There’s a fuss smouldering away in some parts of the author community, especially the parts that primarily sell Kindle eBooks through Amazon. In a nutshell, Amazon has a lax eBook return policy and some readers are abusing it by reading books they have no intention of paying for.
That much is… well, it’s debatable whether even that much is entirely true*, but we’ll say it is for the moment.
For some authors, this trend has led to a surge in returns. That sucks. And it is hurting their bottom line.
That is true. And painful.
For most other authors this trend could lead to a permanent uptick in returns, but not one so dramatic that they’ve noticed.
That is plausible.
After that it gets messy really fast. There are conspiracy theories and disinformation that is clearly not true. Rumours are being claimed about Amazon charging authors for returns that are unsubstantiated by any evidence and that I find very difficult to believe.
The connecting thread for a lot of this is a hatred of Amazon. “Amazon is stealing from authors” is a claim frequently repeated. Often with a verb a whole lot saltier than ‘to steal’. Certainly, the villain of the piece has shifted away from people who buy and read books they have no intention of paying for and onto Amazon. It’s all Amazon’s fault.
There’s even a vituperative attack from the UK Society of Authors in which the literary worthies are so consumed by their hatred of Amazon that they direct their abuse at the wrong target*.
After a dozen years as a full-time writer, I can say from experience that this is just another day at the office. This kind of thing goes on all the time. In fact, this particular topic around Amazon eBook returns has been a recurring crisis in publishing since 2011. Hundreds of thousands of signatures have been collected over numerous petitions to make Amazon change its policy outside of Europe*.
My signature is included in several of those petitions, including the latest, here . I hope Amazon tightens up its return policy where it can. Personally, I don’t think it will because it’s too scared of falsely accusing customers who aren’t abusing the system, but I hope I’m wrong and it does try, because some authors and publishers are genuinely stung by returns abuse.
This may be an old story, but it bugs me because real people have been getting very upset about this topic. I’ve even seen some micro publishers remove their books from Amazon over this. Some have good reason to be upset, but many more do not because while we might criticise Amazon for the ease of abusing its return system, the real anger is coming from the conspiracy theory that Amazon is charging authors for returns.
What I know for certain is that Amazon isn’t charging me for returns. At least, not for the 7/14-day return window everyone’s talking about. They aren’t charging any other author I’ve talked to either. It’s possible they are charging specific unfortunates – I can’t rule that out without going through every individual’s royalty statements – but it does seem unlikely.
Until recently, I found it very easy to tell myself that a topic like this was not worth getting involved. Shut it out and ignore it.
Now it bugs me and distracts me from more important things. Like writing. I’m not sure whether this is connected with multiple sclerosis or this is advancing age revealing my destiny as Grandpa Simpson.
Whatever the reason, it’s been bugging me. So I produced a video of going through my royalty statements and my returns so that authors worried about the idea that Amazon charges them can go through their own figures and see what they’re really being charged. Or not being charged!
I hope it helps someone by putting their mind to rest. I’m certainly hoping it puts my mind to rest. To be honest, my plan is to do the video, write this post, and then permanently retire this topic from my head. However, if anyone wants to ask a question because they’re worried about this then fire away.
Here’s the video.
I keep mentioning Europe. The reason is that in October 2011, the European Union decided that Amazon’s ‘overly’ lax eBook return policy wasn’t, in fact, lax enough! So the EU issued a directive for all its member states to enact legislation to force Amazon (and every other online retailer) to adopt a 14-day no-questions-asked full refund window. Here in the UK, that EU directive is currently surfaced in the Consumer Rights Act (2015).
That’s why I say it’s not really Amazon’s return policy here in Europe. It isn’t. It’s the EU Commission’s policy. And like Judge Dredd, it’s the law.
(BTW: I’ve since learned a 7-day return window is also the law in Brazil. I did check for USA, Canada and Australia and believe that there are no state or federal laws forcing Amazon to use their 7-day return window policy. That’s still on Amazon.).
I’ve just started a sci fi chart show over at the FB group where I often hang out. Still figuring out how this is going to work and be fun for all without taking up too much of my time.
Here’s an intro and some images from the first entry to whet your appetite. The rest is over at SciFi Readers Club here.
“Down one place at #3 is Steve Wonder with Masterblaster. Randy Crawford is holding steady at #2 for one more day before she flies away. Which means we have a brand new #1. Straight into the top slot it’s The Police and Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” [Roll music video.….]
I used to love the music chart shows when I was younger. It was like supporting team sports in some ways. I’d root for my favorite artists to chart well, have a good-hearted moan when a song outstayed its welcome at the top, and be introduced to artists I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. All while enjoying fun contemporary music culture.
So I wondered: why not do something similar for science fiction book charts?
Possibly, this fixation in my head is a British thing from a now bygone era.
When I was younger, a large proportion of people of my generation would tune into the BBC Radio One or BBC 1 on the telly for Thursday night’s Top of the Pops. This was a live top-40 singles chart rundown show with selected acts playing live in the studio.
