A noteworthy & positive SF&F promotions email from Waterstones!

This is splendid! A loyalty cardholder’s email has landed in my inbox, centered on SF & Fantasy. It flags up Robin Hobb’s forthcoming appearance at Loncon3 and offers a chance to win a drink with Joe Abercrombie, as well as highlighting the upcoming Gollancz Festival at Waterstones, Piccadilly.

It also promotes a good range of books – and each selection of new, recent, reviewed and established favourites features two male and two female authors.

Specifically – Terry Brooks, Erika Johansen, Deborah Harkness and Brent Weeks. Then Tom Holt, Scott Lynch, Sherrilyn Kenyon and Elizabeth May. Followed by Octavia Butler, Robin Hobb, Max Barry and Mitch Benn. Favourites are Terry Pratchett, Trudi Canavan, Neil Gaiman and Liani Taylor.

(If you discount Tolkien who is the the fifth ‘favourite’ and honestly, I’m not going to get bent out of shape about that because, well, Tolkien. Similarly, the top ten best-sellers are all male-authored but when that list includes five individual titles by GRRM and two by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, that’s hardly a surprise).

No, I’m not patting myself on the back and taking any sort of credit. Various voices besides mine have been making the case for equality of visibility, both publicly and more privately.

No, I’m not leaning back and thinking phew, our work here is done. If we do another bookshop survey in six months time or so, and see marked improvement there, then it’ll be time to raise a celebratory glass.

For the time being though, this is most assuredly a positive development.

Loncon3 – my worldcon programme.

The short version? Lots of excellent topics for conversation with some splendid people!

A couple of quick notes. I’ll be arriving late-ish on Thursday as that’s A Level Results Day here in the UK and Junior Son will be heading up to the school in the morning to find out how he and his pals have fared. Then we’ll be coming into London, departing Tuesday morning.

You’ll see no mention of ‘signing’ below – that’s not a problem as far as I am concerned. Feel free to catch me in passing, though ideally not just as I’m about to go into a panel. Afterwards? Fine, as long as we make sure to clear the room for the next set of folk coming along.

Reading. Hmmm. What shall I read? One long thing? A couple of short extracts? What do you generally prefer?

And so to the detail –

Liveship Trading: Fantasy Economics
Friday 18:00 – 19:00, Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)
You want to take an army of 10,000 to lay siege to Mordor; how exactly did you plan to provision this? You live by robbing caravans; how many merchants can you rob before they stop coming your way? You’re a merchant eyeing the road ahead warily; what are you carrying, and where and how are you going to sell it? Our panel discuss the economics of feudalism, quests, sieges, and market towns.
Dev Agarwal, William B. Hafford, Robin Hobb, Juliet E McKenna, Max Gladstone.

The Problem with Making a Living Writing SF&F: Have We Become Too Niche?
Friday 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 4 (ExCeL)
Many successful SF&F authors still maintain day jobs to make ends meet. Is this a new phenomenon, or has it always been this way? Are science fiction and fantasy too narrow for a vast numbers of authors to make a living in? How do we expand the markets available to genre authors? And what financial tips should authors bear in mind if they’re thinking of striking out into writing full-time?
Scott Lynch, Leslie Ann Moore , Tim Susman , Juliet E McKenna.

Scientists vs Authors Quiz
Friday 22:00 – 23:30, Capital Suite 14 (ExCeL)
After their narrow defeat at Eastercon, will the Authors get their revenge or will the supremacy of the Scientists go unchallenged? See what SF writers know about science and what scientists known about SF at the rematch!
Christine Davidson, Michael Davidson, Amanda Kear, Brian Milton, Charles Stross, Nichola J Whitehead , Juliet E McKenna, David L Clements, Ken MacLeod

Saturday 11:00 – 12:00, London Suite 4 (ExCeL)
Guy Consolmagno SJ, Juliet E McKenna

Reading: Juliet E McKenna
Saturday 15:30 – 16:00, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)
Juliet E McKenna

Meet the New King, Same As The Old King
Saturday 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 14 (ExCeL)
Why is fantasy so often about making the world better by getting the rightful king on the throne, rather than by doing away with monarchy entirely? Where are all the revolutions? Why don’t wizards use magic to create indoor plumbing and better infrastructure?
Juliet E McKenna, Joe Abercrombie, Peter V. Brett , Rjurik Davidson, Delia Sherman.

