Archive for Publishing

Fire on Iron Now Available for Kindle!

Fire On Iron

Kudos to my lovely (and hardworking) wife, Dara, on reaching her first milestone with MonstraCity Press: publishing my steampunk supernatural suspense novel, Fire on Iron, to the Kindle platform! Dara opted to go the “extra mile” with publishing to Kindle, not relying on one of the automatic conversion utilities to convert the book from a Word document to the Kindle format. Instead, she spent a couple of months learning HTML code so she could ensure a uniform reading experience for all Kindle customers, no matter their hardware. It was a steep learning curve, but she made it to the first plateau. Now, onwards and upwards to CreateSpace, Nook, and Smashwords!

Fire on Iron is Book One of Midnight’s Inferno: the August Micholson Chronicles. This is a brand-new series, a steampunk supernatural suspense adventure set during the American Civil War. Here is the description:

“What price redemption? Is martial honor worth the cost of one’s soul?

“Lieutenant Commander August Micholson lost his first ship, the wooden frigate USS Northport, in reckless battle against the rebel ironclad ram CSS Virginia. However, Flag Officer Andrew Foote offers the disgraced young Micholson a chance to redeem himself: he can take the ironclad gunboat USS James B. Eads on an undercover mission to destroy a hidden rebel boat yard, where a fleet of powerful ironclads is being constructed which will allow the Confederate Navy to dominate the Mississippi.

“But dangers far more sinister than rebel ironclads await Micholson and his crew. On the dark waters of the Yazoo River, deep within rebel territory, they become entangled in a plot devised by a slave and his master to summon African fire spirits to annihilate the Federal armies. Micholson must battle devils both internal and external to save the lives of his crew, sink the Confederate fleet, and foil the arcane conspiracy. Ultimately, Micholson is faced with a terrible choice — he can risk the lives of every inhabitant of America, both Union and Confederate, or destroy himself by merging with a demon and forever melding his own soul with that of his greatest enemy.”

I have many intriguing twists and turns in store for my beleaguered protagonist, August Micholson – he begins his adventures as a Lieutenant Commander in the Union Navy, assigned to an extremely hazardous undercover mission behind Confederate lines. By the end of the first book, he is on his way to becoming a steampunk amalgam of Dr. Strange and the Human Torch, with the added hang-up of having to deal with sharing his skull with two very unwelcome “guests.”

Dara and I plan to make Fire on Iron available in all the popular e-formats within a few weeks, as well as available as a trade paperback. So please watch this space for more announcements.

I’m already at work on Book Two of Midnight’s Inferno: the August Micholson Chronicles, which will be entitled Hellfire and Damnation. Look for that one in the summer of 2014!

Fire on Iron Coming in October!

I am very, VERY pleased to announce that the first book to be published by MonstraCity Press will be my steampunk supernatural suspense novel, Fire on Iron. It will be available in all the popular ebook formats and as a trade paperback this October. The first of many projects to come from MonstraCity Press!

Here is the back cover copy:

“What price redemption? Is martial honor worth the cost of one’s soul?

“Lieutenant Commander August Micholson lost his first ship, the wooden frigate USS Northport, in reckless battle against the rebel ironclad ram CSS Virginia. However, Flag Officer Andrew Foote offers the disgraced young Micholson a chance to redeem himself: he can take the ironclad gunboat USS James B. Eads on an undercover mission to destroy a hidden rebel boat yard, where a fleet of powerful ironclads is being constructed which will allow the Confederate Navy to dominate the Mississippi.

“But dangers far more sinister than rebel ironclads await Micholson and his crew. On the dark waters of the Yazoo River, deep within rebel territory, they become entangled in a plot devised by a slave and his master to summon African fire spirits to annihilate the Federal armies. Micholson must battle devils both internal and external to save the lives of his crew, sink the Confederate fleet, and foil the arcane conspiracy. Ultimately, Micholson is faced with a terrible choice — he can risk the lives of every inhabitant of America, both Union and Confederate, or destroy himself by merging with a demon and forever melding his own soul with that of his greatest enemy.

“Book 1 of Midnight’s Inferno: the August Micholson Chronicles

I believe my protagonist August Micholson will be rather unique – a steampunk amalgam of Dr. Strange and the Human Torch, with a great deal of multiple-personality complications mixed in. My next project will be the second book in the Midnight’s Inferno series.

More news to come, both regarding the Midnight’s Inferno books and other exciting projects from MonstraCity Press – so watch this space!

Snapshot of the Revolution in Book Retailing, Circa 1978

Upheaval in the bookselling trade is not a purely 21st century phenomenon. The introduction of cheap paperbacks during the decade following World War Two turned the bookselling trade upside down, pushing the locus of the trade away from small shops located in big city downtowns to newsstands and drugstores, with their ubiquitous spinner racks. Cheap paperbacks helped (along with the introduction of TV into nearly all households) to kill off the formerly lucrative niche of pulp fiction magazine publishing; many of the specialty pulps disappeared altogether (nurse pulps, airwar pulps, and western pulps, to name a few), and the science fiction and mystery pulps shrank back to a handful of titles, the survivors soon reducing their format to the smaller (and cheaper to manufacture and distribute) digest size.

More recently, in the middle to late 1970s, the bookselling trade was transformed yet again, this time by the rapid spread of shopping mall-based national and regional bookstore chains which concentrated on carrying large selections of paperbacks and discounted hardbacks, most of the latter being “remainders,” unsold books which had been returned by stores and then offered by their publishers for resale at steeply discounted prices.

I came across this Time Magazine article from 1978, entitled “Rambunctious Revival of Books,” which gives a sepia-toned portrait of the bookselling trade thirty-five years ago, before the rise of the superstores, when mall-based chains such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers were the Amazon.coms/800-pound gorillas of their day. (Note: This article is brought to you by the Internet Archive Way-Back Machine, so it may take an extra few seconds to load.)

“Once upon a time book retailing was about as exciting as watching haircuts. Hardcover books were often sold in musty downtown stores by fussy bibliophiles, and many readers turned to paperback racks in the more informal atmosphere of supermarkets or drugstores. Today the bookstore business is in the midst of a rambunctious revival. … Largely as a result of their merchandising razzle-dazzle, the chains are inducing people to buy more books than ever. … Helped by the chains’ expansion, stores are springing up, increasing from about 7,300 less than two years ago to almost 9,000 now.

“In the forefront of the merchandising blitz are such chains as Waldenbooks, the nation’s largest book retailer, owned by Carter Hawley Hale Stores. Begun in 1962, the Walden chain now has 498 shops dotted around the country, mostly in suburban shopping malls. In recent years it has been opening a store a week. B. Dalton, a subsidiary of Dayton Hudson Corp., the department store conglomerate, is the second largest bookseller. Dalton too has been growing at a feverish rate in recent years and has 339 stores in 40 states. Other chains include Doubleday stores, an affiliate of the publishing house, and Brentano’s, an affiliate of Macmillan. The chains account for up to half of all hardcover retail sales, and their share of the market grows every month.

“These big companies operate with a cold efficiency that astounds the oldtime booksellers, who often take a warm proprietary interest in their wares. Highly computerized Dalton, which carries about 30,000 titles in each shop, assigns every book a number; when the book is sold the number is entered through the cash register into a computer, which produces a weekly report on what every store in the chain has sold. Slow-moving titles are quickly culled. Most chains concentrate almost exclusively on bestsellers—novels, selfhelp, biographies and the like. …

“Kroch’s, which has a reputation as a quality bookseller with an interest in the literary field, continues to operate in the old tradition; its sales people, for instance, often phone customers to alert them to new books that they might like. Against this, Dalton offers a plethora of autograph parties featuring such guests as Charlton Heston and former Treasury Secretary William Simon, and some selective discounting. Like many independents, Carl Kroch, the chain’s president, insists there will always be a place for the old, full-price shop. Says he: ‘You can’t provide our kind of services on such a large scale. Besides, there’s room for everyone. The public is still underexposed to books.’”

The modern reader has to stifle a laugh at the article’s swooning description of “highly computerized Dalton … (which) assigns every book a number.” Wow! What a wonder of the modern world! But the words of Carl Kroch sound much less dated – because they echo virtually every press release sent out by Leonard Riggio, Barnes and Noble’s chairman, whose firm, the only surviving national superstore chain in America, now finds itself in precisely the same market position as Kroch’s Books was in back in 1978.

Still, this article inspired a lot of nostalgia for me. I was thirteen years old in 1978, what Isaac Asimov has called “the Golden Age of science fiction.” It certainly was for me. I had just discovered Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, and Ursula K. LeGuin. I began building my science fiction reference library at my local Waldenbooks, tucked away inside the 163rd Street Shopping Center in North Miami Beach, spending my weekly allowance and bar-mitzvah gift money on such tomes as The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and David Kyle’s wonderful pair of beautifully illustrated, large-format histories, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams (still own all three of them and have been sharing them with my oldest son). That particular Waldenbooks, by the way, was where I met the first, great (unrequited) love of my life, a cultured young lady seven years my senior who was working as a bookstore clerk to pay her way through college. The nearest B. Dalton Bookseller was downtown, at the Miami Omni Mall; due to their well-stocked history section, that was my go-to source for big, thick, photo-choked histories of warships and armored vehicles. Four years later, when I went to New Orleans to attend Loyola University, I discovered a Brentano’s Books at the Shops at Canal Place mall, located downtown near the Mississippi River; it was a charming spot at which to enjoy a cappuccino and page through an imported art book.

I imagine that come 2048, thirty-five years from now, some other commentator will come across an article in the Internet Archive Way-Back Machine (or its future equivalent) from Forbes or The Wall Street Journal or Wired, describing the disruptive impact of Amazon on the bookselling trade and the death-throes of the physical superstores. I wonder whether that middle-aged commentator will look back on his or her teen book-buying years and remember the experience of shopping on Amazon with the warm glow of nostalgia?

Will the Rise of Self-Publishing Change the Portrayal of Commerce in Science Fiction?

The devious, scheming, evil Ferengi — emblematic of businesspeople in science fiction?

