Tag Archive for e-books

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“Whether describing a society in which governments have been replaced by greedy megacorporations, or one in which each individual is required to be incorporated at birth, science fiction has overwhelmingly tended to cast business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

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.

What Kind of Literary Ecosystem Do We Want to Build?

As readers and as writers, we’ve been watching the ecosystem of publishing, book distribution, and book retailing morph before our eyes on a continual (and seemingly accelerating) basis for at least the past five years. Are we stuck being onlookers to the March of Progress, having to content ourselves with whatever sort of literary landscape market forces leave us with? Or can we harness our powers as literary consumers and literary producers to help steer the market and possibly create a literary landscape we’d actually like to inhabit?

Many thousands of words have been written recently analyzing the evolving publishing world. Many issues are a-swirling in the present unsettled climate—agency pricing vs. wholesale pricing; Amazon vs. Apple and the Big Six publishing houses; Amazon vs. an alliance between Barnes and Noble and Microsoft; the efficacy and marketplace side effects of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for ebooks; and whether print books will survive into the third decade of the twenty-first century. Being both a reader and a writer myself, and potentially a publisher in the near-term future, the following articles have led me to do a good bit of pondering; so before we get around to my prognosticating, let’s take a look at a few recent articles, shall we?

Mark Corker, the founder of Smashwords, a major ebook publisher and distributor, discusses the implications of the federal lawsuit brought against Apple and five of the Big Six publishers for allegedly conspiring to fix ebook pricing and counter Apple’s rival, Amazon; Corker comes down in favor of the practice of agency pricing, favored by Apple and its publishing allies, versus the wholesale pricing preferred by Amazon, stating that allowing publishers and writers to control the pricing of their books will serve customers by ensuring a diverse marketplace. Preston Gralla, writing for Computer World, amplifies many of Corker’s points. Both articles came on the heels of author Scott Turow’s broadside, distributed to the members of the Authors Guild, of which he is the current president. Meanwhile, author Libby Sternberg (among others) supports Amazon and says the demonization of the company is out of line, as its competitive zeal is providing lower prices and greater accessibility to readers and consumers.

Amazon’s aggressiveness with its retail partners, typified by its pulling of 5,000 titles distributed by the Independent Publishers Group from its Kindle Store, has been inspiring a good deal of criticism and pushback. The Educational Development Corporation, a small publisher of children’s books, declared Amazon to be a “predator” and removed all of its titles from Amazon’s virtual shelves, costing itself $1.5 million in revenue but declaring they “were better off without them (Amazon).” Amazon’s sales of the Kindle Fire may have “fallen off a cliff” recently; big-box retailer Target will no longer sell the Kindle in its stores; and online retailing rivals eBay and Wal-Mart are both set to roll out greatly improved search engine technologies on their sites to better compete with Amazon.

Cory Doctorow, in a column written for Publishers Weekly entitled, “A Whip to Beat Us With,” describes how the Big Six publishers, in their zeal to not lose purchasing dollars to pirates, have actually shot themselves in the foot with their insistence on only selling books with Digital Rights Management (DRM). This has allowed Amazon to essentially “lock in” its vast customer base to its Kindle platform, since DRM does not permit Kindle owners to legally transfer their libraries of ebooks onto a competing platform. The Big Six publishers have thus ceded a great amount of market power to Amazon, allowing that company to steadily increase its fees and charges to the publishers who wish to have their books sold on Amazon’s Kindle Store, reducing the publishers’ margins (or blocking their access to the Kindle Store should they not come to terms dictated by Amazon, as has happened with Independent Publishers Group, distributors for the books of over 700 small presses).

Tor Books, the largest publisher of science fiction in the US, a subsidiary of German media conglomerate Holtzbrinck, recently reversed their policy on DRM. More than a decade ago, Tor released some of their titles as ebooks through a deal with Baen Books, but was forced by top Holtzbrinck managers to cease, due to Baen’s stand that they would only distribute ebooks without DRM. However, now Tor and their subsidiary imprints will return to their prior practice of distributing ebooks minus any DRM, citing customers’ preferences.

In a boost to Barnes and Noble’s Nook e-readers, currently second in sales to Amazon’s Kindles, Microsoft will be investing heavily in the Nook platform, and rumors are swirling that Microsoft will the Nook app a part of their upcoming Windows 8 operating system. This alliance represents Microsoft’s latest attempt to compete in the tablet market and Barnes and Noble’s latest effort to raise enough funds to remain competitive with Amazon.