The Seriousness Business
Sunday 18:00 – 19:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)
Perhaps the two most critically acclaimed SF series of the last decade are Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones, and in each case the most common reason for that acclaim is their supposed seriousness: here are SF and fantasy with depth and darkness. Why is this the kind of genre material that the mainstream has embraced? Does the presumed “realism” of this approach hold up to scrutiny? Has seriousness become a cliche? And to what extent do these shows, and their imitators, tell original stories, and to what extent do they reinscribe a normative straight white heroism?
Juliet E McKenna, Mélanie Bourdaa, Saxon Bullock , Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Amateurs talk tactics; professionals talk logistics
Monday 15:00 – 16:30, Capital Suite 5 (ExCeL)
How are wars and other conflicts won? It doesn’t matter how good your troops and generals are if they don’t get the resources they need, so the logistics of warfare, and the economics that drive them, play a far larger role than usually appears in fiction. What is the real story from history and how can science fiction get it right?
Phil Dyson, Nigel Furlong, Glenda Larke, Juliet E McKenna.

Waterstones & Gender Equality. The good, the bad & the business case for doing better.

First, some context. Over the past year or more, I’ve repeatedly highlighted instances of all or majority male bookshop displays for SF&Fantasy. Back in May, I flagged up the monthly promotional email from Waterstones which featured the Everyday Sexism book. It was the first readily identifiable book by a woman in that email, half way down the page, and one of only five titles by women compared to eight featured men. That post prompted a lively exchange on Twitter and in comments on the blog with Jon Howell, PR chap for Waterstones. Check back here if you missed that or wish to refresh your memory.

In discussions elsewhere on this issue with concerned writers and readers, we soon realised that we need more data. Especially if Waterstones don’t keep records of how many women they promote compared to men, as was stated at the time. So I went away and searched my Gmail archive and managed to retrieve 23 of those monthly emails, from March 2012 to June 2014, while pals around the country went to do a promotional table count in their local branches of Waterstones. I got 20 surveys in all. Given Waterstones has 275 branches, that’s less than 10% so this cannot be considered definitive data. However I consider it strongly indicative and certainly a sound basis for discussion.

Because as Managing Director James Daunt has been saying, offering discoverability to readers will be the key to Waterstones’ survival. What all this flags up to me is key areas where that discoverability is seriously lacking and where Waterstones could improve, to offer customers something they will not get from Amazon whose ‘if you like, try..’ algorithm pretty much only offers clones, or from WHSmiths or the supermarkets who only offer a narrow choice of already high-selling titles.

One last note. I don’t propose to identify the branches, since the object of this exercise is absolutely not to name and shame, especially since quite a few booksellers expressed their own exasperation at the narrow and narrowing range of books they’ve been told to promote. I also won’t identify those who sent me data, since quite a few are either involved in the book trade or related to writers (except to say thanks, Mum!) and I don’t want to cause inadvertent hassles for anyone. I am, needless to say, hugely grateful to everyone who took the time and trouble to send me their findings.

So what do the numbers tell us? Firstly, those monthly Book Shelf emails, sent to loyalty card holders. As Jon Howell indicated back in May, Book of the Month choices are equally shared between male and female authors – with the proviso that women are over represented in children’s and romance choices, where men dominate other areas. In the emails I received personally, every single non-fiction History choice was by a man. That’s no reflection on some excellent books but an early warning that statistics don’t tell you everything.

Jon Howell pointed out that I would be seeing more titles by women if I’d ticked the Romance, and Children’s selections for the system to tailor my emails, whereas I have opted for SFF and Popular Fiction, along with History in non-fiction preferences. Well, all that offers me is further proof of the increasingly narrow assumptions about what women authors are being expected/encouraged to write.

The monthly email format is fairly consistent. Some sections come and go and I’ll indicate those. The sections that always appear are the New Books and the Books You Love. 75% of New Book titles appearing at the top of these emails are written by men. Of the Backlist promotions beginning in January 2013, 70% are for male authors. Once again, this section is at the top of the page, as are the promotional banner adverts beginning in January 2013 which offer 60% books by men.

