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.
As social media gets more fractious and fractured, I am still on Twitter for the moment, but my account’s currently protected from the recent deluge of fake followers and junk replies, as well as unnecessarily combative responses from people with no obvious interest in books, SF&F or anything else I do. Follower requests from self-evidently real readers will get approved.
Now I have a better understanding of how Mastodon works, I’m at @JulietEMcKenna@wandering.shop. You can also find me at facebook.com/jemck. And when I get a bit of spare time, I am going to set up a newsletter. Honest!
A nephew is doing a school project on climate change so he is asking family members for their memories of winters through the decades from 1960 onwards. Doing that for him, even briefly, has really underscored the changes I have seen through my lifetime so far.
I was born in 1965 and until I was 7, I lived in Lincolnshire. I remember snow every winter, but only after Christmas, falling in January and February. I remember walking to school in a woolly hat and gloves, and snowball fights in the playground. The heaters in the classroom would be covered with knitted gloves drying out with a faint smell like a wet dog.
When we moved to Dorset, and lived right by the sea on the South Coast, snow was very unusual. Winters were still cold though, with frosty mornings, and fog, and crisp brown leaves crunching underfoot. As a 6th Former, I would describe the changes in the seasons in my letters to my mother who was then living in West Africa, in Cote D’Ivoire.
I came to Oxford to study in 1983 and have lived in this county ever since, which is about as far away from the sea as it’s possible to get in the UK. Through the 80s, we would get a severe winter with heavy snow every third or fourth year, when the weather would be cold enough to freeze the small rivers, like the Cherwell which flows past St Hilda’s College where I was an undergraduate. I remember seeing ducks trying to land, not realising they were about to hit ice and skidding along on their bottoms. The weather would stay cold enough for the snow not to melt for several weeks, maybe even a month or more. Then the thaw would mean flooding in the bottom of the river valleys, which is why those fields are called water meadows.
Through the 90s, cold and snowy winters didn’t happen as often here, maybe every fourth or fifth year or less. I only remember a couple of occasions when my sons’ primary school was closed because of snow, and I think that only happened twice while they were at secondary school. The weather would warm up enough to melt the snow within a week. Winters were still chilly, but the really cold weather didn’t last as long. From 2010 onwards, a heavy snow fall has been unusual. I can only recall that happening a couple of times, and the snow melted within a few days.
There are still floods between January to March most years, following heavy rain that usually comes at the end of the winter. Sometimes these are bad enough to flood the new houses that have been built on the water meadows – as everyone with local knowledge confidently predicted. Flooding at all times of year is now a serious local concern.
Since 2020? I was sorting through my sweaters last spring and I realised I hadn’t worn my really thick, woolly jumpers at all for several years. It simply hasn’t been cold enough for me to need them, even though I don’t have the heating on when I’m working at home on my own. My friends and I tell each other about flowers and trees in our gardens getting confused and blooming at the wrong time of year. I have seen photos on daffodils at Christmas a few times on Facebook. This year seems warmer than ever. It’s mid-November and I am sitting here in a t-shirt without the heating on.
I would like to ask friends who belong to the UK Society of Authors to consider attending this year’s online AGM on 17th November or to register a proxy vote by 15th November.
Please note that while I am a member of the Society of Authors’ Management Committee, this post is made entirely in a personal capacity. Since I am a member of the Management Committee, I will not be debating these matters here and comments are disabled.
There are five resolutions to be decided which deal with procedural issues and two resolutions proposed by a group of members which are as follows.
“Resolution 6: That in light of her documented behaviour and comments, which are not compatible with the Society’s goals of protecting free expression and their policy of dignity and respect, that Joanne Harris stand down as Chair of the Management Committee.”
Proposed by Julie Bindel, Amanda Craig, Jane Harris, Milli Hill, Richard Morgan, Jane Roffe, Michelle Smart, Michelle Styles, Heather Welford, Julia Williams.”