So that’s the news of the publishing world. The majority of recent commentary regarding the changing literary ecosystem tries to gauge where things are most likely headed — i.e., what sort of literary ecosystem are we most likely to get stuck with? What will market forces dump in our laps five, ten, or fifteen years down the pike? What elements of the current ecosystem are most likely to survive, which will perish, and what may replace those elements that die off?

Based on these recent developments, I’ll put on my own Amazing Criswell sequined tuxedo and make a few predictions.

Within a few years, the Big Six Publishers will be down to the Big Five or Big Four, and one of them will be Amazon.

Margins are getting tighter and tighter in the publishing business. Several of the big publishers have traditionally made the bulk of their profits from their textbook publishing, which has benefited from a “captive audience” and whose continual cost increases have been absorbed by federal student loans. However, a great portion of textbooks will soon be distributed in ebook form, which should reduce prices (and margins) considerably. Also, pricing competition from Amazon (and other online retailers which rise to fight for pieces of Amazon’s market) will continue to put pressure on the profit margins of the traditional big publishers.

Here’s the rub — most of the current Big Six publishers are fairly small components of much bigger multinational conglomerates. Random House is a part of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann, which also owns the RTL Group (European radio and TV), Arvato (international media and communications), and Gruner and Jahr (European magazine publishers). Simon and Schuster is owned by CBS Corporation, whose primary businesses are commercial broadcasting and television production. HarperCollins is part of the sprawling News Corp, which owns newspapers in the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, and throughout the Pacific, in addition to running Fox Broadcasting, 20th Century Fox Studios, and satellite and cable television operations throughout Europe, Asia, and the U.S. The Hachette Book Group is a subsidiary of the French multinational corporation Lagardere, which operates radio and television stations, advertising firms, retail stores, aerospace firms, and sports and talent management agencies in forty countries. Only the Penguin Group (a division of the British conglomerate Pearson) and Macmillan (owned by the German company Holtzbrinck) are owned by larger companies whose main business is publishing (Random House may also be considered part of this grouping, since book publishing makes up at least half of Bertelsmann’s business — although a lot of their revenue comes from textbook publishing). The other conglomerates, for whom book publishing represents a relatively small part of their operations and a smaller part of their profits, may be greatly tempted to sell off or even dismantle their publishing arms as margins get tighter and tighter. Those members of the current Big Six who opt to remain in the publishing business will likely merge many of their existing imprints and concentrate more and more on sure-fire best-sellers (or those projects thought to be sure-fire best-sellers): books by celebrities, media figures, or prominent politicians, or based on popular media properties. A handful of old-line literary imprints, such as Alfred A. Knopf, Scribner, and Little, Brown & Company, may survive as money-losing prestige or “halo” businesses for their corporate ownerships. Alternatively, such famed imprints may be sold off and reemerge as independent small presses.

Independent bookshops will see a modest resurgence as superstores pull back to their strongest markets.

Just as our small, ratlike, mammalian ancestors found some breathing room to expand and evolve upon the extinction of the dinosaurs, so will independent bookshops and small, regional chains of bookstores reclaim some of their former market share as Barnes and Noble shrinks the brick-and-mortar retail side of their business to focus on their most profitable locations. Membership in the American Booksellers Association, the nonprofit industry association of independent bookstores, peaked at 5,500 members with 7,000 retail locations in 1995. Their membership continuously declined for the next fourteen years, bottoming out at 1,401 members in 2009. In 2010, they saw their first increase in membership in a decade and a half, a modest increase to 1,410 members. I don’t foresee their bouncing back to anywhere close to their peak of 5,500 members, but an increase to about half that number would not surprise me, as small business people in more and more communities, which have already lost their Borders Books and Music and which may soon lose their Barnes and Noble, seek to feed an appetite for book browsing and coffee drinking which was whetted by the superstores. I foresee a decent percentage of independent bookstores having a print-on-demand instant bookmaking machine on site to supplement their physical stock, perhaps relying upon catalogs that customers can browse through before making their POD purchase (see more below regarding how I would prefer to see the independent bookstore sector evolve).

A number of literary agencies will evolve into small publishing firms.

