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…
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!
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
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.
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.
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)
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?
I want stories
in which things happen.
I want to need to know what happens next.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 TheCrystal 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
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.
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.
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
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
felt all twelve stories had something to offer that made it worth my time
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
occurred to me that this might be difficult.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
fiction is in far ruder health today.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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-whitewas 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.
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.
the Nebula Awards an interesting sign of the times.
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
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
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!!!!
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
Join the Legion and receive this novelette in your starter library.