No evidence is offered to support these assertions, but this subjective opinion is presented as objective fact, requiring punitive action that takes no account of the Society’s established complaints procedures.
Those of you who have been following the so-called ‘Terf Wars’ on Twitter and in other media will recognise prominent ‘Gender Critical’ activists among these signatories, whose personal antagonism towards Joanne Harris can readily be found online.
You may care to note that Joanne was recently honoured by Pink News as ‘Ally of the Year’.
“Resolution 7: That in the light of disturbing recent press coverage about the Society, that the Society urgently reviews how to pursue its stated aim “to protect free speech” and puts in place a robust framework to do so, including a member and Management Committee working group that looks at how best to protect the fundamental right of all authors to express themselves freely within the law, and to uphold the impartiality expected of the Society, including all who govern and work for it. This should include a sub-committee of the Management Committee.”
Proposed by Julie Bindel, Elizabeth Buchan, Marika Cobbald, Amanda Craig, Jane Harris, Milli Hill, Richard Morgan, Jane Roffe, Michelle Smart, Michelle Styles, Heather Welford, Julia Williams
No evidence is cited to prove the implication that the Society has failed to be impartial, and no reference is made to the Society’s existing policies and ongoing work to defend free speech. This proposal nevertheless requires the Society to undertake an ill-defined review process which would take up considerable staff time as well as financial resources, all of which would otherwise be directed towards practical support for authors which is the organisation’s proper function.
Please note that none of these signatories stood in the recent elections to the Management Committee in an attempt to address their concerns. As far as I can see, almost all the recent antagonistic press coverage has been the result of journalists being briefed about these resolutions in a very one-sided fashion.
Please find the time, if possible, to consider the implications of these resolutions for the Society going forward and cast your votes accordingly.
Er, excuse me, you may very well ask? Well, as social media becomes ever more fragmented and fractious, a blog is still one space that an author can use to maintain contact with readers. So I’m going to make more of an effort to post more day to day stuff on here. I’m still on Facebook, and you can find me on Mastodon as well now. I’m still on Twitter for the moment, and we see what happens over there, though frankly, I’m not optimistic.
So anyway, replacing the kitchen fridge means taking the souvenir magnets off the old one. Yesterday turned into an interesting retrospective on the various styles and designs used by the National Trust and English Heritage over the years, as well as prompting enjoyable recollections of family holidays and other travels.
The question now becomes, what do I do with them once the new fridge is in place? Replace them chronologically, as far as I can recall? Or should I group them by category, which at first glance would seem to be castles, stately homes, militaria, aquaria, zoos, miscellaneous? I shall give this some thought over the weekend.
We have them on the bread bin and the microwave as well. It’s very nice to look at them while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil and think ‘yes, that was a lovely day.’ If I’m not emptying the dishwasher or assessing the cupboards for the week’s shopping list, as one does.
Next week’s event at Portishead Library, Monday 17th October, has been cancelled, with apologies for any inconvenience. Well, these things happen, especially when funds are squeezed and folk are concerned about health risks. You can still find out about my JM Alvey dyslexia-friendly quick read here and at the Books on the Hill website.
In more cheerful news, it’s Octocon this coming weekend, and I’ll be on the online panel discussing ‘Peace and Ways to Find It’ on Sunday, 16 October 2022 at 11:30 am. Do check out the full hybrid programme.
And don’t forget you can see me and Cheryl Morgan talking about The Green Man’s Gift, courtesy of ‘Octocon Presents’ – click here.
On the 29th October I’ll be at Bristolcon – full details here. The programme is currently being finalised, and will include some streamed elements for fans who can’t be there in person.
So that’s the news for now.
Today sees The Green Man’s Gift published in ebook, hardback and paperback. Head to your preferred retailer for the format of your choice.
If you’re going to be at Bristolcon, you can pick up a book direct from Wizard’s Tower Press – and let Cheryl know, so she can be sure to bring enough copies.