The confluence this year of Independence Day, my wife and I starting our own small business (MonstraCity Press), and my coming across this article, called “Commerce and Art,” got me to thinking about my own field of the arts, science fiction, and how commerce, entrepreneurship, and business in general are portrayed. Also, knowing that authors often write what they know best, modeling their protagonists’ careers on their own day jobs, I began wondering whether the ongoing shift in the production of both physical books and ebooks from traditional, large publishing concerns to micro-firms controlled by the authors themselves would have any impact on the portrayal of merchants and commerce in science fiction.

First, I wanted to see what is out there currently. I turned to that crutch for the quick-and-dirty researcher, Google, and did some searches. It turns out that most portrayals of commerce and business in science fiction are of large corporations. And those portrayals, to put things bluntly, aren’t pretty. Near the top of the Google results, I came across lists of the Top Five Most Reprehensible Corporations in Science Fiction, the Ten Most Evil Corporations in Science Fiction, and Fifteen Evil Corporations in Science Fiction.

Noticing a theme? Here’s a revealing quote from the first of these lists which neatly sums up their content: “From an early age, we science fiction nerds have been taught that all corporate entities, regardless of size or field of interest, are inherently evil and seek only to make the lives of the little people more and more miserable.” An article called “Corporations in Science Fiction” makes this similar observation:

“Whether describing a society in which governments have been replaced by greedy megacorporations, or one in which each individual is required to be incorporated at birth, science fiction has overwhelmingly tended to cast business as the villain.”

Were there any corresponding lists of positive (or at least non-evil) portrayals of businesses, businesspeople, or entrepreneurs in science fiction? I couldn’t find any. So I decided to perform a little experiment with a relatively brief survey of the field I had at hand, 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels, a list compiled by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison published in Britain in 2006. This minute book was handy for my purposes because it gives plot summaries and overall reviews for a hundred prominent science fiction novels, dating from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus to almost the present day.

I went looking for examples of prominent SF novels whose protagonists were businesspeople or entrepreneurs, especially curious to see if any were shown in a positive light. I found four. Barrington J. Bayley’s The Garments of Caen (1976) features a hero who is a tailor and entrepreneur in a galaxy where couture influences the destinies of worlds. Michael Bishop’s Ancient of Days (1985) centers on sympathetic restaurant owner Paul Lloyd, who becomes involved in a menage a trois with a specimen of Homo Habilis. The alien protagonist of Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) acts as a benevolent inventor and business owner while trapped on Earth and attempting to send water back to his parched planet. Bob Shaw’s Other Days, Other Eyes (1972) offers up the most intriguing example of a scientific entrepreneur on this brief list: Alban Garrod, who inadvertently invents slow glass, patents it, and then watches as his invention and resulting products change the world. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1952) does center on a protagonist who is the owner and CEO of a large corporation, Ben Reich, but Reich is a murderer and an antihero, so I can’t count this one as a positive portrayal.

I did a bit more digging and came up with a tiny handful of other positive portrayals of merchants or businesspeople in SF. A. E. van Vogt gave us the weapons makers and sellers of The Weapons Shops of Isher, who function as a counterbalance to that world’s government. Poul Anderson provided us with Nicholas van Rijn, a flamboyant Dutch capitalist adventurer who stars in Anderson’s series of Technic History novels. The hero of George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen trilogy, which is set in a future Islamic caliphate, is a fixer for a local gangster but also owns a club, where much of the novels’ action takes place. F. Paul Wilson’s popular Repairman Jack character can be seen as a sort of entrepreneurial small businessman, specializing in assisting customers with resolving problems of a supernatural or otherworldly sort (although the Repairman Jack books are more properly categorized as horror, rather than SF).

Very early, pre-Amazing Stories science fiction often focused on inventor-entrepreneurs as heroes. Thomas Edison himself is featured as the hero of Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898) by Garrett P. Serviss. Young inventor Tom Swift, created by Edward Stratemeyer, was the hero of more than a hundred juvenile novels by ghostwriters writing under the pseudonym Victor Appleton, published beginning in 1910. But Big Science, by the 1930s (and the beginnings of science fiction’s Golden Age), had passed the stage of the individual inventor/science entrepreneur and moved on to the realm of large corporations, governmental bureaus, and universities. So the engineer heroes of the Campbellian Golden Age were usually portrayed as the employees of large concerns, rather than as individual economic actors.

Still, by the 1950s, the science fiction published in Galaxy and The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy had begun focusing on sociology, social psychology, and economics as types of scientific knowledge to be extrapolated. Commerce, the production of goods and the trading of those goods, is a basic human activity, present in one form or another in all human societies operating beyond a hunting and gathering stage. One might expect the number of stories and novels focusing on extrapolations of commerce would at least approximate the numbers of stories and novels featuring extrapolations of other basic societal and human functions, such as education, governance, diplomacy, reproduction, warfare, parenthood, and the arts. But aside from The Space Merchants and the almost entirely negative portrayals of large corporations alluded to above, there is surprisingly little in the SF canon.

Eric S. Raymond offers an explanation of why this is so is an article entitled “A Political History of SF.” He postulates that Campbellian Hard SF, the type of science fiction published in Astounding Stories and Analog from the late 1930s through John W. Campbell’s death in 1971, formed the ur-SF that all subsequent literary movements in science fiction (he lists these as the works of the Futurians, followed by New Wave in the 1960s, cyberpunk in the 1980s, and Radical Hard SF in the 1990s and beyond) have been reactions against. He describes the outlook of Campbellian SF as essentially Libertarian: “…ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and treats all political ideologizing with suspicion.” Accordingly, as this outlook tended to view commerce with an approving or at least neutral eye, the reactionary movements in SF (which have produced the bulk of what is generally considered the SF canon since the mid-1950s) have viewed commerce and capitalism with suspicion, if not hostility.

I would add another hypothesis: that a condemnatory attitude toward commerce and businesspeople among many SF writers stems in great part from larger trends affecting all writers in America since the mid twentieth century, not only the writers of speculative fiction. SF had its start as a brand of commercial fiction in an era during which the great bulk of fiction produced and sold was both commercial and disposable – the era of the pulp magazines. From the 1950s forward, however, many leading SF writers chose to raise their sights higher and aim for producing art literature, or at least fiction which could be enjoyed by a thoughtful, educated, literate reading public, highbrow or at a minimum midbrow. Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy in the 1950s, sought to publish a magazine which would be the equivalent of a New Yorker sold several centuries hence. The writers who formed the New Wave sought to incorporate the stylistic innovations of the Modernists into science fiction. Since the 1970s, science fiction has become an acceptable topic of discourse on college campuses, and more and more SF writers have as their day jobs teaching at post-secondary schools, just as a sizable percentage of literary/mainstream/non-genre authors have made their primary livings as university teachers since the beginnings of what has been called the Program Era in American fiction, the rise to dominance in American literary publishing of the graduates of creative writing programs.

So a goodly part of the herd of SF writers may be walking the same paths as the larger, or at least higher-status, herd of mainstream fiction writers. Stephen Miller, in his recent article “Commerce and Art,” states:

“Disdain for commerce is what might be called a topos—a recurrent theme in Western literature. … There are sympathetic portraits of businessmen in novels by Abraham Cahan, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis; yet after World War II, most American literary writers painted the business world in dark colors. In 1978, John Gardner complained that most contemporary American writers preached ‘a whining hatred of American business.’ … Jonathan Franzen takes the usual literary view of commerce. He argues that Edith Wharton ‘anticipates two … hallmarks of American society, the obliteration of all social distinctions by money and the hedonic treadmill of materialism.’”

Literary critic D. G. Myers has bemoaned the absence of meaningful, sympathetic portrayals of work in recent American literature. Nicole of the blog Bibliographing follows up on Myers’ comments by postulating that much of this absence of “real work” in American literature is due to the distance most American authors have maintained from any sorts of work apart from a limited number of white-collar professions:

“I suspect … that the professionalization of writing (especially of novel-writing) has diluted the presence of work in fiction, and what’s more, has denuded it of its variety. To some extent, this is a variant on the old complaint about ‘program fiction.’ If writers are ‘writers’ (and yes, I know many struggle and need to have day jobs to actually support themselves), if they go from BA to MFA to novel-writing, and if this is the new normal, and their peers all do the same, how much variety of experience outside a few professions are we now drawing on in contemporary fiction?

“I say ‘contemporary fiction’; I admit that I am largely thinking of a current New York–based literary scene that does, however, seem to dominate American letters at the moment. Not every character in these books is a writer, though they are often noted for their writer-narrators. But there is a fairly small circle of professions that are ‘acceptable,’ for lack of a better term, in contemporary fiction: writers, designers, journalists, perhaps lawyers and doctors, maybe a chef or two, professors, professors, professors, writers, writers… a ‘creative class,’ if you will.”

I’d like to add another point; that would be the influence of gatekeepers, particularly editors at large publishing houses, over what appears on those houses’ SF lists. Since the 1990s, the consolidation of publishing firms into sprawling corporate concerns (a number of which contain publishing arms as very minor portions of their overall business plans) has produced a publishing environment in which editors have shrinking amounts of influence over the publishing process, as opposed to that exercised by the denizens of the Marketing and Profit-and-Loss departments. Acquiring editors must “push” the books they favor through onerous layers of bureaucracy. Might not their own baleful experiences in their places of work, which chip away at their self-worth and make mockery of their early ambitions to work in the publishing industry, be reflected in their choices of manuscripts? Might not the prevalence of the trope of the “evil corporation” on the lists of Tor Books, Del Rey, Victor Gollancz, Bantam Spectra, et. al., be a gesture of “Screw the Man!” from an editorial corps whose members view themselves as white-collar cogs in a grinding corporate machine? If true, this wouldn’t surprise me.

And now we come to the biggest, most disruptive change in the publishing of science fiction since the popularization of mass-market paperback books and the death of the pulp magazines – the emergence of ebooks, print-on-demand books, and an easily and widely accessed electronic infrastructure for the sales of such items. A major mode of production and distribution of written works is now in the hands of writers themselves. Many SF and fantasy writers who launched their careers publishing the traditional way will want to continue having their books put out by the big houses. But more and more will find themselves with no choice but to take up the reins of publishing, marketing, and distribution themselves, as the shrinking number of large houses purge their lists of mid-list authors and begin concentrating solely on that small stable of writers who can reliably produce bestsellers.