In those days, there were only two main TV channels (with a third for obscure stuff… that I tended to love), so audience numbers for popular shows were huge. The next morning at school, everyone would be talking about last night’s show. These memories embed strongly and still resonate decades later.
Once at university or working your first job and living in a tiny flat, we discovered that the simultaneous radio broadcast through the Hi-Fi was best enjoyed with good company and beer.
So I wondered whether I could have a laugh and do a regular little chart rundown slot for science fiction book charts. Just for fun and to get people talking about books. Since it’s a chattier place than my blog, I’m going to do this on the SciFi Readers Club Facebook page.
I’m not certain how this is going to work, which means we’ll just have to work out the details as we go along… just like so many of our favorite science fiction characters. To being with, I’ll take the two charts on amazon.com of most interest to the club: military science fiction and space opera. I’ll do the following:
a quick rundown of trends and new entries in the top 50s.
List the top books. (just for space opera for the time being)
Pick one book that takes my interest. Probably read it too.
And do anything else I fancy. There are no limits.
Join in the fun. Let me know what you think. And hopefully we’ll make this a bit of fun.
I posted an update on social media last week; I’ve copied it below. Basically, I’m fairly sure I have multiple sclerosis, but I’ll have to wait until next year for a formal diagnosis. I’m posting things like this because if I’ve said publicly what’s happening to me, then it’s more difficult for me to pretend nothing’s wrong and do nothing about it.
There’s something I’ve been meaning to get off my chest for a while, and it is affecting my work and my dealings with friends, colleagues and family.
I haven’t been quite myself for the last couple of years. So I went to see a doctor. Had an MRI scan. And the conclusion is… nothing. At least, not yet.
I have an appointment to see a neurologist next year and I won’t get a diagnosis until then.
Which leaves me in an inconvenient limbo state.
Because I do know the MRI scan showed demyelination of my brain and spinal cord. Demyelination is the cause of multiple sclerosis, and the reason I was sent for an MRI scan is because I tick many of the boxes for multiple sclerosis symptoms. I have subsequently ticked several more.
There are other reasons why I might have demyelination and a multiple sclerosis diagnosis is a complex thing. So I might not have MS at all. However, having looked into this, MS seems the hot favourite for explaining why I haven’t been well.
I have over seven months to wait until I see the neurologist. I decided at the beginning of this week that seven months is too long a time to continue living my life in a way that’s no longer working for me.
So I’ve decided to make a working assumption that I do have MS and act accordingly. If the neurologist says differently, then I’ll react to what they say when we get there.
I finished a novel yesterday (Time Dogz #2), which makes now a perfect time to take a few days off to rethink and retool my days. I want to get the most out of what I can do rather than carry on in ways that no longer work.
And that does leave a great deal I can still do. I’m beginning to run again after a long enforced break. I’ve also written one and a half novels this year so far and work less in the evenings and weekends. But now I understand my situation more clearly, I can do better on all those things, do it in a less tiring way, and leave more time to relax with family, friends, and hobbies.
All I need is a rethink and to adapt my approach to a lot of things.
A few people have noticed I’ve been quiet or distant for patches of time, especially on social media. Now I begin to understand that the explanation is likely neurological. Some tasks I used to do without thinking can be exhausting sometimes, even though I enjoy them. At times, that includes chatting away on Facebook. It still doesn’t really make sense, but there you go. I’m sure I’ll work it out.
Anyway, that’s your lot. This is not an Otto Sump Sob Story because it’s just me requiring a little adjustment. I just wanted to keep everyone up to speed.
I had a new book release yesterday, which you might like to try. This is an anthology called We Dare: Wanted, Dead or Alive. Inside is my new novelette, FRAkkers
I love a themed anthology and this one is about bounty hunters and the hunted. Most authors went for the hunted, but not me. Not sure what that says about my psyche, but let’s not dwell on that and instead focus on my new anti-hero.
Karnage Zax is a mutant bounty hunter with pre-cog abilities. Together with Itka Jowiszka, his cyborg sidekick, he knows how to move among the scum of the galaxy because he’s one with them.
The hunter and the hunted. Sometimes it’s tricky to tell which is which.
If you enjoy reading about Karnage and Itka, let me know because I might write some more! In fact, I’m musing over whether to write an Itka companion piece later this month.
Strontium Dog inspired. Yes, definitely! [If you don’t know Johnny Alpha, go here]
(Edited to add: I’ve written a follow-up story that swaps hero and protagonist to feature Itka instead. Will be coming to an anthology late 2022 or early 2023)
My latest book, out today, has its genesis in books by other writers published 52 years apart (or perhaps 73, as we shall see).
One is a personal improvement book written in 1937 that has sold 15 million copies and is still frequently referenced today. The other was a survey of the British science fiction and fantasy writing establishment in 1989.
Combine the two and you get my contribution to today’s book launch: Titans Rising: The Business of Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror in the 21st Century, published by Quillcraft Press.
The publisher doesn’t know anything about that 1989 contribution, so let’s start in the America of 1937 with Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. The premise was to collect the reflections of successful entrepreneurs and attempt to distil the essential behaviors and attitudes that made them successful. By applying these learnings, readers would find greater success in their own lives. And not just in business; this extended to all aspects of life.
