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Cory Doctorow: Peace In Our Time

E-books are game-changers, but not in the way we all thought they would be. Far from taking over print, e-book sales have stagnated at less than a quarter of print sales and show every sign of staying there or declining for the foreseeable future.

But e-books continue to be a source of bitter controversy that divides publishers from two of their most potentially useful allies: writers’ groups and libraries.

Below, I’ll present two thought experiments for how libraries and writers’ groups could find common cause with the Big Five publishers, using tech projects that would make a better world for writers, readers, literature, and culture.

First up, libraries. Libraries are understandably exercised about the high prices they’re expected to pay for their e-books – as much as 500% more than you and I pay on the major online services. To add insult to injury, HarperCollins makes libraries delete any e-book that has circulated 26 times, on the bizarre grounds that:

a) Its print books are allegedly so badly bound that they disintegrate after 26 readings (this is not actually true); and

b) This defect in the robustness of physical books is a feature, not a bug, and should be im­ported into the digital realm.

Libraries have tried to shame the publishers into offering better deals, through the Fair Pric­ing for Libraries campaign, fairpricingforlibraries.org. It’s had some limited success there, with Random Penguin, the largest of the Big Five, offering ‘‘flexible’’ prices that are a substantial improvement, but still far from perfect.

The libraries’ fight is hamstrung by their lack of leverage. Library patrons want e-books, publishers are the only source of the e-books patrons want, and libraries have to give their patrons what they want.

Libraries could have leverage. Publishers have a much bigger e-book problem than library pricing: Amazon’s dominance in e-book sales. Worse than that: Amazon is also a publisher, one that competes head to head with the Big Five, chasing the same authors to write the same books for the same readers.

Amazon knows, in realtime, how publishers’ books are performing. It knows who is buying them, where they’re buying them, where they’re reading them, what they searched for before buying them, what other books they buy at the same time, what books they buy before and after, whether they read them, how fast they read them, and whether they finish them.

Amazon discloses almost none of this to the publishers, and what information they do disclose to the publishers (the sales data for the publishers’ own books, atomized, without data-mineable associations) they disclose after 30 days, or 90 days, or 180 days. Publishers try to fill in the gaps by buying their own data back from the remaining print booksellers, through subscriptions to point-of-sale databases that have limited relevance to e-book performance.

There is only one database of e-book data that is remotely comparable to the data that Amazon mines to stay ahead of the publishers: e-book circulation data from public libraries. This data is not as deep as Ama­zon’s – thankfully, since it’s creepy and terrible that Amazon knows about your reading habits in all this depth, and it’s right and fitting that libraries have refused to turn on that kind of surveillance for their own e-book circulation.

Presently, that data is all locked up by Overdrive, the company the publishers insist on libraries using as a circulation platform for e-book lending.

Here’s my thought-experiment: what if libraries cloned Overdrive in free, open source code, which every library in the world could use, and which libraries could pay independent contractors to patch and improve. Rather than paying an annual fee for Overdrive that pays for the soft­ware and dividends to Overdrive’s investors, the libraries would adopt the model that has made Drupal and WordPress so successful: paying independent contractors for service and upkeep, and collectively shar­ing the benefits of the incremental improvements made through these transactions.

The openness of the platform is key, because that’s what lets the libraries assert that they are able to collect aggregated statistics on usage and circulation that are sufficiently zoomed-out as to not compromise patrons’ privacy, but are still full of the key insights publishers need to compete with Amazon, their best and biggest frenemy, publisher, and retailer rolled into one.

The quid pro quo for this arrangement is that the publishers would have to stop shafting librar­ies on e-books. It’s a win-win, because the librar­ies will just use that extra money to buy more e-books, and the publishers will get actionable market intelligence they can use to sell more e-books and writers will get a publishing ecosystem that is less dependent on a single, remorseless, giant retailer.

It’s critical that we make sure these deals ben­efit writers, because e-books are also a hot potato in writer-publisher dynamics. The Author’s Guild has taken a public stand demanding that writers to get 50% of net proceeds from e-books as a standard deal – double the current rate. Publishers have not taken this call very seriously so far.

But there’s a way to triple the writer’s share of e-book royalties, with­out costing the publishers anything, and, in so doing, take away some of Amazon’s market dominance.

That way is to allow writers to retail their own books.

The standard deal looks like this: retailers get 30% of the gross book price, and writers get 25% of the net (17.5% of gross) as a royalty. If writers were the retailers, their royalty would jump from 17.5% of gross to 47.5% of gross, for the books that they sold.

How could this work? Groups like the Authors Guild, and even its rival Authors Alliance (a group that calls for more liberal copyright rules, on whose advisory board I sit), or even both together (this being one of the few areas in which they can both agree), could raise a grant from a foundation to create an e-book retail platform that writers could host themselves, plug into their WordPress of Drupal sites, or embed as a widget on Facebook and Tumblr. This platform would allow writers to retail their own e-books, and would have a central hub, ‘‘Fair Trade E-books,’’ where readers could, with one search, find the writer’s store for whatever books they were seeking.

Writers who sell their own e-books offer two things that Amazon can’t match. The first is the assurance to readers that when they buy from writers, they help the writers they love triple their earnings, while not spending a penny more. The second is the ability to buy books from a single store, regardless of geographic location.

Today, readers who try to buy English-language books from outside of English territories, or even in territories in which writers have not sold rights, are often simply turned away from Amazon and its competitors. Try to buy one of my English e-books books in Sweden (a country where most people speak better English than me), and chances are you’ll be told your kronor are no good. Amazon can’t figure out which publisher’s e-books are the right ones to sell there, and the cost of screwing it up are higher than the profit from that lost sale, so the customer is turned away.

But writers know exactly which publisher has rights to their books in every territory. By configuring a simple preferences screen, writers can divvy up the remittances from their books to the correct publisher for every sale, and thus serve every customer – even those buying in territories where there are no publishers – if you’ve sold US/Canadian rights, but not UK rights, you can serve UK customers and pocket 100% of the revenue, at least until you find a UK publisher. What’s more, you can use your sales figures from the UK as a convincer to close the deal with a UK publisher.

Like the libraries’ notional Open Overdrive, the writers’ Open Federated Amazon would benefit from collective action. If a writer hires a developer to add a feature to her store, all the writers in the world could use that feature.

The Big Five would have to come to the table, of course: they’d have to offer retail accounts to their own writers, which would incur some real accounting expense on their end. But as this service is born digital, the accounting tools could be built into the retailing software, developed in consultation with the Big Five, to plug right into their accounting systems.

The Big Five have hard-fought deals with Ama­zon that prevent them from allowing retailers to sell more cheaply than Amazon does, and any move to offer e-books direct from their own web­sites would cause serious troubles with Amazon and the other retailers. But it would be hard for any big e-book platform to object to writers serv­ing their own readers, from their own websites.

Most writers need publishers: the ability to write a book is not a good predictor of the ability to publish it. Libraries need publishers, too. The historical accident that put writers, libraries and publishers on opposing sides of the e-book wars is a bad deal all around.

There’s a catch to these solutions, though: they’re incompatible with DRM. The major operating expense of the e-book businesses that Overdrive and Amazon run is solving the insoluble headaches caused by their DRM. Cooperative platforms have no budget to supply that support.

In a rational world, this would be an easy argu­ment to win. All DRM is broken, all e-book DRM doubly so. Just get a copy of Calibre and follow a simple online recipe and you can remove the DRM from any e-book you’ve bought. All DRM does is punish honest readers. The crooked ones have no serious impediment to doing whatever they want with e-books.

However, the Big Five (with the notable excep­tion of Tor, the SF division of Macmillan, which is all DRM-free) require DRM as an unshakable article of faith.

Perhaps the prospect of a lasting peace with writers and libraries – and a competitive edge against Amazon – will win them over.


Tim Pratt: Closing Doors

Timothy Aaron Pratt was born December 12, 1976 in Goldsboro NC. He traveled with his mother as a child, living in Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, and West Virginia before settling back in Goldsboro. Pratt went to Appalachian State University in Boone NC, graduating with a BA in English in 1999, and attended the Clarion Writers Workshop that summer. He worked as an advertising copywriter briefly before moving to Santa Cruz CA in 2000, where he spent a year as a tech writer and office manager for a disability advocacy company. In 2001 he relocated to Oakland and began working as an editorial assistant at Locus, where he is now a senior editor and occasional reviewer.

