The Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain have published a joint report looking into companies that charge writers for publication. You will not be surprised to learn there are a lot of shady goings-on in this area of the book business. For one thing, the sharks and charlatans like to muddy the waters with terms like ‘hybrid’ and ‘indie’ publishing. They’re able to do this because these terms mean different things to different people.
‘Hybrid’ originally meant authors self-publishing alongside working with a mainstream publisher. ‘Indie’ used to mean small independent presses not owned by one of the multinational conglomerates. These days, ‘indie’ has been co-opted by self-publishers (not with any underhand intent), while what used to be called ‘vanity’ presses would have you believe that ‘hybrid’ now means the author putting in money up front for a project, as well as the (alleged) publisher.
Now, there are currently a whole lot of different ways to work with a publisher. At the moment, I have five separate agreements on the go, and the details of each contract are different. For one, I have chosen to commission and pay for editorial input and artwork myself and to then supply the complete package to the publisher rather than have them undertake this part of the publishing process. These choices I have made are reflected in the royalty rate I receive. All of this information is readily available to me, the whole process is transparent, and at no point am I paying the publisher for anything. This is a legitimate way to do business.
Compare and contrast the sharks and charlatans. When I’ve been judging genre prizes and books come in from a publisher I don’t know, I go and check who I’m dealing with. Legitimate small presses I just haven’t come across before are easy to identify , but when it comes to vanity presses, the tell-tale info is often very deliberately and well hidden on websites. There are weasel words like ‘contributory’ and ‘partnership’ as well as hideous rights grabs buried under layers of obfuscation, just in case they are handed some real gem.
Though that is unlikely. When it comes to the books, vanity presses are almost always horribly, wretchedly obvious. I mean 99.99% of the time at least! I recall one first person narrative which included the detailed description of a knife that had just stabbed our heroine in the back where she couldn’t reach it. So… how could she see it then? The whole book – okay, the 65 pages I read before I quit – was full of these basic creative writing errors. There had been no meaningful editorial input at all – though I bet the author had paid well above the going rate for that, from what I read on the website. Things like this might be funny, except these authors sometimes contact prize judges, wondering why they haven’t been short-listed (yes, really) and it’s painfully clear they’ve been fed wholly unreal expectations by, well, con-artists. It’s awful to be the person trying to explain what’s happened to them.
So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all to see from this report –
• 94% of respondents lost money, typically in the thousands.
• The average loss was £1,861 with some writers reporting losses as high as £9,900.
• The median cost of publication was £2,000.
• A median of only 67 books were sold per deal, resulting in royalties of only £68.
• 59% of writers said their book was not available to buy in retail outlets
Do spread the word, and bookmark the info, in case you come across another writer in danger of being bamboozled.
It still feels a bit strange to be putting in-person dates in the diary – in a good way. I’m also very pleased to still be putting online events into my schedule. We have learned how these can be done successfully now, and how important opportunities to participate have become to so many people who would be unable to join in otherwise. Hybrid events definitely need to be part of the future.
As far as my future plans go –
Thursday 7th April – London Book Fair
Talk: 10:45-11:30 Making a Living from Writing
along with Society of Authors CEO Nicola Solomon (Chair) Abie Longstaff and Katrina Naomi.
15th – 18th April – the 72nd Eastercon: Reclamation
I’ll be joining friends and fans at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Centre, London Heathrow for what promises to be an excellent programme.
20th April – an online talk and conversation session with the Chalk Scribblers Writers’ Group.
7th – 14th May – Milford Writers Retreat, Trigonos, North Wales
1st – 4th July – Westercon 74
Thanks to the marvels of technology, I’ll be part of the international online programming organised by this convention taking place in Tonopah, Nevada.
Friday 16th September – Boston Book Festival (that’s the original Boston, Lincolnshire, UK btw)
At 7pm I’ll be talking about Myth and Modern Fantasy Fiction, and how I write the Green Man books, as well as taking questions.
And there will doubtless be more to add in due course.