However looking at the Books You Love section which is right at the bottom of the email, thus far less prominent, I find 48% by men, 46% by women and 6% gender neutral by virtue of initials or an unusual name. Click through on any of those titles to the main Waterstones site and you’ll find yourself on the Bestsellers page. This strongly suggests to me that Books You Love is driven by actual sales. So people are going to buy books in roughly equal numbers by male and female authors alike. So why aren’t they offered headline choices that reflect that rather than such a strongly skewed selection?

Similar skew is apparent in the ‘Coming Soon’ selection, appearing below New Books from September 2013 – 65% male – and before than in the Books in the Media – 76% male – and Reviewed in the Newspapers – 70% male – selections, running up to July 2013. This incidentally offers further proof of the established gender bias in the wider media, thus making the ‘but we’re promoting the books people are interested in, just look at the papers’ defence meaningless.

However looking at the Staff Picks and What We’re Reading selections, where I’m assuming staff have some input, those choices are 53% male, 47% female. Once again, this would indicate a lack of gender bias among actual book lovers, as bookstore staff invariably are.

So setting aside issues of natural justice between the genders, the significant thing here from a business point of view is surely the disconnect between what people actually choose to read and what they’re being offered. So where is the possible downside in offering readers a more balanced choice – and with women writers being more visible at the top of these emails rather than being relegated to the bottom?

Now to the promotional tables in the shops. Given the variation in size and layout of different branches, this data can only offer a broad brush survey but as I say, I still think these findings are strongly indicative of areas for improvement.

On the general Buy One Get One Half Price tables, in all but one instance the gender balance ranged from 45% male/55% female to 65% male/35% female and was evenly spread across that range, so for all intents and purposes, we can consider that a 50/50 split. This is very good news. More than that, my impression as a reader and customer is there’s a fair degree of rotation in titles in these choices, offering new books a chance in the sun alongside the guaranteed bestsellers.

The 50/50 split was even clearer in the Summer Reading promotional tables, in stores offering those. Though individual tables might be seriously skewed in larger branches, with one offering chick-lit and romance by exclusively female authors alongside another offering thrillers all by men. But that’s at least as much a reflection of what’s written and published as it is of marketing choices.

However different pictures emerge when we look at books by genre. Any preconception that Childrens and Young Adult reading is dominated by women doesn’t hold up. The gender spread is pretty equal over all though there were more individual instances of markedly skewed displays. One bookshop had a table with 85% male authors while another had one with 60% women writers.

Crime showed an even greater range of variation. There were as many tables with more than 50% female authors as there were with more than 50% men overall but these varied from 100% male (Euro Crime) to one with below 40% male authors.

No such luck in SF&Fantasy. There were no tables with less than 55% male authors with the single exception of one SF&F Buy One Get One Half Price table in a large, city centre branch with an established reputation for its excellent genre range. Of the 21 SF&F promotional tables counted, 17 were 75% male authors or more. 5 were 95-100% male, including one all-male Future Noir offering. Where stores are large enough to separate out SF from Fantasy, the bias against women in SF was even more marked than that in fantasy.

In most shops, Horror is folded into SF&F but in three instances where Horror got its own table (not included in that total of 21), those were all 95% male authors.

There were three instances, not included in the count of 21, of all-female SF&F tables in large, city centre branches. This is a mixed blessing. While it’s welcome visibility, it also makes women writers much easier to ignore and risks perpetuating the notion that female authors are somehow different and not integrated into the mainstream of the genre.

Overall, once again, there’s more to this than simply the numbers. As one respondent said, ‘I don’t actually bother looking at the SF&F table these days. It’ll just be this year’s books by men I don’t read anyway.’ Looking back at my own photos of displays over the past few years bears this out. The same names recur time and again – as is the case in crime fiction, though not quite to the same extent. This does as much disservice to those other male authors who rarely, if ever, benefit from this level of promotion as it does to the women writers who are so routinely ignored.

More than that, these invariably include the (few) SF&F guaranteed-bestseller titles that the supermarkets will routinely offer, and at higher discount than bookstores can afford. So the bookshop is competing for that trade at a disadvantage from the outset. Whereas the pattern used to be a best-seller would emerge from the bookshops as they offered a wide selection of midlist and WHSmith and the supermarkets would scramble to catch up.

