Meditations on 99: eBook pricing in science fiction publishing

What one image on Facebook can tell us about the state of science fiction publishing

To me, publishing is fascinating landscape. One dotted with rabbit holes. Usually I skip over them – I have a day job to concentrate on, after all – but sometimes I fall through and find myself in a warren of juicy titbits.

Here’s an example of a hole I fell into back in May after a friend put a “Hey look, my new book’s charting” post on Facebook.

From that starting point, we can explore how the ‘tsunami of 99p crud argument’ has rolled through 180 degrees in less than a decade to mean the opposite of what it did in 2011 (or does it?!?), how the balance of success between different publishing models has changed over that period, and how the disconnect between readers and SF reviewing has not. There is much more besides, and there will be graphs!

Incidentally, the eagle eyed among you will notice I’m posting this in July.

Why the delay?

Well, the world’s been busy. And so have I. But I’ve just finished a book revision and sent it off to my lovely Chimera Company Insiders, so I’ve taken the day off to do my annual blogging.

I told you this was a rabbit hole, and I wasn’t kidding. In this article, I explore multiple areas of science fiction publishing in 2020. The whole thing is maybe 10-15 minutes to read. So grab a coffee and get comfortable. Are you ready? Then we’ll begin…

This all kicked off when an author friend of mine on Facebook posted to share his excitement at charting well in the Amazon space opera bestseller list. This was specifically the UK chart, which to be honest I rarely look at (unlike the US one that I’ve studied for almost a decade.)

My Facebook friends include a large proportion of professional authors, so I get this sort of thing every day. But something caught my eye in this particular post.

Most of the books were on sale at 99p.

I opened up the live version of the chart and saw this was true throughout the top 20, sixteen of them being sold at 99p. For the reasons I’ll set out below, this was a big surprise. Even more so when I noticed that the more expensive books were self-published and the 99p ones came from traditional publishers.*

I like change.

It’s at the heart of science fiction literature and one of the reasons science fiction publishing in the past decade has fascinated me (in addition to the obvious: publishing puts a roof over my head). There’s much that has changed and rapidly. There have been waves of innovation that have come and gone in an industry that has sometimes seemed conservative to the point of being reactionary.

* (TradPub in the sense that the authors were being published by imprints they were not themselves part of running. I’m excluding some of the highly innovating small presses that have been so enormously successful in science fiction publishing – the likes of Aethon and LMBPN. What I call NewPub).

For most of the last decade, I’ve studied the Amazon bestseller charts obsessively. Back in 2011-12, a space opera bestseller list chock-full of 99p or 99c books from self-publishers was commonplace. Five or so years later and you’d still get the occasional 99c books, but they were heavily outnumbered.

I think the explanation is that once the more successful self-publishers had established themselves as perennial bestsellers, they could up the price and earn more for their labor. There’s no longer such a compulsion to compete on price when you have tens of thousands of avid followers eager for your next novel.

First $2.99 became more common. Then $3.99 and $4.99. To a lot of readers, that price is still cheap.

That’s why one of the most noticeable things in the chart my friend posted was the number of 99p books from the major publishing conglomerates. The likes of Hachette and Pan Macmillan.

At the start of the last decade, 99p Kindle books were frequently sneered at by legacy commenters, described as a tsunami of self-published dross that couldn’t possibly be any good if authors had to ‘give their books away’.

If you took that argument at face value, then it would now appear that it is the major publishers who are hurling a wave of dross onto eBook readers, driven – presumably – by desperation because no one wants to read their eBooks at full price.

Of course, neither argument was ever true. Readers do buy dollar books on a whim to try them out, but no one will repeatedly invest their time in reading an author who writes dross. And yet by 2011 it was obvious that certain authors who were selling cheaply, were consistently writing bestsellers, and many of those books were in series. That last point is significant. Why would a reader buy the second, third, seventh book in a series if the first was poorly written?

The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t. Not unless they were stupid.

It’s my opinion that when commentators propose a model of publishing and reading habits that only makes sense if readers are stupid, it tells us far more about them than about readers in the real world.

I’ll step back a moment to make two brief points.

First of all, let’s name my friend flush with success. He’s Ian Whates with his Pelquin’s Comet trilogy. Congratulations, Ian. I read the first one and it’s an excellent slice of space opera fun. If you like my writing, it’s worth checking out Pelquin’s Comet.

The other thing you might have noticed is that I’m flitting between £GBP and $USD. That’s because when I’m thinking about pricing or royalties, I usually think in dollars and cents.

Relatively speaking, I’m about as successful within the American science fiction book market as I am in the British one. But the American market is many times larger, so when I said I’m used to studying these bestseller charts, I mean the American ones. When I look at pricing points to make my pricing decisions on books I publish, I always do it in dollars.

In May 2020, when Ian’s book hit the charts, all brick-and-mortar bookstores were shut in the UK COVID-19 lockdown. It might seem reasonable to think therefore that major publishers are selling so many Kindle books at 99p as a temporary measure because their main channel has dried up.

Perhaps. To a degree. But the majors have been pushing 99p and 99c for some years now. I think it’s more likely that this is an existing trend that has been COVID-accelerated, and I suspect it will not go away. Indeed, when we look back in a few years at the publishing changes wrought by the pandemic, I think it will be a common theme that those changes were already in train.

Treasure hunt: More on this ship a little later…

A brief history of 99

When I became a full-time writer/publisher at beginning of 2011, there was a rough and ready frontier sensibility to a lot of the self-published science fiction books.

Covers were often amateurish compared to what we see today. Mine were no exception! I remember one bestselling title in the short fiction chart where the cover art was a webcam snapshot of the author that she had stretched from square to portrait. Heady days. 😉

Copyediting was not always at a professional standard. Some of the prose was rough too. Not all by any means, but much more than now. However, it was obvious at the time that an ever-increasing number of readers were appreciating something in these books that they weren’t getting from the major publishers, and sometimes they were getting it from some of the roughest books. The publishing world was changing.

A prominent feature of this frontier-world scene was the number of books retailing for $0.99, which was the lowest you could set by Amazon. There was, in part, a race to the bottom.

In the US and UK, the rate at which science fiction books were published in 2011 was a fraction of what it is today. Nonetheless, it was far higher than at any previous time in history. There was a sense of mutual support, of a rising tide floating all boats. At the same time, self-published science fiction was always a competitive environment, increasingly so as the years progressed and ever more authors were being attracted by money, and some of them going on to succeed handsomely.

Earning a proper living as a science fiction author was then and remains now extremely hard, but by around 2013-14, it had become obvious that a career as a science fiction author was a realistic proposition in a way that it had never been before.

Writing excellent books is essential if you are to succeed in your career, but in the self-publishing world, the quality of your writing means absolutely nothing until you can get readers to read your book in the first place. But with so much competition, how do you stand out?

Write a better product description. Always a good move.

Get a better cover. Done that. It works!

But in 2011, the quickest and easiest of all was to undercut the ‘opposition’ on price.

When detractors sneered at 99c books for being obviously junk, it was easy to dismiss such people as bigots, intolerant of the success of a class of author that they did not wish to see succeed.

However, when they complained that racing to a pricing bottom would devalue books and make it impossible for ‘proper’ authors to earn a living, then that’s something that troubled me. And many others too. It’s a question that keeps popping up among self-published and other authors.

For example, if every one of the top-40 space opera books were on sale for 99p, then why would anyone pay more? In particular, why would anyone pay more for a new author they hadn’t encountered before? A logical conclusion would appear that 99c would become the standard fare, with only a few superstar authors able to command a higher price. However, as the years rolled past, that isn’t what happened.

(1) Standard US price for a Starbucks skinny vanilla latte grande + blueberry scone is $6.60. (2) Starbucks and its peers are extremely popular, absent any pandemic. (3) Ballpark figures: it takes eight hours to read a novel and half an hour to enjoy coffee and a bun. (4) Whatever the price or quality of a novel, you invest the same amount of time and effort to read it.

Somewhere in the confluence of these four statements is the explanation for why the race to a 99c bottom petered out.

That’s why it caught my eye to see in Ian’s bestseller post that the new advocates of cheap-as-chips Kindle books were imprints from the likes of Pan (Macmillan), Gollancz (Hachette) and Hodder (Hachette). Like I said at the beginning, parts of science fiction publishing have been changing at a ferocious pace since the advent of Kindle Direct Publishing. It looked as if the ‘cheap eBooks’ story had gone completely full circle in less than a decade.

A little later in the space opera chart, showing Neal Asher and Ann Leckie at 99p.

Today, the cheap-as-chips, frontier, fly-by-night “amateurs” who are cheapening eBooks and ruining it for respectable self-publishers are imprints such as Hodder and Stoughton, Pan, and Gollancz. We’re witnessing a tsunami of crud from major publishers who are flooding the market and making it difficult for readers to find quality books they actually want to read.

Or at least, that’s the logical conclusion for anyone who persists with the idea that pricing a book at 99c means it is of poor quality.

CASE STUDY FROM 2015

Here’s an example from Jan 2015.

When I launched the first two Human Legion novels at 99c/99p, I saw it as a risky gamble, because by then the period of the charts being full of 99c self-published books was already over. Only one other book in the top-10 at that time was 99c. Note the #3 title, the opening book in the new series by Joshua Dalzelle. He already had a successful series called Omega Force and decided to launch Warship at $3.99. It’s an excellent novel and went on to knock me off the #1 spot and lodge at about the same Kindle Store rank as Marine Cadet. So pricing it at four times as much did no harm. Not that I haven’t forgiven Joshua or anything 😉

This is actually the military science fiction chart, BTW. Pure vanity means I prefer this sub-genre category. The UK and USA space opera chart that we’re mostly looking at in this article was essentially the same in terms of 99c pricing. The only difference was that I couldn’t dislodge AG Riddle’s Atlantis Gene from the #2 slot, so I only managed the #1 and #3 places in the US and UK.

As you might imagine, I took a lot of chart screencaps around this period! They do confirm that at this period, 99c books were unusual and came (almost) entirely from self-publishers. The only exception I can think of was Titan Books in the UK, who we’ll meet again in a moment.

Trend or Blip?

A week after Ian posted to Facebook, I dug into the stats in more detail. I also wanted to check whether the chart the previous week had been a blip.

If I were wanting to provide definitive proof for anything, I’d track data over time and share hard evidence. That’s not what I’m up to here. This is a snapshot dataset that I’m using as a starting point to discuss various topics that I’ve been aware of (mostly) for years.

Here’s an overview of the stats for the amazon.co.uk space opera (kindle) top-50 bestseller chart on 28 May 2020. I’ll go through some in more detail later in the article.

I’ll rattle through a few here.

A very successful publishing model that especially suits prolific authors is to release eBook box sets, typically six months after the initial titles are rapid released. The small press is particularly adept at this. At various points, these box sets are often discounted to 99c.

It can be daunting to look at your single title and compare it to a stretched six-pack of titles at 99c.

In the data, I counted 22% of top-50 titles were a box set/ omnibus. From experience, that seems on par. It is a very successful strategy, but not so dominant that it crowds out single titles.

Today we’re focusing on 99p books, so how common were they?

  • 44% of bestsellers were priced at 99p. (That’s very high)
  • 50% of 99p bestsellers were self-published. (Perhaps of more significance, 50% were not)
  • 82% of box set/ omnibus bestsellers were priced at 99c.

The bestseller chart I looked at was amazon.co.uk, which is the home Kindle Store for the UK. (Also for plenty of Irish and other people too). So I looked at nationality and found 36% of bestselling authors were British or Irish. That’s a significantly higher proportion of Brits and Irish than the equivalent US bestseller chart on the same day.

Going by name & bio and making a calculated guess, 88% of bestseller authors were male and 22% female. No one was obviously non-binary. Apologies if I accidentally mis-gendered anyone.

The Diversity Question

That last stat felt unusually male to me. A scan of the day’s US chart showed it had more female authors and that’s the chart I’m more familiar with, which may explain why the UK felt so male.

All the same, in my experience, the military science fiction and space opera charts (probably the two most popular science fiction sub-genre categories at Amazon) have featured a higher proportion of male authors than female for many years now. However, sidestep to even other popular charts, such as urban fantasy and YA, and you see a very different picture indeed.

I recall a 2018 writers conference called 20BooksLondon where the single biggest bloc of professional science fiction and fantasy authors I encountered were urban fantasy authors, of which the numerous British contingent was predominantly female. So are there proportionality more women writing science fiction and fantasy professionally than a decade ago or not?

Throughout the last decade, there has been a lot of talk about increasing diversity in science fiction and fantasy publishing. It’s impossible to draw conclusions about that from a single top-50 sub-genre bestseller chart. On the other hand, I’ve been publishing professionally for a decade now, and that means I’ve picked up a lot of anecdotal evidence. So if I’m pontificating about the state of SFF publishing in 2020, I’ll add a few thoughts to this topic too. I won’t point to numbers here; this is highly anecdotal.

Of course, there are an infinite number of ways to slice humanity into categories. Some categorizations are given far more prominence at the moment than others, and it’s probably correct to do so in many cases.

Unfortunately, where I am clear that diversity has increased is in categorizations that are rarely, if ever, mentioned. They may not be as important as others, but I happen to think that as a general principle, having a wider variety of people in the mix is a good thing and helps to drive better fiction, more varied fiction, and more authentic storytelling too.

