the CEOs of the publisher business units are unable or unwilling to put through changes the main board want, they will be replaced by people from the outside who will do the job.
Which leads me to a wildcard prediction.
UltraPenguin has a huge IP catalog. They know how to work with authors. But they don’t have deep corporate expertise in selling to consumers. They don’t understand how to make a digital subscription service work. They don’t understand consumer branding.
I don’t mean that the people who work there are ignorant, but the experience and mentality encoded in their corporate DNA just doesn’t cover those things. And that absence matters. It’s what makes projects fail.
Even if you brought in an outside CEO, such a big DNA change would still be a big ask.
So, here’s another approach. UltraPenguin’s owners, Bertelsmann, could set up a joint venture to merge UltraPen with a company who would bring the missing strands of DNA.
Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Apple, Disney… I could see arguments for all of those, but I think Spotify could make the best fit.
Next up, I’ll look at what my speculative future could mean for authors in the science fiction and fantasy. And, in particular, me.
[#1] That’s not to say it hasn’t changed, but rather the changes have been incremental. Arguably the biggest change came from a bizarre direction in 1979 with the Thor Power Tool tax case that led to publishers carrying smaller inventories and books that weren’t bestsellers having shorter shelf lives.
Or maybe not… there are some who say the impact of the Thor case on publishing is greatly exaggerated.
[#2] In the first half results, Bloomsbury reported the biggest profit since its Harry Potter boom years. 30% of its business was from digital content sales, up from 19% in 2019. Source: The Bookseller.
[#3] By late December 2020, traditional publishers reported US adult fiction sales up 5% YTD on 2019. Source: Publishing Perspectives
[#4] UK Publishers Association reported that sales rose 13% in the first 6 months of 2020. Decrease in print more than offset by increases of digital (including 24% increase in consumer ebooks). Source: Publishers Association
Note: The Publishers Association in the UK, and the equivalent American Association of Publishers, are the OldPub trade bodies. I ran some figures over their membership a few years ago and estimated that they represented only around 0.05% of the science fiction & fantasy publishers active in the Anglo-American market.
To be fair, many of the 99.95% of publishers not in the OldPub trade bodies are minnows, but they add up to a lot of book sales and perhaps the majority of eBook sales in some genres and sub-genres.
To take me as an example, I’m not included in any official ‘industry’ statistics, but I’ve sold over a quarter of a million copies of my books, and there are many small operators like me selling at that kind of level and much higher. (Amazon reported thousands of their self-publishers earning over $50k in 2019 royalties, and over a thousand over $100k. Source: The Amazon Blog.)
When commentators make contradictory claims about the publishing industry, it’s sometimes helpful to remember that when conventional news outlets present ‘facts’ about ‘the publishing industry’ they are actually quoting press releases from trade organizations that represent this tiny proportion of publishers whose collective business is in direct competition with outsiders. Outsiders like me.
And we’re eating their lunch.
Well, bits of it, anyway. Science fiction and romance, for example.
For example, over the past few years, newspapers have reported many variations on the story that eBook sales are down. What they are actually doing is quoting trade bodies whose members have indeed seen a decrease in eBook sales. However, Amazon is the major eBook retailer, and they report every year that their eBook sales have increased year on year since they introduced the Kindle.
What has actually happened is that unit sales of OldPub eBooks have dropped in a rising market due to competition from both NewPub and alternate book formats (i.e. readers don’t like to pay more for an eBook than a paperback, but OldPub deliberately keeps eBook prices high).
Instead of newspapers writing statements such as “The ‘publishing industry’ reported eBook sales have declined for several years prior to 2020.”, proper journalists would instead write something more like “The American Association of Publishers — which represents many of the larger traditional publishers — reported eBook sales for their members have declined for several years.” And maybe go on to add: “… during which time numerous independent publishers and self-publishers have successfully established themselves primarily as publishers of eBooks and audiobooks.”
[#5] The five publishers guilty of illegal price fixing were Penguin Group, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Macmillan. Collectively they were fined $166m by the US Department of Justice. Apple was fined $450m.
By this point, the publishers had changed their contracts with Amazon from a wholesale model (the publisher sells at a discounted price to Amazon, and Amazon sets whatever retail price it wants, even if it loses money on each sale) to an agency model (the publisher sets the standard retail price and Amazon has a limited ability to set discounts).
The DoJ judged these contracts null and void because in their negotiations with Amazon, the publishers had colluded with each other and Apple. They were ordered to be renegotiated one after the other in sequence (to limit further collusion), beginning with Hachette.
