*That author being me! Well, Mum and Dad think I’m a top author, so I’m owning it 🙂
I’ve been appearing on the Sci Fi Thoughts podcast every Wednesday with Lancer Kind. When Lancer interviewed me, we talked for an hour or so. Lancer’s edited that down and presented it as a series of short podcast episodes of about ten minutes each.
It’s a nice approach. I think it works well.
We cover all sorts: 4HU and Human Legion, how I research books, why it was beer that got me started writing SF, future projects and the like.
It’s not just me on this podcast, of course, but my episodes numbers run from 114 through 117. If you like them, go listen to the other authors Lancer’s interviewed. He does a good job!
In other news, I sent my 22nd novel off to the publisher last week. It’s the fourth Chimera Company novel, Smuggler Queen. This week has been admin catchup. Next week I write a short story for a Bayonet Books anthology and start putting together a Sleeping Legion boxed set. After that, I prep for the fifth Chimera Company novel.
A shorter version of this article was first published in Legion Bulletin #107, Oct 28th 2020.
There’s a lot of it going about it the moment!
As I write this, we’re days away from elections in the USA, the impact of the Brexit referendum on the UK is about to get very real, there are riots all over Europe protesting lockdown restrictions, there’s anti-government unrest in Thailand and Nigeria and…
…and it goes on. Politics may peak and die away within the context of our personal lives, but it’s ongoing everywhere. I define politics as the unending debate about how people should live together in society. Unless you are marooned on an uninhabited planet with no hope of rescue, politics is everywhere. All the time. Like it or not.
And that means unless you are writing or reading a story about space travelers marooned alone on uninhabited planets, there’s politics in our science fiction too.
As a reader, usually I like my politics in the background, but when it’s at the fore, I want it done well.
I turned 50 earlier this year. Although I like to think I’ve still got a few years left on the clock, I find I’ve lost my patience for badly written science fiction, the kind I have to make allowances for.
For me, science fiction is mind expanding. Authors with closed minds write bad science fiction. A lot of people who write political science fiction make a hash of it because their minds are closed to people and philosophies that don’t match their own prejudices.
I was thinking about that this morning because of an article I read before work. I’ll get to the article in a minute, but it echoed with the mentality I’ve held for many years of how I like to write not only politics, but also culture, and military elements of my science fiction.
This year I’ve been researching the French Revolution (1789-99) for reasons that may become clear next year…
It’s got the classic set of universal tropes for a revolution based on progressive philosophy.
We get mobs tearing down statues associated with a suddenly discredited past.
It has speech crimes. Guilt by association. Virtue signaling. Denouncing your neighbor before they denounce you.
It has a well-educated, middle-class leadership who have bought into a progressive philosophy. They are in an uneasy alliance with the oppressed poor who are surging into the streets of major cities.
It should. Something similar keeps occurring throughout history.
Of course, the French Revolution had rich and bloody specifics too, such as the guillotine, and the importance of political societies such as the Jacobin Club. One of these specifics was the concept of the left and right wing in politics. The term comes from where representatives sat in the early years of the revolutionary National Assembly (the parliament).
The right-wing extremists wanted to preserve royal power; the left wanted a republic. It was more complex than that (isn’t it always?) and the meaning of the left/ right divide changed, but those of the left tended to want the overthrow of the existing institutions, and the right wanted to preserve at least some aspects of them.
Strangely, after thousands of years of political philosophy without the world needing the concept of a left and right wing, this expression from French Revolutionary politics is still with us today in many countries, though the precise meaning varies enormously.
I’ve always been unimpressed by the binary ‘good vs. evil’ nature of single-dimensional political philosophy such as left-wing politics versus right-wing politics.
When I say ‘single-dimensional’, I’m not being disparaging so much as mathematical. (Well, okay I’m being disparaging too)
Think about it. The left vs right idea is that there’s a spectrum of political running from extreme left through a limp center and out to the extreme right. It’s a scalar quantity. Something you can reduce to a single number.
Yes, people sometimes talk about the horseshoe model where extreme left and right are indistinguishable other than symbols and dogma.
We could bound it and say that extreme left counts as 1 point in our political scale and extreme right is 100. If you marked up a character sheet in this model, a person with a politics attribute of 37 would be soft left.