The Green Man’s Challenge has made the shortlist for the BSFA ‘best novel’ award, alongside an array of splendid writing and artwork across the various categories. This is tremendously gratifying, as you can imagine.
I’m also delighted to see Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction from Academia Lunare is on the ‘best non-fiction’ shortlist, since Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower Press is one of the contributors to that.
The BSFA website now has the full Awards shortlists posted, along with voting instructions for members.
In a wholly fortuitous bit of timing, Amazon have decided to put The Green Man’s Heir on 99p sale this month. As before, Wizard’s Tower Press will be price-matching this across all platforms so readers can use their preferred retailer. So this is an excellent time to recommend your friends give it a try – click the link under the cover art to your left for links to buy.
The enthusiastic response to this week’s news is tremendously encouraging. I will be doing my very best to reward readers with a book that’s well worth their time and money.
If you want to be certain that you don’t miss out on any of the news between now and publication, you can register with Angry Robot to get all the updates, be first in line for review copies and suchlike.
And now I will get back to writing!
It’s in The Bookseller, so it must be true! “Angry Robot Books has landed an “exciting and fresh” feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends by Juliet E McKenna.”
Now, it’s been a fair while since I was on a panel at a convention discussing the Arthurian myths, but those who remember such conversations may well find this a surprise. After all, my view was pretty clear; how can a writer bring something new to such an oft-told story? Especially when we all know how it ends – and that’s certainly not happily ever after!
So what has changed? Well, a few things came together in one of those accidents of serendipity that every writer will recognise. While I was doing background reading for The Green Man’s Challenge, looking for the roots of myths about giants in British folklore, one source was Geoffrey of Monmouth. He’s one of the early sources for the Arthurian myths, and I found myself rereading those bits as well, and thinking about why Geoffrey told those tales in the way that he did.
I’ve also been reading Kari Sperring’s Arthurian novellas from Newcon Press. Those are as enjoyable as they are interesting, and they took me back to Malory’s version of these myths in the Le Morte D’Arthur for the first time in decades. I had forgotten how much magic, mystery and downright weirdness there is in those particular stories. I’ve had some interesting chats about that with Kari, and with Liz Williams, who’s currently writing rural fantasy that harks back to all manner of ancient British folklore.
At the same time, the wider conversation about epic fantasy within the SFF genre has continued. We see a fascinating range of heroes having adventures in fabulous worlds drawing on intriguing mythic traditions these days. But there are still those who try to insist that ‘true’ epic fantasy can only be white knights on noble steeds rescuing damsels in distress. There’s certainly no denying that a great many of the conventions and traditions of the genre can be traced back to these age-old myths. That doesn’t mean that out-dated ideas and themes can’t be challenged though. As anyone who’s read my epic fantasy novels knows, I’ve been doing that since The Thief’s Gamble was first published in 1999.
It was a smaller step than I expected to go from looking at these ‘heroic’ Arthurian stories from a woman’s viewpoint today, to wondering what the women caught up in that whole myth cycle would be thinking and feeling themselves…
The Cleaving will be out on 9th May 2023
(And just in case you are wondering, yes, I am also working on the next Green Man novel)
The British Fantasy Society is 50 years old this year! There’s going to be a day of celebration online on Saturday 26th February, and I’m delighted to say that I will be having fun discussing fantastical creatures with Anna Smith Spark and R J Barker at 10.15 am.
There’s a great programme of readings, panels etc soon to be revealed, so mark your diaries. You can find more details here.
I’ve enjoyed Jacey Bedford’s previous books; the SF Psi-Tech novels, and the Rowankind series. In both these trilogies, she shows a keen understanding of the core appeal of the tradition she’s working with, namely space opera on the one hand, and alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, for want of a better term, on the other. Accordingly, I’m very interested to see what she offers readers in this epic fantasy with a slew of classic genre elements apparent in the cover copy. We have a dead king, a lost queen, magic users on the fringes of society, and a scheming usurper setting up an innocent man to take the blame. Not to mention an assassin.