Hachette put out a public narrative in which they transformed themselves from corporate villains into plucky victims of the evil Amazon, who were putting the screws on them by forcing them to renegotiate their contract. They left off the fact that they had been fined for illegal price fixing, and that it wasn’t Amazon but a judge who had forced to renegotiate their contract due to their misconduct.
This revealed deep fault lines not just between OldPub publishers and NewPub but between the legacy author organizations (such as the Author’s Guild and Society of Authors) and NewPub authors. The legacy organizations were then and remain now vehemently anti-Amazon and immediately took Hachette’s claims at face value.
Hachette author Douglas Preston organized a petition that was widely reported in the anti-Amazon press (i.e. all of it) after it gathered 900 names of OldPub authors. See it here.
A loose coalition of NewPub authors immediately responded with a counter-petition of their own, collecting 8,000 signatories. Here. This was rarely mentioned in the mainstream press.
Amazon and Hachette made press claims against Amazon, who responded partially in kind but also with financial offers to give Hachette authors extremely generous terms to they wouldn’t lose royalties while the contracts were being renegotiated. (such as this one) Hachette dismissed these offers as publicity stunts.
Which side to take?
Clearly Amazon and Hachette were each doing what they thought best for their own corporate self-interest. Neither were acting out of altruism. But it was very apparent that mainstream and publishing specialist news outlets, the legacy author organizations, and OldPub publishers were all aligned in their anti-Amazon stance, and that their reporting of the dispute was highly partisan and at times deeply misleading.
These shenanigans took place over six years ago, but it still comes up in conversation, scratched at like a scar that never fully healed. I think a consequence is that there are a lot of now-established NewPub authors who, like me, are deeply distrustful of anything we read in the likes of TheGuardian, The Bookseller, or statements by bodies such as the Society of Authors or Authors Guild.
And that’s a shame. I’m convinced that almost all of us involved in the publishing industry share a love of literature. How many industries can claim the same thing? It would be nice to think that what we share would overcome the things in which we are different.
When I went full time ten years ago, I thought that the differences between the new entrants and the established would slowly fade away. I got that prediction seriously wrong!
It’s not all bad. For example, there have been some attempts by legacy author organizations to include NewPub authors, though with mixed results. Yet here I am ten years later and I’m still writing about OldPub and NewPub because that remains the principal fault line that runs through publishing and defines not only your business model, but which set of narratives you adhere to.
Regarding barriers to a direct-to-consumer approach. As I’ve been writing these posts, there’s been a new development. The US law firm that brought a class action suit against the Apple + OldPub lawsuit in 2010 is launching a new one against Amazon USA plus Big Five publishers. It’s being billed as a re-run of the 2010 case, but I think it much more closely resembles a 2015 EU Commission investigation into Amazon. Essentially, it’s the same EU complaint but now applied to amazon.com.
The 2017 outcome in the EU was to strike out the Most Favored Nation clauses, which means that publishers are now free to sell eBooks cheaper and in promotions and other innovative ways without having to offer the same deals to Amazon.
This would make it easier for our hypothetical UltraPen.com to sell Penguin/ Random House/ S&S books at a cheaper price than Amazon is allowed to. Or to sell in bundles, or a subscription service, or whatever they want. Amazon wouldn’t get a say.
For a few years now, I’ve started each year by writing ‘state of science fiction’ publishing posts in which I talk about trends I’ve seen and project them into the future. [#1]
For the most part, I’ve been proved correct. For example, a few years ago I mentioned the rise of NewPub small publishers with radically different business models from OldPub, the likes of LMBPN, Podium, and Chris Kennedy Publishing, for example. 2020 saw these small presses go from strength to further strength, especially in space opera and urban fantasy. Aethon Books had a very good year and Galaxy’s Edge Press cemented their position as a publisher of significance that is here to stay.
But these trends have been coming for years. 2020 was different. I think it will lead to a step change. In fact, step changes, and the reason the changes will be so big is because the big legacy publishers are going to change. Maybe the transformations won’t surface in 2021, but they will be gestating out of sight.
I foresee changes that might not have come about during my lifetime now being compressed into the course of the next five years.
I’m going to write this year’s state-of-publishing in three parts. I’m writing this on Dec 31st, 2020. Breaking it up into three parts will give me a chance to finish off the last of the Christmas sherry and the stollen between writing these articles.
This first post will be about this step change and a quick tour of my personal 2020.
The second will delve into the causes of these changes and why they will be so impactful.