Imagine reducing the complexity of a real person’s political philosophy into a single number! I find that ludicrous.
It’s easy to see where that model might lead in a science fiction novel:
Everyone with a political score rated greater than 65 must report immediately to their nearest police station. From there, the Morality Enforcement Division will arrange transportation for an automatic six-month minimum term in a re-education camp.
Anyone with politics less than 32 must observe a strict curfew from dusk to dawn on pain of death.
Individuals with politics over 70 will be sterilized. Over 80 will be euthanized.
I’m putting the finishing touches to Chimera Company Book4: Smuggler Queen. The story is set 5,000 years into the future in the Perseus Arm of the Galaxy. Do they still talk of left-wing and right-wing?
It’s a term consigned to the history of a distant planet no one’s contacted for millennia
Much of the third Chimera novel, Department 9, is set on the dystopian world of Eiylah-Bremah. Chimera Company has to deal with a tyrannical regime led by Great Leader In’Nalla. This means I needed a political backdrop.
On Eiylah-Bremah we see thought crimes and speech crimes. We have guilt by association and public denunciations. If that seems like some aspects of contemporary politics, or the French Revolution, it’s because I’m mining some universal political philosophies and patterns of history.
But it’s not socialism. It’s not capitalism. It’s not left-wing and right-wing. It does not fit neatly into contemporary Western politics. Great Leader In’Nalla thinks she’s leading the world of Eiylah-Bremah to a better future. Progress, in other words. Many call her tyrant (including our heroes) but she doesn’t see herself as a villain. She’s a hero of progressive politics.
Would In’Nalla have voted for Brexit or against it? I have no idea. To her, Brexit is a specific detail of ancient history far too obscure for her to have heard of.
Would she have voted for Trump or Biden? Neither. Again, ancient and forgotten history to her. But if she had the vote, I think she wouldn’t bother. Instead, she’d try to tear down America’s institutions and rebuild them in a more progressive form. (Meaning her vision of progress, of course.)
For me, the political background of good science fiction blends a mixture of the universal with specifics of the fresh and new.
I want a blend of the universal to root it in truth, and specifics that are fresh and new to make it exciting. Maybe give a little sense of wonder.
Personally, I’m not usually interested in a fictional world that is a thinly veiled commentary on the specifics of the author’s contemporary politics. Too often it lacks ambition, and it fails because the author can’t see beyond their own prejudices to touch on universal truths.
That’s not to suggest it’s somehow wrong to use science fiction to convey your ideas on your contemporary local politics. In fact, it makes a great deal of commercial sense. Anglo-American legacy science fiction publishing (what I refer to in these posts as OldPub) is so eager to put out books with contemporary political themes that match their political ideology that it’s becoming commonplace for commentators to suggest that for science fiction to be considered good, it must hold up a mirror to contemporary politics.
And there are exceptions of this type of book that I enjoy myself, of course. With writers, there are always exceptions.
George Orwell turned me on to literature when I was at school. His 1984 and Animal Farm, make knowing references to European politics of the early 20th Century, but they work so well because Orwell could see beyond the specifics of his time to hook into universal truths. That’s why 1984 in particular still feels so relevant to the world of 2020.
So that’s how I like my science fictional politics served: in small doses and thoughtfully prepared. I like the author’s mind to open, not closed. How about you?
And to the article that provoked this.
As I’ve said, I think the one-dimensional idea of left wing vs right wing is a crude concept that often breaks down upon close examination, and that a good science fiction writer should at least consider the possibility of radically different political frameworks than what they see in the mainstream media for their country.
The article I read this morning talks about a major new piece of research that clusters people in Britain into seven groups that don’t fit neatly into old-fashioned ideas of class or left vs right. It asks them questions, such as whether political correctness is a problem. Sometimes the results are surprising. I’m sure something similarly new could be done for the US and elsewhere. You can read it here.
With my writers’ hat on, I’m not especially interested in whether the analysis is ‘correct’. I like that it’s happening at all. If only more science fiction writers were able to think along such fresh lines.
Today I want to talk about themes in science fiction.
Themes, thematic statements, morals, messages. For simplification, I’d say these are essentially the same thing and use the umbrella term theme.
Conventional literary theory states that a theme of a book or movie is what it’s about. It’s the message, the moral, the observation on the human condition that tells us where we might be headed in the future. For example (and this is not specific to science fiction) True love conquers all. That’s possibly the most popular literary theme of them all. Just ask the Happily Every After segment of the romance genre.