Writers have always been small businesspeople: contractors who produce novels, stories, and scripts for other businesspeople to distribute to the reading/viewing audience. But many writers have not seen themselves in this role, instead seeing themselves as employees of publishing houses (or even, as literary agents have taken over editorial responsibilities formerly exercised by editors at publishing houses, as employees of their own agents). Many writers I’ve known (and I count myself as formerly among this number) prefer a world in which they are only responsible for the creation of texts, wherein all the other responsibilities inherent in publishing – editing, cover design, production, finding and nurturing an audience – are the tasks of other people. But for more and more of us, that world is no longer an option.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Being forced to take up the reins of publishing means being forced out (kicking and screaming, possibly) into the broader world of commerce. This can be an eye-opening experience, one which challenges many previously held beliefs and assumptions. One story along these lines which I really appreciate is the story of former Minnesota Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern. After his retirement from the Senate, Senator McGovern decided to purchase an inn in rural Connecticut, the Stratford Inn. He wrote very honestly about his experiences as a business owner. The difficulties of complying with a tangle of federal, state, and local regulations drove him into bankruptcy and forced him to close his business. He writes:

“Calvin Coolidge was too simplistic when he observed that ‘the business of America is business.’ But like most sweeping political statements, even Coolidge’s contains some truth — enough, as I’ve learned, to make me wish I had known more firsthand about the concerns and problems of American businesspeople while I was a U.S. senator and later a presidential nominee. That knowledge would have made me a better legislator and a more worthy aspirant to the White House. … (L)egislators and government regulators must more carefully consider the economic and management burdens we have been imposing on U.S. business. … I’m for protecting the health and well-being of both workers and consumers. I’m for a clean environment and economic justice. But I’m convinced we can pursue those worthy goals and still cut down vastly on the incredible paperwork, the complicated tax forms, the number of minute regulations, and the seemingly endless reporting requirements that afflict American business. Many businesses, especially small independents such as the Stratford Inn, simply can’t pass such costs on to their customers and remain competitive or profitable. … I do know that if I were back in the U.S. Senate or in the White House, I would ask a lot of questions before I voted for any more burdens on the thousands of struggling businesses across the nation.”

Those are the word of a man whose experiences, late in his life, after he had already experienced a lifetime in politics at the highest levels (and as a tribune of the left wing of the Democratic Party), profoundly changed his thinking.

Just taking the first few steps in setting up a small business with my wife has exposed me to a whole world of activities with which I had no prior familiarity. Dara and I are both having to learn bucket loads of new skills, and learn them in a hurry. Many others have already walked this path ahead of us and have offered us the benefits of their experiences. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written very eloquently about the emotional challenges a writer faces when he or she becomes his or her own boss. Sarah Hoyt is another interesting and independent-minded author who is currently straddling the worlds of traditional publishing (she has a good thing going with Baen Books and a history with several other major houses) and indie publishing (mostly short stories for now, but she is moving towards putting up more of her novels herself as ebooks and POD books). Others are pioneering news ways of building a career in speculative fiction. Cory Doctorow is an advocate for the liberalization of copyright laws and has published several of his books under Creative Commons license, as well as having some of his novels traditionally published by Tor Books. The husband and wife team of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have operated their own small presses, Buzzcity Press and the Ministry of Whimsy Press, as well as packaged anthologies and coffee table books for other publishers, edited magazines, and published books with traditional large houses.

People learn by doing. Writers write what they have learned. Now that more and more science fiction writers are learning the skills required by small businesspeople, will at least some of the science fiction novels and stories of the future reflect a deeper insight into the psyches of merchants and the challenges posed by commerce? Twenty years from now, will it be just as easy to find online lists entitled “Ten Most Awesome Scientific Entrepreneurs in Science Fiction” or “Fifteen Heroic Businesspeople in SF” as it is to find “Top Five Most Reprehensible Corporations in Science Fiction”?

We shall see. We most definitely shall see.

Coming Soon: MonstraCity Press!

This is me jumping the gun just a bit… I wanted to hold this announcement until we had our logo designed and our first couple of covers ready to share. But given all the eyeballs this blog has been attracting over the past weekend (thanks to a controversy which I much, much would prefer had never happened, given reputations which have been unfairly maligned, but at least the other side is now getting a hearing), I want to go ahead and be a big blabbermouth and spill the beans before I’m ready.

My wonderful wife Dara and I are launching a new business together, a small press imprint called MonstraCity Press. MonstraCity will issue both ebooks (in all the popular formats) and Print On Demand trade paperbacks, which, thanks to very recent changes in the book distribution industry, can now be ordered by bookstores from major distributors (like Baker and Taylor) in the same fashion as they can order books from one of the Big Five (formerly Big Six) publishers.

U.S.S. Cairo, near sister of U.S.S. James B. Eads

Our first book project will be my steampunk suspense novel set aboard ironclad gunboats in the Civil War, Fire on Iron. Years ago, I had hoped this novel would be the first in a series starring August Micholson, Union gunboat captain who is saddled with the bizarre destiny of being transformed into a steampunk superhero in the midst of his country’s greatest crisis. But I was never able to find an editor for whom the book was just right (some liked the Civil War elements but felt the dark fantasy parts negated the commercially necessary steampunk label; others liked the antagonist of the novel much more than the protagonist and insisted that he should be the hero… a wish which kinda/sorta comes true at the very end of the book, by the way). So I never wrote additional books in the series. But now, thanks to the wonderment of do-it-yourself publishing, I may surrender to my selfish, self-indulgent desires and continue the series, if it finds an appreciative readership.

You can find a little teaser synopsis of the book here. It has plenty of Civil War naval action, combined with sorcery and the dark fantastic. I’ve been a Civil War naval buff since I was in elementary school, so this book combines a couple of my passions. And I believe the passion comes through in the writing.

Watch this space for more news! Lots, lots more to come!

Burn the Witch! Swarm Cyber-Shaming in Science Fiction

I have a tremendous amount of fondness for the science fiction community, both professionals and fans. The SF community was boundless in their generosity and support for me and my family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and Dara, the boys, and I have all benefitted from the friendships we’ve formed at dozens of conventions and bookstore events over the past decade.

But I feel compelled to point out, or at least suggest, that a vocal and very cyber-visible portion of the SF pro and fan community have not been covering themselves in glory recently. In fact, they have been acting like a mob. A cyber-mob. And a mob is an ugly thing.

Unfortunately, the worst harm to the target of criticism comes not from individual critiques (which vary greatly in their quality of argument; many critiques that I’ve come across do not rely upon any familiarity with the source documents of the controversy at all, merely upon commentary derived from those documents and unsubstantiated assumptions about authorial intent). Individual critiques at least come from individuals, persons who can be responded to and perhaps even persuaded that the critique target’s intentions were not so malign/evil after all. Rather, the worst harm comes from the aggregated mass of such critiques, which tends to snowball, and which unfortunately has snowballed, from the members-only online discussion forums of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to hundreds, if not thousands, of personal blog posts, Facebook posts, and Twitter tweets, and finally to such mainstream publications as Britain’s Guardian newspaper and Slate, the online magazine, which are read by millions who most likely otherwise would have no notion whatsoever of flaring controversies inside the insular subculture of science fiction writers and fans. Once such critiques reach a critical mass and begin snowballing in this way, they become a creature out of the control of any individual actor. This is how reputations are irreparably damaged and careers are thrown off the rails, if not destroyed.

Did the original criticizers want this to happen? In an attempt to be charitable and fair, I will assume that many, if not most, did not. They wanted to make their displeasure known; some wanted to provoke changes which they felt needed to be made in SFWA and its management of the SFWA Bulletin. Some of the criticizers, however, caught up in the adrenaline rush provided by participation in a large group expression of shared moral outrage, are undoubtedly pleased at whatever lasting harm might be done to Barry N. Malzberg and Mike Resnick, the authors of the articles which prompted the online firestorm, and Jean Rabe, the former editor of the Bulletin who commissioned the articles (and who has since resigned her position under pressure).

A bit of self-disclosure: I’ve met Mike Resnick on a couple of occasions at conventions (and I bought some magazines once from him on eBay, too). During our brief conversations, he was cordial, sensible, and seemed to be paying attention to what I had to say (which was either about the writing biz or our shared friendship with Barry). Barry Malzberg, on the other hand, has been a close friend of mine for the past ten years. He has been tremendously gracious and generous during our long correspondence. I have visited him and his wife at their home in New Jersey. Most striking to me have been the reactions of other SF professionals when I’ve mentioned my friendship with Barry. A number of them have shared accounts with me of how Barry reached out to them during low points in their writing or editing careers or personal lives, and how his encouragement, support, and assistance had made a great, positive difference for them. Barry has never discussed any of this with me. But it seems as though if the field of science fiction has a secret saint, that person is Barry Malzberg.

I came late to this particular controversy. This storm has been gathering strength for the past seven months, since the distribution in November, 2012 of issue 200 of the SFWA Bulletin to about 2,000 SFWA members, subscribers, and a thousand or so readers who purchase their copies from a newsstand or bookstore. But the brouhaha truly began blowing up online in late May of this year, after distribution of issue 202 of the Bulletin. I’ve been a SFWA member for the past ten years, so I receive the Bulletin every three months as a perk of my membership. Mike and Barry have been contributing a regular column to the magazine, the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues, since 1998. The column generally consists of the two of them, both old science fiction pro writers whose careers in the field date back to the late 1960s (Barry won the first ever John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1973, and Mike was the Guest of Honor at the most recent WorldCon, Chicon 7), bantering back and forth on issues of current import to the publishing world or its science fiction and fantasy corner (such as the emergence of small presses or self-publishing), matters of writerly advice (how to best find an agent or decipher a publishing contract), or surveys of various aspects of the history of the science fiction field (such as the history of women science fiction and fantasy authors and women editors and publishers in the SF field… the stealth minefield onto which they blithely trod in issues 199 and 200 of the SFWA Bulletin). I usually make it a habit to read the newest Resnick/Malzberg Dialogue as soon as I receive my copy of the Bulletin. But starting with issue 199 (the Fall, 2012 issue), my copies of the Bulletin began accumulating on my nightstand, waiting to be read, pushed down on my reading list by big, thick Russian novels and various research books.