This shift is already beginning to occur. As the numbers of imprints and editors at the Big Six publishing firms continue to contract, and the majority of midlist authors move either to self-publishing or small presses, literary agents will find themselves with fewer and fewer opportunities to make money through selling clients’ books to publishers. To make up their losses, they will need to increasingly rely upon their skills as macro-editors and project packagers, adding value to writers’ work (and earning commissions and fees from writers) through pulling together teams of cover artists, book designers, publicists, and copy editors.

The lines between small presses and self-publishers will begin to blur.

As certain self-publishers show special skill or capability at promoting their works, they will begin attracting other writers who write similar books, but who lack the time or proclivity for successful publicity campaigns, who will request the self-publisher to distribute their work in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Ridan Publications is a good example of this; Robin Sullivan, who had prior experience in both software design and public relations, began electronically publishing her husband Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy novels, and she proved to be so successful at this that other writers, including Joe Haldeman and A. C. Crispin, began flocking to Robin’s imprint to distribute their ebooks. I believe Gavin Grant’s and Kelly Link’s Small Beer Press had a somewhat similar genesis.

Meanwhile, existing small presses will move more aggressively into the ebook realm and will find new ways to capitalize on their small staffs, short decision-making chains, and relatively quick production cycles (versus the traditional large publishers) to rival self-publishers in their speed of putting out fresh, tightly targeted product lines. The most successful small presses will emulate Baen Books in developing publisher-specific brand identities, as recognizable to the reading public as the personal brands established by certain best-selling authors (such as Stephen King and Tom Clancy).

As Amazon continues to encroach on what has been the territory of the Big Six publishers, relatively new online competitors will seek to compete with Amazon in the publishing space, copying its model or seeking to improve upon it.

Amazon has built and continues to refine a vertically integrated production, sales, and distribution company not dissimilar from the Hollywood studios of the first half of the twentieth century. Those studios locked in their talents and draws, the actors, actresses, directors, and screenwriters, through exclusive contracts, then distributed the films they produced through chains of movie studios that they owned. They then made money off ticket sales and the sales of concessions. Similarly, Amazon is in the process of signing top-tier authors to contracts, whose books they distribute both through internet sales and shipping of printed editions and electronic distribution through their Kindle devices. Amazon is also currently the favored distribution channel for self-publishers. Of even greater benefit to the company is that wide distribution and use of Kindle devices by their book-purchasing customers gives Amazon continual opportunities to cross-sell those customers on Amazon’s thousands of other types of items for sale, based on that customer’s past buying history (all with “free,” or rather pre-paid but subsidized, shipping included if the customer has signed up for Amazon Prime).

Until the federal government decides to insert itself and break up Amazon’s production and distribution arms (as they did with the movie studios in the middle of the last century), this is simply too lucrative a business model to not attract imitators. The Nook alliance recently entered into by Microsoft and Barnes and Noble may presage such an effort. Other major players in the internet commerce space, Apple or Google or Wal-Mart or eBay, may combine their resources to create business entities to directly compete with Amazon. A business such as the Independent Publishers Group (IPG), which currently distributes the books of over seven hundred small presses and which has recently crossed swords with Amazon over fees and percentages, may decide to move into the online retail space. Or companies which have not yet been formed may arise to challenge the current eight hundred pound gorilla of e-commerce. I believe a gradual abandonment of DRM by most publishers of ebooks will make it easier for competitors to Amazon and its Kindle platform to emerge, as existing Kindle owners will feel less trepidation at the thought of switching to a newer e-reader platform if they know they will be able to (legally and easily) transfer their e-libraries.

Print books will not go away. However, there will be relatively fewer of them; certain types of books will continue to be published primarily as print books, while other types will be published primarily as ebooks.

I anticipate that the majority of textbooks, technical books, reference books, popular nonfiction, and what I’ll term “disposable” fiction (fiction meant to be consumed as entertainment and then discarded, rather than held onto for further reference and re-readings) will be published primarily in ebook form. Books relying heavily on illustrations, books intended for children (many parents won’t want to entrust an e-reading device to a young child), “permanent” fiction (fiction which a reader intends to display on a shelf or to re-read), books purchased to be given as gifts, and books intended to be collectibles will continue to be published primarily in printed formats. Some publishers will do quite well by focusing on the book as a beautiful, cherished object and producing books which can be appreciated as handicrafts, as well as platforms for prose.