The third will look ahead to predict what’s going to happen over the next five years and also predict what it means for me.
To make it more interesting, I’ll pose a question to which the question will hopefully become clear by the end of the third post.
I write these words just six weeks short of marking my first decade as a full-time writer and publisher. How have I managed to do that?
At the start of 2011, I seeded my new venture with a thousand dollars and I only ever drew down on half of that sum. So I’ve hardly spent my way to success. I’ve only spoken at one science fiction convention about books, and that was at an event really about a video game. As far as I’m aware, my nineteen novels have clocked up a total of one traditional book review outside of friends saying nice things on their websites, and that was after I’d already sold over two hundred thousand copies. My total sales through bookstores are in single figures. Years ago, I stopped using ISBNs and marked my existing books as out of print (even though they aren’t) so that bookstores wouldn’t waste my time and money by ordering books from me.
In 2010, my approach would have been regarded as madness.
Now it is a fairly standard route for science fiction authors who earn a living from their writing.
In part 3 we’ll see how that was possible and why that’s about to have a big impact on publishing.
What’s driving the change?
There are plenty of triggers to play with. #BLM. #MeToo, Cancel Culture, and plenty more.
Some say publishing is becoming more diverse, letting in a wider range of viewpoints. Others say it’s becoming more intolerant and exclusionary, in which ever more viewpoints are being suppressed. Personally, I think both trends are happening simultaneously. And they are both important.
However, I think the biggest trigger is COVID-19.
At various times, physical bookstores were closed down due to the pandemic. Those that weren’t suffered from lowered footfall due to the reluctance of some people to go into public for unnecessary reasons.
The result was the same across nearly all major book publishers. There was a bookstore rebound as restrictions lifted but what’s interesting is what happened before then. Sales at bookstores cratered. And as a result, publishers reported higher profits.
The extent varied from publisher to publisher, but across the bigger operations, their financial reporting reported the same result.
It was a rude slap in the face to the large traditional publishing mindset. It’s going to wake up some key people to something that most publishers figured out years ago.
I’ll say that again because it might be surprising to some people. The OldPub publishers — at least those who belong to the American Association of Publishers or the Publishers Association in the UK — collectively reported sales were up and margins up even higher.
That’s not true for every small publisher, some of whom were hurt very badly by COVID. Nor for individual authors who had been working for years toward a book launch in 2020 that was torpedoed by the effects of the virus.
But not the big beasts of large traditional book publishers. In 2020, they learned they don’t need bookstores in order for readers to find and buy their books.
And that’s a big deal, because the world of Anglo-American publishing — especially adult fiction — is about as conservative as it’s possible to be. And according to the OldPub worldview, what happened to their bottom lines when the bookstores closed is impossible.
If I were feeling uncharitable, I could imagine that in the dying days of 2020, across Manhattan and central London, publishing executives would be nursing crystal tumblers of whisky and soda at their mahogany desks. They would be contemplating the tumultuous business year with but a single thought in their heads.
Does not compute.
In fact, I think that Does Not Compute moment will have happened months earlier.
And it won’t have taken place in the expensive head offices in Manhattan and central London because everyone was working at home. And doing so successfully.
But OldPub’s conservative worldview is so strong that if their 2020 sales reports were the only challenge, they would dismiss it as an aberration and Never Speak of it Again.
But they won’t because there are big changes happening elsewhere in the world of entertainment publishing that are too big to ignore.
In part 2, I’ll briefly look in a little more detail at what publishers were reporting and then consider the other big challenge to OldPub’s Standard Model.
But before then, I know many of you read this blog to see how I’ve been getting on. It is my name on the title, after all.
So, for those kind people, a few words about my 2020 and what’s happening for me next year.
I don’t get out much. I’ve only been to America once: a day trip on a visit to see my Canadian brother. So attending the FantaSci convention in North Carolina was going to be a big adventure for me. I was looking forward enormously to meeting my American friends, fans, and co-workers.
If it had been planned for a week earlier, I would have gone. But international travel shut down and the event was canceled.
Then I became very ill and couldn’t work. I think it was COVID, but the health guidance at the time was unless you were dying, stay at home. So I was never tested and can’t be sure.
All in all, a bad start.
Despite which, I had a solid run of writing between November 2019 and June 2020, in which I wrote two and a half large Four Horsemen Universe novels featuring my Midnight Sun characters. I also wrote Chris Kennedy’s Golden Horde characters in the book we co-wrote, which was a great privilege.
