2011-11-28

Marked Down!

A veritable ton of analysis continues to be made regarding the questions of ebook pricing and revenue, much of it presumably ramping up in advance of this year’s Kindle Fire Christmas, and what promises to be a tipping-point selling season for Amazon and the other major ebook retailers. Much of the discussion (as usual) talks about the race to the bottom, and the idea that unfettered competition and a wealth of books written by indie authors who don’t care that much about quality will inevitably force a 99¢ price point on all authors and publishers. For whatever it’s worth, i don’t favor a 99¢ price point for full-length novels and anthologies (though to be honest, the money i’d lose as an author stacked up against the money i’d save as a reader means i’d probably break even). However, there’s one point that always seems to get glossed over when people are talking about book pricing and the fate of an author’s ability to make a living.

The brand-new hardcopy, trade paperback, and mass-market paperback revenue stream for books has never been wholly representative of the way that a lot of people actually buy books. An awful lot of people buy books at a discount. They shop for bargains, they buy online. They look for the old hard-to-find books from authors they’ve just recently discovered. They use libraries to read first-run titles whose hardcover prices are rapidly approaching the point where booksellers will start asking for credit references.

Now, i don’t have hard and fast statistics, but i’m pretty comfortable saying that the used book market never approached the kind of dollar value that ebooks represent in the long term. Thus, i acknowledge that this point is mostly just allegory. But there’s one important distinction between the way books used to be cheap, and the way that ebooks are cheap now — the fact that cheap ebooks can still return money to the self-published writer. For whatever it’s worth, i’m a fan of the ebook pricing model championed by Dean Wesley Smith. But the thing to remember is that no matter what price point we choose as indie authors and no matter what rationale we use for that decision, we have the freedom to use pricing to appeal to the widest number of readers, and to make money while we do.

Here’s a confession. For the relatively long period of my life in which i was a starving student, every book i bought was either used or remaindered. Not because i was cheap in a general sense, or because i was a dick taking perverse pleasure in denying royalties to the authors i loved, but because that was literally and seriously the only way i could afford to buy books. In a completely coincidental way, a remarkable number of the used paperbacks that came into my possession in those years did so for the now-contentious price of a dollar a shot, gleaned from the dusty lower shelves of used bookstores and the anarchic tables of library and charity fund-raiser sales.

There’s a certain type of reader who will only ever buy books that are perceived to be a bargain. On some level, all writers want their work read by the largest number of people, so on some level, having cheap books out there is a good thing. However, no writer ever chooses to have his or her books remaindered. I would imagine that relatively few writers are in favor of people buying their books used at the expense of new books that go unsold. Because regardless of where they came from, none of those remaindered and used books i bought back in the day ever returned anything in the way of income to any of the writers who created them.

The relatively large number of ebooks i’ve bought for 99¢, or $1.99, or $2.99 in past months? Their writers chose those price points. Their writers are making money from me, and that’s not a bad thing.

2011-11-27

“Trust Your Demon”

“Occasionally, there arises a writing situation where you see an alternative to what you are doing, a mad, wild gamble of a way for handling something, which may leave you looking stupid, ridiculous or brilliant — you just don't know which. You can play it safe there, too, and proceed along the route you'd mapped out for yourself. Or you can trust your personal demon who delivered that crazy idea in the first place.

Trust your demon.”

— Roger Zelazny

2011-11-23

A Legacy of Dragons

Appendix S: The Dragonriders of Pern

I had no reason to think about this until today; no reason to remember it until i heard the news that legendary fantasist Anne McCaffrey had died Monday at the age of 85. What i’ve remembered is that the Dragonriders of Pern was the first real fantasy and speculative fiction i ever read.

I’d read SF before then, including Theodore Sturgeon and Robert A. Heinlein, but the worlds of those books were simply our world with a twist. I’d read fantasy before, starting with The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis in third grade, but those were nominally kids’ books. Tales. Fables. Amazing fables, to be sure, but the worlds that Lewis and Tolkien had crafted were worlds i likewise recognized, because they were familiar from the same archetypes that had long ago splintered off to create Snow White and The Black Cauldron. But it was only a year after Sturgeon and Lewis and Tolkien that at the age of 10, i saw a copy of Dragonflight at my local drugstore and felt myself sucked into the cover of that circa-1974 paperback edition.

Reading McCaffrey at age ten is not a thing i would necessarily recommend. I remember struggling at the outset to read Dragonflight. I remember feeling like i was missing about half of what was going on, particularly the politics, the sense of history, and oh, yeah, the hot dragon/human group-sex-at-a-distance motif. But even as i worked my through Dragonflight, a thing happened at the tender age of ten that set the bar for my love of fantasy for the rest of my life. The more things that i didn’t understand, the more determined i became to dig deep enough into Pern that i could make them real.

And so i did. And over the space of three-hundred-odd pages, i felt Pern come alive in my mind. I learned the ways of the Weyrs and their people. I felt the history of McCaffrey’s world slowly set its ageless impressions into me. I felt the trepidation of a people who craved peace so much that they forgot their deadliest enemies. I let the thread scare the ever-loving crap out me in the best mindless-fantasy-creature tradition. (I had seen the Steve McQueen version of The Blob shortly beforehand, which probably helped.) For the space of the summer it took me to read Dragonflight, I walked in Pern in a way that i had never walked in Narnia. I felt Pern like i wouldn’t feel Middle Earth until Lord of the Rings a half-dozen years later. I knew Pern like i’ve since come to know a hundred different F&SF realms, from Ringworld to the Sprawl, from Greyhawk to Westeros, in all the years since.