When I started writing in the early naughties, I picked up a load of ‘how to write a novel’ books. And they always made theme out to be a big deal.
“Have you found your theme?”
“If you story doesn’t have a theme, you haven’t finished writing it.”
And so on…
For many years, I used to believe this.
I don’t now.
Occasional literary scholar and victory gardener, JR Handley, has something to teach us on this. Themes, he tells us, are included in stories to give English teachers something to talk about.
I refer to this sage wisdom as Handley’s Theory. (By the way, JR Handley’s blog is always well worth reading, which you can do so here. Better still, subscribe to his newsletter on the site, which he updates more regularly.)
Themes are also a way for an author to signal their tribe in a hyper-partisan world. In Anglo-American publishing, some of society’s tribes and some ideas are lauded, others are suppressed. If you want a book deal, make sure your book’s theme matches the prejudices of your potential agent and publisher.
That is a popular theme that will resonate with some tribes and jar with others. Personally, I’d say that theme is so ubiquitous in mainstream science fiction that I’d be more interested in a novel with a theme that suggests the opposite:
As a political statement, I’m not sure I’d agree with either, but the latter could be an intriguing theme to read. Or to write.
It won’t happen in mainstream Anglo-American publishing industry, though. Attempting to get a book with such a theme published would be career suicide.
However, I’ve just contradicted Handley’s Theory. I’m sure he’s right in many cases, but not for all.
And I’ll disagree with my friend again. One of my all-time favorite books is The Forever War. It has several powerful themes and one of those is the alienation of combat veterans from the civilians back home. It was written in 1974 by Joe Haldeman shortly after his return to America from the Vietnam War. The alienation in his book feels personal, and I’m sure it was.
Haldeman heightens the reading experience by linking the alienation to the extreme relativistic effects of travelling at near lightspeed to the combat zones and back. It’s brilliant work and inspired me to write one of my earliest short stories: The Meandering Mayhem of Thogron Throatbiter (which is available here).
Themes can be a powerful factor in a great book, but the author doesn’t need to write any themes for it to be great. And where the author does write themes, the reader may not consider them to be of great importance.
For example, in researching this topic, I came across a suggested theme for The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown:
I can see how that could be a part of the book, but I read that novel, and I didn’t get a sense of that. For me it was about the protagonist coming across a girl in Paris and spending the entire book running away from bad guys. That was what made it a page turner for me.
Or The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. A suggested theme is that it’s about the way authoritarian regimes use spectacle to control populations. Again, I can see that fits, but for me it was about the hero playing a rigged game and winning anyway (Which felt personal; I’ve experienced a few RPG campaigns like that 😉). The only book in the series I picked up was the second one. I read the first third and it seemed to be entirely about a teenage girl who moons over two boys, not wanting to have to choose which one she liked most. That was the point I gave up and decided it wasn’t a book for me.
The Taylor Model: bones and blood
When I think of what makes a good story, I’ve developed an anatomical model.
The heart is the characters.
The lungs, muscles, and sinews are the plot, the action events drive the story forward. The skeleton? That would be the architecture.
The prose, the styling and the setting— for me that’s the vascular system, supplying blood and nutrients for the muscles to work on removing waste products before they get in the way of the story.
Okay, I’m not gonna go over every single body part – this is only simple analogy, after all – but the major organ I’ve left out so far is the brain. This is where the reader comes in.
One of the freaky things about being an author is that even though I am the one that writes the story, I’m not the one who creates it into existence. That would be the reader. My books have been read hundreds of thousands of times, and every single time was unique. The reading experience is a combination of the words I craft with the mind of one unique individual, of who they are and where they were at that moment in time. It’s an idea that awes me sometimes.
Actually, as I write this, I realize I’ve left off another major organ too important to ignore. Skin. I don’t know about you, but I think people are more attractive with skin on their bones rather than flayed. So let’s say a book’s skin is the cover art, the author name recognition, the product description, endorsements, the cover blurb, and everything else that makes you inclined to try the book before you actually start to read it.
Where does that leave theme?
Theme is connective tissue. It’s the glue that quietly binds the various parts of your body together so that your organs don’t sink down into your boots.