Pratt began publishing genre material professionally with poem ‘‘Bacchanal’’ in Asimov’s (2001). ‘‘Soul Searching’’ won a Rhysling Award for best long poem in 2005. Some of his poetry was collected in If There Were Wolves (2006).

Pratt’s first professional story sale was ‘‘The Witch’s Bicycle’’ (2001). Other notable stories include Nebula Award finalist ‘‘Little Gods’’ (2002); Hugo Award winner ‘‘Impossible Dreams’’ (2006); Stoker Award finalist ‘‘The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft’’ (2008, with Nick Mamatas); and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist ‘‘Her Voice in a Bottle’’ (2009). ‘‘Hart and Boot’’ (2004) was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories: 2005. Some of his short fiction has been collected in Little Gods (2003), World Fantasy Award finalist Hart & Boot & Other Stories (2007), and Antiquities and Tangibles (2013). He publishes a new short story every month for subscribers to his Patreon at www.patreon.com/timpratt.

First novel The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl (2005) was a Mythopoeic Award finalist, and won the Emperor Norton Award for best Bay Area novel. His Marla Mason urban fantasy series began with Blood Engines (2007, as T.A. Pratt), and continued with Poison Sleep (2008), Dead Reign (2008), and Spell Games (2009). Pratt self-published additional series novels Bone Shop (2009), Broken Mirrors (2010), Grim Tides (2012), Bride of Death (2013), Lady of Misrule (2015), and Queen of Nothing (2015). Final volume Closing Doors is forthcoming.

Other books include science fantasy The Nex (2010), gonzo-historical The Constantine Affliction (2012, as T. Aaron Payton), standalone contemporary fantasies Briarpatch (2011) and Heirs of Grace (2014), and short novel The Deep Woods (2015). He has also written gaming tie-ins for Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder Tales, and others properties.

Pratt edited Star*Line, the magazine of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, from 2002 to 2004. With his wife Heather Shaw, he co-edited ’zine Flytrap from 2003 to 2008, with a one-off revival issue in 2014. He edited reprint anthology Sympathy for the Devil (2010) and co-edited original anthology Rags and Bones with Melissa Marr (2013).

Pratt was a finalist for the Campbell Award for best new writer in 2004. He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife and their son, River.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘There are so many authors doing what I do that we have a name now: hybrid authors. Hybrids combine different things, and hybrids are stronger and more robust. There are tons of people now who do traditional publish­ing and also self-publish, or crowdfund some projects through Kickstarter, or publish short stories through Patreon, or whatever. It’s no longer either/or. I’ve been doing the hybrid thing for years, but now it’s so widespread it’s almost weird when people don’t. I’ll talk to authors who have thriving careers with big publishers, and they’ll say, ‘I have this weird little passion project, or this niche thing I want to do.’ Or, ‘I had this outline I wrote that we sent around years ago and nobody wanted to buy it, but I still care about it.’ Now there are options for projects like that. Crowdfunding especially has changed the threshold for what makes a project viable, and it works best for writers that are somewhat established, because you need a crowd. If you already have a career in traditional publishing, it’s easier to reach an audience with weird things that might not make enough money for your big publisher to take them on. Maybe you want to do a book that’s too niche or different for your main publisher. Now you can.”

*

‘‘I’m a short-story guy. Stories are what I’m good at, and occasionally great at. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m a pretty good novelist, but stories are where I excel, and I’ve written a few things I’ll go to my grave happy with. I’ve never written a novel I’m completely pleased with. After I started publishing novels regularly, I almost completely stopped writing short stories. I’d write them when I was solicited for an anthology, but writing for anthologies almost always means writing for a theme, or to a particular length, or with a particular tone. I rarely did the thing I used to love doing: getting an idea and just writing it, without worrying about how long it was going to be, or if it was going to be funny or scary or sad, or SF or fantasy or horror. I made my name (inasmuch as I have a name) from writing stories that way, but after novels took over my time, I stopped. ‘Write more stories’ was always on my mental to-do list, but it was way at the bottom, after the paying work, so I never prioritized it.”

*

‘‘It’s getting tricky for the midlisters. We’re going extinct. And the small press isn’t the same, either. It used to be that what a small press could offer was making a book. Well, now anyone can make a book. You can hire someone for not that much money to do your layout, buy some stock art or find an illustrator you like online and ask to use one of their pieces, and hire a cover designer who can turn that art into something attractive. You can hire developmental editors, copyeditors, proofreaders. You’re looking at an outlay of maybe hundreds of dollars, and that’s assuming you don’t have the skills to do any of it yourself, and you can get a nice-looking book, sell it, and keep all the money for yourself. The small presses used to have access to distribution channels that self-publishers don’t, but now anyone can publish with all the major online retailers. There are still good small presses with a lot to offer, ones with good relationships with bookstores, and dedicated bases of readers, and presences at conventions, and publicity skills, and good editing: those things all have great value. Subterranean Press is great, and I did a book with PS Publishing last year. Tachyon does fantastic books. Presses like that also offer a certain critical imprimatur: if they publish you, you’re probably worth reading. But there are other independent presses that don’t have that much prestige, or as many connections, and that don’t offer anything an author can’t simply do for themselves. We have more choices now.”

*

‘‘Most of my best friends who are writers write children’s books, if not exclusively, then at least in part. They’ve given me lots of advice. One of the things that made sense to me was that when you write young adult books, it’s very much about the inner life of the characters. Sometimes very little happens, externally, and it’s largely about processing emotions, figuring things out, deal­ing with your thoughts, and finding your place in the world. Middle grade is more about stuff happening. Younger kids don’t question things as much. You can have a magical thing happen to an eight- or ten-year-old, and they’ll roll with it. It allows you to avoid what I’ve always called the ‘blot of mustard problem.’ (You know, in A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge sees a ghost and tells himself it’s a hallucination brought on by indigestion from undigested beef or a blot of mus­tard.) I write a lot about magic intruding into the modern world, and when you do that, you have to deal with the protagonist’s natural disbelief. They have to say, ‘Is this a dream? Have I gone mad? Have I been drugged?’ Sometimes it’s important to have them wrestle with their belief… but more often you just want to get them to a point where they’ll plausibly accept the magic, so you can get on with the story. There are tricks to make that seem psychologically plausible, but in a middle grade, you don’t have to worry so much. You can just say: ‘Look, magic.’ And the child characters will accept it and act accordingly.”

*

‘‘I just like to try different things. I wrote a space opera proposal, which my agent is send­ing around now. If anybody bites on that, it will be my next project. There are a couple of other things I want to explore. There’s a character in my Marla Mason novels, a trickster figure, who’s very morally ambiguous. I have an idea for a novel about her, about revenge. I’ve wanted to do a big crazy revenge novel for a while. I love Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, and I like the Parker novels by Richard Stark, which are usually about someone being wronged and taking revenge. Right now I’m writing another Pathfinder Tales book, the fourth in a series about a con artist named Rodrick and his best friend, a magical sentient sword of living ice. I always liked Elric and Stormbringer, and I always liked Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. One day I thought, ‘What if, instead of all the tortured angst, Elric and Stormbringer had the same sort of relation­ship that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have?’ A boy and his sword, partners against the world, two halves of a sundered whole. My talking sword is curmudgeonly and mostly wants to sleep on piles of gold all day, because he has the soul of a dragon, and his wielder wants piles of gold too, for all the obvious reasons. The first one was called Liar’s Blade – they didn’t like my preferred title Bastard, Sword, but I used it for a story about the characters later – and the third one, Liar’s Bargain, is out later this year. I like quest novels, but I like quest novels where everybody in the party has a secret ulterior mo­tive and is planning to betray everybody else. Right now I’m writing the fourth book, Liar’s Destiny, which is about the dangers of relying on a prophecy. I love writing this series because it’s mostly banter and sword fighting, 80,000 words of jokes and derring-do and selfish people being forced to do heroic things, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.”


Paolo Bacigalupi: Broken World

Paolo Tadini Bacigalupi was born August 6, 1972 in Colorado Springs CO, moving with his hippie parents to western Colorado soon after. They lived in a commune briefly and remained in the area afterward; when his parents divorced he split his time between them, going to various schools, finishing high school at the private Colorado Rocky Mountain School, where he learned the basics of writing. He attended Oberlin College in OH, where he met his wife-to-be Anjula (they married in 1998) and majored in East Asian Studies, spending time in China for foreign-language immersion. After graduating in 1994 he worked in China as a consultant, helping foreign companies enter the Chinese market. He returned to the US, and in 1996 worked for an early web development company in Boston. He and Anjula lived in Denver before returning to the small town of Paonia ten years ago, where they live with their son. Bacigalupi worked as the online editor for High Country News, a bi-weekly environmental newspaper in print and online, before becoming a full-time fiction writer.