These titles were Endless Night, The Dark before the Light, and One Minute to Midnight. The first two were published immediately in paperback and e-book from Seventh Seal Press. Superb sounding audiobooks published by Podium Publishing are available for the first two titles with the third coming very soon.
I also wrote a short story featuring anti-hero Steve “Stiletto” Caldwell. It will appear in an anthology next year and is a tester for what might become a new book series.
I put together two Human Legion box sets. They collected all novels, all the short stories for which I had the relevant rights, several articles, and some new material.
I had no idea how much work it would be to put together, but the box sets sold surprisingly well, and has introduced plenty of new readers to what is now an old series.
Talking of Human Legion, the audiobook for Human Empire has made slow progress. We’ve recorded the entire novel and it sounds brilliant, but there are still corrections to be made. It will be out in 2021.
For the last few months, I’ve been reworking the Chimera Company stories that came out in 2019. So far I’ve written one and a half novels and begun work on another. The whole series will come out every five weeks or so starting February 5th, published by Theogony Books.
I’ve readied a Sleeping Legion box set for release in 2021. Some of the new material is done. I’m waiting for new artwork and hopefully a new Lance Scipio short story.
2021 will be my 10th anniversary doing this full time. I’ll probably write something to celebrate it at the time. Since 2019 was a bad year for me, sales wise, it’s pleasing that 2020 was a step back up toward where I want to be. I’d hoped to be doing better than this after a decade, but it’s a baseline to improve on for next year.
In numbers, I sold 22,000 copies of my books over the past year. And since book sales are my only way to pay the bills, the money figure is important too. That was $36,000 of income. Disappointing, but livable.
I finished my first decade with total sales of somewhere between quarter of a million and three hundred thousand.
Next year, if the five Chimera Company relaunch novels sell well, I’ll definitely want to play more with that universe. Not least, because they’re a lot of fun. I would like to write some more Four Horsemen Universe books too.
I also have three ideas for new book series I would love to write.
And I have a project with JR Handley that might come to fruition. And might not. It all depends on how the planets align, but I would say it’s a very strong possibility.
I’ve certainly never had a problem imagining ideas for stories!
It’s been a bruising year in so many ways. I hope you got through okay and since you’re reading my personal blog, I thank you for your support.
When the books are not selling well, and the Amazon reviews are not good, writing can be a very psychologically tough and lonely business. So I appreciate most of all the supportive personal messages kind readers have taken the time to send me. I am forever humbled when I learn that books that I wrote for my own enjoyment have touched some of you in ways that are profound.
[#1] These posts on publishing are primarily about the Anglo-American market because those are the markets where I pay close attention to trends. That, in turn, is because those are the markets where I earn my living. I’m proud of my readers from elsewhere in the world, but it’s in the Anglo-American market where I either earn enough to put food on our table and a roof over our head, or I do not.
When I say Anglo-American market, I’m referring to the regions where books are sold. Increasingly, authors are not themselves citizens of these countries. In the long run, I think that’s an important trend, but it wasn’t one that dominated in 2020, nor will it in 2021.
*That author being me! Well, Mum and Dad think I’m a top author, so I’m owning it 🙂
I’ve been appearing on the Sci Fi Thoughts podcast every Wednesday with Lancer Kind. When Lancer interviewed me, we talked for an hour or so. Lancer’s edited that down and presented it as a series of short podcast episodes of about ten minutes each.
It’s a nice approach. I think it works well.
We cover all sorts: 4HU and Human Legion, how I research books, why it was beer that got me started writing SF, future projects and the like.
It’s not just me on this podcast, of course, but my episodes numbers run from 114 through 117. If you like them, go listen to the other authors Lancer’s interviewed. He does a good job!
In other news, I sent my 22nd novel off to the publisher last week. It’s the fourth Chimera Company novel, Smuggler Queen. This week has been admin catchup. Next week I write a short story for a Bayonet Books anthology and start putting together a Sleeping Legion boxed set. After that, I prep for the fifth Chimera Company novel.
A shorter version of this article was first published in Legion Bulletin #107, Oct 28th 2020.
There’s a lot of it going about it the moment!
As I write this, we’re days away from elections in the USA, the impact of the Brexit referendum on the UK is about to get very real, there are riots all over Europe protesting lockdown restrictions, there’s anti-government unrest in Thailand and Nigeria and…
…and it goes on. Politics may peak and die away within the context of our personal lives, but it’s ongoing everywhere. I define politics as the unending debate about how people should live together in society. Unless you are marooned on an uninhabited planet with no hope of rescue, politics is everywhere. All the time. Like it or not.
