The book-trade press is reporting that hardback celebrity biographies aren’t selling at all well this year. Folk with long experience in the writing and retail bits of the book trade will read this with a massive sense of deja vu. Such books are highly discretionary purchases mainly aimed at people who rarely buy books. They might buy five books in a good year, often as gifts, and who won’t buy any at all when times are tough. And times are very tough, as we all know far too well. Even with these titles heavily discounted in the supermarkets, potential purchasers may well be opting for a box of chocolates or a favourite drink as a cheaper and more immediately cheering present.
Has high staff turnover in publishing seen this sort of institutional knowledge lost? Along with other information which surely could prove useful for boosting sales in the short as well as the longer term?
Far too few titles are now offered to the 5-12 books a year readers of mass market fiction whose major contribution to the publishing bottom line used to keep the midlist viable. Here’s an idea for the Big Five. Why not try offering a choice of fiction for all tastes across all genres, varying authors month by month, in WHS and supermarkets? Start building readerships again. That’s where future best-sellers with sustained sales will come from, not the latest pop-culture trend/personality.
Meantime, let’s raise a cheer for the smaller presses who are working so hard and publishing great books. Don’t forget them when you’re doing your seasonal shopping.
Books on the Hill is a dyslexic friendly, independent bookshop in Clevedon, North Somerset, run by Alistair and Chloe. They are both passionate about books of all genres, and about getting as many people as possible reading. Alistair is dyslexic himself and so is always on the look out for ways to help people who have dyslexia, or any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. For instance, he advised me and Cheryl on fonts that would suit dyslexic readers better in the Green Man books – I had no idea that something so simple could make such a difference!
As a bookseller, Alistair has long been aware of the Barrington Stoke books for dyslexic kids, but hasn’t found any equivalent for adults. So he’s decided to do something about that, and has recruited a group of very fine writers specifically to write stories for a new publishing project, funded by Kickstarter. As of this morning, the first funding goal has been reached inside the project’s first week. So the first three books will definitely be happening. Now let’s see the stretch goals reached, so more books will be available. This should be the start of a long term initiative.
Do take a look, and definitely spread the word to whoever you know who’ll be interested. Given up to 10% of the population is dyslexic, there’s sure to be someone.
I’ve had a productive week writing and while I’ve been doing that, a couple of guest posts by me have appeared elsewhere.
Marie Brennan is asking various authors about that moment when a book idea really ignites. This Must Be Kept A Secret is my contribution to her ongoing Spark of Life blog series, looking at the rather different experience I had with Shadow Histories, compared to the Einarinn novels. Incidentally, if you haven’t already come across Marie’s ‘Lady Trent’ books, do take a look. I adore them.
In other writing related posts I’ve spotted this week
Jacey Bedford on writing and being edited from the writer’s perspective. Another writer whose books you should check out.
Looking at the business side of the book trade, I wrote a guest post for Sarah Ash’s blog. The Bugbear of the ‘Breakout Book’ for Readers and Writers alike – Juliet E. McKenna
I also noted this piece by Danuta Kean – not another ‘self-publish and get rich quick’ piece but an interesting look at another facet of the changing book trade, including the pitfalls for the naive author. ‘Show me the money!’: the self-published authors being snapped up by Hollywood
Okay, that should keep you in tea or coffee break reading to be going on with.
Another day, another article* supposedly assessing the cutting edge of Science Fiction written over the decades. Citing twenty five authors. All men. No, I’m not going to link. You can find it for yourself at SF Signal if you really want to. Or whatever particular piece has prompted me to repost this.
Like every other such article, it hands women writers a poisonous choice. We can object, with all the hassles and loss of our own working time which that will entail, as the usual counter-objections come straight back at us. That’s best case. Worst case? The full gamut of ugly insults and threats.
Or we can let the erasure stand, damaging women in SF&F, present and future.
Either way, we lose out.
I can easily predict the ways an objection to this particular piece will be dismissed. “It’s taking the long view and since men have dominated historically, the list will inevitably skew male. There’s nothing to be done about that.”
Yes, there is. Research. Start with Octavia Butler – and while you’re there, make a note that erasing writers of colour and those of differing sexuality is equally damaging and yes, just as dishonest.
Then there will be the expressions of concern – some even genuinely meant. “It’s just one article. Does it really matter?”
No, it isn’t just one article. Stuff like this crosses my radar if not weekly, at least once a fortnight. And that’s without me making any effort to find it.
As an epic fantasy writer, I’m just waiting for the first instance of that now well-established harbinger of Spring. The article saying “Game of Thrones will be back on the telly soon. Here’s a list of other authors you might like (who just happen to all be men).”