Bacigalupi is a frequent contributor to F&SF, publishing his first story there, ‘‘Pocketful of Dharma’’, in 1999, though he first came to wide attention with Sturgeon finalist ‘‘The Fluted Girl’’ (2003) and Hugo and Nebula Award nominee ‘‘The People of Sand and Slag’’ (2004). His work has also appeared in Asimov’s, various anthologies, and High Country News. Other stories include ‘‘The Pasho’’ (2004); Hugo nominee and Sturgeon Award winner ‘‘The Calorie Man’’ (2005); ‘‘The Tamarisk Hunter’’ (2006); Hugo and Sturgeon Award finalist and Asimov’s Award winner ‘‘Yellow Card Man’’ (2006); ‘‘Small Offerings’’ (2007); ‘‘Softer’’ (2007); Hugo, Sturgeon, and Nebula Award nominee ‘‘The Gambler’’ (2008); and Nebula Award finalist novella The Alchemist (2011). Many of his stories were collected in Locus Award winner Pump Six and Other Stories (2008).

His first novel The Windup Girl (2009) was a huge critical and commercial success, named one of the top ten fiction books of the year by Time magazine, and won Hugo, Campbell Memorial, Compton Crook, Locus, and Nebula Awards.

First YA novel Ship Breaker (2010) won the Michael L. Printz Award, was nominated for the Andre Norton Award, was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and made the Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults list, presented by the American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association. Sequel The Drowned Cities appeared in 2012, and a third volume in the series is forthcoming. He moved to middle-grade for Zombie Baseball Beatdown (2012), and back to YA for standalone SF The Doubt Factory (2014).

His latest adult novel is near-future thriller The Water Knife (2015).


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘We’re a species that reacts to visceral stimuli. Whatever those visceral stimuli are, we take that as being the general state of the world. If it’s raining, it’s wet. If it’s a drought, it’s dry. We don’t take in things like ‘statistically, every year Lake Mead has gotten lower and lower.’ That’s not something you experience viscerally.

‘‘A lot of our problems stem from the fact that we’re a global species, and in order for us to gather information about the state of ourselves as a global species, we need to rely on data, rather than visceral experiences, to inform us about whether we’re proceeding in a way we like or don’t like.

‘‘You see the same thing when people talk about global warming, and they’re like, ‘It’s freezing where I am!’ Yeah, but that’s because there’s a polar vortex that’s shoving all of the cold air down to the United States when it should have been up at the North Pole, which is burning right now.

‘‘Again and again we take our localized, visceral experience of the data set and try to extrapolate that outward, and in reality we need to gather all of this general data from all over and use that, instead. It’s not what we’re built to do as a species. naturally.

‘‘Of course it would help if a bunch of corporations weren’t trying to muddy the waters by telling us the data isn’t true. The whole #ExxonKnew thing is a smoking gun. This major oil company decided it wasn’t profit­able for us to believe in global warming, and so they decided to muddy up the science as much as they could, so that we’d all sit around being confused for a while, while they made billions and billions per year in profit. This company basically decided to put a stake in the heart of our children’s future. And we’ve pretty much accepted that – which is amazing in itself.”

*

‘‘In any universe where we as human beings were focused on being rational and effective, Trump would not be as successful as he is. Maybe what’s happen­ing is we’re seeing how dumb we are. Society needs expert technocrats to run everything, because clearly we as a mass are just a mob.

‘‘I think a lot about mobs, and the excitement people get from being a part of mobs, across the political spectrum. I’m struck by our need to cre­ate mobs to reinforce our own values, so we feel extremely virtuous as we rip the fuck out of whoever we define as being outside of our in-group. I’m fascinated by that, and I feel like it’s getting uglier.

‘‘I think there’s something about social media that’s acting as gasoline for these big mob gatherings. The anonymity and the distancing that happens with the Internet is lubrication for viciousness. People like being able to look to their left and their right and say, ‘I’ve linked arms with others! I am part of something!’ Then everybody goes charging off to rip the fuck out of whoever doesn’t march down their particular moral corridor.

Anybody who’s outside of their moral structure must be the enemy. I’m fascinated by that. Again and again I see it.”

*

‘‘For The Water Knife, I just looked around at my local politics. I spent time immersed in the politics of water when I worked at High Country News. There’s stuff I was experienced with, with local water issues, and then there’s larger state-by-state issues, so I was aware of the general dynamics.

‘‘There are other things I specifically dragged in because I wanted those dynamics in the story. Rick Perry is a kind of a shit about immigration himself, so it was nice to make all Texans the new despised immigrants trying to get into other states. Here’s your rhetoric, let’s shove it back at you. Now you get to be that person.

‘‘A lot of things in the book are based on things I’ve noticed happening, and one of them is this huge push for state’s rights, this idea that the federal government is too powerful. These are the Cliven Bundys of the world: ‘I don’t even recognize the sovereignty of America! It’s never existed!’ That idea is rife throughout the western United States. That at­titude and those crazypants ideas are common here, and they’re often coupled with the idea of states’ rights, the interior states especially.”

*

‘‘Talking about business is funny. There’s this thing authors do where they sort of flip their hair and say, ‘I’m just an artist. Business is hard.’ I hear it from authors all the time.

‘‘The interesting thing about that is everyone else in this industry is in business, so they’re going to fuck you up. I’m getting a little intolerant hearing author after author, or artist after artist, say, ‘Busi­ness is hard.’

‘‘Armor up, because bad people are out there, and they will fuck you in many different ways, and some of those will be career-ending ways. You won’t even see it happening until your career is just destroyed. Look around and see how many predators there are in the water around authors. It’s really important that authors start being aware of those things.

‘‘It’s weird because the tools we have and the information we trade are so limited. So many authors have saved my ass by telling me about things they learned in the business world. It’s been valuable to have so many people who were kind enough to share their experience with me, or give me a warning flag when they saw something going off the rails.

‘‘I want to emphasize that to authors. Make friends. Be kind to others. Ask questions. Share information. Always be willing to ask for guidance or another perspective. Be generous to others.”


Kameron Hurley: Cultivating Inspiration on Deadline

Like most people trying to stay above water in this tricky economy, I’ve been looking into ways to use my time more effectively. I have a bushel of novel and short story deadlines, a busy day job, and I’m feeling increasing pressure to sell more work now while the getting is good.

To get even this far, I’ve given up a lot of things. It’s been my policy to play video games rarely; I use them as a reward for work completed, like my ‘‘30 days of World of Warcraft after I turn in a novel’’ treat. When I watch television, it’s either some junk show I turn on while copyediting or something more substantial I watch at dinner while spending time with my spouse. Saturdays are completely dedi­cated to creating new words. That gives me Sundays off, technically, but I often spend them writing articles like this one or creating digital rewards for my monthly Patreon backers, who pay a per-story fee in exchange for new work from me. I’ve been hustling to find reprint markets for my Patreon work as well, and all that takes… time. To help me retain my sanity, I try to allow myself to just take the holidays off now, as most of the publishing world shuts down from Thanksgiving until New Year’s anyway.

What I’ve found in trying to work this quickly, however, is that I’ve started to recycle a lot of themes and tropes in my fiction. The same thing happened to me when I went to the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and had to churn out a story a week. When you write that fast, you can’t cover up your trouble spots anymore. You don’t have the time to weave pretty passages that make up for lackluster plots. Your characters can’t hide the fact that they’re all pursuing some object of power in every single story. You lose the ability to convince yourself that a pretty ending sentence necessarily equals a good ending. All your story problems are laid bare.

If I’m not actively engaged in refilling my idea bucket, I start to reuse characters, settings, tropes, and set pieces. I have drowning-in-cistern scenes that play a key role in two stories I’ve written over the last year. I’ve got three more stories written in the same time frame that follow elite teams of people (generally duos) who hunt down rogue sorcerers/mercenaries/war criminals. Once you get used to writing a particular style of story and you’re asked to produce work very quickly, it’s easy to lean back on your most comfortable tropes. I had always wanted to write as fast as Robert E. Howard, and now I understand why phrases like ‘‘his mighty thews’’ got recycled over and over in his work. When you’re writing this fast, you lean hard on what you do best.