It wasn’t until this week that I glanced at the Locus Online website to catch up on SF news and book reviews (I’d also been neglecting both the print and online versions of Locus) and saw a link to the Guardian Online article that I reference above, entitled “Science fiction authors attack sexism in row over SFWA magazine”. Reading it, I learned that Mike and Barry were at the center of an online controversy over alleged sexism in SFWA, which focused both on several of their recent columns and the cover to issue 200 of the Bulletin, which featured an iconic image of a barbarian woman warrior/goddess in a chainmail bikini, brandishing her bloody sword over the corpse of a Frost Giant. The article provided a link to an online roundup of commentary from dozens of science fiction professionals, would-be professionals, and fans. Perusing this long selection of snippets, seventy-six of them at last count, I noted the following epithets being applied to Mike and Barry or to their words: unprofessional (the kindest of the lot), wankers, regressive, outdated, condescending, sources of “sexist douchebaggery,” “misogynistic, irrelevant dinosaurs,” “old men yelling at clouds,” “majority men in power,” “hideous, backwards, and strangely atavistic,” “blithering nincompoops,” antiquated, “deeply offensive,” “at best stupid and at worst censorious,” “sexist dippery,” gross, “never ending stream of sexism,” shitty, prehistoric, and, perhaps most colorful, “giant space dicks.” Also linked to on this list was a charming blog post entitled, “Dear Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick: Fuck You. Signed, Rachael Acks” (which, incidentally, is the #3 search result of 187,000 results when you type in the words Barry Malzberg into Google’s search bar).

Holy bejezzus, I thought to myself as I read through this list. What did Mike and Barry do? Had they gone all Westboro Baptist Church in one of their recent columns?

I went home that night and dug my most recent four issues, all previously unread, of the Bulletin out of my “to be read” pile. And I read all four Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues in order (the Dialogue from issue 201 plays no part in the brouhaha).

Never in my forty-eight years have I witnessed such an immense chasm yawning between an inciting incident and the level of vitriol it inspired.

Let me provide a bit of background. In their fifteen years of writing Dialogues together (I’ve read about three-quarters of their columns), Mike and Barry have developed a comfortable, familiar, semi-comedic shtick, complete with complementary personas (Mike is the can-do, look-on-the-bright-side face of the duo, whereas Barry typically luxuriates in his role as the Eeyore of science fiction). Both gentlemen are in their seventies and have been around the block many, many times, so quite a few of their columns, particularly the retrospective, survey-of-the-field entries, have a “those were the days” sensibility to them. They strive to share with their readers a feel for what it might’ve been like to belly up to the bar at the 1975 WorldCon and eavesdrop on the shop talk and gossip of some of the “old pros.” I readily admit that I eat this kind of stuff up; I’m a buff for any in-depth history of the field, replete as it is with such colorful personalities and their exploits, and I’ve happily devoured Barry’s, Fred Pohl’s, Jack Williamson’s, and Damon Knight’s memoirs over the years. Mike’s and Barry’s sensibilities in their columns cannot be fully appreciated unless one understands that they were both fans before they ever became professionals. They love science fiction and its traditions, and they are passionate about it. Having both been active in the field, either as aficionados or as pros (frequently as both), for going on fifty-five years, they have a wealth of personally experienced or second-hand anecdotes to share, and they delight in doing so. When writing their surveys of the field, whether they are focusing on writers, editors, publishers, agents, or artists from the Golden Age of SF to the present day, they try to insert some colorful anecdotes about each notable they discuss, in order to flesh out the personalities of oftentimes obscure, forgotten, and/or long-dead figures. Barry, in particular, has dedicated a large chunk of his career to attempts to rescue beloved predecessors from the darkness of obscurity (see the essays in his The Engines of the Night, Breakfast in the Ruins, The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, The Science Fiction of Kris Neville, The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton, and Neglected Visions). Both men enjoy gossip, the sort of stories which used to be (and maybe still are) traded back and forth at convention bars, and given the tangled, intertwined personal histories of many major figures in the field (multiple tomes have been written about the love lives and swapped spouses of the Futurians, just to cite one example), there is a lot of old gossip to share. (And in case you consider this a strike against them, please ponder the high percentage of even the highest-toned literary biography which is composed of what is actually well-sourced gossip.)

The editor of the Bulletin, Jean Rabe, asked Barry and Mike to write a column or two on the history of women in science fiction. This request resulted in two columns, published in issues 199 and 200, entitled “Literary Ladies: Part One” (focusing on writers) and “Literary Ladies: Part Two” (focusing on editors and publishers). One of the pair (I suspect it is Mike) has a longstanding weakness for alliteration; thus, the “LL” of “Literary Ladies.” In accordance with the titles of the articles, Mike and Barry frequently (but by no means exclusively) refer to their subjects as “lady writers,” “lady editors,” or “lady publishers” (there are a few “lady agents” mentioned, too).

This use of “lady” as a modifying adjective is one of the primary complaints the legions of critics online have hurled at Mike and Barry, a main plank in their contention that the pair are “reactionary, shitty, prehistoric, misogynistic, giant space dicks” (to mash up just a few of the pejoratives I’ve quoted in the list above). Now, maybe it’s just me, but I have never encountered the use of the word “lady” as a pejorative or even as having a negative connotation. At least when I was growing up, it was a compliment, a label for those of the female gender to aspire to. Is the word a bit old-fashioned? Sure. Does it have a bit of a musty smell about it? A case could certainly be made. Is it mean-spirited? Hell, no.

And that’s before we even get to the actual content of these two articles. Barry and Mike praise their pantheons of women writers, editors, and publishers to the skies! They idolize many of them. Far from giving them condescending pats on the head, they fully recognize the daunting social handicaps these women faced in the professional world of publishing prior to the 1980s and cite them as enterprising, talented, and incredibly driven pioneers. There are no snide put-downs in these articles; there are no put-downs at all. These articles were labors of love. Mike and Barry knew that some of the women they’d be discussing would be familiar to the Bulletin readership, but that many would not be (particularly the women editors of such magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Fantastic from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s). Even I, a pretty well-read amateur historian of the field, found myself encountering personalities of whom I had no prior knowledge. Mike and Barry did a service for both their readership and for many otherwise forgotten notables in our field, women who they state had as big an impact on the evolution of science fiction and fantasy in America as John W. Campbell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert Heinlein did. (And, as has been said about Ginger Rogers when comparing her skills to those of her partner Fred Astaire, they did it dancing backwards.)

The other sin laid upon the heads of Mike and Barry regarding their “Literary Ladies” articles is that they mentioned the physical attractiveness of some of their subjects. In sharing an second-hand anecdote about how one of the few women editors of the 1950s had prompted many women to join a previously all-male Cincinnati, Ohio fan organization, Mike mentioned the editor, briefly the only female participant in the club, had looked quite beautiful in a bikini at the hotel pool of a local convention – causing the wives of the male fans to join the club in order to keep an eye on their husbands! The original teller of the anecdote was the wife of one of those male fans, who told Mike that the editor, later a close friend, had earned the wife’s everlasting gratitude for sucking her into fandom. Reading it, I’m sure Mike intended it to be an amusing and endearing anecdote, a window into the world of SF fandom (and the larger society) of the 1950s. For many readers, apparently, it didn’t come off that way. But I’m judging the man on what I reason his intentions to have been, and I firmly believe intentions must be given weight in situations such as this one, which come down to one subjective experience versus another.

In another instance, Barry comments on the physical beauty of a woman editor from the 1920s and 1930s, a woman he only knows from her photographs and from the body of work she left behind. Again, I see his comments as an attempt to add a third dimension (I could say “flesh out” or “add skin and sinew to the bones,” but I would risk being misinterpreted, wouldn’t I?) to an otherwise dry recitation of the woman’s accomplishments in the early SF field. I have shared Barry’s experience in having surprising beauty leap out at me from a vintage photograph, beauty which could not be cloaked by the alien or frumpy (to me) clothing, makeup, and hairstyles of the era. Some people are exceptionally beautiful, and it is noteworthy, even when writing about writers (or editors). Nearly all accounts of Jack Kerouac’s career dwell upon his magnetic, athletic handsomeness as a young man, and how iconic photographs of him have helped to build his enduring mystique. Somewhat similarly, Franz Kafka’s striking appearance and demeanor, preserved in a handful of photographs and reminiscences of his contemporaries, have been grist for the mills of dozens of biographers. Kafka’s last lover, the Czech writer, editor, and social activist Milena Jesenka’, was a beautiful woman; her biographer and friend, Margarete Buber-Neumann, wrote extensively about Milena’s beauty and the effect it had upon the people (men and women) around her, and how she suffered from her beauty’s degradation in the German concentration camp where she perished.

The last set of complaints about Mike and Barry have to do with their column from issue 202 of the Bulletin, entitled “Talk Radio Redux.” This column was a response, an obviously emotional one, to the sorts of criticism (see my summary above) which had begun filtering back to them regarding their two columns on “Literary Ladies,” criticism with which revulsion of the woman warrior cover to issue 200 had gotten conflated. This set of complaints focuses on Mike’s using the words “censorship” or “attempted censorship” when referring to the feedback and actions of some of the readership and to Barry’s use of the term “liberal fascist.”

“Liberal fascist” is a term that has its origin in (or at least can trace its popularization to) Jonah Goldberg’s 2009 book, Liberal Fascism: the Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change. The book is an account of the influence that certain aspects of Woodrow Wilson-era Progressivism (the ancestor of today’s Progressive movement), such as promotion of eugenics, an emphasis on the growth of state power and control of the state over key industries during times of state-declared emergency, and proto-environmentalism/nature worship, had on the various flavors of European fascism which developed and flourished during the 1920s and 1930s. The book also makes note that, in contrast with the commonly held belief that fascism was a rightwing movement, Benito Mussolini and the German and Austrian founders of the National Socialist Workers’ Party saw themselves as men of the Left, emerging from and expanding upon the Socialist tradition in a way separate from (and opposed to) Communism.