And that means unless you are writing or reading a story about space travelers marooned alone on uninhabited planets, there’s politics in our science fiction too.
As a reader, usually I like my politics in the background, but when it’s at the fore, I want it done well.
I turned 50 earlier this year. Although I like to think I’ve still got a few years left on the clock, I find I’ve lost my patience for badly written science fiction, the kind I have to make allowances for.
For me, science fiction is mind expanding. Authors with closed minds write bad science fiction. A lot of people who write political science fiction make a hash of it because their minds are closed to people and philosophies that don’t match their own prejudices.
I was thinking about that this morning because of an article I read before work. I’ll get to the article in a minute, but it echoed with the mentality I’ve held for many years of how I like to write not only politics, but also culture, and military elements of my science fiction.
This year I’ve been researching the French Revolution (1789-99) for reasons that may become clear next year…
It’s got the classic set of universal tropes for a revolution based on progressive philosophy.
We get mobs tearing down statues associated with a suddenly discredited past.
It has speech crimes. Guilt by association. Virtue signaling. Denouncing your neighbor before they denounce you.
It has a well-educated, middle-class leadership who have bought into a progressive philosophy. They are in an uneasy alliance with the oppressed poor who are surging into the streets of major cities.
It should. Something similar keeps occurring throughout history.
Of course, the French Revolution had rich and bloody specifics too, such as the guillotine, and the importance of political societies such as the Jacobin Club. One of these specifics was the concept of the left and right wing in politics. The term comes from where representatives sat in the early years of the revolutionary National Assembly (the parliament).
The right-wing extremists wanted to preserve royal power; the left wanted a republic. It was more complex than that (isn’t it always?) and the meaning of the left/ right divide changed, but those of the left tended to want the overthrow of the existing institutions, and the right wanted to preserve at least some aspects of them.
Strangely, after thousands of years of political philosophy without the world needing the concept of a left and right wing, this expression from French Revolutionary politics is still with us today in many countries, though the precise meaning varies enormously.
I’ve always been unimpressed by the binary ‘good vs. evil’ nature of single-dimensional political philosophy such as left-wing politics versus right-wing politics.
When I say ‘single-dimensional’, I’m not being disparaging so much as mathematical. (Well, okay I’m being disparaging too)
Think about it. The left vs right idea is that there’s a spectrum of political running from extreme left through a limp center and out to the extreme right. It’s a scalar quantity. Something you can reduce to a single number.
Yes, people sometimes talk about the horseshoe model where extreme left and right are indistinguishable other than symbols and dogma.
We could bound it and say that extreme left counts as 1 point in our political scale and extreme right is 100. If you marked up a character sheet in this model, a person with a politics attribute of 37 would be soft left.
Imagine reducing the complexity of a real person’s political philosophy into a single number! I find that ludicrous.
It’s easy to see where that model might lead in a science fiction novel:
Everyone with a political score rated greater than 65 must report immediately to their nearest police station. From there, the Morality Enforcement Division will arrange transportation for an automatic six-month minimum term in a re-education camp.
Anyone with politics less than 32 must observe a strict curfew from dusk to dawn on pain of death.
Individuals with politics over 70 will be sterilized. Over 80 will be euthanized.
I’m putting the finishing touches to Chimera Company Book4: Smuggler Queen. The story is set 5,000 years into the future in the Perseus Arm of the Galaxy. Do they still talk of left-wing and right-wing?
It’s a term consigned to the history of a distant planet no one’s contacted for millennia
Much of the third Chimera novel, Department 9, is set on the dystopian world of Eiylah-Bremah. Chimera Company has to deal with a tyrannical regime led by Great Leader In’Nalla. This means I needed a political backdrop.
On Eiylah-Bremah we see thought crimes and speech crimes. We have guilt by association and public denunciations. If that seems like some aspects of contemporary politics, or the French Revolution, it’s because I’m mining some universal political philosophies and patterns of history.
But it’s not socialism. It’s not capitalism. It’s not left-wing and right-wing. It does not fit neatly into contemporary Western politics. Great Leader In’Nalla thinks she’s leading the world of Eiylah-Bremah to a better future. Progress, in other words. Many call her tyrant (including our heroes) but she doesn’t see herself as a villain. She’s a hero of progressive politics.
Would In’Nalla have voted for Brexit or against it? I have no idea. To her, Brexit is a specific detail of ancient history far too obscure for her to have heard of.