So that is where I believe the literary landscape is trending in the next five to ten years. While there is certainly value to be had in this type of prognostication, I feel that it is not sufficient. As readers, we do not need to act as passive consumers in the literary marketplace; as writers, we do not need to act as helpless, powerless “small cogs” in the publishing machine. Perhaps more so now than at any time in the past, we, writers and as readers, have the potential ability, if we wish to exercise it, to influence and to build portions of the emerging literary ecosystem. We can become, in law professor/author/blogger Glenn Reynolds’ term, an “Army of Davids.” But before we can do this, we need to figure out just where it is that we wish to go from here. As a reader, what sort of literary world do you want to be enjoying ten years from now? As a writer, what sort of publishing world do you want to be working in ten years from now? Here are questions we need to be asking (to which I add some suggested answers):

What do readers want?

— quality fiction that they enjoy and feel is worth their expenditure of time and money
— a reasonably reliable system of recommendations, i.e.: gatekeepers they can trust
— convenience and accessibility
— reasonable prices

What do some, but not all, readers want?

— a sense of community; the ability to share their love of particular books with others
— the joy and excitement of stumbling upon an interesting book they had no prior knowledge of
— the ability to communicate and interact with their favorite writers
— the ability to combine the acts of reading and book browsing with other pleasurable pastimes, such as eating and drinking, listening to music, or hearing a lecture
— beautiful, durable editions of favorite works, which are pleasing to the eye, nose, and hand

What do writers want?

— time to write
— opportunities and guidance to improve their work
— an audience
— opportunities to earn money from their work
— the appreciation of their peers and critics

What do some, but not all, writers want?

— the opportunity to write full-time
— control over the editing, formatting, and presentation of their work
— opportunities to interact directly with their readers
— opportunities to collaborate with other writers
— opportunities to promote themselves, their works, and works by other writers whom they admire and enjoy

So, taking these various needs and wants into account, what kind of literary ecosystem do I want to live in five or ten years down the road? If I could terraform that future ecosystem (to use a science fictional term), what would I create, within the bounds of the powerful trends I mention above?

Book Publishing

For the overwhelming majority of midlist writers, those without a history of best-selling books and those without a pre-existing “platform” of fame and public recognition, traditional publication by a large publishing house will be (and, for the most part, already is) a fading dream, a “winning the lottery” type of event. Most of us are simply going to have to do a whole lot more of the business end of things ourselves, if we hope to attain any presence in the literary marketplace. By the business end, I mean publicity, reader outreach, editing, and book design.

Some fortunate writers will find themselves with both the skills and the time to do all or most of these tasks themselves. Some will have the financial resources, thanks to a financially supportive spouse, inherited money, investors, or a stable and remunerative “day job,” to contract out all or some of these functions to specialists who perform work for hire. Some will have a spouse or significant other who is willing and able to perform these tasks. Some writers, whether working as a solo act or as the nucleus of a micro-publishing team, will discover great success at amassing an audience, whether through the exceptional quality of their books or through a highly effective business plan, or a combination of these.

Other writers, however talented they may be, will find themselves less gifted with resources. They will not have the time or the money to engage intensively with the business side of publishing or to hire contractors to do this for them. They may have some time and some money to invest, but not enough to amass more than a token readership. Or, like many writers throughout literary history have been, they may be socially withdrawn or self-isolating individuals, who lack the personality traits which allow for successful self-promotion and social networking.

As a reader, I don’t want writers who fall into that second group to be de facto barred from the marketplace, or only able to enter the marketplace in a feeble, exceedingly limited fashion. Just think how many immortal books we would now be denied had the skills of successful self-promotion been essential to publication and distribution during the past few hundred years. Hemingway and Vonnegut were formidable self-promoters. But was Kafka? Was Raymond Carver? In the realm of science fiction, was Philip K. Dick? Their works have only survived and come down to us readers of subsequent generations because they have had champions. Editors at major publishing houses, in the past, have often served as champions of writers unable or unwilling to champion themselves. But as I note above, there will be fewer editors at fewer major publishing houses in years to come, and those editors will have less freedom to take risks on pushing the work of obscure figures.