Personally, I think Barry was a little off in his use of the term “liberal fascist,” although I understand the emotion behind his use of the words. Fascists are defined in part by their intentions and efforts to use the powers of the state to silence opposing viewpoints. None of Barry’s and Mike’s critics have tried to do that (although perhaps some may fantasize about it). Similarly, Mike was imprecise when he used the word “censorship.” Censorship implies either the use of state power to silence an individual or the actions of an entity with economic power over an individual (such as the individual’s publisher) to block or change that individual’s expressions, under threat of economic penalty. Again, none of Mike’s and Barry’s critics are in a position to be censors. What they have been doing, however, does have its roots in an authoritarian tradition separate from, although related to, fascism. Mike and Barry have been mau-maued. Mau-mauing (a term popularized by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 account of the New Left of the 1960s, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers) is a form of intimidation through widespread social shaming, ostracism, confrontation, and (either implied or explicit) threats. Although it is associated with the New Left, it has its origins in the standard operating procedures of the Old Left, when Communist parties in the Soviet Union and throughout the West utilized self-criticism and group criticism sessions to enforce groupthink and to stamp out nonconforming ideas and ideologies. (Many former American Communists of the 1930s listed the 180 degree turn from “Hitler is our mortal enemy” to “Hitler is our ally” following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and their horror at the reeducation sessions which ensued as crucial to their break with the Party.) Saul Alinsky, in his Rules for Radicals, listed as Rule #12, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it,” an endorsement of the technique of mau-mauing. Numerous American universities, both public and private, now staffed by professors and administrators who often have ties to or have been influenced by the New Left, have instituted speech codes which explicitly define certain forms of student speech and expression as being outside the bounds of permissible activity on campus, subjecting offenders to administrative penalties up to expulsion (a move to institutionalize and bureaucratize mau-mauing, pushing it towards what could be formally defined as censorship). Coincidentally, the same years which have witnessed the emergency of speech codes on many campuses have also witnessed an accelerated symbiosis between the pro SF community and academia (in that greater numbers of SF/fantasy writers have as day jobs teaching at the post-high school level, and SF literature and film has become an increasingly respectable and popular subject of university courses).

Given the prevalence of academic jargon from Cultural Studies or other Studies departments in their comments, I imagine a goodly number of the criticizers on the SWFA discussion boards and the broader Internet are either university instructors or possessors of an advanced degree from one of those programs. For many individuals under the age of forty who have been through the university system, mau-mauing may seem normative, or at least unremarkable. They have seen it at work through divestment campaigns of various kinds (divestment from Israeli companies or U.S. companies which provide goods to Israel which might be used in security operations against Palestinians, or from companies involved in fossil fuel production, or from companies connected to certain figures active on the Right, such as the Koch brothers) and through shout-downs and other disruptions of speakers invited to campus whose backgrounds or viewpoints are contrary to those favored by student activists.

Many of the criticizers may not consciously realize that they are mau-mauing Mike and Barry, but mau-mauing is what they are engaged in. Some commentators have pointed out the criticism is not censorship. True; but in this instance, rather irrelevant. Other commentators have stated that freedom of speech does not imply a right to a paid platform (such as that enjoyed until now by Barry and Mike with their quarterly columns for the Bulletin). Again – true, but irrelevant. For what the protesters either seek to do or end up abetting is not censorship, but what can be called shunning and shaming, an application of a radioactive aura to these two men which will make not only the future editors of the Bulletin but also editors at other periodicals and publishing houses, organizers of conventions, literary prize juries, and media outlets shy away from wanting any connection with these two and their works. Remember, this story has now broken out into mainstream outlets such as Salon and the Guardian; people who previously had never heard of Mike Resnick or Barry Malzberg or any of their books will now have their initial (and most likely only) impression of them branded with a scarlet “S” for “Sexist,” as detrimental a negative label in our time as “Adulterer” was in the time of the Puritans. As Barry himself stated in the column “Talk Radio Redux,” the most potent form of censorship is self-censorship, the type that occurs in a writer’s head before he or she sets fingers to keyboard. The mau-mauers, consciously or not, are using Mike and Barry as cautionary examples – “Look what we’ve been able to do to the reputations of a WorldCon Guest of Honor and to a man who has written close to a hundred novels and over 250 short stories, several nominated for Hugo or Nebula Awards. If we could do this to them, what do you think we could do to you if you commit ThoughtCrime?”

The virtually thoughtless piling on is perhaps the most appalling. So many of the criticizers whose comments I have come across admit they haven’t even read the columns in question. Once the ball of shunning and shaming got rolling, hundreds of onlookers, alerted by social media, jumped on the bandwagon, attracted by the enticing glow of participating in shared moral outrage. Moral preening is on overload; industry professionals and would-be professionals frantically signal to each other that they are right-thinkers. According to the mau-mauers, Mike and Barry did not merely misspeak (miswrite?); they did not have decent-enough intentions which were ruined by Paleolithic habits and blinkered upbringings; they are morally suspect, malign and vicious and evil. It’s burn the witch! all over again, but this time on a pyre of blog posts and Tweets.

I mentioned before that I completely understand the vehemence of Barry’s reaction to all this. One sadly ironic aspect of this brouhaha is that Barry is a lifelong man of the Left. He was staunchly antiwar during the Vietnam era (see early stories such as “Final War”), and his dream president was (and remains) Eugene McCarthy. I fully believe, based on his writings about Alice Sheldon and Judith Merril, that Barry considers himself a feminist, and an avid one. Condemnation from one’s “own side” always burns hotter in one’s craw than condemnation from “the other guys,” which can be easily rationalized away; just as criticism (especially when viewed as unfair) from one’s own family hurts much worse than criticism from relative strangers. Forty years ago (and in all the years since), Barry was a fierce advocate of the New Wave in science fiction, whose practitioners (with the sole exception of R. A. Lafferty) were all politically aligned with the Left, as opposed to old-timers such as John W. Campbell and Robert Heinlein. Now Barry must feel as though the children of the Revolution are eating their elders (as so frequently happens, it seems).

You still don’t think swarm cyber-shaming is a genuine phenomenon? Here’s a statistic for you. As of this afternoon (June 19, 2013), typing in the three words, Barry Malzberg sexist, into the Google search bar produces 807,000 results (oddly enough, far more than the 187,000 results you get in you only type in two words, Barry Malzberg). In contrast, typing in the author’s name and the title of his best known novel, Beyond Apollo, winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, produces 41,000 results.

Folks, this is insane.

I do not believe there was any conspiracy to do this to Barry and Mike. I believe this smear started on a small scale and then grew like mutant kudzu in the echo chambers of the web. Now the smear has metastasized into a Frankenstein’s monster which has escaped the control of any individual or organization; with that much mud out there, no amount of counter-narrative will ever wash it away.

One of the cruelest knives shoved into Barry’s back was the alteration of his Wikipedia entry. Now, thanks to an anonymous interloper with a baleful lack of perspective, more text is given over to this current incident (a full paragraph) than is devoted to Barry’s considerable and award-nominated nonfiction work (no mention at all). Whoever performed this small act of vandalism (also done to Mike’s entry) is a lout and a bully.

Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of swarm cyber-shaming in the science fiction community, and I fear it will not be the last (what produces results tends to get repeated). The first eruption was that which surrounded Orson Scott Card when he publicly affirmed tenets of his religion, Mormonism, concerning homosexuality. Recently, his swarmers attempted to shame/pressure DC Comics into never hiring Card again, after he did a work-for-hire story for a DC Comics anthology. “RaceFail” was the tag applied to a 2009 online dustup regarding various professionals’ comments on, and then comments on the comments, and then comments on the comments on the comments about the handling of racial issues and identity in science fiction. In 2010, we had WisCon, the renowned feminist science fiction convention, disinvite award-winning author Elizabeth Moon as their Guest of Honor due to comments she made on her blog about the surprising forbearance non-Muslim Americans have shown their Muslim fellow residents in the years since September 11, 2001 (as opposed to the myth of a rising tide of Islamophobia in the U.S.). And now we have this… Old FogeyFail? I was very disappointed to see on the list of Barry’s and Mike’s most vocal condemners a very prominent editor for a very big imprint who complained bitterly in 2009 about his unfair treatment at the hands of fans and fellow pros after he made some comments about the RaceFail affair; his wife (another prominent SF pro) got on various message boards to scold the scolds for going after her husband and contributing to his depression. Now, obviously a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, this same editor seeks to reestablish his bona fides with the mau-mauers by doing unto Barry and Mike what was done unto him. Shame on you, sir.

From the website Judaism 101:

A Chasidic tale vividly illustrates the danger of improper speech: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.”

I’ve warned my fellow writers and creators about too blithely plunging into online controversies, dropping their pants on social media, and wearing their political affiliations as neon tattoos. Why risk alienating half your potential audience? I also said that one must pick one’s battles carefully; issues and situations may arise which outweigh one’s potential financial/career interests, and which one can avoid engaging in only at the risk of one’s self-worth.

For me, this is such an issue. Barry Malzberg is a friend; more than that, he is a profoundly decent and kind human being. I cannot stand idle while this good man’s reputation is unjustly tarnished. The old saying is that bad speech can only be combatted with good speech. As I wrote above, I fear that in this Internet Age, the mud gets replicated so fast and so incessantly that it can never be washed away. I’ve gone on much longer than I originally intended, wanting to wash away as much mud as I can. My washcloth is small, unfortunately. But it won’t go unused.

Update on June 22, 2013: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, which brought in so many new readers. I apologize that I haven’t been able to respond to each of the comments. My main computer is in the shop, and the boys are begging me to take them swimming. If you’d like to support Barry, his most recent book of essays, Breakfast in the Ruins, is excellent, a fantastic read for anyone with an interest in the science fiction or mystery fields. Also, Mike and Barry have collected many of their Dialogue columns into a book called The Business of Science Fiction.

Update #2 on June 24, 2013: The Los Angeles Review of Books features this very detailed, incisive review of The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg, which has just been released… a compendium of what Barry considers the best of his more than 350 short stories. Along with Breakfast in the Ruins and The Passage of the Light: the Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg, this new collection is an essential introduction to Barry’s huge body of work.

A Marvelous Post from Kristin Kathryn Rusch

Long-time science fiction editor, author, small press publisher, and new media entrepreneur Kristin Kathryn Rusch has written a wonderful, indispensable post entitled “The Stages of an Indie Writer.” As a writer who can clearly place himself along her schema, I can vouch that this is one of the wisest, most insightful pieces I have ever read on the changing world of publishing; specifically, how this rapidly changing world has impacted the emotional lives and health of writers struggling to make sense of it all (along with a few cents from it all).

I’m currently in Stage 7: Bargaining.