And if I object to those? “Oh, don’t take it so personally.”
No, women SFF writers don’t take these best-of lists, these recommended-for-award-nominations and shortlists, these articles and review columns erasing us ‘personally’.
We object because they damage us all professionally.
More than that, erasing women authors impoverishes SF&Fantasy for everyone by limiting readers’ awareness and choices today and by discouraging potential future writers
Which is why this matters.
Right, I have work to do, so I will go and do that. If you want read further thoughts on all this, check out Equality in SF&F – Collected Writing
*I did start adding the dates and reasons every time I reposted this but I’ve had to stop as the list was pushing the actual article off the bottom of the screen… which tells its own tale really.
Philip Pullman and those writers backing him (referenced in my previous post) seem to have prompted an important – and to my mind, long overdue – examination of exactly what’s gone wrong with the book trade in the past five or ten years.
From Nick Cohen, on his experience of being asked to appear at The Oxford Literary Festival. ‘Why English writers accept being treated like dirt’
For those who don’t have time to read the whole thing just at the moment, the key quote for me is as follows:
If the system does not change, readers will suffer for a reason that cannot be repeated often enough. The expectation that workers will work for nothing is leading to the class cleansing of British culture. Everywhere you go, you hear culture managers saying they want ‘diversity’, while presiding over a culture that might have been designed to exclude the working and lower-middle classes. Whether you look at journalism, the arts, the BBC, photography, film, music, the stage, and literature, you see that those most likely to get a break are those whose parents are wealthy enough to subsidise them. The generalisation is not wholly true. Young people from modest backgrounds can still break through. But every year their struggle becomes a little harder. Every year, an artistic career becomes a little less viable to potentially talented writers and artists.
From Philip Gwyn Jones, laying bare the implications for readers. ‘The civil war for books; where is the money going?’
Though this post isn’t just about money. It’s about the ways changes in bookselling influence publishing decisions and ultimately limit readers’ choices. Once again, until you can find the time to read the whole thing.
as a commissioning editor and publisher of some 25 years standing, I hope I have some authority to make the claim that certain stars are missing. They are just not being born. It seems to me that there is a universe of self-censorship out there, even if it is invisible to the naked eye. We’ve had perhaps five years now of good writers taking their next ambitious project to their agent who in turn excitably puts it in front of publishers only to be told that it’s perhaps a little too bold an idea for these austere and shape-shifting times, and might there not be a more reader-friendly project up the writer’s sleeve? The agent sheepishly reports this back to their beloved writer, who then either conforms to the market’s demands or slopes away to nurse their wounded ego, and think hard about the purposes and pleasures of writing. The next time that writer comes up with a bold, unorthodox, unprecedented notion for a book, what happens? Well, perhaps, just perhaps, they decide before they start in earnest that it’s a no-hoper and they ought to play safe, so they bin it without telling anyone. And another bright star never shines.
Social reading is the coming thing, we are told, where our reading devices and apps will allow us to communicate with others who are reading the same book we are, share notes and queries with them, correct and conject, exult and excoriate together as if we online readers were round a digital dining table, and even involve the writer in that conversation if they are willing. But for such Social reading to work, everyone has to be reading the same thing, so it tends to favour the popular, the shared, the already-known. Hence the ubiquity of Most Read and Most Liked lists. There is a lot of barked coercion out there in cyberspace. So the online sharing book economy will coalesce around, well, winners. But what happens to the losers: the unshared, the jagged, inimitable, harder-to-chat books?
And the next time you’re in your local High Street or supermarket, take a look at the books on offer and I’m pretty sure you’ll see all these forces already at work.
Which incidentally, brings me back to something important about SF conventions and the genre small press. Both continue to support and promote writers and books outside the mainstream, thanks to the support of readers looking for something beyond mass market fodder.
With the holiday season looming, the promo emails are coming thick and fast from all sorts of retailers. I’ve had two from Waterstones this week.
Here, their best history books of 2015 promote thirteen men and three women. With all the women below the scroll line, let’s note.
A quick glance at this list shows us titles that are already pretty familiar through reviews and other media exposure, particularly for the Big Name Authors.
This list is voted on by the booksellers themselves. So people who love books and who are seeing all the books that come into their shop and cross their counter before heading out of the door with keen readers. A varied selection for all tastes, some familiar from the media, others not so much.
So this is pretty much a snapshot which indicates the same underlying issues with visibility and representation that we saw a year ago, when I analysed a year’s worth of promotional emails and so many people helpfully surveyed their local branches to see what books where being promoted, so we could look at that.
When promotion relies on recycling review, media and PR coverage, the gender balance skews badly against women.