I think many writers enjoy helping other writers. I think this is so because writers were readers before they ever became writers, and thus learned to cherish other writers, and because writing is a solitary, lonely business and many writers hunger for a community of their fellow enthusiasts. I think as it becomes more and more crucial for us to assume greater responsibilities for the business side of our writing careers, it behooves the more successful among us to help our less fortunate, less resource-endowed fellow writers to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. Because we will benefit as readers and potentially as business people, and because creating community is a source of joy and fulfillment.

I envision the growth and spread of writers’ co-ops. Such co-ops may have as their nucleus a self-publisher who has achieved notable success on the business side and who wishes to share that success and share profits with other writers (such as the example of Robin and Michael J. Sullivan’s Ridan Publications). Or they may arise from a teaming of a group of writers who seek to pool and multiply their limited resources, each of whom can contribute something in the way of editing, book design, reader outreach, distribution, or publicity. Ideally, these writers’ co-ops would be made up of writers with broadly similar or compatible works, so that the co-ops, essentially small presses, could develop strong, memorable brand identities that set them apart in the minds of potential readers. The Baen Books brand means military-oriented, action/adventure science fiction and fantasy. Tachyon Publications has come to be known for highly specialized anthologies of science fiction or fantasy, compiled by erudite and opinionated editors. The Night Shade Books brand implies literary fantasy and horror in non-traditional settings. Purchasers of books from these publishers don’t only shop the books’ authors; they also shop the publishers’ full lines, because they have a good idea of the qualities books in those lines will have, and they like those particular qualities.

Much has been written about the diminishment of traditional gatekeepers in the literary marketplace. Some applaud this development. However, I believe that gatekeepers, as signalers of quality to potential readers, will continue to play a key role in the literary ecosystem. Otherwise, how can readers be expected to choose from the millions of ebooks and POD books which will soon be or are already available? Clogging one’s e-reader with too many poorly written but inexpensive ebooks can lead readers to throw up their hands and seek out more reliable sources of entertainment and pleasure. Writers’ co-ops can serve as a new mode of gatekeeping/quality signaling. In order to be desirable entities for writers to join, writers’ co-ops would have to earn in the marketplace a reputation for putting out quality work. In turn, in order to preserve their hard-won reputations for quality, the writers within a writers’ co-op would vet potential newcomers’ work before bringing them onboard. Promising beginners whose skills aren’t quite polished enough could be referred to writers’ workshops organized by the co-op, and their early, “not quite ready for prime time” works could perhaps be published as free or near-free editions, either online or as downloads, available for readers who would like to sample the works of promising up-and-comers and offer feedback. The co-ops could develop talent the same way major league baseball uses the minor leagues to develop promising ballplayers. Writers’ co-ops could hire outside editors for the books they publish, or they could utilize internal talent, with writers editing each other’s books.

All members of a writers’ co-op would be expected to publicize, not only their own works, but the co-op’s full line of books, utilizing personal blogs and websites, appearances at their region’s bookstores and libraries, and appearances at conventions and festivals. Baen Books has pushed this model very successfully; I’ve been to a number of science fiction conventions where a particular Baen author or editor has served as an advocate for the full line of Baen’s books, often presenting slide shows or multimedia presentations featuring the cover art of recently published or soon-to-be published books from a number of Baen’s stable of writers. This model lifts a good bit of the publicity burden from individual writers’ shoulders (who but the wealthiest or best supported can attend conventions or bookstore appearances all over the country, or even much more than an eight-hour drive from their home?). It also multiplies the publicity reach of a small press, assuming that small press features writers who live and travel in different parts of the country and whose websites, blogs, or Facebook or Twitter feeds are followed by separate audiences.

Book Selling and Book Buying

I love bookstores. I don’t want to see bookstores go away. I enjoy the act of browsing and the pleasures of discovery. I like “romancing” a book before I buy it, browsing it at different stores or on several visits to the same store, allowing my desire for it to build before I surrender to the purchase and take it home.

That said, as a dedicated book browser, I find that large chain stores can become boring. The temptation upon traveling to a different town to visit that town’s Barnes and Noble is lessened by my knowledge that this new Barnes and Noble will carry 99% of the same stock as my Barnes and Noble store back home.