Would she have voted for Trump or Biden? Neither. Again, ancient and forgotten history to her. But if she had the vote, I think she wouldn’t bother. Instead, she’d try to tear down America’s institutions and rebuild them in a more progressive form. (Meaning her vision of progress, of course.)
For me, the political background of good science fiction blends a mixture of the universal with specifics of the fresh and new.
I want a blend of the universal to root it in truth, and specifics that are fresh and new to make it exciting. Maybe give a little sense of wonder.
Personally, I’m not usually interested in a fictional world that is a thinly veiled commentary on the specifics of the author’s contemporary politics. Too often it lacks ambition, and it fails because the author can’t see beyond their own prejudices to touch on universal truths.
That’s not to suggest it’s somehow wrong to use science fiction to convey your ideas on your contemporary local politics. In fact, it makes a great deal of commercial sense. Anglo-American legacy science fiction publishing (what I refer to in these posts as OldPub) is so eager to put out books with contemporary political themes that match their political ideology that it’s becoming commonplace for commentators to suggest that for science fiction to be considered good, it must hold up a mirror to contemporary politics.
And there are exceptions of this type of book that I enjoy myself, of course. With writers, there are always exceptions.
George Orwell turned me on to literature when I was at school. His 1984 and Animal Farm, make knowing references to European politics of the early 20th Century, but they work so well because Orwell could see beyond the specifics of his time to hook into universal truths. That’s why 1984 in particular still feels so relevant to the world of 2020.
So that’s how I like my science fictional politics served: in small doses and thoughtfully prepared. I like the author’s mind to open, not closed. How about you?
And to the article that provoked this.
As I’ve said, I think the one-dimensional idea of left wing vs right wing is a crude concept that often breaks down upon close examination, and that a good science fiction writer should at least consider the possibility of radically different political frameworks than what they see in the mainstream media for their country.
The article I read this morning talks about a major new piece of research that clusters people in Britain into seven groups that don’t fit neatly into old-fashioned ideas of class or left vs right. It asks them questions, such as whether political correctness is a problem. Sometimes the results are surprising. I’m sure something similarly new could be done for the US and elsewhere. You can read it here.
With my writers’ hat on, I’m not especially interested in whether the analysis is ‘correct’. I like that it’s happening at all. If only more science fiction writers were able to think along such fresh lines.
Today I want to talk about themes in science fiction.
Themes, thematic statements, morals, messages. For simplification, I’d say these are essentially the same thing and use the umbrella term theme.
Conventional literary theory states that a theme of a book or movie is what it’s about. It’s the message, the moral, the observation on the human condition that tells us where we might be headed in the future. For example (and this is not specific to science fiction) True love conquers all. That’s possibly the most popular literary theme of them all. Just ask the Happily Every After segment of the romance genre.
When I started writing in the early naughties, I picked up a load of ‘how to write a novel’ books. And they always made theme out to be a big deal.
“Have you found your theme?”
“If you story doesn’t have a theme, you haven’t finished writing it.”
And so on…
For many years, I used to believe this.
I don’t now.
Occasional literary scholar and victory gardener, JR Handley, has something to teach us on this. Themes, he tells us, are included in stories to give English teachers something to talk about.
I refer to this sage wisdom as Handley’s Theory. (By the way, JR Handley’s blog is always well worth reading, which you can do so here. Better still, subscribe to his newsletter on the site, which he updates more regularly.)
Themes are also a way for an author to signal their tribe in a hyper-partisan world. In Anglo-American publishing, some of society’s tribes and some ideas are lauded, others are suppressed. If you want a book deal, make sure your book’s theme matches the prejudices of your potential agent and publisher.
That is a popular theme that will resonate with some tribes and jar with others. Personally, I’d say that theme is so ubiquitous in mainstream science fiction that I’d be more interested in a novel with a theme that suggests the opposite:
As a political statement, I’m not sure I’d agree with either, but the latter could be an intriguing theme to read. Or to write.
It won’t happen in mainstream Anglo-American publishing industry, though. Attempting to get a book with such a theme published would be career suicide.
However, I’ve just contradicted Handley’s Theory. I’m sure he’s right in many cases, but not for all.
And I’ll disagree with my friend again. One of my all-time favorite books is The Forever War. It has several powerful themes and one of those is the alienation of combat veterans from the civilians back home. It was written in 1974 by Joe Haldeman shortly after his return to America from the Vietnam War. The alienation in his book feels personal, and I’m sure it was.