In order to go forward, I’ve had to go back. When I started a story for an anthology recently, my first inclination was to write one about two people who are hunting down looters of old-world relics. Once again, it was an elite team hunting somebody down. Sure, I work hard to create new worlds and characters around this tried-and-true plot, but the fact remains that I’ve used this plot so often it’s starting to bore me. The worst thing you can tell a writer is that they’re suf­fering from a failure of imagination, and yet here I am, failing away.

So I stopped writing the story, went through some old story drafts, and pulled out a story I’d started some time back. It’s about a village priestess who captures an enemy combatant and leaves her village with him in order to find a way to exact revenge on his people. Sure, it’s a duo, but they aren’t an elite team, and they’re not seeking a particular object. This was a little more interesting and different than what I’d been doing recently. In order to go forward, I had to go back. I can’t just rifle through trunk stories every time I need to launch my career forward, though, or I’m just going to continue going back and back until I’ve dug myself into a big hole.

This leaves me in the uncomfortable position of having to do what I don’t want to do when I’m on deadline. I have started to do things other than writing.

Shocker, I know.

I’ve started reading more, not just new work that I’ve been asked to blurb, but older work that’s been sitting in a huge pile by my bed for years. Hemingway has a reputation for writing manly men, but I’d argue Hemingway’s work is often a bold critique of masculinity. It’s about men who are cowardly, men who screw up, men who can’t have real relationships. I’ll go from reading Hemingway to reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, then hop over into reading United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas, and what my brain spits back at me after it shakes all that around for a while is pretty interesting.

I’ve also started working through the backlog of films that I meant to see but that always looked like huge time investments, films like Inception and Ex Machina and Interstellar. I started replaying Bioshock Infinite, because though it is a hot mess in many problematic ways, it does some extraordinary things with worldbuld­ing and narrative that I can get some inspiration from.

It was my spouse who pointed out that I was sitting around worrying about all the writing I wasn’t doing more than I was actually writing. Instead of spending all that time feeling guilty about what I wasn’t doing and scrolling through Twitter, I needed to release myself from the ‘‘I should be writing’’ mentality and let my brain start connect­ing things on its own. I found that the more I actively thought about plot problems, the less my brain wanted to fix them. It kept trying to avoid the problems I’d put to it. For instance, instead of fixing a plot problem on my current book, my brain recently offered up a solution to a subplot problem in the next book I’ll be working on. At some point I have to give in and let my brain make the connections it needs to make, without getting in its way. More and more, I have to let my brain go more than I’m used to, or it just retreads the same old story paths.

I would like to tell you that giving up everything to write is the only way to write. I enjoy spouting that whole ‘‘fall on your sword’’ advice time and time again. Giving up activities that waste your time while you should be writing is beneficial, but I can only burn hard like I have for so long before the flame gutters out. I don’t want to be that writer who just writes the same story over and over again. I want to punch through and level up and keep people guessing. To achieve that requires me to consider whether what I’m writing is actu­ally leveling me up, or whether it’s just me cranking out more of the same for a quick sale. Sales are good, money is good, being prolific is good, but I don’t just want to be good. I want to be great; I want to be the best at what I do, and that takes time, and patience, learning how to cultivate my own inspiration. And that means giving my brain a day off, if only to fool it into coming up with my next great novel.


Fran Wilde: Magical Engineering

Frances Ellen Wilde was born in 1972 in Philadelphia PA and spent many childhood summers traveling back and forth from Philadelphia to Hopkinsville KY. She studied art in high school and learned to design jewelry. At the University of Virginia she studied writing and literature, with an emphasis on poetry, graduating with an English degree focused on Milton and 18th-century literature. She received an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College, and later earned another master’s degree in Information Architecture and Interaction Design. She has worked as a sailing instructor, programmer, teacher, proofreader and copywriter, editor, jeweler’s assistant, web designer, and technology consultant, among other occupations.

A published poet since the late ‘90s, Wilde’s first publication of genre interest was story ‘‘Everlasting’’ (2011) in Daily Science Fiction, and she has published more than a dozen stories since then, with appearances in Asimov’s, Nature, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tor.com, and anthologies and small-press magazines. Debut novel Updraft, a fantasy set in a city of living bone above the clouds, appeared last year, with companion novels Cloudbound and Horizon (working title) forthcoming. Story ‘‘The Topaz Marquis’’ (2014) introduced her Gem Universe series, which will continue with novella The Jewel and Her Lapidary from Tor.com. Her ongoing series of interviews with other authors, Cooking the Books, explores the intersection of food and fiction at franwilde.wordpress.com/cooking-the-books.

Wilde is a graduate of Viable Paradise (2011) and attended Taos Toolbox (2012). She lives in Philadelphia with her family.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘When I was very young, I learned to read at the knees of some amazing storytellers. The tradition in both my mother’s and father’s families is to sit there and tell yarns. If you sit me next to Andy Dun­can, my voice will start to twang – it’s unconscious. If you’re from the northern US, and all of your cousins on your mother’s side are in the southern US, you might develop adaptive coloring very quickly. I did. I also spent a lot of time in libraries, reading, and I began to read and write very early. I was very serious about my diaries, too. Most of the time I camped out in the Tredyfrin-Easttown Public Library, which was a wonderful place with reading nooks. I read everything. I’d just go hide in the stories. Pretty soon, I realized that the books in the library were fantastic, but there was a bookstore near me that had even more: they had a great genre section. When they figured out I didn’t have as much access to science fiction as I had to fantasy, they started loaning me science fiction ARCs.

‘‘They gave me a lot of things. I read Jack Chalker and Orson Scott Card. I read stuff that wouldn’t have come into the house otherwise. It was an extraordinary education. I came from a household that prided itself on classics and hardbounds and things you were supposed to read, a lot of engineering texts, and a lot of non-fiction. I was lucky in that way, but I had to go find the science fiction on my own. I loved that stuff.”

*

‘‘I got into games programming because I was doing a lot of academic research on how games can be used to teach kids different things. I came out to San Francisco and was talking to a couple different companies because I knew enough languages by then, and I knew how to do database integration and dynamic websites and animation. This was before the dot-com meltdown, and people would get bonuses just for bringing someone like me in. It was very heady. I was staying on a couch at a friend’s during one of these things in San Francisco. He had a copy of Snow Crash. I read it in an hour and a half, and then got all of the other Stephenson I could. I just loaded up on cyberpunk. I had read The Diamond Age during my master’s and I loved it, but I wanted the heavier stuff, the coder stuff. I’d read Neuromancer but I hadn’t read Burning Chrome. I went out and got all of this stuff and just soaked it in. Pat Cadigan’s Synners. This was where I lived. Candas Jane Dorsey wrote a story, it was in the Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy By Women (which is rather incorrectly labeled because science fiction is all throughout this book, but: women, therefore, fantasy, I guess?). Dorsey wrote this story called ‘(Learning About) Machine Sex’. When I was working in the programming industry, I passed it around. It percolated through a lot of the women programmers I knew, though there were very few of us. Just reading that story gave me a feeling like, ‘I can stay in this industry a bit longer and not strangle someone.’”

*

‘‘I originally pitched Updraft as YA, but I did some work in the book that wasn’t standard YA. There’s no love triangle, true, but that is not a definition of YA – there are YA stories that are excellent that don’t have that. I had a choice of which viewpoint character to write, because there are layers of generations in the story. I chose Kirit as the point of view character because I could hear her voice the loudest. The narrator could just have easily been Nat. It could have been so many people. If it had been Nat, it wouldn’t have necessarily been pitched as YA. He and Kirit are the same age, but a 17-year-old male on an epic adventure is not always considered YA. I wanted to write a female version of that story, and Kirit wanted to be the protagonist. So when Updraft ended up as a crossover title, I was happy, even though crossover is a tough place to be sometimes.”

*

‘‘I realized that I was a worldbuilder, and that my game experience, all of the things I’d been doing with my life, all of the art background, the animation, the visual stuff – I could draw on that and build a world. I’m hoping that at different points in somebody’s life – young adult through adult – they can come back to Updraft and say, ‘There’s more here,’ and that an adult can read it and say, ‘That was really fun.’ Saying that about a dialectical examination of politics and socio­economic stuff? That’s kind of cool. There’s a lot about consequences and compromises and gray areas. That’s something that some people learn, for better or worse, when they’re very young. There’s a lot about family in the book: the family you make, but also the family you’re born with. Having those layers of family can complicate a story. I really wanted that.