For me, these categorizations of science fiction and fantasy authors are clear wins. There’s more variety here than there used to be:

  • Professional background/ job before becoming a writer (or the ‘day job’ for part-time authors).
  • Social class.
  • Highest educational attainment level.
  • Possibly variation in geographical location (esp. not such a focus on New York/ London/ Big City or even living in an Anglophone country).
  • Dare I say it? Yes… political stances of the author.
  • Publishing model.
  • Does the author use a literary agent for primary book deals? This one is clear cut. I strongly suspect that the majority of titles in our bestseller chart were unagented.

The apparent maleness of the UK space opera chart I’ve just shown is not so pronounced in other genre charts. I’m fairly convinced that adult science fiction and fantasy, as represented by Amazon bestseller charts, is not as dominated by males the way it was a decade ago, although I suspect there remains a bias toward men. However, if you include YA science fiction and fantasy in with the adult, then I think the data would show a bias in favor of non-male authors.

I don’t feel the bestseller charts can provide data to comment on sexual orientation. Guessing how individuals classify their ethnicity from bios and names is also hazardous, but I remain disappointed that there aren’t more obviously non-white authors in the self-published and small press contributions to the bestseller charts, or authors not from US, UK, CAN, AUS, NZ.

Treasure hunt: Spiders & ants. In space!

99 is Not New for the Majors.

When self-publishers would get together discuss the industry a decade or so ago, one of the things that weighed heavily on our minds was the notion that at some point the major publishers would get wise to the techniques that gave self-publishers an advantage and steal them for themselves.

“Thank you very much,” they would say (at least, one would hope), and then using economies of scale and the potential to dig into much deeper pockets when they chose to, they could outcompete isolated publishers. I’ve seen it happen in other industries.

This has, in fact, been taking place ever since. It’s just happened a lot slower than I expected.

Major publishers started off by heavily discounting their backlist of classic titles from yesteryear. Titles such as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974), and various books by Robert A Heinlein. Octavia E Butler’s backlist went through several attempts to relaunch them as eBooks before hitting success and discounting was a big part of that.

By the middle part of last decade, major publishers were regularly discounting science fiction titles to $1.99 and $2.99, and they were dominating what had briefly been a key indie marketing secret of Bookbub. (I’m talking of the major international conglomerates, such as Hachette. There are other publishers who have significant market share within the science fiction world, such as Black Library and Baen Books. Baen, in particular, were possibly the first publisher of any size to have a highly successful eBook strategy and used the tactic of making the first book in a series free or heavily discounted, amongst other innovations.)

The majors were still allergic to the idea of selling books at the 99c/99p price point at all, and definitely not frontlist titles (recent books that they had pushed hard, especially in hardback).

Slowly that changed. I think the larger small presses went first. I remember picking up Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley (Angry Robot) for 99p. I think that was on a Bookbub deal.

Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’ Tale was 99p in what I presume was an attempt to generate interest in advance of her new 2015 release The Heart Goes Last.

Gollancz in the UK (part of Hachette) frequently issues batches of books at 99p. I’ve picked up Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, Principles of Angels by Jaine Fenn, Glorious Angels by Justina Robson, I was Dead for 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough, all for 99p. Orbit Books does too (also part of Hachette)

Another book I picked up for 99p was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time (Tor/ Pan-Macmillan). It won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2016. After that, the Kindle edition was on sale in the US at 99c for a long time (I’d hazard 18 months??). It was on Bookbub and was so heavily advertised to me on Amazon that scarcely a day went by when I didn’t see an advert for that book.

So, this heavy discounting isn’t new. And I don’t think it’s going away. But, wait. What about the claim that bothers me sometimes that ‘Pricepoint 99’ devalues books? Isn’t this giving books away?

It costs publishers nothing to set a book for $0.99 for a few weeks and advertise the sale with their newsletter and a few posts on social media. There will be the opportunity cost of foregone revenue, but only from the handful of people who would have bought those books anyway at the full price. If people try the author out at this discovery price, and find they enjoy the book, they can go buy more of the author’s work at full price. This is not exactly a groundbreaking new strategy in retail.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time is an interesting case that’s a little different. I’ve advertised in the same places I saw that book advertised. That was a serious advertising budget. So much so that I doubt they made that ad spend back from sales at the time, but I imagine Tor saw it as a long-term investment in an author. Some people like to say that publishers don’t nurture and support their authors other than the super famous blockbuster stars. Clearly, that’s not always true.

As for 99c books being ‘given away’? I know that’s nonsense because I’ve used that tactic myself. I know it works. And I know at least one reason why.

The Economics of 99.

I started a 99c book promotion a few weeks ago. It’s something I do a couple of times a year. This time I picked Marine Cadet. It’s the first of a series of seven books that’s now complete. Add in the spin-off books and it’s sold over 200,000 copies.

There were times in the past when I gave books away for free. I did that briefly for Marine Cadet in 2015. I never consider these ‘sales’. However, thinking about market penetration is the one case where I add free downloads to paid sales to my figures. It’s also the one time when I listen to Amazon’s site average of ebooks being 80% completed to re-estimate how many people have really read my books in Kindle Unlimited. Combine all that and I come up with a combined figure for Marine Cadet of around 75,000 sales/ downloads/ listens.

My best guess for the Amazon market for space opera/ military SF is around 1.5 million readers.

That volume of downloads is crucial to our story. It means that not only are there a large majority of readers in Marine Cadet’s sub-genre who’ve never read the book, but there are also probably tens of thousands who have read partway through the series and become distracted by something else before they finished. Advertising the first book leads to a powerful upsurge in strayed readers returning to the fold and buying back into the series.

Since putting the price down to 99c about six weeks ago, when somebody in the US acquires and reads Marine Cadet, Amazon pays me on average $1.24. On a sale price of 99c.

If you don’t know much about publishing, you might well be asking how can I earn more in royalties than the price of the book?

The key to the puzzle is that that Marine Cadet is available to borrow in Kindle Unlimited. This is an Amazon subscription service. It is not free – it costs £96 per year in the UK – but the incremental cost to the reader of borrowing one more book is free.

People see the $0.99 price tag and it looks like a bargain to them, but instead of paying a dollar, a substantial minority of Kindle Unlimited subscribers borrow it for free instead. In fact, Amazon defaults the purchase button to borrow it in Kindle Unlimited. They’re not daft, that Amazon bunch.

Doing this might be free for the reader, but it is definitely not free for publishers. Amazon’s KU payout rates vary but have always been generous in my view.

When someone buys Marine Cadet at 99c, I earn 35c in royalties. But when you include KU borrows and average it out, I am right now earning $1.24 when someone reads the book, and something similar in the UK.

And there’s more. I won’t get the sales figures for the audiobooks for some months, but experience says that a proportion of people buying the book will immediately add in the audio narration. Once that has come through, I will have earned about $1.45 for each 99c book.

If someone buys my book, there’s a chance they’ll enjoy it and want to read more of my work. Especially since it’s part of a series. Estimating how much a new reader will spend on me requires a lot of guesswork. When I go through the figures after each campaign, I get a different number. But my conservative estimate on the income I will earn on future sales after someone picks up Marine Cadet is about $7.50.

Add that all together, and if someone wants to try out my book at 99c, then on average, I will earn about $8.95 in royalties.

I would be even happier to live in a world where the impulse buy price point was $2.99. Nonetheless, during my 99c promotional period, I will probably sell around 5,000 copies of Marine Cadet, which will eventually bring in total revenue of about $45k. I’m advertising the book, so that’s not all profit, but it’s a glimpse into how 99 can work financially.

Diverse publishing models.

Before the launch of the Kindle, the Amazon science fiction bestseller charts were utterly dominated by major publishers. Occasionally, in niche segments such as anthologies you might get a look in from the small press. But more popular areas, such as space opera, were completely owned by major publishing.

Then along came self-publishers and everything changed. Sure, you still had people such as Peter F. Hamilton or Ann Leckie appearing in the charts, but they were being outsold on Amazon by the new stars of self-publishing.

Before long, some of the stars were being picked up by Amazon’s own imprint, 47 North.

One of the early self-publishing successes I read back in 2011 was Marko Kloos with Terms of Enlistment, the first of his Frontline series. Amazon picked him up for 47 North and republished his book. Nine years later and Kloos is still in the space opera charts, and he is one of the most successful authors of the last decade (and still a great writer).

For a while, it seemed 47 North was going to swallow the world. After all Amazon can and does lean on the scales, not least with a Kindle First program, which they use to propel sales off the charts and into the stratosphere. Amazon held back. Just enough. And allowed another new force to rise up: the small press.

I’m not talking here about the old small press publishers, many of which were based around selling to convention-going science fiction fans, and often focused on anthologies. This article kicked off with Ian Whates shouting about his success. His Pelquin’s Comet is published by Newcon Press, which is run by Ian himself. I’m proud to say I once worked for Newcon myself, producing the eBooks.  

Newcon was clearly successful with that particular title (I’ll tell you why in a moment) and well done on Ian’s success. However, when I talk about the rise of the small press in the bestseller charts, I’m predominantly talking about small presses that often emerged from successful self-publishers, and often doing so in partnership. Sometimes they put heavy focus on selling the books of the founder authors, and sometimes not.

Examples include LMBPN, Aethon, Seventh Seal Press, Theogony Books, Galaxy’s Edge Press. And I’m just covering space opera here. There are many other examples.

I don’t think small presses have dominated the way that self-publishers once did, and Amazon appeared to be on the cusp of doing with 47 North at one point.

In fact, at the top of our snapshot UK chart, it does look attractively balanced, now that the major publishers are reappearing more frequently in the upper echelons (although major publishers are less in evidence in the US equivalent).

So Much for the Bestsellers. What About the ‘Better’-Sellers?

This has all been about the top half of the top-100 bestseller charts. These can be misleading because what it is telling us about the authors who top the charts might be a different story to that being lived a level or two further down. For example, what proportion of the books ranked 400-500 in space opera are priced at 99p? I don’t know. It might be a very different figure, but it’s extremely difficult to tell.

And yet at this level of a few steps down from the top-100, we’re not talking here about the outer reaches of publishing in which authors are only selling to their Auntie Flo and that bloke they met in the pub the night before.

Hidden in the reeds beyond the top 100, a lot of authors are earning a living, something that used to be exceedingly rare.

Let me give you a personal example.

Last month, my best performing title sold enough to have been in the top half of a hypothetical top-500 space opera chart all month, and three more would have grazed the outer edges of the top-500 at some point. (I’m talking the US store here). I had another 20-odd titles that sold something but not as well. I’m not exactly making waves here.

However, most of the royalty revenue from last month’s sales is either already fairly visible, or I can make a confident guess. It’s going to be around $5,000 – $5,500. I don’t get a personal rocket ship on that amount, but I do earn a living.

I know a lot of the authors in the space opera bestseller charts. The same with military SF chart, space marine, time travel, exploration, science fiction romance etc. But I also know plenty of authors who rarely place in those charts and yet they still earn a living as a full-time science fiction or fantasy author*. Bestselling authors, and better-selling authors, if you like. For the most part, both sets of authors are never mentioned in newspapers, review sites, Locus, Tor.com, or fan journals such as BSFA Vector and BSFA Review. Most don’t attend national science fiction conventions. It’s easy to overlook what happens in the reeds.

It’s one reason why it’s so very difficult to get an accurate picture of what’s happening in science fiction and fantasy publishing. It’s also why I get the occasional thrill of bumping into a fellow author I didn’t previously know and learning that they are successful enough to be doing this for a living.

*I also know authors who sell well but don’t write as their primary career, and in many cases wouldn’t want to unless the sales figures became ridiculously large. I don’t want to imply that writing as a career elevates authors to a superior state over those who don’t. I have a lot of respect for authors who sell tens of thousands of books every year and have no desire to become a full-time writer.

The Death of Newspapers

Did someone mention newspapers?

Yes, I did. Four paragraphs ago.

This all started when my friend Ian said, “Look I’m in the charts!”

When Ian launched his book, I saw him wave his new title around on Facebook. No doubt he pushed it elsewhere. Ian’s a sufficiently popular and admired author that the book sold respectfully. But we’re not talking top-20 space opera kind of sales.

Then a positive review came out in the Guardian newspaper, a publication also available for free online, hence easy to share around.

The review was for the third and final book in the trilogy. Overnight, Amazon sales rank shot up. But it rose even more for Pelqiuin’s Comet, the first book in the trilogy, which reached such an impressive height in the UK space opera charts that Ian was prompted to shout about it on Facebook.

The sales ranks also shot up in the US, though not to the same extent.

When I checked a week later, the book had disappeared out the top 100.

Which is the way it works. Ian understands that. I’m sure he’ll have been very pleased with the boost.

I point this out because there is a narrative that says mass media doesn’t sell. Nobody reads newspapers anymore.

Well, clearly somebody does.

I mean, I don’t personally. Having spent years reading new newspapers, genre magazines, Locus, BSFA Vector, attending conventions, reading review sites etc etc., I’ve learned that by far and away the best route for me to discover new titles is via Amazon. Second best: Facebook. Third: trying authors from group promotions.

I now regard all those ways I used to discover books as worse than useless because I’ve been disappointed so many times. But that’s what I’ve discovered works for me. No one else. It would be ridiculous to suggest that these forms of book discovery are inappropriate for other readers, just because they don’t work for me.

And yet there’s a narrative that goes around that these old ways of doing things are now irrelevant. They aren’t. Ian’s write up in the Guardian shows us that.