At least, with a light touch that is. It’s like the bass line of a song. It might not be at the front of the mix — people might not even notice it — but if you suddenly cut it out, you would certainly notice its absence. It connects the various parts of the story. A unifying force that means the story is more than a sequence of random scenes.
Doesn’t have to be something obvious or even notable for the reader to get the benefit of its effect.
In the same vein, you don’t need theme at all to achieve that connective tissue effect.
I think some beginning writers benefit from the ability of a theme to tie their stories together and give them purpose. With more experience, many authors find that they can lay down this connective tissue instinctively without needing the prop of a theme.
I used themes in my earlier novels. The first five, I would say. Then I moved on.
I’m about to finish my twenty-second. Although I haven’t written strongly themed books for a few years, I would like to do so. It just hasn’t been the right time to write those works.
So there you have it. Writers can use themes or not. And if they don’t care to, that doesn’t mean they won’t come back in a few years and enjoy using them to great effect. Some readers love a good theme; most don’t care.
And if anyone tells you a good book must have a theme, nod and smile politely, then walk briskly away because they’re talking nonsense.
Or they’re an English teacher. In which case they really can’t help themselves.
Themes in Tim C. Taylor fiction
On occasion I use themes myself in my writing. The most central one was the theme I had right from the very start for the Human Legion series. If you read the Legion Bulletin, you already know that I wanted to write a series in which plucky humans overthrew the evil alien empire that had remained strong for hundreds of thousands of years. But I didn’t want them to win due to a series of lucky coincidences, nor to rely on the successful alien empire being incompetent at every turn. Or for the empire to have a farfetched weakness. Such as ginger being a powerfully addictive drug, to give a not-at-all random example.
How could I make it believable? That was my connecting theme.
I took my inspiration from the real-life Czech Legion. They didn’t overthrow an empire. They didn’t want to – they wanted to go home and establish an independent homeland – but they did hint at how it could be done in real life. And that, of course, is why I named the series the Human Legion.
There were other themes too, though less obvious.
Right from the start, I always wanted an interstellar civilization that worked without faster-than-light travel.
How did economics work?
How do you feed people from incompatible ecologies?
And given this was military SF, how do you supply your frontline soldiers when your nearest supply base is 90 years away?
I spent weeks happily working out the details. It was a lot of work. To this day, I’m not sure whether a single reader appreciated any of it, but it did make me think hard about my worldbuilding.
With Chimera Company, you just have to flick the switch on the flight console and you’re in jump space. So much easier. And possibly more fun.
How to use theme well
It’s a shame we live in an intolerant literary age of cancel culture, hyper-partisan hatred, and a mainstream publishing industry openly hostile to mainstream ideas. Shame for me as a reader and as a writer. I’d prefer to see a wider range of themes explored.
I particularly like the idea Philip K Dick pulled off a few times in which he simultaneously threads contradictory themes through his books. When that works, it’s mind blowing.
In my own island nation, a popular literary theme at the moment is one of Brexit. Unfortunately, because the publishing industry is so overwhelmingly against the idea, we get science fictional metaphors for sorry little reactionary islands who talk themselves into a drab, pariah existence on the periphery of the world.
Yes, it’s Britain after Brexit as science fiction.
Personally, I’d be more interested in writing or reading a pair of Brexit novellas with contradictory themes. No, a triptych. Better still, a quartet. Bound in one volume with a cool cover featuring a background Union Jack divided into quarters. With demons jabbing pointy sticks and a Scottish trawler. A wicker man would be good too.
One of these novellas would depict a science fictional metaphorical Brexit to be the success its supporters hoped. Another in which it was a dismal failure, as all the mainstream publishing industry insists it will be. Then we could have one more in which, despite all the fuss, Brexit fundamentally changes nothing of importance. Finally, let’s add one in which Brexit changed everything, but in ways that absolutely no one foresaw.
That would be a great use of theme to do something interesting. I wouldn’t mind writing one of those novellas. Or all of them. In my teenage years, I could imagine such a book being published by the mainstream press, but I don’t think such a thing will be possible again in my lifetime.
If you’re from another country, swap out Brexit for one of your own blistering hot divisive topics. I hear there’s plenty to choose from in America right now.