Dan Mackmain’s heading to North Wales in this particular story. It’s an area I’ve visited on holiday a few times over the years, but thinking about it for this story, and seeing it through Dan’s eyes gave me an interesting and different perspective. Driving through Snowdonia in particular offers such marked contrasts between remote, timeless, numinous landscapes, and then sudden encounters with post-industrial landscapes and modern economic hardship. I already knew I’d be setting this new story there, so the Milford SF Writers retreat at the Trigonos centre that I went on back in May was as much a research trip as a chance to get plenty of uninterrupted work done.
What else got me thinking about Wales? Well, I found a fair amount of overlap between Welsh myth and the stories of King Arthur which I was researching last year for The Cleaving, my novel coming next year. Don’t worry, King Arthur has absolutely nothing to do with Dan’s new adventure, but those encounters prompted me to read more Welsh folklore and reminded me of childhood reading like The Owl Service and The Chronicles of Prydain. I started making notes and I soon began to see the shape of this particular story.
I also knew I had the people I’d need to call on to make sure I got the fine detail right. Kari Sperring was generous with her time as I sought her perspectives on the Welsh landscape and language in the first instance, and Liz Williams may not realise how a few passing comments she made were useful too. Once the story was written, Toby Selwyn and Cheryl Morgan could offer further advice and amendments which were very much appreciated. I am very fortunate in my friends – and any errors or clangers that Dan drops are absolutely my responsibility.
It’s been an interesting story to write as I consider how the changes in Dan’s life over the past few years have affected him. We are the sum of our experiences, after all. We handle some of those experiences better than others…
I had a chat with Cheryl about all this and a whole lot more besides yesterday evening, courtesy of the Octocon Presents online programme of events. You can find the recording here, including a short reading from the book (mildly sweary in a couple of places, just so you know). And the Octocon convention is well worth checking out, in person and/or online.
Early readers over on Goodreads have definitely enjoyed the book. I have no clue what’s going on with Amazon ratings and reviews at the moment, where every book seems to be getting every review of the whole series, but hopefully readers will share their thoughts on this new adventure there and with other retailers in due course.
Today sees the publication of The Golden Rule, my contribution to a collection of four steampunk novellas from Newcon Press which can be purchased individually or as a set. These stories are linked by their cover art, but apart from that, they stand alone. The other titles are Under Pressure by Fabio Fernandes, The London Particular by George Mann, and The Visionary Pageant by Paul Di Filippo.
Steampunk is great fun, in comics, in stories, and in the cogs and goggles aesthetic of the terrific costumes people create. It also draws on the popular literature of the Victorian era that can be too easily overlooked as a significant forerunner of the science fiction and fantasy genres that have evolved in the last century and a half. So far, so good.
However… when I was first invited to try my hand at a steampunk story, revisiting a classic of such literature, I opted for the author H Rider Haggard. Rereading his work for the first time in decades, I was appalled by the racism and sexism underpinning the melodrama. It was scant comfort to realise none of this unpleasantness had made any lasting impression on teenage me. Hopefully, anyway. Certainly, I do know to check for any lingering echoes in my work these days. This rereading did alert me to one major potential pitfall of writing steampunk. While contemporary writers should have the sense to steer clear of the overt bigotry, I realised it could be far too easy to slip into an uncritical pro-Empire mindset, defaulting to Rule Britannia and all that.
Fortunately, as well as H Rider Haggard’s books, those library shelves I had scoured as a teenager held other classics of Victorian literature which offered no such rosy view of their society, such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. I also came across non-fiction like Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa (1897) which gave a very different view of colonisation. So I was aware that critical voices were speaking up in that very era. That gave me the starting point for that first story ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’. As I wrote more late-Victorian stories, in the overlap between steampunk and horror, I continued to use the viewpoints of the overlooked and disregarded to shine a different light on the great deeds of the great white men who assume they are in unquestioned charge. You can find those stories in Challoner, Murray and Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law.