They clearly are still relevant for other people, and good luck to them.

Treasure hunt: That spaceship looks familiar…

 The Great Schism?

I’ve been doing ‘state of science fiction publishing’ posts for a few years now. I have a pretty good strike rate for seeing the coming trends, but one thing I got wrong is in predicting a gradual coming together of different strands of science fiction publishing. Or at least an increasing acknowledgement of each other’s existence that progresses to a vague mutual respect.

To be fair, I have seen a little of this take place. For example, at a professional writers’ group I’m a member of called SFWA, there is occasional evidence of people from different parts of the publishing world rubbing shoulders (pre-pandemic, obviously).

I did a video reading last month for a virtual conference called Lavecon. In the same author readings slot was a self-published author, a small press (and self-published) author, two authors with major publishers, and me (self-published, published by small press, and publishing other authors too).

That kind of mash-up is still very rare (well done to Allen Stroud and Karen Fishwick for supporting that varied approach). In fact, I suspect it’s becoming rarer.

I think it’s an aspect of science fiction that I am doomed to be disappointed about forever. I know why I’m disappointed, too. I grew up on a heavy rock/ metal magazine called Kerrang! From about 1984 to 1995 I read it every week. Although there were various strands of metal music in existence, and several that emerged during that decade, the editorial policy was always very clear that all good rock music was something that deserved to be celebrated, whatever the style.

Thrash metal was something that developed at the beginning of that period. Not everyone enjoyed it, but if Kerrang! reviewed an album or live performance by a thrash metal band, the review would be written by someone who enjoyed men with long hair growling over riffs chugging along at a million beats per minute. They might write a bad review, but they would never write a bad review because they didn’t get thrash metal. And if the metal public was into thrash, then thrash would be covered in Kerrang!

The approach seemed so simple, so obvious, that when I joined in with science fiction fandom in the early naughties, I went looking for the SF equivalent of Kerrang! I wanted to be plugged into the scene, to know all the key developments the way I had with metal.

Unfortunately, Sci-Fi-Kerrang! didn’t exist. The review and news section of every publication I encountered only covered the parts of science fiction and fantasy their contributors and editors happened to be interested in – which is perfectly fair enough, just personally disappointing.

I put this to the test by looking at the authors in the amazon.co.uk space opera top-50 and looking at the review publications from a group I used to belong to called the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA). These were Vector and its successor called the BSFA Review. In this period, they typically had 15-20+ reviews per issue and came out 3-4 times a year.

I wondered how many of the bestselling authors in the charts had ever been reviewed in one of the BSFA publications. To be clear, I’m not talking about a review of the title in the charts, I’m talking about whether the author had ever been reviewed for any novel (I didn’t check for anthologies). (You can see Vector contents here and BSFA Review here. ) Since I had the data, I counted it up. I can’t rule out making a mistake, but I did run through the numbers twice. (This, incidentally, is why I’ve been describing a top-50 rather than top-100: it’s less work and less likely to make a mistake)

Before I go through the numbers, I’m going to step in here and say that this isn’t a criticism of the BSFA. I know some of the people who have been involved with running it. Worked with some of them, in fact. Some good people. This isn’t some evil conspiracy to shut out the ‘wrong’ authors by ignoring them. It’s simply that, like every other publication and website I’ve found, the people involved are interested in some areas of science fiction & fantasy and not in others.

And, as we’ve just seen, if you lack the interest to go out and actively discover which books are being read, you will never hear about many of the most successful authors.

(BTW the chart I picked was for Kindle space opera books. The equivalent ‘books’ chart – which confusingly includes audiobooks — was almost identical. For the US equivalent, the bars on this chart would be significantly lower, but then BSFA does have a specifically British focus).

Who’s that handsome chap with a beard on the right? That’s Gareth L Powell, who’s been doing very well in the UK with his space opera trilogy that kicks off with Embers of War. This is published by Titan Books, a publisher I know well for their 2000AD comic collections but is also an independent genre publisher. Titan Books… don’t they also publish…? Wait! It’ll come to me.

Well done, Gareth, for the success of your books and making it onto the chart because that 6% bar is entirely down to you. And that makes Gareth exceptional, because generally bestselling space opera authors not published by major publishers or Amazon Publishing (47 North) are not mentioned in BSFA publications.

Again, this isn’t a criticism and the same could largely be said of SFCrowsnest, Locus, SciFi Now, all the short fiction magazines, Tor.com etc, although some of them are interested in tie-in books, certain larger US independents, and a few other bits and bobs.

Titan Books and the history of 99.

Here’s another connection. They have the UK rights to the hugely popular (multi-million selling) Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell. I suspect they must have just acquired the rights, or at least the eBook rights, because in May 2015 all books in the series appeared at once in the UK Kindle store, priced at 99p each.

The screenshot is from the overall science fiction chart just after the books switched to full price.

Over in the military SF chart, Lost Fleet held all top-5 slots. Pretty sure no one else has done that before or since.

Also note the #1 book is priced at £1, published by Amazon’s imprint Thomas & Mercer. £1 is 99p wearing a suit and clean shoes.

Back to the chart, I think the first two bars are self-explanatory, but to be consistent for anyone scanning for bold underlined statements,

  • For British & Irish authors of the top-50 bestselling space opera titles, 50% had been reviewed at any point by Vector/ BSFA Review.
  • For other authors, 40% had been reviewed at some point by Vector/ BSFA Review.
  • For authors of the top-50 bestselling space opera titles who were not major published, 6% had been reviewed at any point by Vector/ BSFA Review. (And his name was Gareth.)

Given that only 38% of titles were major published, those figures might look a little screwy. They’re complicated by the fact that proportionately more self-published and small press authors appeared in the bestseller chart multiple times, and also that some titles were co-authored.

Algol treasure hunt

Wait…? Haven’t I seen that some place before?

Earlier, I mentioned Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. One of the things that used to be much more common in the first half of the 2010s was to find multiple titles in the amazon science fiction bestseller charts that shared the same stock art.

It’s never been just the smaller publishers who do this and when I first saw Children of Time, the first thing I noticed was the spaceship on the cover. I’d seen it scores of times before.

The ship was created by an artist called Algol. His art used to fill the bestseller charts. I mentioned Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos earlier. The cover art to the self-published edition also used Algol’s stock art as did my original cover of Renegade Legion, which has been on a host of covers.

I bought royalty-free rights to the Children of Time spaceship in 2014 to place on the cover of Indigo Squad. Like most of my stock art, I bought it from Shutterstock. At the last minute, I rejected it in favour of a different spaceship stock image because so many books were using the Children of Time image. It’s not snobbery; I didn’t want to get my book confused with someone else’s.

With these spaceship stock images, the artist will generally create a design and pose and light it in a variety of ways, posting each one to a place like Shutterstock, where you can purchase the rights to use the image on websites, game handbooks, book covers etc.

Then the book cover designer (which in some cases is also the author) will assemble the stock art and perform graphic design. Obviously, this saves time and money, but it would be a grave mistake to think that this makes the cover artwork ‘bad’. I downloaded a few of the better examples which you can see in the screenshot above. Some of these designs are excellent, and it’s fascinating to see how artists have taken the same stock art and basic idea of spaceship in front of a planet, and arrived at different designs

It’s a design technique that’s been common place in publishing for many years, but what made it stand out in the early days of the 99c eBook was that the demand for starships and space marine images vastly outstripped the supply of stock images and certain ones proved so popular that they have been on scores or even hundred of titles. Hence the flooding of bestseller charts.

The ‘other’ most ubiquitous cover spaceship is pictured from behind with engines glowing. It’s so well known in the trade that it goes by its own name of ‘Starship Ass’.

I still bump into doppelgangers of my own cover art. Here’s one I put together (with a little help from my friends) compared with a version produced by Harper Voyager.

And finally, to bring all this full circle, if you look at the ‘Sleeping Legion’ part of the Legion Armory 2018 earlier in the article, you will see a ‘space marine’ figure. The stock image is from an artist called DM7, except readers of JR Handley will know that they’re really illustration of a character called Lance Scipio. In my case, with a little help from a secret artist friend, Lance manages to change rank in his cover art.

I think one of the best examples of cover art design we’ll see today is the Lance Scipio stock art from DM7 mixed in with other stock images and given a touch of design magic in the German translated edition of a novel by none other than Ian Whates and published by Heyne (Penguin Random House).

Down the Rabbit Hole. And Up Again.

So there you have it. I see a Facebook post from a friend, and it leads me to a meditation on the number 99 and matters arising.

Welcome to my world. That’s how my mind works every day.

I hope you’ve learned something interesting. Or maybe you disagree. That’s great. I’m a writer. I like provoking a response. You can tell me why if you like.

But please don’t expect a rapid response. Having popped up to blog, it’s back to the day job for me: writing books. Love it!

I expect I’ll see you again next year 😊

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2020 roundup

Here’s a few things I’ve been up so far in 2020 with my writing.

I wrote a trilogy* in the Four Horsemen Universe with books released February, June, and the third one due August 21st. They come out in Kindle and paperback editions to begin with (and are in the Kindle Unlimited program to begin with). Audio books follow when ready, with the first coming out in August.

*Well… I didn’t really write a trilogy in half a year. I started November last year, and I co-wrote the last one with Chris Kennedy. Incidentally, One Minute to Midnight has a bonus story from Chuck Gannon, who has been shortlisted for the Nebula best novel award four times. It would be nice to think that this means my book will be nominated for an award too, but I don’t think it works like that. Still, I’m very much looking forward to reading Chuck’s story.

I also tidied up short stories and articles and the like and put together box sets for the Human Legion series. Sometimes you put all the work in and only three people buy them and you wonder whether you should really have been writing the next book.

As it turns out, they’ve proved very popular. Result!

They took a lot more work to put together than I’d thought, but were worth it.

Then I signed a five-book deal* with Theogony Books to write a series of Chimera Company novels.

 

*Except I didn’t. Well, I did sign the deal, but I put two seasons of Chimera Company out last year as weekly serialized issues. Book1 is essentially last year’s Season 1. Book2 & 3 are revised and significantly expanded versions of Season 2.

A lot of work’s been going on behind the scenes to bring the Human Empire audio. It is coming!

Possibly this year and probably next – and definitely for completists — I have put a week into assembling a paperback edition of all my Legion-related short stories, including the ones published in the early 2000s, long before the Kindle existed. I’m reworking lots of material.

Then I wrote a blog article. Haven’t published it yet, but I will probably finish it next week. I used to do a ‘state of science fiction publishing’ at the start of the year, but seeing as it’s July, I might have to accept that I’ve missed the boat this year. It’s a wide-ranging article and it’ll have to do instead.

That will probably keep me busy for the rest of the year. I don’t know how many releases that will turn out to be, but excluding the box sets, it could be as many as seven novels, including a bunch of audios. It’s not been an easy year, but I will be very pleased with that level of production.

Oh, and JR Handley… Once he’s written his new Lance Scipio story, I’ll be putting together a Sleeping Legion box set too.

Next February will officially see me complete my first decade as a full-time science fiction writer and (sometimes) publisher.

There were three points when I came within an ace of quitting, but I’m fortunate that my backlist sales have risen plenty during lockdown and I’m doing just fine at the moment. 🙂

Thank you to everyone who’s supported me to make this possible.

 

 

 

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BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

Vincent Sammy is a fantastic artist I’ve had the pleasure of working with who has spent time during lockdown making art. Along with many others, I enjoyed the new piece of BSG artwork he drew every day. Really cheered me up and gave me something to look forward to.

Anyway, he’s finished now and printed them out as cards. They look fantastic. Thanks for sharing your art, Vincent.

Here’s the link to Vincent’s website where he talks about his project and has wonderful photos of his art.  BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 

boxset4

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SFS Episode 155 – MilSciFi Panel 3 – British Edition — Sci-Fi Shenanigans

I’m on a podcast panel, talking military SF

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-6vuqv-dde1d4 JR interviews British authors Ralph Kerns, Ashley R. Pollard, and Tim C. Taylor about their takes on Military Science Fiction. Show Notes: Sci-Fi Shenanigans Twitter Sci-Fi Shenanigans Website Sci-Fi Shenanigans Email Sci-Fi Shenanigans YouTube Shenanigans Facebook Group Sci-Fi Shenanigans Merch Keystroke Medium Website Keystroke Medium Facebook Group Keystroke Medium on YouTube JR Handley’s Website…

SFS Episode 155 – MilSciFi Panel 3 – British Edition — Sci-Fi Shenanigans
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So how do you judge a short story anyway?

Your Vote Counts

I recently voted in the Nebula Awards, which are the annual gongs given out by SFWA, a professional science fiction and fantasy writer organization. I’ve never voted on short fiction awards before. For the first time, I had to answer the question ‘what is the best story of the year?’

I wasn’t sure how to answer.

You might find that strange. After all, I’ve written many short stories. I don’t know how many copies they and the anthologies that often contain them have sold, but it’s in the tens of thousands. More urgently, I was already working on Season Two of Chimera Company, which is a serialized sci-fi adventure told in weekly novelettes (very much on my mind at present, with the launch issue April 30).

By this point, you see, the first round of nominations had already concluded, and I had to pick from a shortlist, of which I had already read two, and ten were new to me. (“Best short story” and “best novelette” are separate awards. Roughly speaking, if it takes you at least 45 minutes to read a piece of short fiction, it’s probably a novelette).