I note in passing that this is a standalone novel. I hope readers new to Bedford’s work are encouraged to give her writing a try by the reassurance that they’ll get a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
This tale opens in Biela Miasto, the capital city of the insecure realm of Zavonia. King Konstantyn is dead and guardsman Valdas Zalecki must avoid being hanged for the murder while he hunts down his royal master’s killer. First he needs to find loyal allies which isn’t easy when so many of his friends have been executed on newly acclaimed King Gerhard’s orders. Meanwhile, far away, Mirza must claim her right to succeed her dead teacher’s place as the healer and witch of a Landstrider clan. That would be a lot easier if she wasn’t so unpopular with the clan, who would much rather have someone else. Lind the assassin just wants to be on his way out of the capital city with his payment. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, with the new king’s vengeful advisor Kazimir sending men to turn the place upside down as they search for Valdas. Lind is glad to take on the mundane job of escorting a young mother-to-be to her family out in the countryside.
Readers will not be surprised to learn that these three narratives become intertwined. Bedford strikes a deft balance between hints and foreshadowing on the one hand, and unexpected twists and turns on the other. The scene-setting is equally assured, creating a world that’s very like but not quite our own, reminiscent of central Europe a few centuries ago. These similarities ground the narrative while the differences will keep readers guessing. The central characters and the supporting cast alike are satisfyingly three-dimensional, with their motivations and flaws stemming believably from their past experiences, good and bad. Crucially, Bedford’s portrayals are sympathetic without ever getting sentimental, so these people’s lives have realistic hard edges. Her villains are equally convincingly foul.
So far, so traditional, as far as epic fantasy goes. Bedford offers more to lift this story out of the genre’s well-worn ruts. As she works with classic themes and archetypes, she recognises where these have become outdated and even offensive, reshaping them to suit her story’s purpose. Newcomers to the genre will find a story with an up-to-date perspective. Those who have been reading these tales for decades with find a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing evolution of epic fantasy.
As I say, this is a standalone, and I am content to leave this story and these characters at their hard-won conclusion. That said, the rich potential of this milieu means I’d happily read another adventure set in this world.
As a fan of her SF and her alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, I was very interested to learn that Jacey Bedford’s new novel is a standalone epic fantasy. So I invited her to share a few thoughts on her approach to writing this sort of story for modern readers.
Writing Epic Fantasy for a Modern Audience by Jacey Bedford
You are what you eat, or should that be, you write what you read?
The Amber Crown is set in a historical fantasy version of the Baltic countries, in the imaginary kingdom of Zavonia.I have robbed history for the details.
I got into fantasy a little late in life, not reading the Narnia books until I was at least nine years old. Of course I’d been primed for fantasy from an early age with traditional fairy tales, the watered down Disneyfied versions, not the gory Grimm versions with the cutting off of heels – they came later. I somehow missed Tolkien in my teen years, being more into science fiction and then in my early twenties I discovered Andre Norton, especially her Witch World books. That was it, I fell in love.
This was before the advent of easy internet access, Google, Amazon and Abe Books, so when I first travelled to Canada in 1995 I thought I’d landed in heaven when a friend introduced me to (what was then) Bakka – Toronto’s specialist SF/.F book store (now Bakka-Phoenix). I bought so many books, many of them Andre Nortons, (then unavailable in the UK) that I shipped half of them home, and bought a new suitcase for the other half which then cost me $100 in excess baggage. It was worth every cent.
I loved Andre Norton’s Witch World with a deep passion, though not blindly. They were generally much shorter than a lot of SF/F today. Her dialogue was always a little stilted as though she was trying to mimic older patterns of speech, and there was romance, but no sex. It didn’t matter, I loved them unconditionally, but when I started writing my own stories, I didn’t necessarily want to emulate them.
For starters my books are relatively hefty. The Amber Crown is 469 pages, that’s 160,000 words. Luckily my editor said she doesn’t mind a lot of words, as long as they are good words.