‘‘I wrote a lot of engineering into the book, because that’s what I know. Some people say, ‘There’s no magic in this book. It’s all engineer­ing.’ I say, ‘There’s magic in this book. It’s all engineering.’ At the end of the day, if you ask me to describe a bridge, or a schematic for a pump, I can do it. I was a science writer at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins for years. They were one of my main clients because I could translate big engineering principles into simple language. That’s where I learned the rule that if you’re introducing an entirely new idea, or a new world, you go for simple language instead of the more difficult language. It’s a lower barrier for entry. Still, there are linguistic effects in Updraft, very carefully built in. In Updraft, instead of ‘passing things down’ to your offspring, you pass up, because the whole city goes up. I had to flip the prepositions all over the place. Doing that with simple language made the world more accessible.”

*

‘‘Coming up next is Cloudbound, the com­panion novel to Updraft. Kirit is still present, but this is Nat’s book. And you meet or re-meet a lot of other characters. Updraft was a horizontal narrative: it operated above the clouds with an occasional unlucky dive. All I can say about Cloudbound is that it’s a vertical story. I had a lot of fun giving my characters nitrogen narcosis and the bends at the same time. I loved writing this book. All those people who’ve been asking for more history and more understanding of what the bone towers do, and the cloud dynamics – that all became really paramount in this one. I did a lot of research on cloud dynamics, and on other things, like reverse-altitude-sickness issues. I ended up talking with consultants at NOAA and elsewhere about exoplanet weather and solar and thermal structures as well. All of that needs to stack up to make a world work. And I’m a third of the way through Horizon, which is the working title for the third book, and which is also very different. There are new point-of-view characters as well as Kirit and Nat, because there are more experiences here. The current ending of Cloudbound ends a little more abruptly than Updraft does. It answers the dominant question of ‘What the heck is down there?’, so I felt OK attaching a ‘Holy heck what do we do now?’ to it as well.”


Lisa Goldstein: Secret Sisterhood

Lisa Goldstein was born November 21, 1953 in Los Angeles CA. She attended UCLA, graduating with a BA in 1975, then relocated to the Bay Area, where she was a co-owner of bookstore Dark Carnival from 1976-82. Her debut novel The Red Magician (1982) won the American Book Award. Other novels include World Fantasy Award nominee The Dream Years (1985), Clarke Award finalist A Mask for the General (1987), Tourists (1989), Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon (1993), Summer King, Winter Fool (1994), Walking the Labyrinth (1996), Mythopoeic Award nominee Dark Cities Underground (1999), The Alchemist’s Door (2002), and Mythopoeic Award winner The Uncertain Places (2011). As Isabel Glass she wrote fantasy duology Daughter of Exile (2004) and The Divided Crown (2005). Her latest book is time travel novel Weighing Shadows (2015).

Goldstein’s short fiction includes Hugo and Nebula Award finalist ‘‘Cassandra’s Photographs’’ (1987); World Fantasy and Nebula Award nominees ‘‘Alfred’’ (1992) and ‘‘Fortune and Misfortune’’ (1997); Nebula Award finalists ‘‘The Narcissus Plague’’ (1994) and ‘‘Dark Rooms’’ (2007); and Sidewise Award winner ‘‘Paradise Is a Walled Garden’’ (2011). Some of her short work has been collected in Daily Voices (1989) and World Fantasy Award nominee Travellers in Magic (1994).

Goldstein married Douglas Asherman in 1986, and they live in Oakland CA.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I mostly think of myself as writing fantasy, but I had this idea for a science fiction novel. I wanted to see if I could do it, so I wrote Weighing Shadows. It sounded like fun. I like that science fiction idea where you come up with a hypothesis and you see where it takes you. There’s a change in technology and you see how far you can go with that. What would happen if a group of people got ahold of time travel? How much would they be altruistic about it, and how much would they work to get power for themselves? I just like the idea of time travel. I’d want to travel in time! If somebody said, ‘Here, we’ll send you back in time,’ I’d say, ‘Sure.’ I think it’d be fun.”

*

‘‘I’ve always wondered that. If women work, who takes care of the kids? Is it shared? What exactly goes on here? In this particular matriarchy I decided there wouldn’t be the institution of marriage. Women would have kids with whoever. So who took care of the kids? She didn’t have a husband. I’ve been thinking about this idea for a long time.

‘‘I like the idea of a sisterhood working in the shadows that influences things, so I came up with the idea of a secret society that one of the time travelers starts in ancient Crete. I wanted to think that there’s some force working against all the obvious forces in history, all the wars and op­pression. And I liked that it survived against all the odds, that it’s lasted for thousands of years. And that maybe you could run into them if you knew the secret meeting places and the right passwords.

‘‘I do write a lot of historical fantasy, so that part was easier. Not easy. I like reading history, and imagining myself in different eras of history. The science fiction part was interesting. It was more plot-dependent. There was a real plot, and I had to follow that plot very rigorously, be­cause otherwise the time travel wouldn’t work. It was different than the fantasy I’d written. I had to really pay attention, to hit all the plot points. Characterization wasn’t as important as it has been in the fantasies, to me, except for the main character. I worked with the characters, I tried making them interesting characters, but it wasn’t as important. It was like, if the plot worked, the story would work out no matter what, because that was what mattered most in this book.”

*

‘‘There is a feminist streak in Weighing Shadows. Feminism has been a big deal for me for a long time, but I don’t really come out and say it. Feminism is under attack so much these days, with the war on Planned Parenthood and things, so I thought maybe I shouldn’t be so subtle about it anymore. Maybe I should say something. I don’t want to be one of those people who goes out and says, ‘Here’s my message. This isn’t really a book, it’s a manifesto.’ I hope I told a good story in addition to saying something about feminism. I really got fascinated by ancient Crete because it was a matriarchy. I wanted to point that out. Their society worked. It lasted for a thousand years, and it had stability. We can’t decipher their writ­ing, at least not well, and we know so little. But there are these beautiful, beautiful frescoes and artwork. They had this thriving art, but there’s so little known about them, and people have strange ideas because there’s so little known about their society.”

*

‘‘Charles Brown said that really good-selling writers are paranoid. They see connections every­where. I do try to do that. In this book I started connecting all the words that start with ‘cor’ or ‘car.’ There are all these place names that start with those, like Carcassonne and Corinth. The names might go back to the goddess Kore, but that’s another thing nobody knows for sure, so I got to decide and say, ‘Yes they do.’ I got to come up with an entire conspiracy just based on this one fact.

‘‘The Daughter of Exile books came out under a pseudonym, Isabel Glass. The thinking was, the high fantasy was different from my usual stuff, so it should go out under a pseudonym. What happened in practice was, I didn’t get to promote the books, because they weren’t supposed to be by me. So they didn’t get promoted at all. They didn’t do terribly well, and I think now they would have done better under my own name. Nobody knows. But looking back, I think it was a bad decision.

‘‘Writing in that high fantasy style was fun, too. I’d like to do that again. I got the rights back, and I put the e-books out under my own name, so that’s working. I think that’s proof of my theory, anyway, that the books would have done better under my name. That’s one great thing about e-books, that books can have another chance even if they didn’t do that well the first time around, that they can still discover their readers. I can see where some people would want a pseudonym, if they start writing something really different, like mysteries instead of SF or something, but for me it just didn’t work.”


Cory Doctorow: Wealth Inequality Is Even Worse
in Reputation Economies

I need to confess something: ‘‘Whuffie’’ would make a terrible cur­rency.

In 2003, I published my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, in which all society’s scarcities, even death and energy, have been overcome, and where conflicts over resources – notably, who gets to run Walt Dis­ney World and what they get to do there – are apportioned using a virtual currency called ‘‘Whuffie.’’ Unlike other virtual currencies like Bitcoin, Whuffie isn’t something you buy and sell: it’s a score that a never-explained set of network services calculate by directly polling the minds of the people who know about you and your works, reducing their private views to a number. The number itself is idiosyncratic, though: for me, your Whuffie reflects how respected you are by the people I respect. Someone else would get a different Whuffie score when contemplating you and your worthiness.

The characters in the novel generally love Whuffie, even though it’s destroying them.

Whuffie has all the problems of money, and then a bunch more that are unique to it. In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, we see how Whuffie – despite its claims to being ‘‘meritocratic’’ – ends up pooling up around sociopathic jerks who know how to flatter, cajole, or terrorize their way to the top. Once you have a lot of Whuffie – once a lot of people hold you to be reputable – other people bend over backwards to give you opportunities to do things that make you even more reputable, putting you in a position where you can speechify, lead, drive the golden spike, and generally take credit for everything that goes well, while blaming all the screw-ups on lesser mortals.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how money works. Inherit (or luck into) a large fortune, and give a couple million to a good cause – never mind that it will affect your quality of life not at all – and you’ll be lionized as a hero. The great and the good will invite you onto their podiums – but a poor person who takes in a foster kid gets virtually no recognition, even if fostering involves real sacrifice on their part.