Haldeman heightens the reading experience by linking the alienation to the extreme relativistic effects of travelling at near lightspeed to the combat zones and back. It’s brilliant work and inspired me to write one of my earliest short stories: The Meandering Mayhem of Thogron Throatbiter (which is available here).
Themes can be a powerful factor in a great book, but the author doesn’t need to write any themes for it to be great. And where the author does write themes, the reader may not consider them to be of great importance.
For example, in researching this topic, I came across a suggested theme for The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown:
I can see how that could be a part of the book, but I read that novel, and I didn’t get a sense of that. For me it was about the protagonist coming across a girl in Paris and spending the entire book running away from bad guys. That was what made it a page turner for me.
Or The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. A suggested theme is that it’s about the way authoritarian regimes use spectacle to control populations. Again, I can see that fits, but for me it was about the hero playing a rigged game and winning anyway (Which felt personal; I’ve experienced a few RPG campaigns like that 😉). The only book in the series I picked up was the second one. I read the first third and it seemed to be entirely about a teenage girl who moons over two boys, not wanting to have to choose which one she liked most. That was the point I gave up and decided it wasn’t a book for me.
The Taylor Model: bones and blood
When I think of what makes a good story, I’ve developed an anatomical model.
The heart is the characters.
The lungs, muscles, and sinews are the plot, the action events drive the story forward. The skeleton? That would be the architecture.
The prose, the styling and the setting— for me that’s the vascular system, supplying blood and nutrients for the muscles to work on removing waste products before they get in the way of the story.
Okay, I’m not gonna go over every single body part – this is only simple analogy, after all – but the major organ I’ve left out so far is the brain. This is where the reader comes in.
One of the freaky things about being an author is that even though I am the one that writes the story, I’m not the one who creates it into existence. That would be the reader. My books have been read hundreds of thousands of times, and every single time was unique. The reading experience is a combination of the words I craft with the mind of one unique individual, of who they are and where they were at that moment in time. It’s an idea that awes me sometimes.
Actually, as I write this, I realize I’ve left off another major organ too important to ignore. Skin. I don’t know about you, but I think people are more attractive with skin on their bones rather than flayed. So let’s say a book’s skin is the cover art, the author name recognition, the product description, endorsements, the cover blurb, and everything else that makes you inclined to try the book before you actually start to read it.
Where does that leave theme?
Theme is connective tissue. It’s the glue that quietly binds the various parts of your body together so that your organs don’t sink down into your boots.
At least, with a light touch that is. It’s like the bass line of a song. It might not be at the front of the mix — people might not even notice it — but if you suddenly cut it out, you would certainly notice its absence. It connects the various parts of the story. A unifying force that means the story is more than a sequence of random scenes.
Doesn’t have to be something obvious or even notable for the reader to get the benefit of its effect.
In the same vein, you don’t need theme at all to achieve that connective tissue effect.
I think some beginning writers benefit from the ability of a theme to tie their stories together and give them purpose. With more experience, many authors find that they can lay down this connective tissue instinctively without needing the prop of a theme.
I used themes in my earlier novels. The first five, I would say. Then I moved on.
I’m about to finish my twenty-second. Although I haven’t written strongly themed books for a few years, I would like to do so. It just hasn’t been the right time to write those works.
So there you have it. Writers can use themes or not. And if they don’t care to, that doesn’t mean they won’t come back in a few years and enjoy using them to great effect. Some readers love a good theme; most don’t care.
And if anyone tells you a good book must have a theme, nod and smile politely, then walk briskly away because they’re talking nonsense.
Or they’re an English teacher. In which case they really can’t help themselves.
Themes in Tim C. Taylor fiction
On occasion I use themes myself in my writing. The most central one was the theme I had right from the very start for the Human Legion series. If you read the Legion Bulletin, you already know that I wanted to write a series in which plucky humans overthrew the evil alien empire that had remained strong for hundreds of thousands of years. But I didn’t want them to win due to a series of lucky coincidences, nor to rely on the successful alien empire being incompetent at every turn. Or for the empire to have a farfetched weakness. Such as ginger being a powerfully addictive drug, to give a not-at-all random example.
How could I make it believable? That was my connecting theme.
I took my inspiration from the real-life Czech Legion. They didn’t overthrow an empire. They didn’t want to – they wanted to go home and establish an independent homeland – but they did hint at how it could be done in real life. And that, of course, is why I named the series the Human Legion.
There were other themes too, though less obvious.
Right from the start, I always wanted an interstellar civilization that worked without faster-than-light travel.