It would be easy to mistake me for someone who knew what they were talking about, but I was stumped. I knew plenty about how to write and sell stories, but I didn’t have a critical framework for judging those of other authors. So before I read the finalists, I first sat down and considered my quality criteria.

What is quality?

That’s a big question! 

Before I became a full-time writer, my professional background was in quality management in the software industry.

“Are we working effectively?”

“Are we building what our customers actually need?”

“Is this project going to be a success, and what do we mean by “success” anyway?”

These are the kind of questions that defined my professional life for many years, to which I now added: “Is this is the best short story?”

Quality is a tricky concept.

“You can’t control what you can’t measure,” as software engineering guru Tom DeMarco famously wrote (well, it’s famous if you’re a software process geek – for normal people, maybe not so much). And yet no matter how hard we try to measure quality in the software industry, it remains defiantly fluid and contextual. A group of people can all have wildly differing views upon what quality means to them, and they can all be equally valid.

Literature is no different.

The idea that there is a single objective measure of quality when it comes to fiction is at best ludicrous. Worse, it probably implies a deep-seated bigotry and ignorance of how real people read literature.

So I present to you a concise version of the framework I used to judge the quality of the Nebula finalists, and which I am already using to judge potential writing ideas for my Chimera Company serials.

I hope you find mine interesting, but I make no claim that this any more valid than whatever you yourself use to judge stories.

I’ve been using my Nebula thoughts to inform the way I write season 2 of Chimera Company. Season 1 launches tomorrow!

1. Characters.

Good stories are about people*. Interesting people placed into situations in which they reveal their nature, often in ways that are unexpected and uncomfortable.

(*Except where they aren’t. It’s one of the delights of storytelling that rare treasures come along that break all the ‘rules’, and yet succeed brilliantly. I’ll give an example in a minute).

In recent years, a lot of fascinating scientific research into storytelling has suggested that telling stories may be the fundamental quality that makes us human. Complex human language developed in order to tell stories, and perhaps specifically to gossip about individuals in the tribe. (I’ve just read an excellent book that introduces a lot of this recent research: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr)

Like most readers, I want characters who excite me. I want to feel compelled to yell at the page to tell them to stop doing this evil thing or making that stupid.

Having read the Nebula finalists in quick succession, which ones left a residue of that compulsion to yell at the page, and which sets of characters had I forgotten by the time I’d read the next story?

2. Plot.

I want stories in which things happen.

I want to need to know what happens next.

Without compelling characters, it’s difficult for me to care about the events, and without events to challenge the characters and force them to reveal themselves, I am unlikely to care about the characters.

Writers sometimes talk about character-based stories and plot-driven stories as if they are two distinct beasts. I think this is misleading. In fact, I think most good writers would agree with me in saying that it is only a difference of emphasis. Great stories are generally both character based and plot driven. (Here I’m using “plot” and “events” as synonyms).

3. The Big Idea.

Memorable  science fiction stories tend to have at least one compelling concept.

Isaac Asimov’s 1940s robot series of short stories had the concept of ethics for artificial sentience, encapsulated in the Three Laws of Robotics.

In Jurassic Park, we get to ask what would happen if dinosaurs were brought back to life in the modern world?

And in one of the Nebula finalists, The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, P. Djèlí Clark imagines the stories of the negroes whose teeth were used in a set of falsies supplied to George Washington.

There can be more than one big idea, of course, and sometimes it can take the form of a theme that is more subtle than a T-Rex slobbering down your neck. Nonetheless, even subtle themes can be the critical connecting glue that holds the story together.

If there is a single reason why I choose to read science fiction above other literary forms, it is because it lends itself so well to the BIG IDEA. Stories set in the contemporary world can have memorable characters and exciting plots, but they don’t have stargates, rampaging dinosaurs, or an immortal God Emperor imprisoned in a telepathic throne who keeps the forces of chaos at bay for a little while longer.

It is in the big concept ideas that I get my sense-of-wonder fix.

This is why I read science fiction.

4. An expertly mixed cocktail.

I’ve listed the three main elements I am looking for: characters, plot and the big idea. But are they smoothly interwoven, or are they bound together by chewing gum and the author crossing their fingers in a spray of flashy prose in the hope that you don’t realize the story is… well, an unholy mess?

And I’ve only mentioned three key elements. There’s much more to storytelling, elements I am relatively agnostic about, but can still ruin the story when an author gets them wrong.

Take structure, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I felt were ruined by an author adding gratuitous flashbacks or a parallel story for no better reason than that they thought a non-linear narrative made their story more “sophisticated”.

And it is often with structure where an author who delivers excellent individual elements fails to find a way to tell them that results in a great story.

You might ask, how can you possibly have compelling characters, exciting plot, dazzling conceits and concepts, and deliver all this in a finely honed story of just 5000 words?

The answer is: with great difficulty. Writing a well-crafted short story is not easy!

I can enjoy and recommend stories that do well in several areas, but don’t quite bind together. But in my mind to be a good Nebula winner, the story has to do well in all these categories.

Except where it doesn’t.

The Joy of Exceptions.

I said earlier that one of the pleasures of reading is to encounter the occasional gem that defies convention but works anyway.

One of my favorite short story examples is The Crystal Spheres by David Brin (1985).

Let’s see how that fares with my quality criteria.

  • Characters: it doesn’t have any.
  • Plot: an unnamed narrator recounts a sequence of events after they have concluded. It’s straight reportage, and I don’t believe there’s any form more likely to suck the immediacy out of a plot.
  • Ideas: oh, yes! There’s two big ones. One causes the immediate problem described in the reportage. The other is expertly delivered right at the finale and hangs a question mark and an ellipsis over what happens after the story concludes.
  • Does it hang together? Absolutely it does. And although a first, rather shallow, pass at assessing this story isn’t too complimentary, when you think about it in a deeper and more flexible way, it blossoms into its own.

True there are no characters in the conventional sense. No named individuals, if I recall correctly. However, I argue that there is one character, and it is one we can all empathize with and thrill to see this character display fortitude and selflessness.

The character is the human race itself.

And, yes, the events are told in reportage, yet it is a compelling account and the events are told with great efficiency. There is more of significance going on in this short story than in several novels I’ve read.

The Crystal Spheres is storytelling at its finest. Powerful ideas told in a compelling and efficient manner that has resonated in my mind for the past 30 years. It lurks in my subconscious, popping up into the forefront of my mind every few years demanding I think about the story again. That’s great storytelling.

The Scores on the Doors.

How did this year’s Nebula finalists do?

I’m not going to rate them publicly because I don’t feel comfortable criticizing fellow authors in public unless I feel they have acted in some way unethically.

But I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed the exercise of reading the ten finalists I had not read before, and I felt all of them had at least one aspect of storytelling in which they did well.

I felt one story was head-and-shoulders above the others. I knew in my gut when I read that this was high-class storytelling, and when I used my quality framework to assess it, it was no surprise to see that it has a compelling main character, a thrilling plot, at least two great ideas, and all of this was seamlessly crafted together.

I felt two more stories were at least fairly good in all four elements. Not so impressive were the three that excelled in one element but disappointed me in all the others..

Nonetheless, I felt all twelve stories had something to offer that made it worth my time reading.

If there was one common theme where I would like to see improvement should I renew my SFWA membership and vote next year, it is in blending the elements of the story together. Too often, the author wanted to make a story about a particular idea, but I felt the characters had been compelled to tell the author’s story rather than their own. Occasionally events occurred for no reason that made any sense except for the author to make the other bits work, or a character behaved in a way that felt contrived.

Overall, though, this was a fine set of short stories and novelettes. I enjoyed the exercise in thinking about them critically, and I’ve used that critical framework to inform my own Chimera Company stories, especially with regard to freeing up my characters to tell their stories rather than mine.

So, big win all round.

CHIMERA COMPANY

Chimera Company is my new science fiction adventure told in the form of serialized novelettes published every week starting April 30, 2019. Each issue is 0.99 to buy or preorder, and once they are live you can borrow them for free in Kindle Unlimited. Artwork by the inestimable Vincent Sammy.

For those who like season collections, you can have one by the end of the season. And for those who like to listen to their sci-fi, the season 1 audiobook is in production.

I’ve written a series several times before, but I found a whole bunch of new storytelling challenges in writing a serial at novelette length. I’m proud of how it worked out, and I like to think my muse, Tharg the Mighty, would be proud of what he set in train many years ago. If you want to find out more about the universe of Chimera Company, including free prequel series to download, you can do so here.

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SF Publishing in 2019: more developments in short fiction

It can be an ugly business, being proved right.

I was forcibly reminded of this about three weeks ago, a week in which two things happened of note in my journey through the world of SF publishing. (By which I mean science fiction, not San Francisco publishing. Which is a thing).

Firstly, it was 2000AD’s 42nd birthday. Congratulations to the Mighty One and all those who have labored under his direction to deliver comic book thrills since Feb 26th 1977.

I was seven when my mum bought me prog one. Although I’ve often cited 2000AD as an influence, it was only while I was partway through writing the first season of Chimera Company that I realized that I wasn’t just writing an adventure for fans of classic Star Wars with a heavy dose of Traveller RPG, but in writing it episodically, I was also channeling the thrills that had captivating me all those years ago when I followed the adventures of Judge Dredd as he travelled the Cursed Earth in his quest to deliver the vaccine to Mega City 2, or the youthful Johnny Alpha’s struggle to find a place for mutant-kind in Strontium Dog.

I will be writing more about Chimera Company and its influence soon, but for now, thanks for all the thrills, 2000AD. Here’s to another 42 years of wonder.

2000AD wasn’t the ugly matter, though.

I suggested in my last post that in the announcement of Nebula Award finalists we were seeing a small milestone in the evolution of short SF in the English language. I saw it as an interesting coming together of two sectors of science fiction that are usually too far out of phase to perceive the other’s existence.

Within hours of posting, the matter had blown up into an online spat, which cooled surprisingly quickly after about a week. Let it remain that way.

I’ve made a note at the end about the nature of the dispute for the curious. However, I’m not taking sides, nor do I welcome comments about the rights and wrongs of the matter, because what interests me here is the way it highlighted both the distinctions that separate groups of science fiction writers, but also the commonality that unites them, often to the surprise of the individuals involved.

I would say that when people first encountered the dispute, there is some accuracy in the idea that they learned of it in one of two distinct directions, depending on whether they were newer SFWA members and their friends, or more established ones and their supporters. (SFWA members nominate for the Nebula Awards). Having discovered the issue, people then made up their own minds regarding what they thought of the matter.

That didn’t stop some commentators on both ‘sides’ tried to frame the disagreement in terms of ‘indies’ versus ‘trad pub’. But as I’ve been suggesting for some years now, even if you wanted to align the dispute along those lines, the distinction breaks down when examined seriously. If there was ever a time when you could accurately categorize most published science fiction writers as either ‘self-published’ or ‘traditionally published’, then that time passed away some years ago.

For example, one of the most heated exchange of views was between a SFWA insider who is primarily self-published, and an outsider who is primarily published by one of the major publishers.

There were notable calls to avoid the indie vs trad divide because to do so is poisonous to SFWA. This is admirable and very true, but of more interest to me personally (and I suspect of greater long-term significance) is the belated realization at least a few that in 2019, it no longer makes sense to view English language SF publishing in terms of self-published authors and traditionally published authors.

I’ve written about this plenty, but let’s bring up an example. I used Yudhajaya Wijeratne as an example in my last post, so let’s turn to another finalist this time, Richard Fox.

Mr. Fox came to prominence a few years ago with the success of his self-published Ember War novels, and very highly regarded they are too, not least by myself.

Since then, he’s been published by other publishers with a variety of traditional and non-traditional business models and brought in other authors as co-writers. I don’t think he’s yet published independent work by other authors (i.e. books he didn’t co-write), but there are plenty of authors in Mr. Fox’s position who have. (Myself, for example. I publish my own work, I am published by a variety of publishers, and I publish other authors, paying some of them enough to themselves qualify as SFWA members.)

Now let’s add in Podium Publishing.

Podium is a highly successful audiobook publisher that is most noticeable for bringing Andy Weir’s The Martian to American national prominence almost a year before Random House launched the paperback version.

Actually, scratch that. Podium’s most significant work to date is producing some of my work as audiobooks, and the Sleeping Legion books, which I published but were written by JR Handley 😊

When I first had dealings with them, Podium only ever worked directly with authors; I believe this is largely still the case, although I messed things up for them a little with JR Handley. They didn’t go through agents and were most likely to approach authors directly. Like an increasing number of ‘NewPub’ publishers, I assume that Podium realized that Amazon sales ranking gave them hard data on how well a book was selling online before considering making a rights offer.

Podium also do the audio for much of Richard Fox’s work.

Fox’s Nebula finalist story, Going Dark, is set in his Ember War universe. Podium had already produced an unreleased audio version of the story to promote the audio editions of Fox’s novels. The day after Going Dark was announced as a finalist, the audio was available on popular site Audfans.com. You can listen to it for free here: https://audfans.com/book/going-dark-terran-strike-marines.

I’ve seen this audio advertised on several occasions in my Facebook feed.

I use this example to illustrate several of the points I’ve been making.

To begin with, how should we categorize Podium Publishing?

Are they a traditional publisher?

Are they an ‘indie’ publisher, whatever that might mean?

I think the most pertinent categorization is to label Podium as a successful publisher, and for that matter, Richard Fox as a successful author.