The story of ‘‘meritocracy’’ – a society that migrates wealth, status, and decision-making power into the hands of the most capable – is seductive. Rich people love the idea of meritocracy, because the alter­native is that their lion’s share is unfair, the product of luck, or, worse, cheating. But many of meritocracy’s losers love it, too. In the words of John Steinbeck, ‘‘Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.’’

Meritocracy is a tautology, of course. There’s no objective measure of ‘‘merit’’ so there’s no way to know whether your society is meritocratic or not. Every famous, powerful, rich person owes their status to a com­bination of skill, luck, and persistence. The best luck of all is to be born to fortunate circumstances, well fed and well educated and well loved. We know for a fact that billions lack some or all of these forms of luck, and among those people are innumerable potential Stephen Hawkings and Steve Jobses and Albert Einsteins. The fact that Jobs was born to a Syrian refugee and that Hawking struggles with a debilitating illness just shows you how fickle luck is – unless you believe that evolution produced exactly one brilliant tech entrepreneur in the ranks of Syrian refugees and one brilliant scientist with ALS, then you have to believe that the others just didn’t get quite so lucky.

It’s bad enough when the meritocratic delusion takes root in a money-driven economy, but reputation’s one percenters are even more toxic. They can go spectacularly bankrupt, financially ruining their investors, and promptly raise another fortune to gamble on.

Reputation is a terrible currency.

Currencies need to serve as units of account – so you can price every­thing from vintage Star Wars figures to anti-fungal cream and calculate their total worth. They need to serve as media for exchange, so that someone who has Ken­ner Star Wars figures and needs anti-fungal cream can convert one to the other. They need to serve as stores of value – so you can convert your action figures to something more stable that you can use in your dot­age, in case Star Wars ceases to be cool in another 50 years.

Reputation is pretty much useless for any of these things. Instead, they’re literally popularity contests: ‘‘more people like me than you, so I win and you lose.’’ In theory, this kind of jerky behavior will cost you reputation – but in reality, many people are delighted to treat such jerks as ‘‘strong, de­cisive people who tell it like it is.’’

The Internet has been trying to figure out how to make reputation work for decades now. Those scores that appear next to Ebay sellers’ names and on the profiles of ‘‘shar­ing economy’’ workers profile pages – Uber, Lyft, Airbnb – attempt to establish a basis for strangers to trust one another.

Ebay’s reputation system is one of the oldest surviving ones, and it’s a good example of how explicit reputation systems fail to solve their major problem. Most people who buy and sell on Ebay do a good job of it, because most people aren’t crooks. A few people do very badly, and get downranked and eventually punted off the system – something that a normal complaints tipline would handle just as well.

But reputation is useless as a hedge against the real nightmare of a setup like Ebay: the long con. It doesn’t cost much, nor does it take much work, to build up sleeper identities on Ebay, fake storefronts that sell un­remarkable goods at reasonable prices, earning A+++ GREAT SELLER tickmarks, even for years, until one day, that account lists a bunch of high-value items on the service, pockets the buyers’ funds, and walks off.

Reputation works badly and fails badly – it’s a lose-lose situation all around.

But that hasn’t stopped companies from doubling down on reputation. Given the role reputation has played in the ‘‘sharing economy’’ bubble, it was inevitable that some would-be titans would offer companies based on nothing but reputation.

One notorious example is Peeple, the vaporware app launched in Sep­tember 2015, which (it was announced) would let you rate other human beings on a scale of one to five. If you wanted to highlight the dystopian nature of Whuffie, you need go no further than this vision for Peeple. If it ever took off, it’d be a lever that the likes of Gamergate could use to destroy your’s employment and personal life, possibly permanently, just by mass-one-starring you.

This was forcefully pointed out to Peeple’s relentlessly defensive founders at such enormous length that it provoked a ‘‘pivot’’ and now the company promises that if it ever ships anything, its app will be opt-in only, and you’ll have the ability to censor any negative reviews. This would render it worse than useless, like a Yelp in which no negative reviews were allowed.

But Peeple is a modest effort compared to ‘‘Citizen Scores,’’ the for-now-voluntary service run by the Chinese government in partnership with Tencent (a huge social media and games company) and Alibaba (China’s answer to Amazon). Your citizen score is visible to everyone the government wants – buying socially approved items, undertaking approved leisure activities, adhering to rules and regulations, and socializing with other high-score individuals. Of course, not doing these things makes your score go down. Just being friends with low-scoring individuals drags your own score down, creating a powerful incentive to conform.

Mandatory Citizen Scores are being phased in over the next decade, and with other ‘‘soft’’ tools of control developed by China, it promises to be more powerful than any overt coercion.

Years ago, China transitioned from relying primarily on the Great Firewall of China to censor messages it didn’t want people to see, to using something called the ‘‘Fifty Cent Army.’’ This Army of hyper-patriotic social media users gets paid half a Yuan (fifty cents) for every pro-government post they write, with an emphasis on discrediting people and reports that put the government in bad light. As anyone who’s ever tried to figure out the he said/she said campaigns run by the US climate denial lobby can attest, doubt is much more powerful than outright sup­pression. When someone reports on state cor­ruption – whether that’s a black child murdered by a US cop, or a Chinese dissident tortured by a politburo operative – and the media is flooded with unsourced reports, innuendo, and accusations about the victim’s low character and alleged past misdeeds, the whole issue quickly dissolves into a muddle.

Citizen Scores are a similar soft-power move: rather than arresting you for being friends with dissidents, the politburo will just downrank you – and everyone will see that your rank has been decreased, and will know that befriending you will endanger their own score.

Citizen Scores are a near-perfect expression of reputation economics: like most other forms of currency, they are issued by a central bank that uses them to try and influence social outcomes. In this case, those outcomes are perfect obedience to the state.


Tom Doherty: Story First

Tor publisher Tom Doherty was born April 23, 1935 in Hartford CT, where he grew up and attended Trinity College, majoring first in chemical engineering and then in philosophy, and playing football, before serving almost two years in the US Army.

His first full-time job was in publishing, as a sales rep for Select Magazines, at that time the national distributor for Pocket Books. Seven months later he moved to Pocket, itself in Philadelphia, where he met publishing legend Ian Ballantine in the magazine wholesaler’s warehouse. He would learn a lot from Ballantine over the years. Doherty moved around the country and within the company in a variety of sales jobs, eventually rising to sales manager of Simon & Schuster at a time when they were Ballantine’s distributor and he, in effect, was Ian Ballantine’s sales manager. During this time, Ballantine published Tolkien and proved to the world that fantasy could be a major bestseller.

Doherty moved to Grosset & Dunlap in 1969, becoming publisher of paperback books, including the YA line Tempo, which Harriet McDougal would edit. When Grosset acquired Ace in 1975, Doherty took over as publisher of Ace/Tempo, bringing Tempo editor McDougal with him as editorial director, and hiring Jim Baen from Galaxy to run the SF program.

Doherty founded Tor Books in 1980 with funding from venture capitalist Dick Gallen. Their first two books were movie tie-ins for Flash Gordon and Popeye, rushed out for the movies at the end of 1980. The full list debuted in April 1981 with Forerunner by Andre Norton. Pinnacle Books would be the Tor line’s distributor. In 1983, Baen Books became a separate company, with Doherty and Gallen as Jim Baen’s partners. Baen took with him authors he had edited at Tor who wanted to go. Some stayed, and some, like David Drake and David Weber, the companies continue to share. (Tor will be publishing David Weber’s new Safehold book In The Sign of Triumph this October.)

Distributor Pinnacle went bankrupt in 1985, their last checks bad and several million more owed to Tor never paid. Tor’s resources were strained, limiting growth. On New Year’s Eve 1987, Doherty sold the company to St. Martin’s, a Macmillan company. The deal included autonomy for the Tor division. Holtzbrinck bought Macmillan, and Tor became a wholly owned subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, with independence and control over its publishing lists. Pan Macmillan Australia has distributed Tor since the Macmillan acquisition. They distribute UK products including Tor UK, and of course publish their own. Melia distributed for Tor in the UK, and Tor UK launched in 2003. Books for which Tor has world rights that aren’t published by Tor UK are still distributed in Australia and New Zealand by Pan Macmillan.