A good part of the charm and attraction of visiting independent bookstores is not knowing what they may carry. Many commentators on modern American culture bemoan the creeping homogenization of American regions, cities, and towns, how a traveler to the outskirts of Albuquerque will find many of the same stores and restaurants as he would in the suburbs (or center) of Albany. In my preferred future of a gobsmacking multiplicity of small presses and writers’ co-ops, bookstores could differentiate themselves and offer increased value to readers by partnering with their regional presses and becoming advocates for those regional presses and regional writers. Most independent stores cannot carry the breadth of stock that a Barnes and Noble superstore can carry; none, of course, can carry the breadth of choices offered by an Amazon. At least not physically. However, new and greatly improved (and continually improving) print-on-demand (POD) services can conceivably allow even a small, intimate independent bookstore to offer the same choices as an Amazon, without the delay of shipping (for those readers who will continue to prefer printed books). I expect the most forward-looking bookstores to maintain at least one book-making machine in their store, in addition to their physical stock of books. Adjacent to the machine, they could offer browsers computers, printed catalogs of books, and, from the regional small presses, pamphlets with the cover and first chapter or first story of their various offerings. That way, bookstore owners could maintain on hand “sample” copies of their slower sellers and of tomes from their regional small presses, printing individual copies for customers as needed, avoiding the cost of maintaining a large inventory. Customers could enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry while their selection is being printed and assembled (or, having sampled a book in the store, they could have an electronic copy downloaded to their device).

Bookstores could partner with regional small presses and local writers to offer book discussion groups and other social events. Local stores would still offer a full range of nationally distributed books (particularly those stores with book-making machines), but they could specialize in regional offerings. Conversely, small presses could rely upon both print-on-demand services (such as CreateSpace and LightningSource) and on book-making machines at their local booksellers to distribute printed copies of their works, selling their ebook versions on their own websites or through e-commerce sites. A terrific example of this sort of symbiosis between an independent bookstore and its local small presses is the mutually beneficial relationship between Borderlands Books in San Francisco and both Tachyon Publications and Night Shade Books (in fact, Jeremy Lassen, one of the founder partners of Night Shade Books, once worked at Borderlands Books). I could imagine tour groups setting up regional bookstore tours for avid readers; such tours would be justified by the fact that different stores in different communities would specialize in works from different regional small presses, offering literary tourists true diversity.

So, my fellow readers and writers, that’s my vision of tomorrow’s literary ecosystem. What’s yours? What would you like to build?

The Death of Science Fiction, 1960 and Today

Chicken Little

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading through the more than seventy questionnaire responses that make up the bulk of Earl Kemp’s 1960 fan publication, Who Killed Science Fiction? In the wake of the 1958 implosion of the American News Company, then the primary distribution source for magazines, and the dramatic and severe contraction in science fiction magazines that quickly followed (part of a general contraction in the publication of fiction magazines of all types), Kemp drew up a simple questionnaire comprising five questions:

1) Do you feel that magazine science fiction is dead?

2) Do you feel that any single person, action, incident, etc., is responsible for the present situation?

3) What can we do to correct it?

4) Should we look to the original paperback as a point of salvation?

5) What additional remarks, pertinent to the study, would you like to contribute?

Kemp mailed his questionnaires to 108 authors, editors, publishers, and fans who were prominent in the science fiction field, essentially the entire professional and semi-professional community. He received 71 responses back, an impressive percentage. Marty Halpern, in his blog More Red Ink, has written a fine account of Kemp’s efforts and shares some of the highlights from the materials Kemp received. The Compleat and Unexpurgated Who Killed Science Fiction?, including follow-on materials collected in the decades following the work’s original publication in 1960, is available as a free download and is also newly available in hard copy from Merry Blacksmith Press. Whoever is interested in the history of popular fiction publishing, the current evolution of and turmoil in publishing, science fiction writers talking shop and speaking their minds, or jumping into the world of professional fiction writing or publishing should pick up a copy, both for the surprisingly candid and oftentimes catty views on display and for the invaluable historical perspective the book provides.