How did economics work?
How do you feed people from incompatible ecologies?
And given this was military SF, how do you supply your frontline soldiers when your nearest supply base is 90 years away?
I spent weeks happily working out the details. It was a lot of work. To this day, I’m not sure whether a single reader appreciated any of it, but it did make me think hard about my worldbuilding.
With Chimera Company, you just have to flick the switch on the flight console and you’re in jump space. So much easier. And possibly more fun.
How to use theme well
It’s a shame we live in an intolerant literary age of cancel culture, hyper-partisan hatred, and a mainstream publishing industry openly hostile to mainstream ideas. Shame for me as a reader and as a writer. I’d prefer to see a wider range of themes explored.
I particularly like the idea Philip K Dick pulled off a few times in which he simultaneously threads contradictory themes through his books. When that works, it’s mind blowing.
In my own island nation, a popular literary theme at the moment is one of Brexit. Unfortunately, because the publishing industry is so overwhelmingly against the idea, we get science fictional metaphors for sorry little reactionary islands who talk themselves into a drab, pariah existence on the periphery of the world.
Yes, it’s Britain after Brexit as science fiction.
Personally, I’d be more interested in writing or reading a pair of Brexit novellas with contradictory themes. No, a triptych. Better still, a quartet. Bound in one volume with a cool cover featuring a background Union Jack divided into quarters. With demons jabbing pointy sticks and a Scottish trawler. A wicker man would be good too.
One of these novellas would depict a science fictional metaphorical Brexit to be the success its supporters hoped. Another in which it was a dismal failure, as all the mainstream publishing industry insists it will be. Then we could have one more in which, despite all the fuss, Brexit fundamentally changes nothing of importance. Finally, let’s add one in which Brexit changed everything, but in ways that absolutely no one foresaw.
That would be a great use of theme to do something interesting. I wouldn’t mind writing one of those novellas. Or all of them. In my teenage years, I could imagine such a book being published by the mainstream press, but I don’t think such a thing will be possible again in my lifetime.
If you’re from another country, swap out Brexit for one of your own blistering hot divisive topics. I hear there’s plenty to choose from in America right now.
For me going forward, I’d like to write some more heavily themed books. Controversial ones. I’d first need to reach a state where the backlist is selling so well that I don’t have to keep on the treadmill writing the next book to keep the bills paid.
I wouldn’t write about Brexit. I’m too fed up with that. Writing a story with a theme that I don’t personally believe in has always intrigued me. It’s a challenge. Both to my ability as a writer and to my empathy and willingness to listen to the Other.
I want to explore some dangerous ideas. I’d do it under a pen name, of course. Yes, a few more bestsellers, and I’ll do just that.
Over to Jim Butcher
I’ll leave this talk of theme with a quote from the author of my favorite book series so far this century, Jim Butcher on The Dresden Files.
He did an AMA on Reddit a few years ago and said the following on our topic:
Well said, Mr. Butcher, who not only sells books by the gazillion but clearly worships at the Handley School of literary philosophy. As we learned earlier, Handley’s Theory teaches us that whether authors deliberately write themes into books or not, English teachers, critics, and academics will always find them anyway.
Joe at the Unity 151 Booktube channel invited me on for a chat last week. First up we talked about my current project, Chimera Company, and then we moved on to my most recently published novel (One Minute to Midnight) and the Four Horsemen Universe in general.
Amongst other things, I go through some inspirations for both series and explain where the idea of the Midnight Sun Free Company and the Goltar came from*. Spoiler: it’s basically a Jag E-Type restored by a super-rich owner who’s paid a driver to race it. Hard.
So if for some inexplicable reason you don’t fancy the idea of watching me and Joe talk about books for an hour, watch this thrilling nine-minute race instead where a Jag E-Type takes on some AC Cobras and demonstrates racing from an era where most of the course was traversed sideways. I’ve never been to Goodwood Revival, but it’s what I had in my head when I came up with Contract Fulfilled, the first Midnight Sun story, which appeared in the anthology For a Few Credits More.
Anyway, thanks to Joe for having me on. We had a laugh. I must have done a dozen or more podcasts, I was on Youtube last year for the Keystroke Medium Writer’s Journey with Kalene and Lauren, and I’ve been filmed a few times at conventions, but this was my first Booktube.
*Strictly speaking, the name of the Goltar species came from Chris Kennedy who wasn’t impressed with my original suggestion. Can’t remember why.
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Join the Legion and receive this novelette in your starter library.