Doherty has three adult children from his first marriage to Barbara Slocum Doherty (deceased), all of whom work in publishing. He married Tatiana Pashina Doherty in 1992. They live in New York City.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘First comes the story. But if the story can do good, it’s a nice plus. It’s a great thing if we can stimulate good ideas and future action by the young – if they’ll read this and then maybe go out and build it. Key people in NASA management believe many of their people got into sci­ence because they read science fiction when they were young and said, ‘Yes, I want to do this.’ They believe good SF today will motivate many of our young to do the same. The way it works is, if we have ideas, we can bring them to NASA, and they’ll give us consultation. One of their missions is to interest the youth of America in science and technology. Because we need to produce more of our own homegrown scientists and mathematicians, they’re willing to work on appropriate books in order to promote that, give us free consultation, and promote the books in schools with their educational arm. We’ve always been very good at getting things onto English class reading lists, but we’ve been less good at getting books onto science and math reading lists – those teachers don’t assign much fiction. We thought NASA’s credibility could be very helpful with get­ting us onto those lists. We will work with them every time we have an appropriate book, and we’d love to have more of them.”

*

“I saw surveys for years that said, ‘Where do we get our new custom­ers’. From satisfying the person waiting for a pre­scription in the pharmacy, buying from a revolving rack as they waited. The person walking down the supermarket aisle to buy a pound of coffee, seeing the books, and sampling them. When you pleased them often enough in that impulse situation, they went to a store where there was more selection, and it was just a chain feeding. You had a lot of people buying impulse, but some of those people became core readers. You had the same thing with the mall readers. I saw a recent survey that asked, ‘Do you miss the Waldenbooks that was in this shopping center?’ The answer was, ‘Yes! We’d come to buy a sweater or a pair of shoes, and we’d almost always have time to walk in. If we walked in, we usually bought a book, often several.’ ‘When was the last time you bought a book?’ ‘Oh, yeah, we have to go to a bookstore soon.’ If you don’t put books where people are, you lose a lot of the market, and equally bad, you lose the sampling that hooks and begins to create the committed reader. The decline of mass market wasn’t all about e-books, it was a distribution breakdown.”

*

“The Internet is great if you know what you want. It’s time consuming to recognize good new authors, and you’ve got all this self-publishing. Some self-published books are great books, but there are many more that are not good books. People have a bad experience and buy fewer books. An editor fulfills a real function. Some authors are very good at seeing their own mistakes, but most people don’t see their own mistakes. If you work very hard on a book for a year, you’re so intimately involved that things that seem obvious to you are frequently not obvious to the first-time reader. Often, you need an editor to talk with the author about that, and say, ‘Wouldn’t it help if we brought out this?’ The copyediting, the proofreading, the sales, and the marketing matter too. At Tor.com, we have between a million and a million-and-a-half unique visitors a month, and it’s very hard for an author to build that kind of reach for themselves. There still are places we can get the book in front of people’s eyes. The combination of things we do as a publisher we do because we think they are valid and necessary to the continued enjoyment of reading.”

*

‘‘I think we publish around 350 books a year. That’s in all editions. Many of them are repubs of books in hardcover that we’re doing in paperback. It could be a trade paper or mass market. The trade paperback has always been around, it just was a much smaller part of the market. E-book originals are now also a factor. We’re trying to make up for the loss in mass market sales. It’s been a problem for us and for authors. You can’t lose so many retail­ers and keep the same sales unless you innovate.

‘‘We’ve got to be of value to our authors, too. We’ve had a huge investment in Tor.com to get to our million-and-a-half monthly uniques. What we lost in retail, we gained over on the net. It’s a bloody shame we can’t have both, but that’s the kind of thing we’re doing now: more social media, more networking, more school marketing, working with organizations like NASA, getting as much display as you possibly can, without counting on the display to be the prime motivator. Display is still important, but you’ve got other motivators, which are now equally important.’’


Kameron Hurley: The Sad Economics of Writing Short Fiction

The abysmally low payment terms for science fiction and fantasy short story markets have been a sad topic of conversation among writers for de­cades. Gone are the days when writing and selling a short story would pay your rent (unless you’re selling to Tor.com).

Rates for writing short fiction are even lower than those for modern magazines and newspapers, which may be hard to wrap one’s head around, but having written for both, I can tell you that magazine writers aren’t making out much better than we are.

Yet whereas I was paid just $250 for a recent article in The Atlantic, that piece only took me about four hours to write and edit. Compare that to the 20-40 hours it can sometimes take to write a short story, for which I’d be paid about the same amount (if I could find a mar­ket for it at all), and the economics of short fiction writing at the per-hour level can be even lower than that offered in the competitive freelance nonfiction market. This is the reason I encourage writers to start hedging their bets as they level up. Does writing short fiction make economic sense, or is there another way to bring in more in compensation?

I understand that it’s difficult to talk about hourly rates for specialized work because those rates often don’t reflect the years of experience one needs to do the work. The personal anecdotes and stories that we call on to create essays and short fiction take a lifetime to accumulate. That’s tough to put a price tag on – for us or for the people who buy our work.

I was struck by this recently while doing a ‘‘Where do my ideas come from?’’ video for a short story called ‘‘The Light Brigade’’. I found myself sharing the many real-life stories, anec­dotes, experiences, and other things I’d read over the last 30-some years that went into building the worlds and people and concepts for this single piece of fiction. I was fascinated at the reminder that I was the only one who could have written this story in just this way. These were pieces of my life, all bundled up and remixed. It’s this unique blend of experiences that helps make up a writer’s voice. One can pay $50 for endless iterations of ‘‘5 Superfoods’’ blog posts that take an hour to write and sound the same, but there’s only one ‘‘We Have Always Fought’’, only one of John Scalzi’s ‘‘Being Poor’’ essay, only one of Roxane Gay’s ‘‘Bad Feminist Manifesto’’.

Like personal essays, short fiction is the sum of our life experiences, so how do we price that out fairly? At the end of the day, the value of our labor is determined by the grim economics of ‘‘How much will people pay for it?’’ and as we’ve heard again and again from book and magazine editors, the general public won’t pay a lot for short fiction from unknown or lesser-known writers (even so-called ‘‘Big Names’’ struggle to sell short story collections in what a publisher would consider a profitable number of books). The lack of commercial interest trickles down to how much editors will pay writers for these pieces. Which leaves us making $200 a pop. Is there a better way?

What a number of writers are increasingly doing through platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter is bypassing the general SFF reading public altogether and going straight to the people they know will pay fair rates for their fiction: their fans. This isn’t a new idea, of course. Writers like Catherynne M. Valente were writing and sending short story chapbooks every month back in the early 2000s that readers could subscribe to. Many blogs and ‘‘free’’ short stories hosted online by their authors include do­nation buttons, affiliate links, and even Google ads just like magazines would. Making $200, $1,200, or even $2,000 for a short story today is not unheard of using these methods.

However, let’s keep in mind that this pool of ‘‘true fans’’ also requires years to build. I’ve been publishing short fiction since 1995, blogging since 2004, and writing published novels since 2011 and have just now accumulated enough of a following to make writing short fiction an effort that pays me fairly. Many writers have given up short fic­tion all together once they started earning money on novels, which is a sad reality of the game.

One of the reasons markets like Tor.com are able to put out so many exceptional stories right now is because they pay the most for them (and also because they are now, alas, only selecting work from established authors. They recently closed their unsolicited slush pile). Magazines without support from a major publisher like Tor find themselves unable to pay fair rates for short fiction, and then complain that they aren’t getting many great stories. I have a lot of sympathy for the slush pile, having weeded through my own under a pseudonym many years ago, but that was also for a magazine that paid a bare minimum token rate. I was not expecting a budding genius to send in anything for $5 or $25 in compensation.

Do low paying markets still publish folks who go on to be great? Absolutely. I’ve done my own time in the pits making $25 or $50 a short story (and I’ve been known to accept $50 for reprints of very old stories that have already made the rounds a few times and essays that take me an hour or two, but only for folks I know).

What this whole ‘‘economics of short fiction’’ situation made me wonder is what exactly short fiction markets are for and whether or not they are worth a writer’s time. I’m the first to loudly state that if you can’t afford to pay your writers, you can’t afford to publish an anthology or magazine. Paying writers is a cost of doing business. Paying them fairly, however, is a matter of some contention. Is ‘‘fairness’’ simply how much people will accept, how much the market says it’s worth, or a wage based on how long it actually took to write?