Dialogue is so important. It not only moves the plot forward but it says a lot about character and emotion. I try to avoid the kind of dialogue that screams, ‘Prithee, sirrah, I am writing a story set in ye past.’ (OK, I’ve never quite come across that kind of dialogue but you know what I mean.) At the same time I try to avoid more modern slang words. When Valdas curses he often uses, “God’s ballocks!” – religious curses being more likely than sexual ones.
I avoid longwinded descriptions. I haven’t a clue what colour Valdas’s eyes are, but I do know that he shaved off his drooping moustache so it wouldn’t identify him as a renegade army officer. I do know that Lind has golden curls when he lets his hair grow out, and that he was pretty as a boy apprentice, which is what earned him the trouble which has clouded his life ever since. I needed these bits of description to advance the plot.
Pacing is so important for a modern audience; less infodumping and more dripfeeding of background information as the story progresses. My books are long, so I try to make every word count.
With The Amber Crown I wanted to write something that was, if not pacier, at least racier. I’ve never shied away from writing sex in my books (to the consternation of my son, though not my daughter). Can you imagine if Tolkien had written sex scenes in Lord of the Rings? No? Me neither. And any sex in Witch World books happened tastefully off the page, though it must have happened or how else did Simon and Jaelithe produce triplets?
I decided not to be coy about it. The Amber Crown has got plenty of sex in it, though it’s there to drive the plot, not to titillate. My three main viewpoint characters have vastly different attitudes towards sex. Valdas loves and respects women, every part of them, fat, thin, young, old, pretty or plain. He likes what’s between their ears as well as what’s between their legs, and he’ll take no for an answer. When the book opens, he’s captain of the King’s High Guard, responsible for the king’s safety which means he spends a lot of his time at court and in the palace, but he’s sensible enough not to form liaisons with court ladies, or even palace servants. He takes his pleasure in the whorehouses of the Low Town, often with his favourite, Aniela. Occasionally whores are smuggled into the palace by the turning of a blind eye by one brother officer for another. This becomes a plot point later in the book, as does Valdas’s relationship with Aniela. But I’m getting ahead of myself, Valdas’s life changes in an instant when his king is assassinated. I’m not giving away spoilers, it happens on the first page.
Mirza is the shulam (witch-healer) of the Bakaishans, a Landstrider band of travellers. She’s loved and feared in equal measure for her ability to walk the spirit world, and her scolding tongue. She has a port wine stain on her face and neck which the band thinks is a witchmark, and the men firmly believe that if they bed her their kok and stones will shrivel and fall off. Unsurprisingly she’s a virgin, and so approaches sex as a voyage of discovery. Other issues arise further into the book and, again sex drives one aspect of the plot, but if I told you, I’d have to shoot you.
Lind is the clever assassin who worms his way into the palace kitchens as the fishmonger’s delivery man. He was a fascinating character to write. He has more hangups than a closet full of coats. Due to an appalling history of childhood abuse, he can’t bear being touched and the last thing he wants is sex. He rents a room in a whorehouse because it’s a place he feels safe. He reasons that the whores only want sex if he pays them, and since he’s not going to do that, they’ll leave him alone, which is largely true.
I try to write honestly about sex. It’s part of life and it’s part of the plot – but only part. So, what else to expect in The Amber Crown? Political machinations, strong female characters who play an active part in the story, dark magic, natural magic, a cranky horse called Donkey, a missing queen, bandits, betrayals, diverse characters (white, black, brown, straight, gay, asexual), an epic sword fight, and an unexpected villain. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The Amber Crown is out today, Tuesday 11th January 2022, published by DAW
Do check your own preferred retailers as well
This is the second novel set in a girls’ boarding school on an engaging version of Old Mars, which is to say, the planet imagined by early SF writers, with a breathable atmosphere, canals and alien creatures which this British Empire’s colonists must step very warily around. It’s the start of a new term for the Crater girls, with Christmas ahead at the end of it. Of course, the Martian year doesn’t align with the Earth year but traditions must be observed.