Chimera Company
Inspired by 2000AD? Launching April 2019, Chimera Company comprises serialized novelettes released every Tuesday, and is an example of a multitude of new approaches to short SF fiction. Hit the image to go grab a free prequel.

In my last post, I wrote about how short SF (at least in the Anglo-American markets) was experiencing a change of direction as new readers and new authors enter the field. A major factor in this are successful novelists (and their publishers) seeing online sales of short science fiction as a means of selling their novels. That’s always been true to a limited extent, but it is much more apparent now.

Take the Going Dark audio, once again. I’m certain its main purpose as far as Podium is concerned is a means to attract listeners to buy Richard Fox’s novels as audiobooks. Novelists writing short fiction to promote their novels is not new, but I believe the extent and intensity with which this is happening is.

A comment I saw many times in the recent dispute was essentially “who are these authors?”, referring to the ‘NewPub’ authors who made the list of Nebula Award finalists. That was inevitable given that the tendency of many readers to cloister themselves within discovery channels where they feel most comfortable, but which are limited in their outlook. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that at least once, this question led to “and where can I go to discover successful ‘indie’ authors?”.

Like I said last time, the list of 2018 Nebula Award finalists is but a minor milestone along a journey that has a long way to run, but I did see a little mixing of the waters, at least in the sense that two major streams in the world of (largely) American science fiction publishing became slightly more aware of each other.

So, an interesting few weeks that has left me with an unexpected problem.

I’m going to vote in the Nebula Award for short stories and for novelettes. (For YA novels too, but not for the other categories as I don’t have time to read the finalists, unfortunately). To help me, I get copies of the finalists to read, which is great.

I’m going to vote for stories I think are the best. But on what criteria am I going to judge them?

It never occurred to me that this might be difficult.

Whenever I’ve assessed a short story before, it was to consider its commercial potential for publication in a specific project.

But I’m not publishing these stories, and I didn’t write them myself.

Stories that make me go wow and make my head spin for days will still trump everything else, but I found that wasn’t going to be enough. And so, after I read the first few candidates, I decided to step back and marshal my unstructured thoughts: what are my criteria for greatness?

I’ll tell you what I came up with, and what that tells us about SF publishing next time.

What was the fuss about?

Science fiction and fantasy enjoys a plethora of awards. I’ve mentioned the Nebula Awards run by the science fiction and fantasy writers club called SFWA. The Hugo, Dragon, and Arthur C Clarke are just a few more out of scores of awards, most of them tied to a convention or club. And that’s just for English language awards largely (but not entirely) focused on an Anglo-North American axis. It’s common for authors, publishers, and magazines to publish ‘eligibility lists’ as a reminder of stories they have published that are eligible for awards, and gentle encouragement to consider them for nominations. No doubt the motivation for eligibility posts includes the pride of summarizing the work published over the previous year.

Here’s a typical and unremarkable example:

http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/2019/01/24/2019-awards-eligible-stories-from-bcs/

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a respected online science fiction and fantasy short story magazine. Here they list their award-eligible stories and highlight a few as most likely contenders.

A member of the 20BooksTo50k Facebook group (which I’ve mentioned in previous posts) organized a similar list of stories by members of the group. The enormous size of the group meant it obviously couldn’t be an award-eligible list (because that would run to thousands of titles). Instead, it was a list of titles that SFWA members had already listed in the SFWA recommended reading list at the SFWA website. At some point, it was felt by a number of people that the exercise had morphed from a passive listing of titles to active campaigning. The concern was that people were being encouraged to nominate titles for awards in order to ‘support the team’ rather than because the titles deserved nominations on merit alone.

Others disagreed.

I’m not interested in a debate regarding the rights and wrongs of the matter on this blog, nor of any of the Twitter storms that blow over the field of science fiction publishing from time to time. This blog’s about the state of science fiction publishing, from the perspective of a professional science fiction author, and the changes sweeping the industry. It is not on accusing or defending villains and victims. Comments concerning the perceived rights and wrong of the matter will be deleted.

For a more detailed account by one of the participants (and one that does have comments on the matter) you could start here and follow some of the connections, should you choose, to a range of points of view:

http://yudhanjaya.com/2019/03/incidentally-there-is-support-for-wijeratnes-story-a-response-to-file770-and-a-record-of-the-nebula-award-madness/

I leave you with a cool spaceship sexiness from an artist called Algol. I licensed this stock art years ago, but never used it because so many other publishers beat me to it with their books. And they still are! I’ve seen this ship on seven different book covers this week alone, which makes me think it is probably the second-most common illustration in SF publishing, used on hundreds of titles. (The first is another spaceship).
Posted in science fiction publishing in 2019 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

SF Publishing in 2019: short fiction and the Nebula Awards

When an empire dominates the world…
its decline and fall is inescapable.

Yet you should take care when poking around the ashes of fallen greatness. Be respectful.

For they retain an indestructible seed from which, one day, they may rise again.

It’s late February, and I’m declaring it too late to do my usual state of science fiction publishing end-of-year retrospective. Sorry (I had writing deadlines) and thanks (for those kind souls who asked when my posts were coming). Instead, I’m going to do a rolling series of posts in which I word-noodle an aspect of Anglo-American science fiction publishing that happens to take my interest. I’ll use them as an opportunity to talk a little about recent trends in that area and say where I think science fiction publishing is headed next.

Apologies to my readers from other parts of the world, because you’ve made a massive financial difference to me when sales were slow in the big two markets, but it’s simply that in the UK and US, I have a lot more data which I can use to peer inside the state of science fiction publishing today.

In this article, I’m going to talk about short form science fiction.

It’s a big topic. In fact, it’s huge. Consequently, I’m going to focus on a few small details.

Here’s today’s TL;DR: successful full-time novelists are increasingly turning to writing short fiction not so much to stretch writing muscles or support the small presses, but because it makes shrewd business sense to do so. Many of these authors have not followed the development path that was common a decade ago, and as a result they approach short fiction in a different way. I don’t judge that to be better or worse, but it is different, and it does appeal to a new audience who didn’t read short SF before. The trend is continuing, and this week we are seeing a small milestone along the way with the announcement of a list of Nebula Award finalists that includes several of these commercially successful novelists turned short fiction writers.

Okay. Here’s the intermission in which I give a short caveat. In this post, I’m generalizing in order to discuss trends. I’m a writer, which means I know that people are complicated. So it’s no surprise that individual authors and readers often don’t quite fit into categorizations or trends. For example, one of the Nebula Award finalists is my friend, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. He’s been on a roll this week. Not only has he announced being a finalist for the Nebula, but also his awesome novel Numbercaste has been optioned for film, and he’s signed a 3-book deal with an American publisher. That’s on top of his books he’s been doing for Harper Voyager India. Is he an indie? Is he TradPub now? Well, of course, the only answer I need is that he’s a great writer, and he’s my mate Yudha.

But when you consider the state of publishing as a whole, there are trends. And they fascinate me.

Chimera Company
Launching in a few weeks, Chimera Company comprises serialized novelettes released every Tuesday, and is an example of a multitude of new approaches to short SF fiction. Hit the image to go grab a free prequel.

And now back to the detail.

Back in the 30s and 40s, short fiction periodicals were the powerhouse of science fiction, but over the decades, short prose science fiction has declined. When I started buying current science fiction periodicals in the early 2000s, short SF was in a state of semi-retirement, largely forgotten by the general SF reading public. In fact, despite being a lifetime reader of science fiction, when I discovered in my 30s that short SF was still being written, I was astonished. I’d had no idea.

Short science fiction is in far ruder health today.

Established publishers and authors are finding new ways to sell short fiction, but what’s most exciting to me is to see new authors and new publishers writing short fiction that is read by new readers. This trend is less pronounced than with novels, but a significant proportion of the most popular writers of short SF had never been published a decade ago. Hell, many of them hadn’t been published five years ago.

All this freshness and confidence is a trend that I’m sure will continue for at least the next few years. In fact, I’m confident enough that I’m about to put my money where my mouth is. In April, I’ll begin releasing Chimera Company, a series of novelettes that will be published every Tuesday. Mind you, I’ll hedge my bets somewhat, because as soon as the last issue is released for a season, I’ll publish a box-set compilation.

I’ve mentioned many times in blog posts and book articles that it often seems from the inside that there is a new world of science fiction publishing that has erupted in the past decade to sit alongside old science fiction publishing. This ‘NewPub’ is of comparable readership size to OldPub, but like a pocket universe inflated out of conventional space-time, it often seems that followers of one publishing universe are unable to perceive the other except for rare occasions when the two are ‘in phase’, to borrow a little Star Trek handwavium.

This week saw one of those rare occasions where the denizens of each version of science fiction glimpsed their alternative realities. The cause was the announcement of the finalists for the Nebula Awards. We’ll come to that part of the story later, but the aspect I find most fascinating is that ten years ago, when I was still very involved with the marvelous world of short science fiction, it was vibrant and argumentative, creative and daring, and the sleepiest part of the science fiction universe. It carried on in almost complete isolation. And yet it is with short fiction that many of the new worlds of publishing have been colliding for years now. People are starting to notice.

So, what’s changed?

A good way to see these changes play out in real time is in the science fiction anthologies bestseller chart on Amazon.com. I’ve been studying the science fiction and fantasy Amazon bestseller charts since 2011, because they supply hard data on what’s selling and what isn’t, as well as benchmarks on how much other authors in my field are earning (which I need to consider because writing science fiction is my livelihood).

In the bestseller chart today (22nd of February 2019) I can see George RR Martin doing very well with his Wild Cards shared world. There are traditional single author collections from stalwarts such as Anne McCaffrey and Philip K Dick, but also more recent OldPub authors such as NK Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor.

George RR Martin’s doing okay with his shared world. Justice is Calling for my mate, Justin Sloan over in Michael Anderle’s LMBPN empire, and David & Sharon VanBergen (writing as James David Victor) are cleaning up with anthologies of short novels. More traditional short SF fiction is a little further down the list.

In the back end of the top 100 are three examples of the kind of “years’ best” anthologies that have been published for decades. If you had wound the clock back ten years and told me eBooks were finally going to take off, then I would have expected a sea of anthologies with titles such as The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018: Edited by Rich Horton. Instead, there are only a handful, because there’s a lot more going on in this chart that no one would have expected a decade ago.

There are single author collections of short stories and novels from self-publishers and some of the big publishers in in NewPub (such as LMBPN and Chris Kennedy Publishing). There’s Star Force by Aer-ki Jyr, which is a very successful short story series that’s been running for years, and somewhat similar in its model to my Chimera Company. (This is an example of why I study the bestseller charts: I can see successes such as Star Force and use it as a benchmark to get a realistic idea of possible sales and income). As usual, there are collections of the steamy end of science fiction with covers that feature men with no shirts but a plethora of abs.

I’m proud to say that the top 100 also features three anthologies with stories from me, most of which hit the number one spot at some point in time. Indeed, I’ve been either in this chart or the UK equivalent for most of the past four years.

It’s a noisy mix and well worth keeping an eye on, because it’s churning constantly in a way that is both exciting and informative. It’s not random noise, either; there are trends here. When I started off working in publishing, I had a sideline formatting eBooks for other publishers, notably NewCon Press, a well-respected British small publisher that specialized in science fiction anthologies. Since I used to study the chart progress of books I’d helped to make, I’ve been familiar with these charts since 2011.

NewCon sells primarily to the part of the science fiction community that calls itself ‘fandom’, but they have enjoyed outbreaks into much wider audience. They aren’t in this chart today, but NewCon has benefited from another important trend in the world of anthologies that you won’t see by studying Amazon bestseller charts. I’m talking about crowd funded books. Their 2001: An Odyssey in Words was a success last year, but of course people who pledged money in return for a copy of the book would not then go on to purchase additional copies from Amazon. Some crowd-sourced anthologies sell at levels that would be scarcely believable a few years ago.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of today’s top-100 chart for those who like to see more numbers, counting the number of titles in each of various categories that I found interesting and assigned to on my discretion.

Romance & erotica: 6. A low score. It’s normally higher.

Shared world anthologies: 13. This is very popular at the moment: authors open up worlds built in their novels for others to play in. 60% were worlds created by indie novelists.

Deceased-author collections: 19. There has a been a big trend of major publishers monetizing their backlist. Anne McCaffrey features heavily. We also have Octavia E Butler, whose backlist of novels has sold very well in eBook over the past couple of years.

Not-yet deceased single-author collections: 14. The trend is up for these.

Indie novel boxed set: 24. Still very popular but not dominating the anthology charts as much as a few years ago. I don’t think this is because they’re selling less, but rather because short fiction is more popular than before.

NewPub vs OldPub. There were a handful I wasn’t sure how to classify, so I’m going to label this a rough 50:50 split between OldPub (by which I mean established traditional and small publishers) and NewPub (by which I mean self-publishers, and publishing companies and cooperatives who use radically different business models from OldPub). This is also a significant change. Two years’ ago, NewPub would have dominated this chart. OldPub is fighting back, but largely through a mix of dead authors from the deep IP backlist, and superstar authors who are popular far outside the core science fiction audience (authors such as Brandon Sanderson and GRRM who between them had five titles on this list). Take those two classifications out and NewPub has twice as many chart positions as OldPub.

Traditional small press: ?? When Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing was first available, some of these bestseller slots would have gone to traditional small press publishers whose core business was selling original anthologies to ‘fandom’. I used to make some of those books myself! There are still some who manage this, but it’s become rare now. I don’t think the traditional small press anthologies have gone away so much as retrenched to their core audience.