Between the birth of Amazing Stories in March of 1926 and the late 1950s demise of the American News Company, science fiction had been primarily a magazine field. All of the seminal short fiction and nearly all of the important novels had originally been published in pulp magazines or digest-sized magazines such as Astounding Stories, Galaxy, Fantastic Stories, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Having their previously serialized novels republished in hardback or, following WW2, mass market paperback brought in a little side income for writers such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A. E. van Vogt. They, and several dozen less well-known writers, earned the bulk of their writing incomes from magazine sales. Science fiction experienced one of its periodic booms in 1953, and the number of monthly or bimonthly magazines published in the field mushroomed from about a dozen to more than sixty. Suddenly, writers who were capable of being both prolific and at least moderately competent (such as the very young Robert Silverberg) were able to make a handsome living writing science fiction for the magazines. But when the magazine field contracted following 1958 and the numbers of monthly and bimonthly titles fell to a little more than half a dozen, many writers pulled out of science fiction entirely or (like Asimov and Alfred Bester) opted to devote the bulk of their energies to other, ancillary careers. A few, like Silverberg, took an extended hiatus from writing science fiction; Silverberg himself would not return to the field for another five years.

The gloom in the science fiction community circa 1960 is palpable in the pages of Who Killed Science Fiction? The majority of respondents to Kemp’s questionnaire did not expect the magazine field to ever rebound. Opinions varied widely on primary culprits — the editors and publishers blamed the disruption of the distribution system, the fans tended to blame a perceived recycling of science fictional ideas in the stories and novels, and the writers blasted some editors for editorial rigidity, some fellow writers for churning out crap, some readers for only buying the same old crap, and Sputnik, the latter being blamed for shifting readers’ interest in space travel from the pages of the science fiction magazines to the pages of the newspapers.

Perhaps most relevant to current publishing trends and events, respondents were also divided on whether the burgeoning field of paperback originals would prove to be the salvation of written science fiction. Some saw paperback originals as a ray of light, primarily due to their ability to stay on shelves and spinner racks longer than the few weeks afforded magazines. But many felt that paperback originals could never effectively replace what had been lost with the death of so many magazines. They felt that the editors who controlled the content of paperback originals had little familiarity with the science fiction field, certainly much, much less than the longstanding magazine editors, and that they generally tended to publish dreck, generic adventure fiction disguised as science fiction by the addition of a few spaceships and green, tentacled aliens. The sense of condescension expressed by a few of the responding writers and editors towards the producers of paperback originals is visceral and, in retrospect, a little stunning. Some expressed fears that whatever economic promise paperback originals seemed to offer would be squandered by the then-current flood of low quality books, which would drive off readers and permanently sully the (already low) reputation of science fiction.

Paperback originals were the insurgent, disruptive publishing technology of 1960, just as ebooks are today’s. The collapse of the American News Company and its piecemeal, inadequate replacement by a patchwork quilt of local and regional magazine distributors has its modern counterpart in the Borders Books bankruptcy, the massive contraction that has occurred in the numbers of independent bookstores, and the looming Armageddon that many professionals in traditional publishing fear will soon devastate their industry, a technological and economic counterpoint to the recent dismal fate of the recording industry.

What has been the bread-and-butter for most professional writers of popular fiction since 1960? Paperback originals. What publishing platform is currently undergoing the quickest and most severe shrinkage in sales? Mass market paperbacks. (Hardbacks and trade paperbacks are either declining much more gradually or are maintaining their sales levels.) The format which represented the swift, clever mammals eating the eggs of the lumbering dinosaurs in 1960 is now itself the endangered dinosaur, sliding into extinction.

Ebooks are now about where paperback originals were in 1960. Many professional writers and observers of the industry throw up their hands in horror and moan, “Ebooks will be the death of fiction! They are a flood of dreck! There’s no quality control, no gatekeepers! The hordes of the bad will drive out the few that are worthwhile!” Yet ebooks, including some ebook originals, are on an opposite sales trajectory from that of mass market paperbacks.

If I have to make a prediction, it is that new ranks of gatekeepers will arise, critics and reviewers, some amateur, some paid, who will help us sort the wheat from the chaff. It’s already happening. An exponentially increasing “tyranny of choice” will call forth a solution, and I don’t believe the solution will be a widespread turning away from the pleasure of reading a good book. I believe a wider range of stories and novels will be made available to readers, and many writers who have found themselves walled off from traditional publishing by less-than-stellar sales records will take advantage of new avenues through which to reach those readers.

I’ll close with what I hope is a comforting thought in the midst of the present chaos. Who Killed Science Fiction? appeared in 1960. By 1965, five years later, science fiction had embarked upon one of the biggest booms and most creatively fertile periods in its history.


Fun links of the day:

J. G. Ballard’s house in Shepperton is for sale; fan club wants to buy it

Most ubiquitious artist in America pees on Winnie the Pooh statue in Disneyland

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