The story is more discursive than the first, with successive episodes focusing on different characters, some new and some already established. This broadens our understanding of this strange new world and offers hints at the history that brought the British here. What exactly happened in the Great Triplanetary War though? Plenty of questions remain; enough to tantalise but not so many as to frustrate. That’s because the focus remains very much on the characters and their differing viewpoints and priorities. Seeing the school and its environs through these various eyes brings immersive breadth and depth to the narrative.
Among other things along the way, we are reminded that bygone attitudes weren’t all bad in the good old days. As a couple of the girls explore their gender identities, the tolerant responses of those around them mirror what can readily be found in the English literature of the 1920s and 1930s. Talking of literature, the language is a particular delight. Brenchley’s familiarity with the traditions he draws on means his prose is note and pitch perfect, without ever showing off his knowledge with tedious or pedantic obscurity. That simply wouldn’t be the done thing, would it?
There is plenty of action as well, as Brenchley draws on modern knowledge of Mars alongside SF tradition. A Martian dust storm can be very dangerous indeed, for the Mars-born and newer arrivals alike. Then there’s the lurking tension with the Russian Empire that was established in the first book. Not every threat is external though. As we should recall if we’re being honest with ourselves, teenagers can do spectacularly stupid things. So can adults, particularly if they’re putting their own selfish interests above a child’s welfare. All these elements will keep those pages turning.
The story concludes with these threads deftly plaited together. The various resolutions are highly satisfying, as well as offering the promise of more adventures to come. I look forward to the next instalment with eager anticipation.
In keeping with my previous post, I shall attempt to remember to post a few thoughts about books I’ve enjoyed.
This second novel featuring reluctant wizard Mennik Thorne is an excellent follow-up to Shadow of a Dead God. You don’t have to have read that first story by any means, but I’m confident you’ll want to. Patrick Samphire offers long-standing and more recent readers alike an epic fantasy tale that’s grounded in the genre’s core appeal while avoiding ‘classic’ elements and cliches that have become increasingly outdated and potentially even offensive. The writing and plotting are fast and fluent, so you won’t necessarily notice he’s doing this unless you’ve been reading swords and sorcery for decades like me, but it’s worth mentioning.
As a minor mage, Mennick is an unwilling pawn in the power games of his city’s two great wizards. Not playing simply isn’t an option, so he has to work hard to avoid falling foul of either faction because the consequences won’t only be dire for him. There is genuine danger here, for Mennik and for those he cares about. That threat’s unacceptable, as far as he’s concerned, though doing something about it is less easy. Mennik’s fiercely loyal to his friends, perhaps to a fault, but as we learn more about his actual family, that becomes understandable.
His upbringing also helps explain his dogged determination to unravel the mystery that lies behind an apparently inexplicable murder. A distraught widower knocking on his door may start him on this quest, but this violent death and its consequences are no mere plot convenience. This man’s grief matters to Mennik as he follows a trail of clues and red herrings to find far more lurking trouble than anyone expected. That ensures the story will matter to readers as well.
Mennik’s an engaging central character, not without his blind spots and flaws which make him all the more believable. Supporting characters are well-observed, drawn with a light touch and a sense of humour. The city of Agatos is an equally well-rounded creation. Samphire understands how to create an immersive atmosphere and a convincing depth of history without getting buried in world-building. He also draws on some of the less obvious antecedents of the epic fantasy tradition for this particular story which offers added interest for readers like me. Not that you need to spot any of those elements for the well-crafted plot to deliver a solidly satisfying read.
All told, epic fantasy fans should enjoy this story whether they’ve recently discovered the genre, or if they’ve been reading it for decades. These books are definitely worth a look if you used to read epic fantasy, but drifted away because what you found on offer was beginning to feel stale and repetitive. Samphire is one of a cohort of writers currently reinvigorating epic fantasy is all sorts of interesting ways.