Year’s Best Anthologies: 3. When I started reading contemporary SF short fiction in the early 2000s, these were the perennial mainstay of SF anthologies. I even used to see an example or two at my local WH Smith store. My guess is they still sell fairly well at physical bookstores and aren’t going away, but they’ve not yet caught the imagination of eBook buyers.

Who’s on the cover? I tested the cover art where it featured humans (ignoring photos of the author) by removing my glasses and seeing who I thought was featured prominently on the cover. This has obvious problems about the assumptions I make, but where I thought the cover artist was clearly intending to indicate a gender for the characters, the ratio of women to men was 5:1, and the ratio of white to not-white was almost 5:1. I would say that’s pretty standard for this chart.

There are many interesting trends in short fiction, but I’m only writing one article, so let me focus on one of them that I find most interesting, and that is the increasing popularity of newpub/indie/self-published authors who have been highly successful at selling novels, but also commit time to professionally produce short fiction.

Like a lot of professional novelists, I like to choose writing projects from time to time because they are fun, or to stretch my writing muscles, but I also have to put food on the table and that primarily comes from sales of my novels. Those ‘fandom’-based small presses that were a vital source of short fiction a decade ago, did many wonderful things but didn’t pay a lot, at least not directly.

Last month I was invited as a guest on the Keystroke Medium: The Writer’s Journey to talk about short story structure. (BTW: the show is a superb resource for aspiring writers – and no matter how many books we’ve sold, I think we should always be aspiring). Preparing for the show made me think about the advice I’d been given when I started writing short fiction twenty years ago. For the most part, the indie authors didn’t come up through this development route, and sometimes it shows in their short fiction. Not always for the better, but sometimes I think it is. The most common difference I see is that indie novelists turned short story writers often approach short fiction as a miniature commercial novel, rather than see it as a distinct writing mode with different emphasis and possibilities.

The awesome people of Keystroke Medium. Check them out!

I have mixed feelings about the results, and over time, this distinction is becoming less marked, but the question of whether the story is successful is best measured not by critics or reviewers but by the readers themselves. And this is where it is interesting because people are buying short science fiction and consuming it as eBooks and audiobooks in ever-increasing numbers. They buy it because they enjoy it. Therefore the writers have succeeded. The money that feeds back to the authors is often in very healthy amounts, which is a signal for successful novelists to write more and better short stories.

When I first came across the short fiction scene, my impression was that I’d stumbled across… well, I’m tempted to say ‘the dying embers of once-great literary movement’, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. It wasn’t dead, but it certainly was small and self-contained. That’s clearly no longer the case, and I’m excited to see grassroots short fiction is growing vigorously.

Which makes the Nebula Awards an interesting sign of the times.

Silky and NJ McCall from my Revenge Squad series, telling the story of Port Zahir’s finest professional retribution service. Like many of the authors I talk about here, one of the reasons indie novelists turn to writing short fiction is to write free-to-download short fiction to entice readers into a series. I do that with all my new series. You can download the prequel novelette for Revenge Squad here.

The Nebula Awards have been around for many decades and are nominated and voted on by a group called the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Despite the name, the membership is international. Indeed, I decided to join myself this year. The SFWA membership requires a test of professional status, but the bar is set low for authors writing for a living. A few years ago, SFWA began opening its membership up to the newer parts of science fiction publishing, starting with self-publishers.

The finalists for the 2018 Nebula Awards were announced earlier this week, and it was noticeable that there were indie authors in the short fiction categories. (Elsewhere too, but I’m concentrating on the short fiction today. Sorry, Amy.).

The names are no surprise to me, not just because they’re successful novelists, but most of them have been in the bestseller charts in anthologies with me at some point. Nonetheless, they are first and foremost professional novelists who also write short fiction.

By contrast, if you look at the finalists for the short fiction and novelette categories who have traveled a more traditional route, their professional focus is generally not as novelists.

To put this another way, if you were to sort the 2018 Nebula Award finalists for the various prose fiction categories, ordering the entries by total book sales of all formats through Amazon.com during 2018, then you would find the short fiction indie authors near the top.

Of course, the Nebula Awards are about acknowledging the best stories of the year rather than who sold the most (which is its own reward). I think having a mixture of authors at different levels of sales success is a very healthy sign. I’ve never paid any attention to the Nebulas in previous years, and I’ve only ever once bothered to vote in a literary award (last year’s Dragons) because awards always seemed to be something that belonged to people with wildly different tastes from me. But with these changes I’ve been writing about, I find I’m looking forward to reading the finalists in the shorter categories and making my choice. (I would read the novels too, but realistically I won’t have time).

I’ll leave you with a practical example of the way in which short science fiction anthologies have changed since I started in 2011.

Tales From the Lyons Den is a shared world anthology of original novelettes that’s been in the top-100 SF anthologies since its release four months’ ago. The series seeks out new and up-and-coming writers and matches them up with established names. I don’t know the detailed bios of every contributor, but the ones featured on the cover are certainly full-time authors. There are award winners and award-finalists here. The artwork is professional. So is the narration for the audiobook (which is released March 5th and would make a fine home for an Audible credit). I can’t comment on my own work, but the stories of my colleagues are phenomenally good and keep readers clamoring for more. Most of the authors have stories in several anthologies currently in the top-100, and have been mainstays of the anthology scene on Amazon for years.

The pay for this title hasn’t worked its way through the system yet, but when I was published in an earlier entry in this anthology series, the pay met the cents-per-word rate that SFWA regards as professional.

So what? Other than the audiobook, which probably wouldn’t have been a feature a decade ago, and still isn’t for traditional small presses, there were books like this before.

However, if you look for the Lyons Den authors in the traditional periodicals and for-the-love magazines, you won’t find many, if at all. If you look in the online magazines that have become much more established over the decade, you won’t find them there either. These are NewPub storytellers, and authors like these are responsible for bringing a new readership to short science fiction. I love it! I’ve focused on one topic, but new readers are coming in through other trends too, and together this upsurge has a long way to run. Short SF fiction will rise again!!!!

Posted in science fiction publishing in 2019 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Author Earnings: an SF author’s perspective

What do authors really earn?

Author incomes have been in the news a lot recently. Look in one direction and you see a fresh influx of new full-time authors piling into a booming publishing industry in which pay rates for authors have dramatically increased over recent years. Look in another, and you see the grinding impoverishment of mid-list authors far below any prospect of ever achieving minimum wage levels. As always in publishing, and science fiction publishing in particular, abundance and scarcity coexist, powerful industry trends pass each other in opposite directions, and if you surround yourself only with individuals and communities on one side of the abundance/scarcity divide (or any one of the countless schisms), then you will be exposed to a highly distorted view of what’s actually happening in science fiction publishing.

In these articles on modern adult science fiction publishing (not YA – that works differently), I share some insights on the UK and US (because they are the markets I understand) from the perspective of somebody who has feet in multiple camps (being an SF author gives me license to extrude a multiplicity of limbs). I have not the slightest interest in persuading anyone that this way of writing is better than that, or that one publishing strategy is superior to another. I don’t even write them to help other authors make better-informed decisions, although I would be delighted if they help someone. I write them because science fiction publishing is such an exciting industry experiencing rapid change that sometimes I need to articulate what I think is going on. Once I’ve captured my thoughts in writing, my mind is then freed up to do what it really wants to do: create science fiction stories.

Constant calibration collaboration is a feature of modern SelfPub and NewPub publishing. Last month, I spent the day with one of the major new talents in British science fiction with the intention primarily of meeting them rather more than comparing notes on publishing. Yet within an hour or two, we were logging on to our Amazon publishing accounts and waving the graphs on our smartphones at each other to better discuss trends and strategies.

I had new book launches last month, and I’ve used them to check my working model of Anglo-American SF publishing in the area most important to me: Kindle sales. Neither excessive optimism nor pessimism helps me here. My family relies upon me to earn a decent living from my book sales, and I need to know how realistic it is for me to continue to do so.

And so I test my working model. Constant calibration. Since my income is derived from SF book sales, and not training, personal appearances, or Patreon, then my benchmark is the number of people I think are earning at least the national median income from selling science fiction books into the US and UK. I use sales in the loose sense to mean “someone reads/listens to my book and as a consequence I get paid”, and my working assumption is that around 250 to 300 people achieve that level of income, and around 75 to 80 percent of those individuals earn the majority of their income from self-publishing and NewPub (see this article for what I mean by NewPub ) as distinct from OldPub.

In order to check my figures, I’ll be using a tool called the Amazon author rank. This works in a similar way to the ranking for individual titles, but sums up sales for a particular author. And since I will be looking at the science fiction author rank, Amazon will only combine the titles published under my name that have been categorized as science fiction. It only considers sales from Amazon.com, and not other international stores. To begin with, we’ll also restrict author rank to Kindle sales only.

Before we jump into some graphs, I will note another change I spotted in science fiction publishing over the past six months. For many years now, if you looked at the science fiction authors whose book sales have reached a level that they can quit the day job and become a full-time writer (I emphasize again through sales rather than Patreon and other non-sales income) you will see that traditionally published authors have been outnumbered by self-published ones.

Until now.

A while ago, I explained the failure of the terms self-publishing and traditional publishing to describe a major new form of publishing that I call NewPub. In the past six months, of the authors quitting the day job to go full-time with whom I am personally acquainted, most are primarily NewPub. I find this an exciting moment that very few people are talking about. Right now, if you are becoming a full-time traditionally published science-fiction writer (and, again, I emphasize you are doing so through your book sales and not Patreon et cetera) it seems that you are less likely to be doing so through OldPub imprints such as Tor, Gollancz, Angry Robot, Harper Voyager, Transworld and the like; you will be doing so through the likes of Chris Kennedy Publishing or LMBPN.

I realize I’m being overly cautious here. The comparison is not even close. Maybe it’s a blip – I suspect it is – but as a vehicle to earning a living as an SF writer NewPub has been wiping the floor with OldPub recently.

Fascinating times.

A career in author rankings.

To begin with, let’s look at my author ranking since Amazon introduced the system in 2012. It’s a bit of a stroll down memory lane, but it does teach a few lessons. Nonetheless, if you want specific takeaways that we can learn about publishing today, you can skip to the next section and the graph from July 2018.

Although I had several books published on Amazon between 2011 and the end of 2014, my primary focus was publishing other authors through my Greyhart Press business. The author rank reflects my sales as Tim C. Taylor, and not the books from other authors that I published. So let’s skip to the dramatic jump at the start of January 2015. That was when I turned my focus from Greyhart Press to publishing myself and the launch of the first two Human Legion novels within days of each other over Christmas 2014.

I spent the first half of January as the fourth bestselling science-fiction author on Amazon.com (can you guess who was in the first three places?) That equated to an average of about 1,300 sales per day on Amazon.com. I then spent almost the entirety of the first six months in the top 100. (The answer, BTW: A.G. Riddle, Andy Weir, and George RR Martin whose Game of Thrones books were classified as science fiction. I didn’t mind being behind these three multi-million selling megastars!)

You can see another peak at June 2015. That was the release of Renegade Legion, the third novel in my series, which brought a big uptick in sales of the first two books.

The next peak is from the release of Book4 and the Empire at War anthology. OK, you ge the picture… a new release comes out, and you can see the author rank rise.

At least, as an author, that’s what you want to see. But by the time the fifth Human Legion book was released early in 2016, my co-writing experiment had broken down completely, and the wheels had temporarily come off the Human Legion cart. You can barely see the release in this chart.

Fast forward to the end of 2016 and things looked dire indeed. I was earning nowhere near enough to pay my cost of living, and my efforts to create a new successful series (Revenge Squad) been a commercial disaster.

With the earnings in 2015 still in my back pocket, I decided to call it a day. I started shutting down business relationships, readied to close down Greyhart Press, and decided to cap off the Human Legion and Revenge Squad series with books I didn’t expect to sell well. I also resolved to have a little fun by answering some of the many requests I get to write short fiction for anthologies. 2017 was to be my orderly withdrawal, after which I would shut the door and walk completely away.

However, the author rank graph belies my expectations. The big rise in sales didn’t come from a new release under my name, it was due to the success of JR Handley, an author I launched with his own spin-off series called the Sleeping Legion. You’re not seeing JR’s sales in this graph, but you are seeing the surge in interest his series caused in my backlist.

Fall 2017 sees another peak as two of the anthologies I’d written for launched and sold really well (one in the Four Horsemen Universe, and one in Nathan Hystad’s Explorations series). 2018 has seen further peaks from my novels released in the Four Horsemen and Human Legion universes.

So what does this tell us? It shows time and again the huge benefits if you have a deep backlist and can reignite interest in your earlier books.

It’s not my intention of interest in this series of articles to suggest that one publishing strategy is superior to another. However, my own takeaway for my own career is to write in multiple series and to write in styles and forms that vary, but don’t jump about too much. I am proud to have written fantasy, young adult, romance, hard SF, and philosophical science fiction. But most of those examples I have now removed from publication, and if I write in those styles again, I would do so with a pen name.

Close up on July 2018

Let’s jump to a close-up view of mid-July 2018.

The graph here is very spiky. Amazon has been making dramatic changes in their sales reporting in recent months. No one outside of Amazon is quite sure what’s happening, though we suspect it’s a side effect of trying to clamp down on fraud. The effect on me is to see my sales reported in fat chunks, where previously it had been a steady near real-time reporting.