When I’m running, I sometimes listen to motivational audiobooks and that Napoleon Hill book and its findings are still frequently referenced. I would love to think that any of my writing would be read and discussed in 85 years’ time.
Titan’s Rising takes some of the most successful indie and small press authors in the arena of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and seeks to distil what it is about them that makes them so successful. Like Hill’s 1937 classic, Titan’s Rising aims to do so in a way that will help authors (and publishers) to greater success in their own endeavors.
I haven’t read the book yet. My copy should arrive tomorrow and I’m eager to read. I’m eager to learn too. Just because I am one of the contributors, doesn’t mean I’m not part of the audience to read this book. In fact, I expect to learn a great deal from the other writers.
And what a lineup they are!
You can imagine the publisher for a book like this describing its contributors as ‘some of the leading authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror today’. In the case of Titan’s Rising, this hype would be justified. In the indie and small press world, these really are some of the most successful authors around. I’ve been writing and publishing science fiction and fantasy as a full-time career for eleven years now, and on this at least, I know what I’m talking about. There is premier quality talent here.
So much so that I feel very much one of the most junior contributors. Nonetheless, I believe I have made suggestions that I feel sure will help some readers.
So what about 1989?
I used to belong to an organization called the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association). Alongside sister organization the British Fantasy Society, this was essentially the establishment for British SF/F/H fans and traditionally published authors and the small press as it was then.
The BSFA ran an author survey in 1989 and then again in 2009. A few years later, members received a paperback (by Paul Kincaid and Niall Harrison) that condensed the responses from both surveys and tried to draw conclusions about how things had changed over those twenty years.
To be honest, there weren’t clear conclusions about anything very much. Nonetheless, I still found this a fascinating read. By the time I received the book, I was a professional science fiction writer myself, and as I read the responses of other authors to the survey questions, I naturally wondered how I would have responded.
That BSFA book was originally published in 2010, which was the year when science fiction publishing changed fundamentally with the introduction of Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. I’m sure many (most?) professional science fiction and fantasy writers of today would scratch their heads when reading that 2010 book, because it represents an alternative view of publishing, one that still exists but is very different from most of our experiences.
1989. 2009. 2029.
I have half a sleeper ear, primed to activate in seven years and listen out for a sequel.
Seven years! Doesn’t sound so impossibly distant now.
If that does come about, and if I were invited to contribute (for which there is a minuscule likelihood), then you would have to wait at least another eight years before such a book could be published.
Now you don’t have to.
Today, I present Titan’s Rising. Compared with the BSFA publication, it has a much greater emphasis on teaching how to succeed and in selecting contributors who are themselves commercially successful. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends upon your perspective. But for me, in addition for the publisher’s stated purpose, Titan’s Rising should make a fascinating counterpoint to the BSFA book.
As I write these words, I haven’t yet read Titan’s Rising, but I do know the other contributors, their reputations, and their success. I don’t need to read it to know that anyone serious about succeeding in the world of indie and small press publishing, or simply interested in the state of publishing today, will find buying, reading, and digesting this book to be one of the best investments you can make this year.
I’m sure you can pick up a copy at the FantaSci convention that’s kicking of as I write this post. Hi to everyone at FantaSci! For anyone not in Durham, NC this weekend, you can grab a copy from Amazon USA | UK | CA | OZ | DE
Tim C Taylor is lucky enough to write science fiction adventure for a living.
Yesterday was the launch of the first Hit World anthology, You Pay; We Slay. It contains the first story I’ve written for nearly twenty years that isn’t overtly science fiction or fantasy.
By weird coincidence, I received paperback editions of You Pay; We Slay and my previous two anthologies across three consecutive days. Something struck me: my name was on the cover of all three.
Blagging your name on the cover of an anthology or magazine is something to be proud of. It (usually) means the publisher thinks your name shifts copies.
I was pretty chuffed about this, because I see writing short fiction primarily as fun. It stretches my writing muscles and I do use it to explore new ideas and new ways of telling them, but it’s with novels that I earn the money to put a roof over our heads.
Writing novels is my job. Short fiction, not so much.
I did a stock count and can come up with seventeen anthologies I can remember that contained my stories, with three more due in 2022. Seven of those featured my name on the cover.
I rate sixteen of those anthologies as being strong. There’s only one where I felt several of the other stories were weak, but even there I’ll happily accept that the authors are highly regarded, but not to my taste. Plus it had my favourite cover of all my anthologies, so it sits proudly on my bookshelf.
Maybe I’m more of a successful short story writer than I thought.
I totted up a rough average of how much I’d earned from those seventeen anthologies and came up with 13c per word. That’s definitely a professional pay rate.
But, hold on! That 13c is the mean. With around half of those anthologies being a profit share, the financial return various enormously. For the median pay rate, I arrive at a semi-pro level of 2c per word.
I’m more comfortable with the 2c figure than 13c because that way the short fiction doesn’t feel like a job. I’m enormously fortunate that I write novels for a living, and I’m very comfortable with that.
Let anthologies remain a fun, artistic side hustle.
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.
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