A few months or years ago, I oscillated between State 3: Feeling Trapped; Stage 4: Fear; and Stage 5: Depression. I’m very pleased to be out of those stages, believe me.

I’m looking forward to the eventual Promised Lands of Stage 14: Freedom and Stage 21: Happiness. But according to Kris, I have a lot more stages to work my way through in the meantime.

Please read the whole thing. It is very much worth your fifteen minutes.

Dara and I will have big news to share over the coming weeks. Watch this space! I know I’ve been horribly remiss about keeping up with this blog over the past several months. But I have been busy doing the spade work for the next stage of my career.

I can promise you this: a series which my publishers decided was dead but which my readers have been pleading with me to continue will be resurrected. Other series which were never permitted to get off the ground will finally take flight. Stand-alone projects which editors could not convince their house’s Profit-and-Loss accountants to sign off on will see the light of day.

I’m being coy for right now, until Dara and I are ready to spring the whole enchilada on you. But if you want a few hints of what I’m talking about, have a look here.

12-Step Support Group for Obsolete Technologies

Every once in a while I come across a blog post I wish with all my heart and soul I had written. Well, author and blogger Joe Konrath simply hits it out of the park with his most recent post, which gives us a peek inside an Alcoholics Anonymous-style support group for obsolete technologies… featuring the self-deluding apologetics of the group’s newest member, The Print Industry. Here’s a taste:

Moderator: Welcome to Obsolete Anonymous! I’ve gathered you all here to welcome our latest member, the Print Industry.

Print Industry: Hello, everyone. But there’s been a mistake. I don’t belong here.

(chuckles all around)

Print Industry: I’m serious. I’m not obsolete. I’m relevant. Print books have been around for hundreds of years. They’re never going to be replaced.

VHS Tapes: Yeah, we all thought like that once.

LP Records: It’s called denial. It’s tough to deal with at first.

VHS tapes: Easy for you to say, LP. You’ve still got a niche collector market. They can’t even give me away on eBay.

Antique Stores: Can we please not mention eBay? I used to have stores all over. But more and more keep closing thanks to that good-for-nothing website.”

And it just gets better and better. When you get to the bottom, you learn that this is actually a re-post of an entry Joe first put up on his blog three years ago. Prescient, and hilarious!

Damn, I wish I’d come up with it first!

Facebook is SO Yesterday; What Comes Tomorrow?

I admit to being a Facebook Grinch.

Perusing my Facebook home page and the posts the service highlights for me has become an every-other-day chore, like separating out the recycling. I joined Facebook because everyone who had anything to say about the modern, marketing-focused reality faced by writers insisted I must; and my wife told me I should, which carried more weight. I’ll admit that the service has been occasionally useful to me, helping me to follow important happenings in the lives of family members, friends, and important acquaintances. I’ve also used it from time to time as a gramophone to announce a recent blog post or convention appearance I felt I should flack (all the while glumly wishing I had more in the way of actual publications to convince people to risk their dollars upon).

But, on the whole, I have found Facebook mostly dreary and oftentimes frustrating (comments that fail to post; occasional flakiness when trying to link to blog posts; etc.). I have stuck with it out of a sense of grudging but stubborn duty. So it was with no small sense of pleasure I read an article on the website of The Washington Examiner called “Bye, Bye, Facebook.” (Hat tip: Instapundit.) It announces that “a new Pew Research Center poll finds that a huge group of users, 61 percent, are taking breaks from Facebook up to ‘several weeks’ long, and that virtually all age groups are decreasing their time on the social media site that recently flopped in its initial public offering of publicly traded stock.”

So it seems that Facebook is rapidly becoming passé. When it joins such predecessors as Pet Rocks, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Hula Hoops in the dusty pantheon of crazes only remembered by nostalgia nuts and cultural anthropologists, I don’t anticipate the formation of any great lump in my throat.

So what comes next? What will take Facebook’s place? Isn’t that the question burning in the mind of anyone who reads the Pew Research Center poll results?

Will Twitter become the new king of social media? (Isn’t Twitter already the king?) Putting on my Faith Popcorn hat, I predict Twitter will suffer the same fate as Facebook, only faster. Twitter will rapidly fall victim to the very same attention-abbreviating trend it helped accelerate. Not long from now, more and more devotees of social media will complain that reading a 140-character Tweet seems like slogging through Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

So what comes after Twitter?

Allow me to propose… Dingleberry.

Here’s how it would work. Postings would be limited to three characters. All users would be required to have a thin-film LED panel surgically implanted beneath the skin of their forehead, deep enough that the panel would be undetectable when inactivated, but shallow enough that activated letters (the panel would be capable of displaying any combination of three characters) would shine brightly through the skin. When a user’s post achieves 10,000 “likes,” the system would signal the LED panel on the user’s forehead to display the post.

Three characters are more than adequate to express the thoughts of the majority of social media users. The brevity assures a wide range of potential interpretations and opens a path to virtually unlimited readings.

Take, for example, the following post:


This may be taken to mean any of the following:

1) An abbreviation for SEXY (“I am sexy”).
2) A status posting (“I have recently had, or will soon be having, sex”).
3) A political statement, apropos to whatever is in the news (“Sexual harassment is bad,” or “Keep your legislation out of my sex” or “Keep your sex out of my legislation”).
4) An injunction (“Have more sex” or “Go sex yourself”).

The above listing is not exhaustive, by any means.

On the other hand, should a user’s post achieve 10,000 “dislikes,” the system would set a subsidiary routine into motion. One of the following persons would be required to offer alternative posts; either the user’s

1) ex-spouse;
2) ex-best friend;
3) estranged son or daughter;
4) high school cheerleading squad captain; or
5) middle school bully

in the order of preference stated above (as applicable), would offer three alternative three-character posts for vote by the user’s followers. Once 10,000 followers have cast their votes, the system would transmit the winning post to the user’s forehead-mounted LED strip.

I think Dingleberry would take off like a Saturn V rocket. “Dingle” would become a new verb, as in, “You’ve been dingled.”

I offer this proposal to any techies or venture capitalists who would like to run with it. I’d pull it all together myself, except I have more important things to do (like posting short essays to this blog now and then). I ask only one thing: once you’ve made your first billion from the initial public offering, please ship me a box of chocolate-covered strawberries. And one for my wife, too, please.

Oh, and that’s strawberries, not dingleberries.

The Monster Trucks of Mount MonstraCity is Finished… for Now

Recently, I finished my initial polished draft of The Monster Trucks of Mount MonstraCity, the second book in my planned Mount MonstraCity series for middle grades readers. This one, like the first (The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity), got an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the big reader in our house, my nine-year-old, Levi, who acted as my initial reviewer.

The first book features brother and sister Zacherly and Roxie Juke, two orphans who suffer bullying and frequent indignities at the Putterknuckle Benevolent Home for Orphaned Children in Seattle, Washington. They run away to Mount MonstraCity, located on Monstra Island, about seventy miles west-northwest of Seattle, Washington. Mount MonstraCity was founded early in the nineteenth century by members of the Frankenstein clan. Exiled from Europe, they established the new city as a haven for monsters of all types from every corner of the world. Zacherly and Roxie are lured to Mount MonstraCity by a mysterious stranger from the island, Oswald Blecho, who promises them positions as interns to famous Mad Scientists. Yet the actual fate that Blecho has planned for them is a terrible one… and Zach and Roxie soon learn that real-life monsters can often be far more dangerous than the movie monsters they’ve come to love.

The second book in the series was inspired by my middle son, Asher, who is fascinated by monster trucks. I figured, why not come up with a story about monster trucks on an island inhabited almost entirely by monsters? And why not feature monster trucks that are actually MONSTERS? Accordingly, my monster trucks are cyborgs powered by Ghoul brains.

This one was a lot of fun to write, even more fun, I think, than the first one. Zacherly gets to meet a wonderful new buddy, a preteen, twelve-foot-tall talking gorilla named Joe Ogg (hat tip, of course, to the classic Willis O’Brien Mighty Joe Young, which has always been a very special film to me). Roxie actually gets transformed into one of the monster trucks and ends up in dreadful trouble. So Zach, Joe, and their friend Ferra (a Werewolf) have to unravel the mystery of who is taking control of the monster trucks at night and sending them on secret missions to cause dissension between the island’s Vampires and Werewolves. There are lots and lots of monster truck vs. monster truck battles and, of course, monster truck vs. MONSTER battles.

I’m loving working on this series. I’m already a quarter of the way through the THIRD book, this one inspired by my youngest son, Judah, who adores kaiju movies and action figures. This one’s called The Battling Bigs of Mount MonstraCity. I’m writing it to be the greatest kaiju movie never filmed!

The Good Humor Man Now Only $1.99 in Kindle

For those of you who have been procrastinating on picking up a copy of my blistering satire of the nanny state, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501, procrastinate no longer! The Kindle edition of one of Booklist‘s Top Ten SF and Fantasy Books of 2010 is now available from Amazon for the low, LOW price of only $1.99! That’s right — for the price of a medium cup of Starbuck’s Coffee, you could be enjoying the adventures of ex-liposuctionist, soon-to-be-ex-Good Humor Man Louis Shmalzberg right now!

But don’t delay! Because I have no idea when Amazon will decide to boost the price back up again!

UPDATE: I just found out this price reduction is for today only, expiring at midnight, 12/6/12 Pacific Time. My book was one of nine science fiction books selected for Amazon’s Daily Kindle Deal.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Please disregard the Update above! This promotion is still going on. So you procrastinators aren’t out of luck yet! Curl up with your Kindle and a Big Gulp soda and giant bag of Cheetoes and wonder how Elvis will manage to save the world sixty-four years after his premature death!

Oversharing Too Much?

Prolific writer and blogger Dean Wesley Smith recently published an article entitled “The New World of Publishing: Promotion.” His Rule #3 for writers snagged my attention because it had direct bearing on a pair of experiences I’d recently had in the world of social media. Here’s the passage:

“3… Never, anywhere (except with your closest friends), talk about politics or religion. Anywhere. Just will cost you a ton of readers. (Added note: Fine to write about it in your fiction. Just don’t talk about it in your social media. You want everyone to buy your book, not just people who agree with you.)