For me going forward, I’d like to write some more heavily themed books. Controversial ones. I’d first need to reach a state where the backlist is selling so well that I don’t have to keep on the treadmill writing the next book to keep the bills paid.
I wouldn’t write about Brexit. I’m too fed up with that. Writing a story with a theme that I don’t personally believe in has always intrigued me. It’s a challenge. Both to my ability as a writer and to my empathy and willingness to listen to the Other.
I want to explore some dangerous ideas. I’d do it under a pen name, of course. Yes, a few more bestsellers, and I’ll do just that.
Over to Jim Butcher
I’ll leave this talk of theme with a quote from the author of my favorite book series so far this century, Jim Butcher on The Dresden Files.
He did an AMA on Reddit a few years ago and said the following on our topic:
Well said, Mr. Butcher, who not only sells books by the gazillion but clearly worships at the Handley School of literary philosophy. As we learned earlier, Handley’s Theory teaches us that whether authors deliberately write themes into books or not, English teachers, critics, and academics will always find them anyway.
Joe at the Unity 151 Booktube channel invited me on for a chat last week. First up we talked about my current project, Chimera Company, and then we moved on to my most recently published novel (One Minute to Midnight) and the Four Horsemen Universe in general.
Amongst other things, I go through some inspirations for both series and explain where the idea of the Midnight Sun Free Company and the Goltar came from*. Spoiler: it’s basically a Jag E-Type restored by a super-rich owner who’s paid a driver to race it. Hard.
So if for some inexplicable reason you don’t fancy the idea of watching me and Joe talk about books for an hour, watch this thrilling nine-minute race instead where a Jag E-Type takes on some AC Cobras and demonstrates racing from an era where most of the course was traversed sideways. I’ve never been to Goodwood Revival, but it’s what I had in my head when I came up with Contract Fulfilled, the first Midnight Sun story, which appeared in the anthology For a Few Credits More.
Anyway, thanks to Joe for having me on. We had a laugh. I must have done a dozen or more podcasts, I was on Youtube last year for the Keystroke Medium Writer’s Journey with Kalene and Lauren, and I’ve been filmed a few times at conventions, but this was my first Booktube.
*Strictly speaking, the name of the Goltar species came from Chris Kennedy who wasn’t impressed with my original suggestion. Can’t remember why.
I read what I regard as the worst book review I’ve ever seen.
It wasn’t a review of one of my own books, because I rarely read them these days. Here’s why. In reviews of my books, I’ve been accused of being a communist, fascist, feminazi, SJW, gun porn peddler, neocon (I had to look that up – the term didn’t mean what I had assumed) and a host of other crimes. Some people, of course, simply didn’t like my books, which is fair enough. Most of my 1-star reviews, however, have come from people whose narrative I offended.
That’s fine. It’s all part of the business of being a professional author, and I’ve learned to live with that. But reading them takes me out of a productive mindset, so I only read them on non-writing weeks, which these days is pretty much never.
The review I discovered online is different. For starters, it was written by somebody who calls themselves a critic.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being a critic. However, far too often the difference between a critic and a reviewer seems to be that a critic is more sophisticated and educated than the lower orders who write mere reviews. Critics are having a ‘conversation’ with others of their elevated position. They’re not interested in ordinary readers, who are – let’s face it – unequipped to understand their arguments.
If you know me, you’ll know how cross I am, because I generally avoid such sweeping sarcastic statements like the plague. There’s a minority of critics for whom I know that previous paragraph is unfairly harsh, and to them I apologize.
But I make no apologies in the case of this particular review. Let me give you a flavor of why not. The critic is so bloated with entitlement that they quote a paragraph from the book and then ‘correct’ it, so that it’s now written in the ‘right’ way.
And in doing so, makes it worse in my opinion.
Unbelievably, this is immediately after the critic wrote that one of the glories of science fiction is that there is no one right way to write it. Obviously, they feel there are wrong ways to write science fiction, which appears to mean every style of writing that the critic doesn’t personally appreciate.
Okay. This review is an egregious example, so why get worked up? There are plenty of arrogant, abusive, and just plain ignorant people on the internet who enjoy publicly reveling in their bigotry. Isn’t this just one more?
I would be inclined to agree, if not for one thing.
The critic is also an author in their own right.