Our views on labor in America are built on a history of indentured servitude and slavery, which is one reason that protections for workers have been so difficult to come by. We continually rank far below the rest of our peers in how we regulate big business and how it treats its labor. Before you get up in arms about how short story writers and essayists aren’t exactly coal miners, I invite you to interview freelancers on how they’re actually making a living (or not) right now. Writing may not be a physi­cally demanding job, but creating valuable and entertaining content for consumers is a huge and valuable skill that big businesses understand and are willing to pay for. Super fans get this, too. General consumers don’t.

So when we’re plotting a course for the future of short fiction, I’d chal­lenge writers to consider what they are willing to write for at different times in their careers. If you’re just starting out and consider your fresh­man effort worth $5 because it was a great exercise to engage in to help you level up, fine. But as you become more skilled and start building a fan base, consider that your presence in a magazine or anthology may be doing more for the magazine editor than it’s doing for you. Expect and ask to be paid fairly for the work you’ve put in and the lifetime of practice it’s taken you to get this far.

And if they can’t give you that, consider going to the people who can. As writers this business is difficult enough without undervaluing our own work.


Mary Rickert: Resonance

Mary Beth Rickert was born December 11, 1959 in Port Washington WI and grew up in the small town of Fredonia. She worked as a kindergarten teacher for ten years at a small private school for gifted children in California, and has also worked at a bookstore, a YMCA, a coffee shop, as a nanny, and for two years as a personnel assistant in Sequoia National Park. She earned her MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Rickert began publishing under the byline M. Rickert, but in recent years has switched to Mary Rickert. Her first story was ‘‘The Girl Who Ate Butterflies’’ in F&SF (1999), and she has published about 40 stories in all, notably ‘‘Leda’’ (2002), ‘‘Bread and Bombs’’ (2003), ‘‘The Chambered Fruit’’ (2003), ‘‘Cold Fires’’ (2004), ‘‘Anyway’’ (2005), Nebula Award finalist and World Fantasy Award winner ‘‘Journey into the Kingdom’’ (2006), World Fantasy Award finalist ‘‘Map of Dreams’’ (2006), Shirley Jackson Award finalist ‘‘Holiday’’ (2007), Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist ‘‘You Have Never Been Here’’ (2006), Stoker finalist ‘‘Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment’’ (2009), Shirley Jackson Award winner ‘‘The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece’’ (2011), and Shirley Jackson and Nebula Award finalist ‘‘The Mothers of Voorhisville’’ (2014).

Debut collection Map of Dreams (2006) won the Crawford Award for best first fantasy, as well as a World Fantasy Award. Second collection Holiday (2010) was a World Fantasy finalist. Her latest collection is You Have Never Been Here (2015). Debut novel The Memory Garden appeared in 2014 and won a Locus Award for best first novel.

Rickert lives in Cedarsburg WI with husband Bill Bauerband (married 2002).


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I struggled for a long time with the form of a novel. I wrote my first novel when I was really young, in high school. It took me years to lose that sort of natural ability and then get it back. When I was 30, I quit my job as a kindergarten teacher to dedicate myself to writing, and I was work­ing on a novel. I probably worked on that novel for six years, in various forms. I got three short stories out of it. One problem was, I didn’t know what the main character’s job was. I thought, ‘I’ll have her be a writer and write myths.’ I put the myths in the novel, which was a mess, but those stories got published individually. They were ‘Leda’, ‘The Chambered Fruit’, and ‘The Machine’. I had the potential for a good novel there. I just could never get it right.

‘‘’The Mothers of Voorhisville’ was part of a novel, too. In its original form, it was long enough to be published as a novel itself! At one point, I tried doing three novellas as a novel: ‘The Mothers of Voorhisville’, ‘Pretty Brutal’, and ‘Five Days in Stone’. I love that title, ‘Pretty Brutal’. The stories kept morphing, and I was learning. That unpublished novel ‘Mothers’ came from took up nine years.

‘‘The Memory Garden was quicker. It took me about three years. I didn’t plot it out ahead of time. Here’s how it went. I worked for nine years on the novel, ‘Mothers’ came from. I never got that novel right and I thought, ‘What am I doing? Why do I keep trying to do this? I’m 55 years old. I can give myself permission to stop writing novels, and enjoy writing short stories. It’s time. It’s okay to let go of this and say I’m not a novel writer.’ Then I got this request from Jonathan Strahan asking me for a short story for Under My Hat, an anthology of young-adult witch stories. I started writing something, and realized as I kept going – uh oh. It was a novel. The story wanted to blossom. I wanted The Memory Garden to have the feel of memory and gardens, that blossoming.”

*

‘‘One of the things that came out when my mother was dying – and there are people in my family who would disagree with this – was that apparently somewhere in the world I have a brother I didn’t know about. I know there are stories like this, the story about the mother who had the pregnancy nobody knew about. But with my mom, this was incredibly earth-shaking, and it rocked my world. I’m still adjusting to the new foundation of my life. My mother was a very devout Catholic. We were raised as Catholics, and that was very important to her. When my book came out, she was living in a Catholic facility. They didn’t invite me to the book group, and she was so upset. When she thought the group was rejecting my novel because of the abortion material, she didn’t want any­thing more to do with being Catholic, and that didn’t make sense to me. This stuff all came out on her deathbed, with the strange things she was saying. It seems like in her past she had an unwanted pregnancy. I think she had a child. She made a different choice than the choice that was made in the book. With that novel, I felt like I was in a conversation with my mother that I didn’t know I was having. I felt just terrible, to think she was carrying that guilt around all her life.”

*

‘‘I think that part of the process of dying and letting go, which older people face, is the accounting – what is my life? I wrote the novel before my mom died. I’d never seen anyone die before. She had a terrible struggle at the end, and I think it was because of her unfinished business. I feel kind of haunted about it. I had this relationship with my mother that I thought was a certain kind of relationship, and it wasn’t. I wish she could have come to me with her secret, if it really did happen and this all wasn’t just the confusion of a dying mind. I do enjoy the fact that she loved my book. One of my favorite quotes from her is, ‘You sure do have a lot of stuff up there in that head of yours.’ I just baffled her. But she was supportive.”

*

‘‘Every idea I had for a novel before this was very large. I still think they all could have been really good novels, but the space was so large I got lost in it. The idea for The Memory Garden is pretty small. I contained it. One problem I’d have is that even though I had these big ideas, the novels would end up so short. I was working with Joshilyn Jack­son and I told her that was a constant problem of mine. I had a draft. It was really short. She looked at it and said, ‘You’ve got this sentence here that has a lot going on. Make it into a paragraph.’ It was like, ‘Pow!’ The way forward seemed so obvious after that. I always say, ‘I can’t believe I was doing this for 20 years, and trying so hard, and trying so many things, and I never thought of opening up the sentences.’ That was it. Instead of getting this short thing finished, and then saying, ‘I’ve got to find ways to stuff more into it,’ I opened it up. I think that’s partly why it worked, with the blossoming feeling. Open up the sentences. The language dur­ing novel writing is just different from short story writing. I would love to be able to write a novel that’s like a short story. I still long to be able to do that – the kind of poetry and resonance, sentence after sentence having impact in a novel. But that’s really hard to sustain. I called them ‘egg sentences.’ There’s a lot in here, and I can open that up. Now I’m writing a new novel and I can recognize those sentences when I write them. I want to get a draft done, but I’m pretty sure I’ll come back and make paragraphs of them.”

*

‘‘I have had times in my life when I questioned whether I should continue writing. I love to write, but I wanted very much to have a career that sup­ported my lifestyle financially. My big takeaway during my most recent time thinking of this was that I’d chosen a life of devotion. Devotion is an old fashioned word, and it’s a long game. When you live a life of devotion, the point isn’t what you get. The point isn’t any kind of result other than – did you devote yourself that day? When I put that new frame around my life and the choices I made, I became much happier. The devotion: did you write, did you listen today, did you read, did you think of stories today, did you practice? The other area in my life I devote myself to is yoga. I have a 25-year practice of yoga. I love that in yoga we say ‘practice.’ It isn’t, ‘Did you do it?’ It isn’t done. It isn’t, ‘Did you get paid enough for it?’ Though the yoga community struggles with that, too. It’s, ‘Did you practice every day?’ There’s a beauty in that, and a benefit. I’m devoted. I can be happy in that circumstance. In the end, everybody’s life is devotional. At some point it’s the end of life, and you ask, ‘What have I done?’”



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