In this modern age of immediate access to a multiplicity of social media outlets (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, message boards, etc.), this can be hard advice to follow (particularly for the more garrulous among us). However, purely as career advice, I agree with it one hundred percent. (I emphasize that italicized clause because there are times that a writer may feel, with much justification, that he or she must consider matters beyond what is good for the career; I’ll speak more of this later in my article.)

Social media can be both seductive in its faux intimacy and misleading due to the invisibility of its reach. Note that in his advice above, Smith directs us to steer clear of discussions of politics or religion except with our “closest friends.” The danger of social media for writers (most of whom would number among their primary goals attracting readers and selling their works) is that sites such as Facebook are set up to lull us into the notion that we are, indeed, having a chat with our “closest friends” – when, in actuality, our chat is being “overheard” by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of silent, invisible eavesdroppers, each of whom may feel compelled to make a judgment upon what we are (oftentimes casually) saying that can impact their decision to buy or not to buy our work.

Before I ever set words to paper, I was a reader. Reading remains my primary hobby and one of my chief pleasures. I’m writing this post from the perspective of a reader, not a writer. In enticing me as a reader, writers make a unique request – they invite me to come share their mind-space for a period of anywhere from a half-hour (a short story) to multiple hours over a period of many weeks (a long novel). That’s a pretty intimate setup. If I’m going to crawl inside someone’s head for any length of time, I want to have positive feelings about that person. I want to like them; otherwise, the experience of crawling inside their head will be icky and off-putting. So, as a reader, I have a strong incentive to maintain a positive outlook on any writer whose works I wish to read (at least those works I intend to read for pleasure, rather than for utilitarian reasons like gathering information).

My wife talked me into getting on Facebook a little over a year ago, about the same time I started blogging. She sold me on the notion it was a tool I could use for two purposes: easily keeping up with what my friends and extended family are up to, and giving gentle “pushes” to my writing projects and signings or convention appearances. I’d say that close to fifty percent of my Facebook friends are fellow writers or editors. Many of them are active on Facebook for the same two reasons I am. Some of them enjoy passing along jokes or funny Photoshop screenshots they’ve come across. Lots of them like to gossip or talk politics; oftentimes, these two latter activities go hand-in-hand. I say that because I believe most objective observers would have to conclude that the great majority of political exchanges on Facebook and Twitter are gossip, rather than attempts at reasoned discourse or persuasion.

Gossip has a scurrilous reputation. But it is an almost universally engaged in activity because it fulfills an important social function – it bonds gossip partners together, and it often helps to define group boundaries, the ins and the outs. Because it is a bonding activity, gossip is fun; this is mortifying, but understandable. Many writers, being engaged in typically solitary work, eagerly grasp whatever opportunities they have to be social with one another. The professional writers’ version of office gossip around the water cooler is huddling together at the hotel bar during a literary convention. Or, at least it used to be. Now, writers can replicate a convention hotel bar anytime they want to, simply by turning on their computer and logging onto Facebook. Their writer and fan buddies are accessible with a few clicks of the mouse.

So far, so good. However, whereas discretion at the office water cooler or the convention hotel bar can be reasonably assured through a toning down of one’s voice, discretion on Facebook (or other social media) requires more planning and technical savvy. Also, Facebook lulls a user into thinking he or she is chatting with a handful of friends – the electronic equivalent of the small, chummy group at the hotel bar – when in actuality the “hotel bar” is in the middle of a stadium stage wired for sound, with a silent, invisible audience numbering anywhere from the dozens to the thousands. Facebook is a public space which masquerades as a private space.

So here I am, your reader or your would-be reader. I have every motivation to like you and to maintain a good opinion of you; perhaps I have already invested a good bit of money in your books and plan to invest time in reading them. I really would prefer not to “overhear” much of what you and your intimates talk about around the “hotel bar.” But in perusing my Facebook feed, seeking interesting or meaningful updates from family and friends, I can’t help but stumble across your gossip sessions. Sometimes they are ugly or offensive. And sometimes, even though I want to think only the best of you, I find myself dismayed.

To illustrate, I’ll share a couple of recent examples (not naming any names).

A friendly acquaintance of mine, a writer of high reputation with whom I’d shared breakfast at one of the major conventions, posted a screen shot of the newspaper and Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer on Facebook. He did so in order to comment on Krauthammer’s pinched, arguably ghoulish countenance, likening it to that of several horror movie actors; apparently, he’d come across Krauthammer for the first time and, repulsed by his politics, found himself equally repulsed by the man’s appearance. A number of other commenters jumped onto the thread, eagerly adding their own derogatory opinions on Krauthammer’s appearance and competing with each other to come up with the most “hilarious” likenesses for him (Count Chocula being one that sticks out in my memory). I was familiar with a number of the commenters; some of them were respected, highly awarded “gray heads” in the science fiction community, writers in their fifties or sixties – certainly not callow teenagers.

This set my nose out of whack. Not so much because I enjoy many of Krauthammer’s columns, but because I knew he was severely physically handicapped – either paralyzed or a victim of multiple sclerosis, I wasn’t sure which.

I briefly debated what to do. I hoped that my friendly acquaintance and his correspondents were unaware of Krauthammer’s disability. I wanted to think the best of the writer who’d posted the screen shot and started the thread, if for no other reason than I’d just invested in him – only a week before, I’d purchased two of his books, and currently I was shopping for a third, and I had more of his books on my shelves waiting to be read. I didn’t want to be a buttinski or a nosy Miss Manners; but I also didn’t want to think this writer was a jerk. Because if I decided he was a jerk, I wasn’t about to invest dozens of hours in reading his books, and the only thing I could then do with the books I’d already purchased would be to trade them in at my local Second and Charles store for pennies on the dollar.

So, for partially selfish, self-defending reasons, I posted as gentle a rebuke as I could manage: “Folks, you may not be aware of this, but you are poking fun at the appearance of a severely physically disabled person. Just saying…”

The next day, out of curiosity, I checked back on that Facebook thread. What I discovered was illustrative of the seductive power of gossip. The thread’s initiator had “Liked” my comment. He’d gone on to say he’d been unaware of Krauthammer’s disability and had considered taking down the post… but given Krauthammer’s views, it simply felt too good to take shots at him – it was too much fun — so he was letting the thread continue. And the commenters continued merrily along as they had before, some saying that, since Krauthammer had helped intellectually define the Reagan Doctrine of foreign policy back in the mid-1980s, he deserved whatever physical malady he was suffering from.

I looked up the cause of Krauthammer’s disability. Then I posted a message to this effect: “Charles Krauthammer is paralyzed from the neck down due to a diving accident he suffered at the age of twenty. Please feel free to disagree with Krauthammer’s writings or opinions, vehemently, if you wish; I understand that Krauthammer enjoys a feisty policy argument. But to make fun of the man’s stiff facial expressions and physical appearance when this is due to his paralysis… if you persist in this, you should be ashamed.”

To my acquaintance’s credit, he then took down the thread and sent me a private message explaining he had done so. He apologized and said he hadn’t been aware of the severity of Krauthammer’s condition. I told him he was a mensch and that I was relieved he’d done the right thing, because I had a stack of his books sitting in my home waiting to be read.

I inserted myself because I knew this writer personally and thus had dual motivations in maintaining him in my esteem. Another social media mishap didn’t end so well. I didn’t bother pursuing it the way I’d pursued the Krauthammer incident because, for one thing, I had no personal acquaintance with the writer who’d posted offensive material, and for another, what he’d posted had so profoundly offended me that I had no desire to communicate with him and ask if he might redeem himself in some fashion.

This other writer reposted the electronic version of a chain letter. This Photoshopped chain letter called for the outlawing of the practice of circumcision, whether performed for religious or physical hygiene reasons. He did not write any additional commentary, nothing to explain his support of the posting’s urging that an ancient, venerated to some, and widely practiced procedure be not merely discouraged, but outlawed. He simply threw it up on Facebook with the casualness of someone tossing a cigarette butt onto my lawn.

Far more so than disparaging comments about Charles Krauthammer’s appearance, this hit me where I live. Under the supervision of a Jewish physician who was a family friend, I had personally circumcised three of my sons, performing the rite of brit milah with my own hands the same way (okay, using anesthetic cream and a scalpel rather than a stone knife) the progenitor of the Jewish people, Abraham, had circumcised Isaac. In terms of ritual, these three acts were the most meaningfully Jewish acts I had ever engaged in; I truly felt bonded with the entire thread of Jewish experience, with thousands of years of history and millions of lives.

I have no idea of the depth of the re-poster’s attachment to the anti-circumcision movement, nor his reasons for supporting it. It probably took him all of thirty seconds to copy that screen shot and to put it up on Facebook. But those were a costly thirty seconds for him. I’m basically this writer’s ideal reader – we have numerous interests in common, I gravitate towards the sub-genre he writes in, I have lots of discretionary income to spend on new books, and I’m very vocal about championing books I particularly like. Taking all this into account, the writer may have surrendered a couple of hundred dollars of lifetime income by posting what he did, when one factors in the numbers of people I might otherwise have recommended his books to. Casually or not, he offended me so viscerally that it will not matter to me if this person wins the Hugo and Nebula awards every year for the next thirty years running – I simply will not spend a penny on anything he does.

I hope it was worth it to him.

I understand that people want to speak out about matters they are passionate about. In rare circumstances, one’s status as a citizen and/or as a human being may make it imperative to speak out regarding a particular issue; otherwise, one could not peacefully sleep. But, if you are a professional writer or someone who is striving to be a professional writer – a person who derives income from their writing – you need to be fully aware that there are costs involved. If you judge the benefits (to your mental or moral health or the welfare of humanity) to be greater than the potential costs, then, by all means, trumpet your political and religious views from the rooftops, from Facebook and Twitter and what-have-you.

But put some thought into it. Make a reasoned and persuasive argument. Add something new and valuable to the discussion. Don’t just re-post some Photoshop quip (which most likely originated in a teenager’s basement) because it seems righteous or you want to give the giggles to your buddies “around the bar.” You never know who’s paying attention. And you’ll never know the good will you have lost.

Juggling Projects: Books in the Air!

Here’s an update of where my various projects stand (I’m putting this to pixel as much as an aid to me, a roadmap of where the heck I am at this point, as I am to provide you guys with info nuggets).