When it’s based on what people who engage with books are actually reading and enjoying, it’s much more equal.
(And yes, personally I’d have liked to see 4 men and 4 women on that Best of 2015 List. But given other persistent inequalities? I’m not about to complain when a selection skews against the prevailing trend!)
Just in case you’re wondering I am still keeping an eye on Waterstones and gender bias issues. At some point I will do another analysis of their monthly promotional emails.
The latest for June will certainly help those statistics – a quick and dirty count shows ten books by female writers promoted alongside twelve by men.
There are still issues – apparently women don’t write history/non-fiction as all those titles are by male authors.
But detailed analysis will have to wait as I contemplate the best way to tackle digitizing the Aldabreshin Archipelago map 🙂
The ebook of The Assassin’s Edge sees The Tales of Einarinn series finally completed for e-readers. Preparing these editions has been interesting for many reasons. It’s been fascinating to revisit what I was writing a decade and more ago. I honestly had forgotten quite how gruesome, violent and downright spine-chilling some of the events in Assassin are. But even then, and even though the term wasn’t in general usage in those days, I don’t think the book can ever be labelled Grimdark. That’s true of the other epic fantasies I was reading at the time. Because there’s so much else in the Tales and other such series.
More than that, when I compare Assassin and its contemporaries to the epic fantasy novels I’ve been reading recently for review, the more convinced I’m becoming that Grimdark is devolving into a narrowing focus that’s stifling creativity in our genre. The more the current visibility bias in bookshops drives sales towards downbeat stories dominated by moody blokes in cloaks, the worse this will get.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating fluffy feel-good tales where everyone gets a happy ending and even the villains are redeemed with hugs and kisses. I’m all for hard edges in epic fantasy. Those were definitely a feature of books such as Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane and The Darwath Trilogy, Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, all of which enthralled me as I turned to writing seriously myself. I vividly recall the visceral impact of reading David Gemmell’s Legend for the first time, swiftly followed by The King Beyond the Gate and Waylander.
These writers were absolutely what epic fantasy needed to stop the genre trundling down an equally stultifying path towards naive, consolatory fiction. I can assuredly see the value and appeal of tales where characters learn in the hardest possible way that life isn’t fair, virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded and you just have to get through hard luck as best you can. These are all aspects of real life and as I’ve said so often, realism is essential to give fantasy fiction a solid foundation.
That’s my first problem with Grimdark. Unrelenting and universal misery in a story is so often as unrealistic as non-stop rainbows and kittens. Unless there’s sufficient context within the world-building to explain why brutes behave as they do, all this violence becomes merely nasty set-dressing. Without some degree of exploration of what underpins it, Grimdark slides far too easily into tacky exploitation.
Yes, we can readily point to historical and contemporary real-world examples of innocent people living utterly wretched lives, but whole societies based on such brutality have always been an exception and rarely endure. More than that, even amid such horrors, individuals emerge time and again in whom the human spirit strives towards hope, altruism and defiance.
There will always be those who fight to light a candle instead of yielding to curse the darkness. It’s exactly that light and shade which makes for a far more realistic reading experience as far as I am concerned. Take a look at the works of Robin Hobb or Kate Elliott, among many others. They don’t shy away from the worst that humanity can do but they aren’t labelled Grimdark, even when their work includes toe-curlingly shocking events. Indeed, the impact of such brutality is heightened by the contrast of such darkness with the glimmers of hope and warm light of happiness elsewhere in their characters’ lives.
Which brings me to my next problem when books have an endless supply of shit, literal and metaphorical, for everyone to wade through. Pain and poo have their place among trials and tribulations which test and reveal character but the story overall must sustain and justify that. If there’s no narrative progression – and I don’t just mean some simplistic triumph over adversity, but some sense that events shape and drive the story – what’s the point? Grimdark too easily becomes a series of increasing misfortunes bombarding passive or at best reactive individuals who never take any initiative to change their own fate.
Why should a reader bother engaging with such a character or investing emotion in their fate when the unfolding narrative so clearly indicates that everything is going to go horribly wrong time and again? If any hint of light at the end of the tunnel is only ever an oncoming train, I find myself progressively distanced from the characters and their predicaments. This becomes even more pronounced when the central characters themselves are grim and brutal. When a reader can’t identify with, or simply doesn’t much care about, such people, the impact of their suffering is drastically reduced, further lessening engagement.
And incidentally, just in case anyone thinks I’m making a gendered argument here, the most recent striking example for me of all that I personally dislike in Grimdark is Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair. But this debate really isn’t about any one book or any single writer.