Whereas the evidence elsewhere is that SF&F writers have no problem reading and rewarding books written by women. Just look at the recent tally of genre awards and prizes. Once again, there’s a serious disconnect between what the readership wants and what is offered in Waterstones.

Why does this matter, when serious fans can get what they want from Amazon anyway? For two reasons. If you’ve been following the current negotiations between Amazon and various publishers, you should be seriously concerned at the implications of ending up with a single retailer intent on securing a monopoly and more than that, by their increasing desire to dictate terms to both suppliers and customers, up to and including attempting to force Hachette to renegotiate contractual terms with their authors (even if only as a PR stunt). (Links to sound analysis on this in this previous post)

No, Amazon isn’t Evil and they’re not The Enemy. It’s a commercial company and this is capitalism. But capitalism only works in everyone’s interests if there is competition. We need bookshops to keep the system working. Does anyone with a scintilla of business sense believe Amazon will continue to offer free shipping, if there’s no one else for customers to do business with? Do we believe that they will continue to offer 70% royalties to authors, if there’s nowhere else for them to publish their books? Yes, that’s a worst-case scenario but irreparable damage will done well before we reach that point.

Secondly, in the current harsh economic climate, those high-volume, highly engaged SF&F fans are highly unlikely to prove a sufficiently large market to sustain the current and increasingly interesting and wide-ranging SF&F being written. We’re seeing new voices and new interpretations right across speculative fiction. This is excellent. This may also be a very short-lived flowering, if authors incomes continue to fall – something I can attest to from personal experience as I’ve seen my advances shrink, translation income vanish and backlist sales fall off a cliff in the last ten years. Some writers will be willing and more pertinently, able to continue working more for love than money. More won’t.

A sustained writing career relies on reaching beyond the core fans to the five-to-ten books-a-year reader. Offer those readers something new and bookshop may well increase purchases by such customers, to the benefit of their bottom line. Only ever offer them the same as before and that’s all the store will sell – assuming those readers haven’t already picked up those books along with their groceries at Sainsbury’s or Asda.

Yes, gender equality is a feminist issue. When it comes to bookselling it is also a commercial issue. If Waterstones wants to offer customers the discoverability which they’re not going find elsewhere, surely extending the range and rotation of books promoted in their genre sections, by male and female authors alike, to equal the choices they already offer in general fiction, is simply good business?

A Knight in the Silk Purse: Ghosts of Taux (Tales of the Emerald Serpent Book 2)

Do you remember Tales of the Emerald Serpent? The shared world anthology I’m part of, funded by Kickstarter? With its interlinked stories by a host of great writers, further enhanced by truly splendid artwork? All set in the mysterious city of Taux with inspirations drawn from Central American and other mythologies as well as the authors’ and artists’ fertile imaginations.

If so, you’ll recall we ran a second successful campaign and now the second volume is here! This anthology is even more intricate and ambitious. Our returning characters are caught up in official investigations as a Paladin tries to uncover the truth behind a gruesome murder while the Festival of Flowers fills the city with perfumes and parades, the perfect cover for some and their dark secrets…

Once again, I had tremendous fun writing my story, featuring Zhada the Lowl (a race of dog-headed men). If you’ve been at all curious about his romance with one of the city’s leading merchants’ daughter, you should definitely be reading this.

And yes, we’re discussing possibilities for Volume Three. We’re having far too much fun to stop, if we can possibly arrange it.

(I’ve linked to Amazon UK but obviously both books are available via Amazon US as well)


Links to some new books and to folk talking sense about the book trade.

I don’t often do link-round-up type posts but I think today’s a good day for one. I keep flagging up the issues of visibility for writers (all writers, male and female) so here’s a bit of signal boosting. Hopefully something for every taste.

Dark historical fantasy about medieval surgery? Try Elisha Magus by E C Ambrose.

Child of a Hidden Sea by Alyx Dellamonica. NPR Books discusses what happens when Fantasyland doesn’t want you…

Many fine writers continue to adapt and adopt new technologies to re-release their work. Check out Diana Pharaoh Francis’s re-release of The Cipher

J Kathleen Cheney’s Tales from the Golden City continue with The Seat of Magic

James A Hetley’s Stonefort Stories continue with Ghost Point at Book View Cafe – and if you’re not familiar with Book View Cafe, a writers’ co-operative, I strongly recommend you browse their splendid selection of books by excellent writers.