I haven’t read an Anne McCaffrey book in a long while now. As with the works of Frank Herbert and his overly loquacious offspring, the Pern books eventually ran on just a little too long for my taste, though i have no quibble with their quality or the love that McCaffrey clearly brought to bear on her continued exploration of her world. But even so, more than thirty years after Dragonflight called to me one afternoon from a drugstore bookshelf, this is the legacy that Anne McCaffrey has left me with — the idea that the best fantasy and speculative fiction is that which allows a reader to step into a real, living world, no matter how far that world’s most basic dramatic foundations are pushed by the imagination. Anne McCaffrey taught me some of my first lessons of character story, of the value of real dilemma and human emotion in fantasy, of the rules of storytelling that let us use our fantasy worlds to hold a mirror up to the fear and the pain and the pathos of the real world.

I replaced that longlost copy of Dragonflight today, and i’m sorry that didn’t happen sooner. I’m sorry it takes so long to remember these things.

2011-11-19

“Absolute Prediction”

"Do you want an absolute prediction? Then you want only today, and you reject tomorrow. You are the ultimate conservative. You are trying to hold back movement in an infinitely changing universe. The verb 'to be' does make idiots of us all.”

— Frank Herbert

2011-11-16

“A Roll Call of Dead Books”

“The current publishing scene is extremely good for the big, popular books. They sell them brilliantly, market them and all that. It is not good for the little books. And really valuable books have been allowed to go out of print. In the old days, the publishers knew that these difficult books, the books that appeal only to a minority, were very productive in the long run. Because they’re probably the books that will be read in the next generation. It’s heart-breaking how often I have to say when I’m giving talks, ‘This book is out of print. This book is out of print.’ It’s a roll call of dead books.”

– Doris Lessing

2011-11-04

Free Fiction — Shadow to Shadow

Conry is thirteen and a priest’s son when the death of the matriarch Lady Jeslyn darkens his village like a summer dust storm. But when he discovers the connection between Lady Jeslyn’s death and the murder of Old Rhen, the druid whose passing now threatens drought, Conry finds himself facing a darkness beyond the reckoning of his faith — and a power that only he can destroy…

The free preview version of this story is no longer available. However, please check out the current Free Fiction Friday offering at the Insane Angel Studios site.


2011-11-02

The House-Slaves are Revolting!

As is eventually the case with all great thinkers, Michael Stackpole is under attack for telling the truth.
The mistake critics are making is to focus on slavery as the ownership of the physical person—aka chattel slavery. More important than that is the ownership of that person’s future production. Slavery, while it is a human rights issue, is also an economic issue. Owning people does not benefit the owner unless he can derive value from their labor. While chattel slavery involves the ownership of the physical person, there are other forms of slavery which purchase a person’s labor. America, to a very great degree, was built on the backs of a second set of slaves: indentured servants or, as colonial sources like to call them, redemptioneers. Indentured servitude is internationally recognized as a form of slavery. 
Here’s how that system works. A person wants to come to the colonies for a chance at  economic bounty. They can’t afford the passage. So, they sign a contract with someone who will pay for their passage, and they promise to work the debt off. The redemptioneer might cut his deal with his future employer, or might have his contract sold from the shipper to someone in the colonies. The redemptioneer has sold his future to fund his present, commonly for a period of three to seven years.
This is what authors do when they accept a contract and advances which are accounted against his future output. An author is selling his labor to move him into a position of future bounty. 

Stackpole’s original post that inspired the furor is required reading for anyone calling himself or herself a writer, as is the Barry Eisler followup he cites in the current post. And while I have no hope of trying to make myself sound as insightful as either, the following thought did occur to me vis. Stackpole’s analogy and why he’s right to use it. 

The role and history of indentured servitude as an unnamed tier of slavery in the development of European North America remains vastly overlooked, and it’s an excellent way to expand the “house slave” allegory for those who still don’t get it (which, as Stackpole notes, probably includes a lot of people who simply didn’t read his original post). A quite-cool book I read a long while ago (The Redneck Manifesto, i think it was) made the point that objectively speaking, indentured servants were often worse off than chattel slaves, because the latter were property. At the end of the day, it was in a slave-owner’s best interests to keep his slaves healthy in the expectation of selling them or their children. However, the holder of an indentured servant’s contract would want to get as much labor as possible out of that servant before his term expired — even if that meant literally working him or her to death.

Obviously, the morality of slavery or indentured servitude isn't apropos of the morality of the publishing industry. But since that just as obviously wasn’t the point of either Stackpole’s original post or Barry Eisler’s post, the “house-slave” language remains entirely accurate. In a situation where a publisher “owns” a writer (for example, a long-term work-for-hire situation typified by newspaper writers), it’s in the publisher’s best interest to take care of that writer. That writer and his or her talent is the long-term investment that brings dividends to the publisher. Fiction writers, on the other hand, are indentured servants, and publishers will treat them like crap not necessarily because of indifference or ego — but because it makes no economic sense to do otherwise.