Epic fantasy needs light and shade to give it three dimensions. Detail and colour get lost in unremitting gloom. Thankfully there are plenty of current epic fantasy writers who understand this; Sam Sykes, Helen Lowe, Aidan Harte and Elspeth Cooper are just a few such authors whose books I can see on my shelves as I write this. Please feel free to flag up more in comments.
And equally, do feel free to speak up in favour of those authors who are most often labelled Grimdark; to explore different perspectives on such reading. I’m curious to know if, how and why you’re getting something rewarding that I’m missing.
But I’m still concerned about the artificial skewing of the market towards the Grimdark tendency, when a narrowing selection of books increasingly gets the bulk of promotion and front-of-bookstore presence. Not bad books by any means; I have found undoubted merits in novels that have exemplified the worst of Grimdark for me personally, yes, including Smiler’s Fair where I see plenty that’s positive in the book with regard to diversity, inclusivity and pacing. Even when the grimdarkery still kills that particular title for me. Though I have no problem with other folk reading and enjoying such books if they wish. Tastes vary after all.
But if disproportionate visibility means Grimdark increasingly dominates sales then retailers and publishers alike will look first and foremost for more of the same. That’s how the book business works. Then those of us with other tastes in reading will lose out if the authors we enjoy simply can’t sustain a writing career. If competition for that remaining market then sees Grimdark authors striving to outdo each other with ever increasing nastiness, ultimately those fans will lose out too, as epic fantasy hurtles towards that creative dead end. Just look at the way the serial killer narrative has devolved so far towards unredeemed ghastliness in a lot of recent crime fiction.
Thankfully we’re not there yet. So let’s do all we can to avoid taking that particular path by celebrating and promoting the full breadth and depth of epic fantasy fiction, past and present.
I have a lot on this week, so here’s a couple of things to muse on in the meantime.
Is Amazon a Hero or a Monster? This question was debated with strong feelings on both sides recently. It makes for interesting reading.
My answer? Amazon is neither – and casting the debate in these all or nothing terms actively obscures the key issues. Which may well be why Amazon are so keen to present the picture as so black and white. Because Amazon is, as far as I am concerned, an example of unfettered capitalism. So the buyer really should beware… are the short term gains going to be worth the long term losses?
Meantime, over at the EU VAT Action website we have a shiny new quiz! If you think you’ve got a sound grasp of the issues, see how well you get on? If you’re still trying to work out why people are so stressed about it all, see how you get on?
If you are caught up in this and looking at the various solutions now on offer, ask whoever’s offering it some of these questions. Because we’re seeing quite a few semi-compliant solutions cropping up which may be a short term fix but could pose problems in the longer term.
I don’t know anyone in the book trade who doesn’t want to see Amazon pay a fair rate of tax. Gaming the existing system is one reason why they’ve been able to wreak havoc across the industry with predatory pricing and other tactics. Making them pay fair taxes would go some way to levelling the playing field. Unfortunately the way this is now being done will cause a lot of collateral damage. The further you go down the publishing scale, the worse the damage becomes.
This new system’s* been set up on the assumption that the majority of ebook sales are through third party vendors. That is perfectly true. Amazon in particular has a grip on that market which is now set to become a stranglehold. Because it’s nowhere near the whole story. It’s become very apparent that the authorities who set all this up have been missing a big piece of the picture. (Yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors.)
Firstly, yes, Amazon – and Google Play, and iBooks – all take a hefty cut of any revenue from the ebooks you sell through them, 30-70% depending on the deal you sign up for. Which is a non-negotiable deal, let’s not forget. You tick a box agreeing to Terms & Conditions which they can vary at any time, as they see fit. Unless you’re Behemoth Books, in which case you can negotiate your own terms, but no one without that kind of clout can hope for anything better.
Also, to use a couple of mythical examples, if you’re Behemoth Books, dealings through Amazon will be a big chunk of your business but you’ll have other revenue streams, notably but not limited to hard copy sales. But Back Bedroom Books of Chipping Norton, who’s an entirely digital publisher, maybe aspiring to offering print on demand editions one day in the future? Sales through these 3rd parties are a much bigger share of their total income, as the price for visibility and availability via Kindle or Nook or whatever.
At the moment at least, Back Bedroom Books can also offer .epub and .mobi files direct from their own website and keep all the revenue. They can do that for a short, exclusive period before the book goes to wider distribution, letting valued customers and a writer’s most loyal fans know where they can get the new book first, thus getting the maximum benefit from that first rush of sales. The customer pays the same price in the end after all, so readers don’t lose out. Those direct sales matter, and the smaller the operation, the more they matter.