In fact, they are an award-winning author, and the reason they are reviewing the novel they don’t appreciate is because it has been nominated for an award. To be fair, the reviewer admits that they aren’t the target audience. Unlike some other critics, they aren’t actively seeking out books they won’t like in order to indulge in the pleasure of ripping them to shreds.
The review still leaves a very sour taste in my mouth. It also brings to mind a question I’ve pondered for some while, but never been moved to post about until now. Revulsion, it turns out, is a powerful motivating force.
Should authors review the works of other authors? Specifically, is it okay for an author to give one of their peers a bad review?
As I wrote at the top, I consider this to be a particularly bad example of a review. But is it irredeemable? No, I don’t think so. Let’s see if we can alter it to be more to my personal liking. To paraphrase, it currently says this:
I didn’t like the way this book was written. And I felt certain that the people I associate with as fellow critics – and whose opinion I respect because they’re broadly the same as mine – wouldn’t like it either. Therefore, the book can’t possibly have much value. Anyone who thinks this is a good book, or nominated it for an award, is both incomprehensible to me and wrong. Here’s an example of a paragraph that wasn’t written correctly. Contrast it with my corrected version.
Let’s change that to a version that suits my tastes better without watering down the original criticisms into obsequious slime.
This book failed to impress me on numerous levels. I didn’t like the way the book was written because of X, Y & Z. I would prefer to have seen A, B & C. By way of illustration, here’s one instance of how I changed a paragraph I didn’t like. Do you see my point? Do you agree that my version is superior?
Do you see how easy it is to be respectful to the author and to those who read and enjoyed the author’s work without filing off your opinions? To be respectful to those who shortlisted the book for an award? How easy it is for the reviewer to acknowledge that there is more to science fiction than they can dream of in their philosophy?
We don’t want to dilute our reviews with constant repetitions of ‘in my opinion’, ‘personally’, ‘for me’. That would be annoying. Nonetheless, I believe literary criticism would be enormously enhanced if more critics acknowledged that significant numbers of readers have different tastes from them, and that those tastes also have worth. Even if — no, especially if — those tastes are different from the peer group they choose to associate with. Indeed, wouldn’t it be nice to promote an inclusive happy family of science fiction fans?
Whoaah! Hold up a mo’! Haven’t I just done the very thing I criticized? Didn’t I just ‘correct’ the original review.
No, I didn’t. I explained what I didn’t like about the original. I suggested an improvement and why I felt it was an improvement. I haven’t said the original was wrong.
It’s true that I’ve applied some harsh words to the original. ‘Bigoted’ might have come up once or twice. But that’s an objective description. I don’t like dismissing other people’s tastes because they don’t share my own, but I haven’t said it’s wrong. Some reviewers freely indulge the pleasures of bigotry and abuse. After all, hatred and division are highly addictive. Just ask any totalitarian dictator. In fact, I recommend you read or listen to this excellent book I’ve just listened to about how so-called news journalism feeds this addiction in order to monetize hatred. [Hate Inc]
Anyway, for the sake of progress in this thought experiment, let us imagine we run with my revised version. We tacitly acknowledge other people have different literary tastes and they are just as valid as ours, even though we don’t personally ‘get’ them. Maybe we could even push this to a higher level of enlightenment and glimpse the possibility that for a literary field to have a diversity of writing can be a strength. We might not personally enjoy every segment of this literary field, but its diversity enriches the whole and keeps it vigorous. Even those parts we don’t particularly like. Even those parts enjoyed by the lumpenlectorat, the underclass of unsophisticated readers who enjoy popular books.
With this more open-minded mode of literary criticism, is it still right for an author to savage another author’s work, even if the criticism is written in the inclusive mode of “I didn’t like it and here’s why”, rather than “it’s terrible, and any other point of view but mine is inconceivable”?
Yes, I believe it is. Personally, I don’t like it, but I can’t bring myself to say that to do so is wrong. Not on ethical grounds. Not if you genuinely didn’t enjoy the work. I also acknowledge that plenty of authors were writing reviews and criticism before they began publishing books. Why should they stop just because they won their “I’m now a certified author” card?
And yet it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth when authors cast scorn on their peers. Always.
If I go to a restaurant in town, and the chef comes to our table to explain in lurid detail why the rival restaurant down the street is a terrible place and we should never go there. I don’t want to hear that.