In the decades since I was a teenager, the Establishment’s vision of benign imperialism bestowing railways, democracy and afternoon tea on grateful colonials has been increasingly challenged by a wide range of historians and journalists. We are starting to see a far more complex and multi-layered picture of peoples, places and events. When I was invited to contribute to this quartet of novellas, I recalled one such book and wondered if that might give me a starting point for an exciting steampunk story with a different perspective on the alleged Glories of Empire. I found Anita Anand’s “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary” on my bookshelves and went from there. This story of an exiled Sikh princess, god-daughter to Queen Victoria, led me to the Golden Jubilee of 1887, where I found that celebration had dramatic facets I had never suspected. Here is a photo of the Indian Cavalry who played a central role in the procession. If you want to know their role in my story though, you’ll have to read The Golden Rule – now available from Newcon Press, and you can find the ebook on Amazon.
I had an excellent time at Fantasycon, in that I saw established pals, made new friends, and had some really interesting conversations on my panels and informally. Readers’ interest in The Green Man’s Gift, and in The Cleaving is rewarding and encouraging in equal measure.
Massive thanks and congratulations to the BFS team and volunteers for putting together a really great programme, in monumentally difficult circumstances this year. It was so good to see the community of readers, writers and publishers supporting them.
And everyone was very clear that the issues with the hotel were completely beyond the Fantasycon organisers’ control. UK conrunners should note that the problems evident at Eastercon with the reservations and check-in system do not appear to be resolved. New problems now add to that. There were simply far too few staff, and those present were clearly inexperienced.
I’m guessing that explains the cut backs on food service – no bar food, lunch was a one-price, expensive take-it-or-leave-it buffet, and not just for people at the convention. This is an airport hotel, so weary travellers couldn’t get food either! For Fantasycon folk, the petrol station over the road did a roaring trade in takeaway sandwiches. The evening restaurant menu was a stripped back version of what had been the bar menu – all at London prices and with 10% service automatically added to your bill, so declining meant telling your already overworked server they weren’t good enough, which I consider inexcusable. The food itself was fine, but the coffee from the bar was during the day was utterly revolting!
Unless and until major improvements can be guaranteed, fan event organisers should avoid this as a venue – and yes, I am well aware how difficult finding SF convention venues already is, so I don’t say this lightly.
So let’s look forward! Fantasycon 2023 will be at the Jury’s Inn, Birmingham, where we had a very good time in a decent venue last year, with amenities and food options within easy reach. Great!
I’m off to Fantasycon first thing tomorrow morning, but before I go, here’s the cover for The Cleaving, my Arthurian novel out from Angry Robot in May next year.
We all know the imagery of the Arthurian legends; the sword, the castle, the knightly banners, and most of all, the king. This isn’t his story though. I love how Chris Panatier blends familiar elements with these wonderful portraits of the women who are central to this novel. As their gazes challenge the reader, the artwork mirrors my intent to do that as the writer.
You’d like to know more about the book? At the moment, the cover copy reads:
The Cleaving is an Arthurian retelling that follows the tangled stories of four women: Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere, as they fight to control their own destinies amid the wars and rivalries that will determine the destiny of Britain.
The legendary epics of King Arthur and Camelot don’t tell the whole story. Chroniclers say Arthur’s mother Ygraine married the man that killed her husband. They say that Arthur’s half-sister Morgana turned to dark magic to defy him and Merlin. They say that the enchantress Nimue challenged Merlin and used her magic to outwit him. And that Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere ended in adultery, rebellion and bloodshed. So why did these women chose such dangerous paths?
As warfare and rivalries constantly challenge the king, Arthur and Merlin believe these women are destined to serve Camelot by doing as they are told. But men forget that women talk. Ygraine, Nimue, Morgana and Guinevere become friends and allies while the decisions that shape their lives are taken out of their hands. This is their untold story. Now these women have a voice.