But as of 1st Jan 2015, Back Bedroom Books and its equivalents will have to shut their online stores. For some operations, that’ll put enough of a dent in their revenues that they will no longer be viable businesses. So their anthologies showcasing and supporting new authors will be no more. The more established authors’ backlists which they might have published, and the quirky side projects, novelettes and novellas which the big publishers decline won’t be available. Which will be a blow to authors who are increasingly turning to such projects to bolster their dwindling income from advances and royalties.
Will that really matter to readers? Well, it will if your favourite writer can no longer afford to write. There are other issues as well. Amazon – and the others – aren’t necessarily always best placed to trade e-books across Europe. They have their own issues with territoriality and availability. Some stories I’ve heard about trying to buy UK published ebooks in Ireland are mind-boggling, if publishing and licensing contracts – and the DRM software that derives from them – consider Ireland to be part of Europe, which of course it is. Depending on which English language rights the publisher holds, it may simply not be available. Life can be particularly fun in Belfast, with a credit card from a UK bank that allows you to buy the book you want, if the inner workings of your e-reader have missed out on the last century of British Isles’ history and think that the entire island of Ireland is one country and so that counts as a cross-border sale into the EU where you’re not licensed to read it. So you can’t. Yes, I was astonished the first time I heard one of these tales of woe.
And let’s not forget that from time to time, whole swathes of ebook listings get deleted or delayed on Amazon – and the others – whether through accident, misunderstanding, over-reaction to some alleged moral panic, or when Amazon wants to force through some new terms and conditions. Behemoth Books has a whole range of other sales outlets, so that takes some of the sting out of the hit. They’re also big enough to generate sufficient bad publicity that whoever’s at fault gets the hint to sort things out pretty sharpish. Back Bedroom Books of Chipping Norton is in a world of trouble and the smaller the publishing operation, the less clout they have, however loudly they’re clamouring for action.
At the moment, if such an oddity crops up, that reader can head to the publisher’s own website and with any luck, they can get a DRM free edition that they can enjoy without these hassles.
Not after 31st December 2014, they won’t be able to.
*For those of you just joining this story – as of 1st January 2015, VAT (essentially a sales tax) on electronic products will be levied at the rate applicable at the customer’s location, rather than the suppliers’ base of operations. So Amazon will have to pay 20% for sales into the UK rather than Luxembourg’s 3%. You can find a whole lot more about this via previous posts and links on this blog. And let’s not forget it’s not just Amazon who’ve been taking (perfectly legal) advantage of the current loophole by funnelling all their business through Luxembourg.
So now calculating a price across EU borders means knowing the applicable rate of tax at the customer’s location. That’s 28 separate jurisdictions. Are you supposed to set a price that’s going to fluctuate at the check-out when someone tells you where they live? That’ll be so unpopular that people obviously won’t. So you have to pitch the price where you guess the plusses and minuses will even out and you won’t take too much of a hit. How are you supposed to know where people live? There’s a list of approved indicators, and you’re supposed to collect three pieces of data, of which two must match. Er, okay. Oh and you’ve got to store that highly sensitive personal data securely for ten years. Okay?
So this is a real headache, and the smaller the scale of your operations, the bigger headache it becomes because the turnover threshold for this is £0.00. Or €0.00. Or $0.00 in whatever sort of dollars you use.
Amazon – and Google Play, and iBooks – have known this is coming for several years now, and have their new systems in place, as anyone publishing via KDP now knows from this week’s email. Publishers who sell ebooks direct from their own websites – and who belong to the trade bodies which have been HMRC’s main route for spreading the word about this – have known it was coming and have paid their software developers to write them compliant new systems accordingly. Okay then, they’re covered.
For anyone else, there’s VATMOSS, the HMRC’s new VAT Mini One Stop Shop, which will do all the sums for you. That is fine if you’re already VAT registered, which means having a turnover of over £81,000 by the way. You’ll have an accountant who’s used to doing VAT returns and you can probably afford to pay him or her to do that bit of extra work.
But the smallest of small publishers? Who don’t dream of reaching VAT registration levels in their wildest imaginings? Who don’t belong to any trade body that could have warned them this horror was on its way? They’re in a world of trouble, because the free/cheap web payment mechanisms they rely on, like PayPal, simply don’t provide the location information they need. Even if they could get it, is anyone going to be happy with their highly sensitive personal data sitting on the hard drive of someone’s laptop on a kitchen table? They can’t opt out of EU sales either; plug-in web payment mechanisms don’t enable that and anyway that falls foul of discrimination legislation.
These small publishers are having to close their direct ebook webstores as of 31st December 2014. Unless they want to risk the chance of lose-your-house-money fines. Yes, really.