At quiet times, I have occasionally experienced chefs come and talk to me about where they got the recipe from. And how pleased they are about the ingredients. They’re proud of what they have created and that’s a positive thing to hear. I like hearing from creators who are passionate about what they do.
But sneering, snarky insults, and dark rumors? No, that doesn’t make a good experience for me. I can’t say that I wouldn’t ever read a book by an author who writes scathing reviews of other authors, but I am much less likely to read them.
There are so many good science fiction books that I enjoy being published right now that I don’t have to try out an author I regard as being a jerk.
I guess that’s an angle of practical advice for authors. Be careful when you’re being obnoxious because a lot of readers don’t like it. I say “be careful” not “don’t do it” because, let’s be realistic, there are also many readers who get off on abuse, but only so long as you’re being obnoxious about an othered group of people that it is okay to hate. [Once again, see Hate Inc.].
I know for certain that other people have different views on this.
Does it bother you if an author leaves a bad review for a peer? Maybe you think it’s a good thing, better than people who only leave good reviews.
People like me, for example. The only bad book reviews I’ve ever left are for superstar authors, writers who won’t notice any negative impact from my opinion. And even then, I haven’t left such reviews for many years.
I don’t leave any reviews on Amazon at all, because when I leave a good review, Amazon consistently deletes my reviews and deletes other positive reviews at the same time. So my reviews actually do more harm than good to works I want to support. That’s probably because the Amazon account I use to leave reviews is the same I use to publish books. Amazon knows I sell a lot of books and has some fuzzy guidelines that say I probably shouldn’t be leaving reviews.
I am, however, starting to leave reviews on Bookbub, but I only leave positive reviews. If I don’t like a book, I don’t comment on it. For me, that’s the right way to proceed with reviewing. However, unlike the example that fueled this post, I’m open to the idea that other points of view are also valid.
For anyone following what I’m up to via this site, here is the news.
Last month, I capped all my Four Horsemen Universe (4HU) short stories and novels to date with One Minute to Midnight. I co-wrote that book and doing so was a pleasure that delivered practical benefits too. I will co-write again.
For the moment, One Minute is only available in paperback and Kindle editions. The audiobook is in production.
This concludes a trilogy of related novels that came out over the past six months and started with Endless Night and then The Dark Before the Light. The audiobook of Endless Night came out last month and the others will follow. In fact, it concludes all my 4HU writing in a way that hopefully ties together all the threads I’ve been weaving right from the beginning (even if I didn’t realize at the time!)
If you’re not already a fan of 4HU mech mayhem, I wrote Endless Night so you could start there. Or start with it’s predecessor, The Midnight Sun that came out in 2018. Or try out my sample novelette Thrill Addict that introduces the characters and settings. Or start at the very beginning with Dragon Award nominated Cartwright Cavaliers by Mark Wandrey.
By my count, today marks the launch of the 50th 4HU book. It’s a lively place!
Last night I recorded my first Booktube interview over at the Unity 151 channel. Should be out next week. I’m rabbiting on about 4HU and about Chimera Company (for which I recently signed a 5-book deal with Theogony Books). I also look considerably more worn than my picture on this site. I took that image on the beach at Walton-on-the-Naze ten years ago. See what a decade working as a writer does to the physique! I must get a more recent picture.
In art news, my friend and artistic collaborator, Vincent Sammy, has produced some props inspired by the artwork he created for Chimera Company. The conceit is that this is an equipment pack for a Department 9 operative. This being a deep dark ops organization that’s gone rogue. It is an indescribable pleasure to see the words I typed or dictated at my desk being transformed into something tangible in the real world. Thank you, Vincent.
Also, I’m going to be co-editing an anthology later this year. It’s my first one. Don’t plan on doing loads of them because it’s an awful lot of work. I’m sure it will look very smart on my bookshelf, though.
Finally, I have been struggling to post anything at the site. WordPress keeps locking me out. So this is a test post, really, although it seems to have gone on a bit. Never mind, there’s something meatier to post after I’ve had my lunch.
And that is today’s news from my writing cupboard in sunny Bedfordshire.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 Reviewhere. ) 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 ofthe 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.
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!
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.
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
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…
Tim Taylor is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme and the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, affiliate advertising programs designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk and amazon.com respectively. If you shop through an affiliate link, you will not pay a penny more.
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Join the Legion and receive this novelette in your starter library.