New from Joshua Palmatier (who also writes very fine books at Benjamin Tate) Shattering the Ley.

And lastly but by no means least, Mark Charan Newton’s Drakenfeld is now out in paperback. I asked him a few questions about what I found a thoroughly good read over at Fantasy Faction

Someone whose signal doesn’t need boosting is Hugh Howey. Honestly, he’s someone I ignore, and will continue to ignore until he stops making sweeping generalizations and insisting his view is The Only And Objective Truth when that is based on little or nothing more than his own personal and highly atypical experience.

Other folk are more generous with their time, pointing out the flaws and fallacies in his arguments, for the benefit of aspiring writers. I recommend you read

Brian McClellan on real publishing economics

John Scalzi on why publishing is a business not a football game and talk of taking sides is nonsensical.

Chuck Wendig on the idiocy of painting Amazon as an underdog.

Harry Connolly citing those articles and going on to add some good points of his own.

And since we’re here, a quick note that my new ebook Monster Hunters at Law is indeed now available via Amazon UK & US, Nook UK & US and Google Store Books.

Right, that should be plenty to keep you going while I crack on with the Work In Progress (which we’re not discussing in case that jinxes it) which is going really, really well…

Have a good weekend. I intend to.

“Challoner, Murray & Balfour; Monster Hunters at Law” – my new ebook out today.

As established fans may remember, I’ve had three stories featuring these characters previously published; one in the BFS ‘A Celebration’ anthology and two in Murky Depths magazine. If you’ve read those, you will recall one tantalizing loose end. What becomes of poor Bertie? Well, now you can find out. As well as those three earlier stories, this little collection includes a whole new story, The Fate of the Villiers, in which the hunt continues…

Artwork by Nancy Farmer
Artwork by Nancy Farmer

You can find the book here at the Wizard’s Tower Press shop and it’ll be rolled out to other ebook retailers over the next few days.

But hang on, I’m an epic fantasy writer. Why am I writing adventure stories set in the 1890s with supernatural monsters and steampunk apparitions? Well, first and foremost, I write to entertain; to engage and thrill my readers. I can do that just as well in late Victorian England as I can in Einarinn. Because one of the great things about writing SF&F is the immense freedom it offers.

Wait, what? Surely that’s a bizarre thing to say about writing in a genre – any genre. Isn’t the whole point of genre following the rules? Well, yes, and no. Bear with me.

When I’m writing epic fantasy, I’m looking to honour that particular genre’s core traditions while at the same time examining, testing and driving those traditions forward to ensure the genre still stays relevant to the world today and readers who live in it. Which is why aspiring fantasy writers really should be reading Robin Hobb, Kate Elliott, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Stephen Deas (among many, many other excellent current writers) as well as Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lord Dunsany – to see how the genre develops.

Er, how is this relevant to a book with a werewolf in evening dress on the front? Because as well as appreciating the roots of speculative fiction in Tolkien, Lewis and similar works, aspiring writers will also do well to read the classics of Victorian and Edwardian popular literature by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells, H Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are at least as much a source for modern SF, Fantasy and Horror as anything Tolkien or Lewis wrote. They are as much part of our literary heritage as anything by Dickens, Hardy or the Bronte sisters – and written to be enjoyed in an age before artificial genre boundaries arose. Indeed CS Lewis was a passionate advocate for the values and virtues of popular reading, as his letters to FR Leavis reveal when the latter was determined to embed literary snobbery in university English degree courses between the wars.

So I wrote these stories – and may yet write more featuring these characters if this collection proves popular – to honour these other forebears of our genre. Also, as you’ll discover on reading, I wrote these tales with an eye to both recognising and challenging some of those forebears’ less palatable assumptions about men, women and their respective roles a hundred-plus years ago. Because such debates are still relevant today.

Because it is never enough to merely revisit our literary sources. We should all aim to be breaking new ground, not merely trailing after well-trodden footprints which will only bring us back to our starting point. That’s where the real challenge – and the most fun – lies in writing genre fiction.

(And once you’ve written it, if you’re as lucky as me, you’ll have the immense fun of seeing your creations envisioned by a talented artist, in this case Nancy Farmer.)