The Monster Trucks of Mount MonstraCity: This is the second book in my planned middle grades adventure/horror series. I’ve completed my plot outline and have this one waiting on the starting line. I’ll probably start working on the first draft in about three weeks, after I’m done with my current round of revisions on No Direction Home.

The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity: The first book in my planned middle grades adventure/horror series. I turned this in to Peter, my agent, a few weeks back and am waiting for his initial response, then expect to do some revisions before he begins submitting it around.

The Velveteen Ebook: This is a short, novella-length children’s novel that should appeal to adults nostalgic for technologically simpler times. It’s being considered at a handful of houses that specialize in gift books.

No Direction Home: I had turned this adult SF novel in to Peter for his review around the beginning of the year. I got it back from him a couple of weeks ago and am working on revisions prior to him beginning the submissions process.

The End of Daze: My friends at Tachyon Publications decided this eschatological satire didn’t fit in with their line. Another friend, David Myers of Commentary Magazine, suggested an editor at a small house who has a fondness for Jewish-themed fiction. Peter submitted it there, and it is also being looked at by an editor at one of the big SF imprints. If neither of these possibilities pan out, Dara and I will put out the book ourselves.

Ghostlands: This adult SF novel is still being looked at by a number of genre editors. Peter began submitting it around about a year and a half ago.

The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club: I did a major editing job on this urban fantasy novel the second half of last year (after having been working on it, on and off, since 2006, in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina). The latest version is being considered at Tachyon and at one of the big SF imprints.

Fire on Iron: My Civil War-set steampunk horror-adventure novel has nearly reached the end of its submissions journey. It is being considered at one final SF/fantasy imprint. Should they give it a pass, it will become Dara’s and my first independent publishing project. The roots of this book go all the way back to 1994, just before I joined George Alec Effinger’s writing critique group in New Orleans.

So, my friends, that is where things stand at the moment. Like any writer, I wish matters could move along more quickly. But it appears that, no matter how things break with the professional editors, Dara and I will be working on one of my projects this fall, after our youngest son, Judah, begins attending kindergarten. So I should have something “new” to peddle by the beginning of 2013.

Bookseller Addresses Books-On-Demand: A Winning Proposition?

An Espresso book-making machine at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan

My friend Alan Beatts, proprietor of Borderlands Books in San Francisco, one of the country’s largest science fiction and fantasy specialty stores (with a wonderful attached bakery and coffee shop!), recently carried out research on the feasibility of purchasing an Espresso Books-on-Demand machine for his store. I’m proud to say my blog article on the future of the literary ecosystem sparked his interest in contacting one of the On Demand Books Company’s sales reps and running figures on various purchase and leasing options. Plus, the sales rep shared with Alan utilization figures from bookstores which are already operating Espresso machines.

What Alan discovered makes for very interesting reading, particularly for anyone interested in bookstores, book retailing, and micro-press publishing.

Alan writes that it can be financially feasible, even profitable, for a medium to large-size bookstore to purchase and operate an Espresso Books-on-Demand machine, even given the machine’s not inconsiderable hundred-thousand dollar price tag, plus thousands of additional dollars in licensing fees for the machine’s software. However, the experience of booksellers who have already invested in one of the units indicates that, especially in the earliest years of operation, the bulk of the machine’s usage comes not from customers purchasing commercially available books-on-demand, but rather from self-publishers:

“… (H)ere’s the surprise — most of the books sold are neither public domain titles via Google nor are they in-print titles from publishers. In the first year, 90% of the books printed by the current crop of in-store POD machines are self-published by customers of the bookstore. In other words, someone comes into the store with an electronic file of their book, gives it to the store, and then the store prints it for them on the EBM.”

This finding dovetails quite neatly with my proposition in the comments to my earlier article that “independent book sellers who opt to lease a machine do so in some sort of partnership with a group of regional small presses (and self-publishers) in their area, spreading the costs of the lease across a wider group of benefitted parties.” This kind of partnership, if in an ad-hoc fashion, is already developing, centered on the few dozen bookstores which currently run Espresso book making machines.

Alan makes some very pertinent points, however, about the level of hand-holding required from the owners and operators of the Espresso machine when working with self-publishers and micro-press publishers, versus the considerably lower level of effort and customer service required to simply print out commercially available books-on-demand. He suggests that not all bookstore owners will want their stores and staffs to become equivalent of Kinko’s Copies.

However, some store owners will find ways to make it work, both for themselves, their book-buying customers, and micro-publishers in their area. If enough bookstore owners and micro-publishers move to the model I suggest in my “future of the literary ecosystem” article, economies of scale begin to apply, and cooperative networks of writers, micro-publishers, and booksellers will be able to rapidly multiply.

Read Alan’s article. It’ll get you thinking…

The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity is Finished… For Now

This past Friday, I finished my initial polished draft of The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity, which is: (a) my shortest novel ever; (b) my first middle grades novel; (c) my first book to be critiqued by one of my sons (Levi, my eight-year-old). It came in at just under 68,000 words, or about half the length of my other novels (yet the length of a typical 1960s science fiction paperback original). I’m aiming this at readers a little more sophisticated than those who enjoy the Goosebumps books, which run (I think) 30,000-40,000 words, so I’m hoping the length won’t prove a detriment when my agent starts sending it out to editors. My ideal readership, I’m pretty certain, would start out with eight-year-olds who are strong readers (like Levi, who didn’t have any trouble with the book) and would extend to twelve- or thirteen-year-olds. (But I’m also putting in plenty of “Easter eggs” for any adult readers to enjoy, adults who loved monster movies as a kid.)

The book (number one in a series, I hope, hope, hope) is an action-adventure-horror story set on an island city called Mount MonstraCity, located a little more than seventy miles west-northwest of Seattle, Washington. Monstra Island (named for Mount Monstra, an active volcano located at its northwestern corner) was settled early in the nineteenth century by members of the Frankenstein clan, who were driven out of Europe for the crime of creating monsters. They selected Monstra Island on which to settle because of its remoteness from civilization (but not so remote from North America that trade would be impossible) and because of its proximity to unique subsea radiations – radiations which are very interesting to the scientifically curious Frankensteins, and which are later discovered to have their origin in a 30,000 year-old spacecraft partially buried in a crater on the ocean floor. The Frankensteins established Mount MonstraCity as a haven for monsters of all types from every corner of the world. Vampires came to settle a neighborhood called The Castles; Ghouls inhabit Ghoul Gulch; Werewolves settled throughout the Wolfen Woods; Kabbalists and their Golems created a walled village called the Golem Ghetto; etc. “Normie,” or normal human beings, may earn citizenship in Mount MonstraCity, as well, so long as they can become successful Mad Doctors or Mad Scientists and patent inventions or medical advancements which bring revenue to the city. Aside from high-tech and medical innovation, Mount MonstraCity’s other major industries are its film industry (no CGI required) and tourism sector (which invites visitors to experience safe, guided hauntings within one of the mansions of Ghost Town, just one of many horror-themed attractions).

My two protagonists are Zacherly and Cosmo Juke, two orphans who suffer bullying and frequent indignities at the Putterknuckle Benevolent Home for Orphaned Children in Seattle, Washington. Zacherly, aged eleven, aspires to become a successful Mad Scientist in Mount MonstraCity; Cosmo, aged fifteen, dreams of costarring in action-adventure-horror films with famed Werewolf actress, Donna Demonna. At a triple feature at the Phantasmo Drive-In Theater, sponsored by the Mount MonstraCity-Seattle Friendship Committee, Zacherly and Cosmo are approached by the mysterious Mr. Bleck, who offers to obtain positions for them with laboratories in Mount MonstraCity which are looking for young research interns. However, to take advantage of Mr. Bleck’s offer, they must stow away on the ferry that runs between Seattle and Monstra Island. Soon thereafter, Mr. Putterknuckle, the tyrannical owner of the orphanage, forces Zacherly and Cosmo to steal clothes for the other children from a massive thrift store. After the boys are nearly caught by security guards, they flee to the ferry and embark upon their journey to Mount MonstraCity. Yet the fate that Mr. Bleck has waiting for them there is far, far different from that with which he tempted them… and the boys soon learn that real-life monsters are way more dangerous than the movie monsters they’ve come to love.

Possibly the most fun aspect of writing this book has been being able to utilize my son Levi as my first reader. Levi, quite unlike my other two boys, is congenitally unable to tell a lie (or at least to lie at all convincingly). So I can trust his feedback implicitly, knowing that he won’t feed me praise he doesn’t truly feel my book deserves in order to make ol’ Dad feel good. His verdict? The first chapter was “a little boring” (did my best to fix that in the second draft), but the rest of the book was “Super! Lots and lots of terrific action!” He reinforced this feedback by grabbing fresh chapters out of my hands as soon as I walked through the door with them, then immediately settling down on the couch or carpet to begin reading. What was his favorite part of the book? “The mystery about Zacherly’s and Cosmo’s mother… can’t you tell me more?” No, Levi; that would spoil future books for you!

Now, if I could only get Son #2, Asher, to be half as interested in reading as his older brother is. I’m working on it. Asher adores monster trucks and race cars. So, rather than start with a story idea for the second book in the series, I started with a title and built from that. My title?

The Monster Trucks of Mount MonstraCity

Can’t you see the toy line already?

UPDATE: Last night, when I explained the basic story idea behind The Monster Trucks of Mount MonstraCity to my three sons, they were enthralled. They loved the idea of monsters who become monster trucks – in this case, Ghouls who volunteer to have their brains transplanted into experimental monster trucks powered by fuel cells, which are in turn powered by hydrogen that is provided by the Ghoul virus contained within the Ghoul brains (the virus proves capable of splitting hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms in water, allowing the trucks to be fueled with plain, filtered water). Asher and Judah insisted that I make them toys based on characters in the book. I promised I would buy toy monster trucks and modify them (with pieces from model kits and toy tanks and what have you) so that they look like the book’s characters (which I still need to design; still working on the plot outline, although that’s almost done).

It’s great to have a potential property under development that is so “toyetic” (that’s a real word, by the way, coined by Bernard Loomis of Kenner Toys in the late 1970s, when he was in discussions with Stephen Spielberg regarding possibly making toys based on Close Encounters of the Third Kind; his neologism means “the suitability of a media property, such as a movie, for merchandising spin-off lines of licensed toys, games and novelties”).

I’ll share more news on these projects as it develops!

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