Back in 2015, I could tell you that Monday through Thursday, I would see a surge in sales as East Coast America bought my books at lunchtime whereas West Coast America surged more when people got home from work. Now it’s lumpy. But it’s simple enough to average out over the course of a couple of weeks or so.

So, what are we seeing here exactly? And how have I used this to calibrate my model of science fiction publishing?

At this time, I was promoting the launch of the final Human Legion novels, and backing it up by a $0.99 special offer on all my previous Legion titles. Almost all of the sales you see reflected in this author ranking came from just ten titles, seven of which I self-published, and three were traditionally published.

My ranking (which is the Kindle sales only – we’ll get to audiobooks and paperbacks in a moment) is almost a spiky sine wave oscillating between 150 and 200.

What I’m about to do here is make a quick reality check: does this latest set of numbers appear to support my current model for science fiction publishing? I’m not trying to prove anything or persuade anybody – just a quick and dirty validation – so I’m perfectly comfortable in looking at this chart and saying my average ranking was halfway between 150 and 200. I’m going to say I ranked 175 over the period.

All right now. Let’s take a first pass of these numbers and challenge my assumptions in a later section.

Over the 16-day period, my self-published titles (under my own name) sold 945 copies and had 270,000 Kindle Unlimited (KU) page reads. Now, KU causes no end of problems with the numbers. In our case, the biggest problem is that people will have been borrowing the book in this period (downloading the title contributes toward the ranking) but I don’t see the page reads come in until later. Whenever I talk about sales, I mean a loose definition in which someone reads my book and I get paid for it. In the first pass, I’m going to simply count the page reads and divide by the Kindle Normalized Page Count for each title to get an idea of the number of people who have read my book in KU. Bear in mind that this will significantly undercount both my number of readers and my eventual revenue.

Anyway, add together conventional sales and KU reads, and I come to 92 sales per day that I can see in my sales reports.

But I’m only counting self-published titles, and the author ranking includes my traditionally published ones. I can safely ignore all but four (because they are anthologies that never sell) and having tracked their sales rank carefully, I’m confident in an estimated sales figure to bring me up to 110 sales per day.

Over the past two years, my average income per sale/borrow has been $2.63.

So that’s $289 per day of gross income. Or $106,000 per year.

But all of this only counts sales on Amazon.com.

When I look back over several years of my own sales data, I see that Amazon.com accounted for 77 percent of my Kindle sales. Factor in the rest of the world, and that brings us to an annual gross income of $137,000 for a science fiction author rank of 175.

Of course, as we saw from the earlier graph, an authors ranking goes up and goes down, but those who successfully develop depth in their backlist do often see a smoothing of the rank.

Also, I reckon that $2.63 average is fairly typical for an author who is largely self-published, but of course those traditionally published with OldPub will earn considerably less per sale.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about audiobooks, where many SelfPub and NewPub authors are earning a lot of money. (I’m going to say indie from now on to mean “ SelfPub + NewPub”)

On the other hand, we’re only talking about gross income here. We haven’t considered costs. I will state very strongly for the benefit of anyone who believes I owe them money (I’ll have the money next Tuesday, honest) that I haven’t just made big wads of cash. Firstly, the conventional sales of my $0.99 books only earn $0.35 (though when averaged with KU borrows of the same titles, during July my $0.99 titles have earned me an average of $1.10 and rising). Even more significantly for anyone thinking I’m now loaded, once I saw that sales were doing better than expected, I reinvested most of that money into advertising them. In fact I spent considerably more money on adverts last month than in the preceding seven years.

Two of the adverts. I tried out over 50 adverts with variations of text and images. The advert above with the spaceships outperformed this red one by 3 to 1.

But I’m moving ahead of myself and challenging the numbers too soon. I came into this exercise with a working assumption that there were around 250-300 science fiction authors earning at least the national median income for a full-time worker through book sales to the Anglo-American science fiction market, and that of this group, indie authors outnumbered their OldPub colleagues by about 4 or 5 to 1.

If anything, this exercise in calibration leads me to think that I may be too conservative in my estimates. At a rough guess, I would say an indie science fiction author who typically spends their time ranked 200-300 – maybe little lower even than that – but has significant peaks during major new releases, is probably bringing in a six-figure gross income from Kindle sales, and in many cases a significant amount on top from audio sales.

The doesn’t consider costs, of course. And many authors are reporting that costs are going up.

So let’s kick the tires

Kindle versus audiobook versus print editions.

Up until this point, I’ve selected the graphs so it considers the ranking only for sales of the Kindle editions. But you can also see author rank across all formats (i.e. includes paperback, hardback, and audiobook). How does that change things, especially given that traditional OldPpub imprints place much greater emphasis on print sales?

It would be tempting to think that if we switch to the all-formats ranking, that the indies who we know excel at Kindle sales would be displaced by a cohort of frontlist OldPub authors of the caliber of John Scalzi, N.K. Jemisin and Alistair Reynolds.

In fact, what we see is very interesting. If we look at the top 100, then we do see little of this displacement effect as the big publishers muscle in with their hardback and paperback sales. This is especially true of any titles linked with a major motion picture or TV series. But this only goes so far. Top-100 indies will typically see their ranking drop 10 to 15 percent when they switch from Kindle-only to all-formats author ranking. But as you go further down that ranking, the significance of switching from Kindle to all formats rapidly dissipates until as you get to the lower reaches of the top 1000, it’s barely noticeable.

Remember, I’m primarily doing this to figure out how likely it is that I can continue to earn a living writing science fiction books. And for that I want to try to estimate how big the market is. So this is not good news for me. If I switched from Kindle to all-formats ranking and saw my position drop several hundred places, it would tell me that there’s a very large number of print or audiobook sales that were getting read, but I wasn’t currently accessing. I don’t see that. Especially when combined with the claims that last year Amazon.com might have outsold Barnes & Noble as the biggest seller of paperbacks in the US (I’m not sure I believe that, but I do accept that Amazon.com online sales are fast approaching Barnes & Noble brick and mortar ones). Outside of the very top tier of titles (for example, Handmaid’s Tale) the most likely interpretation is that most science fiction sales on Amazon.com are in the Kindle format, which is where I already make my living.

There is an alternative explanation. Many of the top indie science fiction authors have extremely healthy audio book sales. Perhaps there are more science fiction paperback sales at Amazon.com then I realize, but that is obscured because midlist indie authors are not only outselling OldPub authors in the eBook formats, but in audiobooks too.

Yes, but you are doing a $0.99 sale!

In terms of revenue, I cut mine by putting almost an entire series on a deep temporary discount. I cut even more significantly by reinvesting most of the sales in advertising myself and JR Handley. So is it realistic to say an average revenue for an indie sale is $2.63?

It’s a very fair question, and difficult to answer. A temporary $0.99 sale of the title, aligned to a book deal, is certainly a way to spike sales and thus rankings. At any given time, a proportion of the top 200 authors are only there because of a $0.99 Bookbub deal (a very effective and much sought after form of advertising). But most are not. Bookbub deals are like hen’s teeth, after all. I’ve never managed to get one for myself. It’s much more common for top 250 authors to get the mass of their sales from a significant number of backlist titles that individually are modestly ranked (say, 5,000 – 20,000).

That $2.63 figure is from actual data, and does include promoted sales I have made at $0.99, but I accept that the ability of a $0.99 Bookbub deal to spike author rank means the average indie revenue of $2.63 is probably too high, but not by a huge amount.

 

And you write such big books!

There’s a definite trend in indie publishing to release titles more frequently, but for each title to be shorter. An SF novel of only 60,000 words is now commonplace (as it has been at various times in the past, such as the 1960s) whereas mine tend to come in at around 110,000. That’s significant, because under the Kindle Unlimited pay scheme, the bigger the book, the more you get paid when somebody reads all the way through. The first Human Legion novel, for example, is a meaty tome. I get paid around $4.00 whenever someone borrows it in Kindle Unlimited and reads to the end.

However, hold your horses! There’s also another trend for the more successful indie authors to take advantage of their branding success and raise prices. I haven’t done this. I want to do so, but my branding isn’t strong enough yet. So my $2.63 average revenue is high because most of my best-selling titles are in Kindle Unlimited and my books are relatively lengthy. And at same time, my $2.63 revenue is low, because most my titles are priced lower than the average. Which trend is stronger? According to my back of a beer mat calculations, roughly speaking they cancel each other out.

 

Uncle Jeff’s additional data point.

In a note to stockholders in the recent Amazon annual accounts, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos mentioned that in 2017, there were over 1000 authors paid in excess of $100,000 by Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. Kindle Science fiction is booming but not as much as romance. Thrillers and fantasy sell very well too. I could believe maybe 200 of those over-a-thousand science fiction authors were grossing six figures, but get much higher than that and you start to contradict Jeff Bezos, and Jeff really does know the data.

But we are doing a rough reality check here. I started with the assumption that maybe 250 to 300 people earn a full-time living solely from their science fiction book sales. I never said they earned that solely from Amazon book sales. Let’s pick a figure in the middle of 275, and then take off 50 OldPub authors to give us a target of 225 who earn a living.

The Bureau of Labour Statistics (May 2017) lists median annual income for employed individuals in the US as $37,690. The UK median income for full-time employees (2014) is £27,194 or at current exchange rate, $35,400

I’m saying that at $2.63 gross income per sale, that the top 175 ranked authors are on an annualized rate of $135k gross from Kindle sales.

If we want a neat annualized target of $100,000 gross sales, then it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the boundary where this is achieved is somewhere between the SF author ranks of 200 and 250.

But some authors find their author rankings fluctuate significantly over time, slipping back after the uplift of each new release. And in any case, $2.63 is slightly too high because the frequency of 99c sales, and is much too high in the case of OldPub authors, who earn much less from sales (though they do get advances).

What’s more, even Jeff Bezos doesn’t know how much authors are spending on advertising at platforms such as Facebook. Anecdotal evidence is that an increasing number of indie authors are spending serious money on advertising. I reinvested most of my income from my sale into advertising, after all. And yet there are others for whom all the advertising they ever needed to become million-selling authors is to write the next book.

How can I stretch from estimating gross income to a net one of around $37,000? Well, I can’t. This is where I move into conjecture.

But that’s to be expected. The data are noisy. We must make educated guesses. But I’m doing this for a reality check. Is this exercise compatible with the estimate that there are 250-300 individuals in the cohort in which I wish to remain (full-time SF writer earning median national wage from US & UK book sales — for which these days I need to apply a rolling average to fit in)?

No.

Looking over the numbers, I think I’m being a touch too pessimistic, so I’m upgrading the “250-300” estimate to “around 300”.

My next big project.

A Parting thought: things in SF might not be as bad as you think.

Talk to different science-fiction author communities and they will give you wildly different views on the health of current SF publishing. And that’s just considering the old heartlands of the US and UK market (very exciting things are helping elsewhere in the world). One thing everyone agrees upon is that it is very difficult to sustain a career as a science fiction author where sales and royalties are enough in their own to earn you a decent living wage. Even though it seems that more authors are earning a living writing adult SF than at any time in history, there is also more intense competition than ever before. And I reiterate: I have no interest in championing one group of authors over another, or in suggesting that any other author should follow the strategies and tactics that I have chosen for myself.

It pains me to see people who care about science fiction talk about it as if it’s in some kind of crisis. “Earning a living as a science fiction writer is no longer realistic prospect.” That’s something I continue to hear, mostly from legacy mid-list authors and legacy fandom.

I’ve spoken to authors myself who have found themselves out of contract and having to find new ways to keep writing, such as tie-in novels and writing for games companies. So I know the distress is real. I do not seek to diminish it by pointing out statistics that suggest other authors are currently enjoying a boom.

Nonetheless, a feature of modern science fiction publishing is that there’s a large number of people who are earning a living from books that never make the top 100 of major  Amazon sub-genre categories, such as space opera, and yet can still gross a six-figure income from book sales. If you’re not into the new waves of science fiction, then chances are, you will be completely unaware of their existence. And there are a lot of these people earning a living. Hundreds.

In the decade before I became a full-time writer/ publisher in 2011, I was fascinated by everything to do with science fiction publishing. I got my information from small publishers, traditional fandom, WorldCon, Eastercon, Fantasycon, SFWA, British Science Fiction Association, SFX Magazine, Guardian books, Strange Horizons and their ilk. I subscribed to Locus Interzone, Asimov’s, F & SF, and Analog. I bought books from Harper Voyager, Tor, Gollancz, Orbit, Transworld, Angry Robot, Solaris and the like.

With a handful of notable exceptions, commentators from this legacy side of science fiction are largely ignorant of and uninterested in indie SF, and never were much interested in tie-in novels and certain publishers who worked a different way, such as Black Library, and to an extent Baen Books.

And why should they? None of these publications and societies have a remit to represent all of science fiction. And I only call it legacy SF because it’s left over from what went before, not because it’s moribund. It’s exciting and is in flux too.

However, if you’re someone who doesn’t venture much outside of the legacy SF world, but are worried by talk of full-time SF writing no longer being a realistic prospect, then I hope you will take some comfort from the realization that most Anglo-American adult science fiction literature is being written, consumed, and commented on outside of this legacy community. Most full-time authors are content to sit on the outside. At a commercial level, at any rate, science fiction publishing is in robust health, and I for one am fascinated to see where it’s headed next.

 

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SF Publishing in 2018: The latest industry stats from Data Guy

This is part of a series of posts about recent developments in English language science fiction publishing in the US and UK that have caught my eye.

Data Guy, with the support of Hugh Howey setting him up at authorearnings.com back in 2015, has been one of the sources of data I use to try to figure out what’s going on in English Language science fiction publishing. His stats are by no means the only source I use, but with his methodology open to scrutiny, comment, and change (or it was until recently), it has been one of the most trustworthy.

Last night he gave his latest report into the state of science fiction and fantasy at the SFWA Nebula conference, which is a prominent group of science fiction and fantasy writers.

The various panels have been recorded and are viewable on YouTube. Some I found worth a look and perhaps I’ll dig into them here another time. There were talks about maximizing the value of your backlist, and how to use Kickstarter, but here I want to talk about Data Guy’s statistics in which he talks about the sales of science fiction and fantasy books across all formats in the US in 2017, and in trend terms since 2005.

Obviously I am interested, because this is principally where I earn my living. The UK statistics are more patchy, but every time I look into British science fiction sales, it does seem to be following very similar trends to the US.

I suspect Data Guy will post something official to authorearnings.com before long, but I thank Data Guy and SFWA for their generosity on sharing the presentation because you can find it on YouTube here.

https://youtu.be/2mqNUWHr0lM?t=8m59s

Here are a few thoughts.

The big picture

I’ve started blogging about the state of SF publishing in recent months, so I was apprehensive. Was Data Guy going to drop a bombshell and contradict my own assessments?

Fortunately, we matched pretty well. I’ve been saying that in the past decade US science fiction book sales have doubled and that earnings from authors have at least tripled. Consequently, there are significantly more full-time professional science fiction authors than ever before (although still only a small fraction of those writers who would like to earn enough to write SF full time). I’ll leave that to you to judge how closely those assertions fit with the set of stats presented at the Nebula Conference.

For me, the surprises came deep down when science fiction was broken into sub-genres.

But before I can comment on them, here is a cut-out and keep caveat regarding book classification.

Sub-genre Classifications

There’s an important caveat here. If a title sells 10,000 copies, and it is classified by the publisher as both military science fiction and space opera, then Data Guy’s figures will count 5,000 sales in the Military SF category and 5,000 in space opera. Some books get as many as five categories, and so their sales are split five-ways for the stats. I can’t think of any other practical way of handling this, but that will have an impact.

So too will the fact that categorization is a means for publishers to put their titles in front of the audience they want to buy it today. That might mean a different audience from last month as publishers move their proposition in front of fresh eyes. For our data analysis, we want categorization to be accurate, but that’s not why book categories exist.

 

Those caveats aside, here are a few of the standouts for me, and these came through specifically eBook sales:

Military SF is overwhelmingly the most popular category of eBook sale. No surprise there, but the degree of its dominance was shocking.

Military SF eBook sales are overwhelmingly dominated by indies, as was space opera. That wasn’t a surprise, but I had expected more sales from Amazon’s imprints (principally 47 North), and Big-Five publisher space opera eBooks sold even lower than I’d expected. I think if we had seen a trend then 47 North would appear more dominant a few years ago.

Anthology eBook are no longer predominantly traditionally published. When I started eBook publishing in 2011, a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors were selling short story collections and multi-author anthologies. And the vast majority sold only a handful of copies. That seems to have changed. Anthologies remain a small part of the eBook market but a majority are now SelfPub and NewPub. Back in 2011, the best sellers were the old-school “Year’s Best” anthologies. These still sell, but have been overtaken by new anthologists and new publishing. We need another caveat here because ‘anthology’ has come to mean more than a set of the kind of short stories that might have been published in Analog or Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Nonetheless, I feel I speak with some authority here. Anthologies carrying one of my short stories have collectively clocked up about four months at the #1 spot in the amazon sf anthologies bestseller chart in the past three years, and I’ve seen my peers at the top of the charts. It is as Data Guy says: they are mostly indies.

If you sum the space opera, military SF, adventure, galactic empire, and alien invasion categories (let’s call ’em the the Pew Pews) that comes to around 13 million eBooks sold in the US last year. Roughly. And overwhelmingly these are NewPub and SelfPub published. Furthermore, going very roughly by the charts, about 11.5 million of those sales are going unreported in any ‘official’ industry statistics.

It’s only one statistic, but that last one summarizes why I talk to science fiction fans and authors from different parts of the business and get a completely different view of the commercial health of the genre. And that’s not surprising when you consider that in my experience, the titles and authors of those 11.5 million annual US book sales (according to these stats) are almost unknown to the traditional side of fandom (though not to traditional publishing).

There’s a lot more going on in SF publishing than Pew! Pew! eBooks, but in terms of unit sales, according to Data Guy’s statistics, it’s about the same size as the entirety of print sales not only for all of science fiction, but all of fantasy too.

[And another vital caveat here – this is for adult science fiction and fantasy. Add in huge-selling books in YA and mainstream categories that could be regarded as science fiction and fantasy, and the results would be completely different. For example, at its peak, the Hunger Games series was selling a comparable amount to the entirety of adult science fiction according to official stats.]

That’s it from me. If you haven’t seen it, go watch the video. It’s about half an hour.

WHr0lM?t=8m59s

 

Tim C. Taylor is a British author of popular science fiction who quit the day job in 2011. For a free starter library of exclusive stories, which make great jumping off points into his multiple book series, and regular updates about the Human Legion Universe and more, join the Legionaries by following THIS LINK.


Join a mercenary company. See the galaxy. Fight the bad guys and get paid. A lot.

 

Join a mercenary company and give the galactic bad guys what they deserve in his latest novel, The Midnight Sun, published by Seventh Seal Press on April 27th, 2018 and currently free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

OR. Check out a free download of  a prequel novelette featuring the same characters via Instafreebie here.

If pulp adventures facing cosmic gods and Cthulhu cultists is your thing, back the Kickstarter for a Lovecraftian pulp anthology in which Tim has a story, set in Birmingham, England in 2015. If you’re American, your likeness could be drawn as a cosmic demon or cultist (this only works with Americans, for reasons of great cosmic complexity involving the terrifying cult known only by the eldritch name: US Postal Service). Legal notice: the campaign organizers do not guarantee backers against loss of sanity when the Old Ones awake from their slumber (though backing this anthology can’t hurt). The campaign closes May 25th.

 

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SF Publishing in 2018: The new writers of science fiction

This is part of a series of posts about recent developments in English language science fiction publishing in the US and UK that have caught my eye.

For an aspect of life that, let’s face it, is inescapable, growing old still throws up its fair share of surprises and shocks. On Monday nights, I write in the local village pub. In the dark days before I wrote full-time, starting the first evening of the working week on a high was a key part of my psychological strategy for surviving the next four days. It’s a habit I’ve kept because the beer is really very good, and… I love writing! I’ve been enjoying Monday writing nights since 2001, and in recent years I get a shock every once in a while when I meet new bar staff who hadn’t even been born when I moved to the village in 1997.

I was surprised to discover when I attended the excellent 20Books London conference back in February, that I was old all over again, but in a different way. [As an aside, I thoroughly recommend professional authors attend 20BooksTo50K conferences.]

I was made redundant from my old job the first day back after New Year 2011. By March 2011, I’d set up as a sole trader and re-published some short stories through Amazon KDP and Smashwords. I’d sold them previously to various short fiction publication since 2002. Back in 2011, if you hung around Kindleboards, Amazon’s KDP forums, and various other self-publishing forums and Facebook groups, you’d probably know who I was because I was pretty active online.

I wasn’t prepared for these memories of dusty old 2011 being ancient prehistory for so many of the wonderful writers I met at London. Not only was it clear that many authors had started their professional careers after me (at least, the self-published portion), but I was asked on more than one occasion: “what was it like back in the early days?” (The answer, by the way, is interesting, but a topic for another time.)

When I got home, I looked through the bios of the bestselling science fiction authors on Amazon.com (for which Amazon provides a convenient top 100 authors list) and stalked their websites, gauging when the top authors of today began their careers. The answer is clear: surprisingly recently.

Now we move to the part of this article where I commit extreme conjecture. As I’ve said several times in blogs this year, it’s clear the number of authors earning a living income from English language science fiction book sales has soared to an unprecedented level, but no one knows for sure what that number actually is (my estimate is around 250, which still isn’t very many). Without a solid divisor, I won’t estimate a percentage of those authors who began their publishing career since 2011, but it is clearly very high indeed. I would go so far as to say that most authors who write English language science fiction for a living today had never written a science fiction story when I went full time at the start of 2011, let alone had one published.

Probably.

It’s difficult to be certain about these things, but it seems beyond doubt that an enormous influx of fresh blood has entered professional SF publishing in only a handful of years.

For the image above, I grabbed today’s list of the top-10 bestselling science fiction authors. Admittedly, I grabbed the lower section because I recognized them as all being predominantly self-published authors. In fact, I needn’t have done so to indicate newness. In terms of debut novel, the full SF top-10 is: 2018, 1969, 2012, 2011, 2016, 2015, 2011, 2016, 2010. Margaret Atwood stands out as the veteran in that list. 

Across the hall in the top-10 bestselling fantasy authors, we have 2012, 1997, 1991, 1977, 2005, 1937, 2012, 2017, 2011, 2015, J.R.R. Tolkien perhaps a lesson in why sometimes medians are more telling than means! Still lots of new faces, but more veterans than with the SF. Also, with 60% female authors rather than 20% for the SF list.

My background is more conventional (or was until a few years ago when it flipped from conventional to old-fashioned). I came up through creative writing courses, critique workshops, and submitting short stories to magazines. Although I gained enormously from this experience, I also learned a great deal of limitations: all those things I was informed I should not do, because… reasons.

  • You shouldn’t write these stories, because they’ve been done before… (perhaps back in the 50s).
  • You shouldn’t write this way because that way is better.
  • You must never write this popular trope because it has to be subverted.
  • Don’t write this, because editors want that.
  • And what will appear to today’s writers to be the most asinine advice in the history of publishing: never write to please an audience!**

I think my personal revelation about the freshness of contemporary SF writers helps to explain why I enjoy the latest crop of SF novels so much more than the books of a decade or two ago. Many of today’s novels are written by authors who were never told what they shouldn’t write, so they simply wrote the stories they wanted to tell, and in the way they wanted to tell them. Some of those writers go on to connect with an audience that thinks they write great stories with great skill. Of these, some are rewarded with successful writing careers.

And some aren’t.

There are no guarantees in SelfPub and NewPub science fiction; no arbiters to say that this author deserves to succeed over that author (other than readers themselves). It’s not set up to be fair.

Well, perhaps it is up to a point. Being a good writer is no guarantor of commercial success, but in today’s incredibly competitive publishing scene, commercial success is only possible for writers whose stories are judged by their audience to be of high quality.

I think that’s part of the reason why the science fiction audience has seen such explosive growth. These whippersnapper new authors never learned the old lessons about what not to write.

And as a consequence, for a legion of new readers, science fiction literature has recently become a lot more relevant to them.

Where will the publishing youngsters lead us in the coming years? We’ve already moved at internet pace from the frontier era of SF self-publishing – rather like living an episode of Deadwood – to the backbone of slick professionalism we see today.

What’s our destination? Who can tell? Although we do seem to be fanning out toward multiple destinations, and with such rapid growth in the audience, it’s difficult to tell the degree to which newer authors are competing rather than co-existing with older ones. But I do know it’s a journey I’m excited to be a part of as both a writer and a reader.

Three cheers for the youngsters!

** Never write to please an audience.

Yes, astonishing as it will seem to many of today’s professional authors, I did receive variations on that well-intended advice on more than one occasion. It was given for a number of reasons, and in the days before Amazon KDP some were entirely valid. I remember an experienced agent and former acquisitions editor discussing this at a convention. He explained that he couldn’t sell manuscripts to publishers if they followed popular trends, and therefore he wouldn’t accept them as an agent. Essentially, the argument was that trad publishers only had a limited number of publishing slots, and for any significant audience they could define, they would have already filled them before you could get your book published. Terry Pratchett was extremely popular, he explained, which is why every major publisher had already jumped on the Pratchett-market bandwagon, and consequently why you shouldn’t try to write for that audience.

OK, that’s strictly the justification for the advice of don’t follow the market, but it was part of a whole battery of advice suggesting writers should avoid having the book-buying public in mind when they wrote their stories, which is pretty much the exact opposite of the philosophy behind the 20Booksto50k movement.

 


Tim C. Taylor is a British author of popular science fiction who quit the day job in 2011. For a free starter library of exclusive stories, which make great jumping off points into his multiple book series, join the Legionaries by following THIS LINK.


Join a mercenary company. See the galaxy. Kill the bad guys. Get paid. A

lot.

 

Join a mercenary company and give the galactic bad guys what they deserve in his latest novel, The Midnight Sun, published by Seventh Seal Press on April 27th, 2018.

If pulp adventures facing cosmic gods and Cthulhu cultists is your thing, back the Kickstarter for a Lovecraftian pulp anthology in which Tim has a story, set in Birmingham, England in 2015. If you’re American, your likeness could be drawn as a cosmic demon or cultist (this only works with Americans, for reasons of great cosmic complexity involving the terrifying cult known only by the eldritch name: US Postal Service). Legal notice: the campaign organizers do not guarantee backers against loss of sanity when the Old Ones awake from their slumber (though backing this anthology can’t hurt). The campaign closes May 25th.

 

Posted in Rebirth of the midlist, science fiction publishing in 2018 | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments