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Why I’m Going Indie

I’ve dropped hints here and there for almost a year, but it’s time to come clean: I’m going to give up trying to get the attention of New York publishers, and begin publishing my fiction independently. One of my longest-unfulfilled dreams is having a novel from a major publisher shelved face-out in Kroch’s & Brentano’s. Ummm, no. Borders? Whoops. Barnes & Noble, then. Well, look quick.

You can see my problem here. I wrote my first SF story when I was 8, sold my first story when I was 21, was on the final Hugo ballot at 29, gave it all up for almost 20 years, and finally sold a novel at 52 after five years of shopping it. The novel was promoted very competently by the (small) publisher, and garnered a rave in Analog and a favorable mention on Instapundit, in addition to a number of other reviews in other places. However, it was a $28 hardcover, sold in the high three figures, and as best I know was never shelved in any major bookstore.

So the dream is still alive. Or it was, at least, until I took a length of black iron pipe and beat its damfool brains out. Enough dreaming. It’s time to get freaking real. I’m going to publish my SF myself. I’m going to make money doing it. I’m not going to get rich at it…but that was never part of the dream. The new dream is about spinning yarns and making a name for it. As I see it, the best way there is to take the process into my own hands and do it all myself.

I wrote this post to answer the obvious question, Why? Perforce:

  1. I am already a publisher. I jumped from programming into publishing in 1985 and remained there to this day. I attended courses and seminars and learned from the best. I know in great gory detail how the print book business works (and doesn’t work) and I’ve followed the emergence of ebooks since the ’90s. I’ve had a few ebooks on the market for five years, though most of what I’ve published through my Copperwood Press imprint has been print.
  2. Manhattan SF publishing has made its preferences known to me. Some houses were encouraging and polite even when rejecting a manuscript (Betsy Mitchell, you’re an ace!) and some never even answered my emails, much less returned the manuscript. (If He’s reading this, He Knows Who He Is.) A couple of houses strongly and inexplicably believe that humor can’t sell because nobody can beat Douglas Adams. (Huh?) Well, go in peace and try not to become extinct. It worked for the coelacanth, after all.
  3. I don’t have all damned day. I’m 63 years old. I can’t wait for five years to see if one of my books will ever appear.
  4. Traditional publishing contracts have gotten nightmarish. Much has been written about this. (I sure hope you aspiring authors follow Konrath, at very least.) I’m not that desperate.
  5. The tools are now acceptable. They’re not great, and certainly not what I think they should be. But I’ve used Jutoh enough to be comfortable with it. (Tip to aspiring software developers: There is still money on that table.)
  6. Everybody has an ebook reader. Everybody. Some are even called “ebook readers.” Most of them are phones. Many are tablets. A few are laptops and desktops. Anybody who wants to read ebooks can. The market for ebook genre fiction is staggeringly large.
  7. Amazon has pretty much figured it out. The original Kindle Unlimited payment algorithm seemed kind of gonzo: The same amount for 1,000 words as 100,000 words? As of July 1, it’s now about pages read. We can quibble about the per-page payment, but my spreadsheets tell me that at current rates, an indie author gets more per sale from Amazon than authors get per sale from tradpub imprints.
  8. Authors are making money with indie ebooks. I’ve been told one-on-one that a fair number of people are making a good living off their indie ebooks, and a few are making more than I made as co-owner of a $30M publishing firm. I may have to learn to be prolific, but I’ve learned harder things, like contra dancing (natch!) and dealing with online tribalists.
  9. I already have a fanbase. Admittedly, it’s a fanbase for technical nonfiction, but anybody who says that computer guys don’t read SF (as several people in SF publishing have tried to tell me) is blowing steam. There are just short of 500,000 technical books in the world with my name on them. If two tenths of a percent of those readers buy my SF, I can probably live on it.
  10. I can control the whole damned thing. This is key. I’ve seen some of the most incredible self-destructive behavior among traditional publishing firms. If I weld my future to a boat like that, I’ll go down with it when (not if) it sinks. I want the freedom not to do stupid shit. (Alas, if your publisher does stupid shit, in effect you’re doing stupid shit.) I want to be able to try new things to see what works, and stop using techniques that don’t work. Bottom line, if I fail I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

Wouldn’t I sell more books if I went the tradpub route? Possibly. Would I make more money? Almost certainly not. The tradpub houses are suffering. They’re squeezing everything in sight to save pennies, especially authors. They’ll do anything possible to cut their costs except move from Manhattan to Middle America. To me, this means that they’re doomed, granting that sooner or later we’re all doomed. I’ve personally outlived vacuum tubes, glass-screen TVs, disco, wingtip shoes, Radio Shack, and several biggish bookstore chains, among many other things. I may well outlive traditional genre fiction publishing.

I’m certainly going to try. And I’m going to have a fine, fine time doing it!

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Paying by the Page Turn

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) book subscription system has been a laboratory of unintended consequences since it launched in July 2014. If you don’t subscribe or don’t know how authors are paid, my 4-part series on it may be useful. I’ll summarize very briefly: Each time a work available on KU is borrowed and at least 10% of it is read, the author is paid from a payment fund shared by all such borrows in a given month. The amount of money in the pot changes from month to month, as do the number of borrows. So the payment per qualified borrow changes from month to month. It’s been converging on $1.30 for some time. The length of the work doesn’t matter: Read 10% of a 150,000 word novel, and the author gets $1.30. Read 10% of a 1000-word short story…and the author gets the same $1.30. (For another another few days, at least. Stay with me.)

Care to guess the unintended consequences? Authors of novels pulled their works from KU or never opted in to begin with. Authors of short stories suddenly started making significant money. Authors of flash-length erotica (basically, isolated sex scenes) began making a great deal of money. And scammers began posting the same (very short) story on multiple author accounts, and Wikipedia articles as original works.

I could have guessed all of that except maybe the erotica, since I don’t read erotica. I had actually begun turning my individual short stories and novelettes into separate ebooks, figuring that $1.30 was way better than the 35c that 99c ebook shorts earn.

Alluva sudden, wham! Everything changes.

On July 1, a whole new KU payment system comes into force. The new system essentially pays authors by the amount of the book read. Read the whole book, author gets X. Read half the book, and author gets X/2. Read 10% of the book (perhaps because it was so bad you wanted to throw your Paperwhite at the wall) and author gets X/10. In general terms, when you read some arbitrary number of pages, author gets a pro-rata per-page payment. This is true (and evidently the payment will be the same) whether the book in question is a kids’ bedtime story, a romance novel, or a calculus textbook.

As in the current system, the per-page payment changes every month, depending on the size of the money pot and the number of pages read during that month. The two big variables are the per-page payout and the number of pages in the book.

Wait a sec…pages? In an ebook?

Yup. And this is something completely new. Amazon has addressed the fact that ebooks are not divided into pages by creating the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC) algorithm. As best I understand it (details are sparser than we’d like) the KU servers will examine each book posted by an author, and impose a standard page layout on the book’s text in a buffer. (It will not actually change the layout in the published book.) It will then count how many “pages” exist in the book when expressed by the KENPC algorithm. I have seen no reliable description of what will go into this standard layout. It’s obvious that they’re trying to keep people from padding out margins or tweaking fonts to turn less text into more pages. They’re also trying to equalize the differences between devices with vastly different screen sizes. KENPC takes into account photos, tables, and technical art somehow. Again, details are sparse. However, I’m happy just knowing that they’re going to some effort to make a page on one device more or less equivalent in terms of content to a page on another device. I’ve seen some grumbling about page metrics for children’s books, but since that’s a genre I have no experience in whatsoever, I can’t say much. It does seem a little unfair that a 30-page kid book will only earn what 30 pages in a 500-page novel earns.

Pages will only pay off the first time they are read. Reading a book a second time on the same borrow will not generate any additional revenue. Nor will going back to reread a chapter generate additional revenue. Swiping/tapping rapidly through a book will not pay. Some sort of timer runs while a page is displayed, and if the page isn’t displayed long enough, the page will not be considered read. Countable pages begin with the book’s starting point, so dedication pages, review excerpts, and indicia will not be paid.

Now, what can authors expect as a per-page payment? Nobody knows yet. People are guessing somewhere between .8c and 1c per page read. We’ll find out soon.

Any system like this is a basket of unintended consequences. These are the ones that immediately occur to me:

  • Authors of art-heavy children’s books will bail.
  • A lot of that flash-erotica will vanish. (This may be an intended consequence.) Or maybe not. A nickel is a nickel.
  • More previews of other books will appear at the end of a book.
  • Reference books will bail. This may include computer books, which are rarely read from cover to cover.
  • Page-turners will dominate. Difficult books (fiction or nonfiction) will bail.

This last point bears discussing. Some books are bought to be seen in buyers’ hands or (more often) on their coffee tables. As Megan McArdle points out, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century is purchased a great deal more than it is read. I think this is true of a lot of literary fiction as well. Authors will have to understand that they’re no longer selling books. They’re not really selling pages, either. They’re selling page turns. To make money on KU going forward, each page will have to compel the reader to move on to the next page, and repeat until EOB.

This is bad news for James Joyce. This is good news for George R. R. Martin. And, I suspect, me.

It may also be bad news for writers who just don’t know what they’re doing. To pay by the page-turn, Amazon will have to report how many pages were turned. How much detail those reports will provide is still unknown. It would be terrific to know how many pages were read per title rather than in aggregate across all of an author’s titles, but I don’t think Amazon will be doing that, at least not right away. However, if you have ten 300-page books on KU and get paid for 67 pages, the reader base is telling you something.

I suspect that this is a fully intended (if unstated) consequence: to improve the readability of the material on KU. Fistfights break out frequently over whether readability and quality are strongly correlated. This is the dotted line where literature is separated from fiction, especially genre fiction. But consider what KU is: a mechanism allowing maniacal readers to get all the books they can read for ten bucks a month. If you’re a normal human being, Finnegan’s Wake will take you most of a month to bull through, and you can get ratty copies for a penny plus shipping online.

No, it’s going to work like this: If you can keep a reader up all night with your hard SF action-adventures, you can make money on the new KU. Write page-turners, and put previews of all of your page-turners in the backs of all of your page-turners.

That’s certainly what I intend to do. I will make money. Watch me.

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 5

(This series began here.)

I held back Part 5 of this series because the Hugo nomination finalists were announced yesterday, and I wanted to see whether the Sad Puppies (and a separate but related slate, Rabid Puppies) would make their mark on the ballot. The answer is, egad: What a broom does.

But I’ll get back to that.

First I wanted to mention a little pushback on a different subtopic of the series: The Human Wave. A guy I’ve known (if vaguely) for a long time backchanelled me a short note, the gist of which was this: “So you want to destroy literary SF.”

This is a familiar tactic in many brainless headbumps I’ve seen down the years: When somebody proposes that something you oppose should be permitted, you strike back by accusing them of wanting everything except what they propose to be forbidden. This tactic probably has a name, and a place of honor in some online Gallery Of Stupid Argument Tricks. I mention it simply to point out the general level at which much discussion of SFF issues these days operates.

I told him to go back and read the series again, quoting the significant bits.

I’ll say in summary what I said here: The Human Wave is about allowing things, not forbidding things. Yes, what the Human Wave stands against is mostly a certain brand of pessimistic literary fussiness. The solution, however, is to broaden the field. Do litfic if you want. But don’t claim that litfic is the best or only thing worth writing. If the Human Wave movement pushes literary SF out of the spotlight, that’s a choice made by the readers, not me. My take: We need a much, much bigger spotlight.

Now, to the Hugo nominations. The full list from Locus is here. I’ve been a little out of touch with recent SFF (for reasons laid out earlier in this series) and am not familiar with most of them. I got a little discouraged last year when I picked up Redshirts, which turned out to be the biggest piece of crap I’d read out of all Hugo novel winners. (I have not read every single one, obviously, so bigger stinkers than that may be still be lurking somewhere in the past.)

The really, really big question on everyone’s minds today is whether the Puppies had any effect on the final ballot. Mike Glyer did an excellent summary on File 770, with more detailed analysis here. Two-digit takeaway: 71% of the finalists were on either Sad Puppies or Rabid Puppies, or both. Only 24 finalists were not on either slate. A record 2,122 valid nominations were submitted. John C. Wright picked up six slots, a new record for a single year. Some other notes:

  • Brad Torgersen, coordinator of Sad Puppies 3, was very careful to keep everything legal and above-board. Even Patrick Nielsen-Hayden admitted that the Sad Puppies campaign had broken no rules.
  • Sad Puppies concept creator Larry Correia withdrew his nomination for Best Novel, received for Monster Hunter Nemesis . He did not want anyone to be able to say that he proposed Sad Puppies just to win awards. He now has the moral high ground against any accusations of corruption that will invariably be thrown his way. Larry’s a class act, in spades.
  • There will be a Sad Puppies 4, to be coordinated next year by Kate Paulk.

Heads are now exploding all over the Internet, which is the least surprising thing about the whole kerfuffle. Puppy haters are trying to figure out what changes might be made to the Hugo rules to make such a sweep impossible. The truth is that as long as you have supporting memberships who can vote, slatemakers will offer slates to their supporters. Eliminating supporting memberships would make Worldcon financially impossible. (I don’t see anybody complaining about the additional money that all those Puppy supporters added to Worldcon coffers.)

So: If you want to stop the Sad Puppies, you have to propose your own slates. (And have the followers to vote them, which is really the hard part.) Bored Beavers? Aggrieved Alligators? Mourning Meerkats? Go for it. The goal is to reduce monoculture, and broaden the spotlight. That’s ultimately what the Puppies thing is about. Let 2E20 slates bloom!

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 4

sad_puppies_3_patch.jpg

To summarize this series so far:

1. There is a monoculture problem in the traditional science fiction and fantasy (SFF) print industry, and sales are shrinking. The number of publishers is stagnant or falling. Advances are dropping and contract terms have gotten insane. For contrast, the SFF media industry (typefied by its conventions like DragonCon and ComicCon) is exploding in popularity.

2. This monoculture problem has several components, but from a height, it’s a sort of “channel capture” effect: The SFF convention and awards infrastructure has embraced the notion that literary SFF–especially that focused on race/gender identity themes–is the “worthiest” sort of SFF and the sort that we all ought to read if we’re to be taken seriously as cultured beings.

3. People who used to read a great deal of SFF are rejecting this “message pie” fiction (by which I mean fiction that puts message and/or polemic first and story elements second) and are either re-reading older works, moving off to other genres, or out of recreational reading entirely.

4. Sarah Hoyt and several other writers have proposed a category called The Human Wave, which would stand in opposition to the current conventions of literary SFF, especially polemical literary SFF. The Human Wave emphasizes SFF as entertainment, celebration rather than denigration of the human spirit, plot, ideas, optimism, and sense of wonder. I endorse this without hesitation, and will have even more to say about it in future entries.

5. Basically, there are too few hands on the levers of power in the SFF universe. It’s time to start disconnecting those levers and dispersing that power. It’s time to inject some genuine diversity into SFF–not of authorship (we’re already there) but of theme and technique.

Part of that disconnection has been going on for some years: Independent and self-publishing, enabled by improving ebook technology and online stores like Kindle, are expanding their share of the SFF market. In defiance of conventional wisdom, many indie authors are making money, sometimes a lot of it. In fact, print publishers have begun seeing the indies as a sort of farm team, from which they call up the most popular players and offer them print contracts. About month ago, SFWA announced some rule changes allowing indie authors to become full members if they can prove that they’ve sold a certain amount of work for a certain amount of money.

So change is happening, and indie publishing is behind most of the change we’ve seen so far.

Which brings us at last to the matter of Sad Puppies. It’s an ancient question: whether to operate outside the current culture, or from the inside. Reforming anything from the inside is tough, because the Insider Alphas tend to arrange things so that change is difficult, as well as the tendency for reformers to simply be absorbed unless they arrive in overwhelming numbers.

Back in January 2013, Monster Hunter International author Larry Correia, in the context of a tongue-in-cheek rant about how he and other pulp-ish authors never get noticed by critics or awards committees, said this:

For as little as $60 you can become a voting member of WorldCon and nominate something awesome and filled with dragons, explosions, guns, heroism, actual good and evil, and a plot where stuff actually happens. And unlike Sarah McLachlan’s sad puppy commercial, your donation also gets you a whole big ton of free eBooks and all of the nominated works, worth more than the cost of joining.

For the next couple of months, Larry recommended a lot of works he felt should be considered for the Hugos, not excluding his own. He caught some predictable shit for that. It’s unclear how much the informal campaign changed the winners at LoneStarCon 3, but Larry got some people on the ballot who’d never been there before (like the formidable Toni Weisskkopf) and raised awareness of a lot of very good stories that would not otherwise have been on anybody’s radar. Every one of these stories that I hunted down would qualify as Human Wave SFF.

What Larry did is neither unique nor new. In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s I remember Mike Resnick sending MM paperbacks of his books to literally every name in the SFWA directory. He wasn’t constantly chanting, “Vote for my books!” but he made damned sure that anybody who was in a position to vote for him had one. I had no trouble with that, and although I never voted for him, I did read his books.

Fast forward a year. The Sad Puppies concept grew legs, got a first-shot logo (Pugs! Why does it always have to be pugs!) and became a serious and semi-organized thing rather than a wisecrack in somebody’s rant. According to Mike Glyer, Sad Puppies 2 placed seven of its twelve recommendations on the final Hugo ballot. To me, that’s not mere success…that’s beyond astonishing.

And another year, bringing us to the current day. Sad Puppies 3 now has a logo you can put on a patch (see above) created by Lee W. “Artraccoon” Madison. The slate is much larger, and its coordinator is now Brad R. Torgersen. Alas, I stumbled on all this right about the deadline for memberships qualified to nominate for the 2015 Hugos at Sasquan in Spokane, so don’t run off to try and get in on it. (I’m generally too late or too early for things, so I’m doubly not a wizard.) However, if before January 31 you were a member of LonCon 3 (last year) Sasquan (this year) or MidAmericon II (next year) you can recommend. Recommendations themselves are open until March 10.

This is a classic example of reform attempted from the inside. For all the foaming-at-the-mouth accusations of logrolling and ballot box stuffing, nothing about the Sad Puppies campaign violates the rules. What Larry and Brad are doing is in fact keeping a shrinking Worldcon alive by bringing in both money and new blood. An award with the prestige of the Hugos should not be decided by a few hundred people, but by tens of thousands of people. Otherwise it reflects neither quality nor popularity, but is rather a straw poll by an in-crowd heavily influenced by a handful of Insider Alphas.

Will it work? Depends on what you want from it. Seen as a publicity stunt (as many do) it’s already working, bigtime. Seen as genuine reform, well, I’m less sure, as much as I’d like to see that reform happen. Maybe it just needs a few more years to cook. Many things do. I certainly wish it all success. It’s already tipped my decision in favor of attending MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City in 2016.

However, if the goal is to popularize Human Wave SFF, there may be better ways. I’ll throw out some ideas when I continue this series. For the time being, I need to take a breather.

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 3

I was nostrils-deep writing Ten Gentle Opportunities and wasn’t paying attention when Sarah Hoyt quietly posted a bombshell: The Human Wave Manifesto. It was actually a manifesto in two parts, probably because I don’t think she intended it to be a manifesto at first. (Sabrina Chase had a part in it too.)

But boy, manifesto it is, bigtime.

I powerfully suggest that you read Sarah’s manifesto (perhaps twice) but I’ll summarize for those in a hurry:

The Human Wave is a resistance movement. It’s a reminder that SFF is about unlimited possibility; i.e., there are unexplored universes lying right outside our own navels. So first of all, it’s about throwing off a 30-year accumulation of Thou Shalt Nots and These Are Necessary Rules that the Insider Alphas of the SFF world have laid down. Back in the 60s we had whole posters printed with just two words: Question Authority. That’s what the Human Wave is about: questioning authority. The Insider Alphas are not authorities. They’re just writers and editors of a certain psychology that always makes a beeline for the levers of power. The Human Wave is under the floor right now, disconnecting all the levers. (If only we can keep them from hearing us giggle…)

Human Wave science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is fiction that deliberately subverts those supposed rules (fetishes, actually) and re-takes what was once commonplace in the SFF universe. The guiding principles of the Human Wave (as laid out by Sarah Hoyt) are in fact exhortations to freedom:

  1. Write fiction that entertains; nay, fiction that makes us gasp.
  2. Write fiction that celebrates rather than denigrates the human spirit.
  3. Write fiction in which characters are characters, fully realized individuals and not primarily defined as members of groups.
  4. Write fiction in which the message doesn’t overpower the rest of the story.
  5. Write fiction that isn’t eaten by Grey Goo; i.e., fuzzy characters wandering around landscapes of indeterminate importance doing nothing coherent, learning nothing, and ultimately having nothing to say.
  6. Write fiction that is upbeat; or if it must be downbeat, make sure it’s at least meaningful and that its insights are worth the downer.
  7. Write in a style that can be understood; i.e., don’t let style overwhelm or obscure substance.
  8. Write fiction that has internal logic and is faithful to that logic, especially your explorations of science and magic.
  9. Write fiction that isn’t boring, since ordinary life does not suffer a boredom shortage.
  10. Write what you write best and make no apologies; i.e., just shut up and write!

That’s the best synopsis I can provide. I’ve broadened the concept to include fantasy (the second “F” in SFF) but otherwise have tried to be faithful to Sarah’s intent. I will also add an eleventh commandment:

11. If you have that skill, write fiction that makes us laugh.

What I found heartening about the Human Wave is that it’s how I’ve always written, even if I take it farther than caution might suggest. I have a primal fear of not delivering enough value to my readers. That’s why I throw in dump trucks full of ideas, lots of explosions and gunfights, a little humor even in serious stories, and end with a mayhem-filled action climax. Yeah, I’m an old guy. I learned this stuff basically by reading the best of the pulps. There’s nothing shameful about the pulps, just as there was nothing shameful about 1958 De Sotos. Just as we can now make far better cars than 1958 De Sotos, we can write far better popular fiction than the Fifties pulps. We just have to ditch the shame.

I’ll also add this: Literature is good, and literary techniques can be dazzling in the right hands. I’ve read my share, and in fact have a degree in it, for what that’s worth. My two objections to literary SF are that not everyone has the skill to write it, and even when well-written, it doesn’t work as a steady diet. Let those who can write it, write it. Let’s just not insist it’s the whole picture, or even the worthiest part of the picture. Yes, literary is good. Choice is even better.

So. Where do we go from here? I’d certainly like to see a list of authors who embrace the Human Wave, as well as stories that embrace it, whether their authors ever heard of it or not. Such a list has not been attempted, to my knowledge. Although I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with it, I’ve already begun such a list. If you have authors or stories to nominate as part of the Human Wave, please send them along or share them in the comments.

Maybe it’s finally time to bring hardsf.com to life.

Now, although I consider this entry the heart of the matter, I’m not done yet. I’m a little nervous about the last topic in the title. Give me a few days to figure things out, and we’ll wrap this series up.

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 2

As I expected, I’m getting some pushback on the notion that SFF has a monoculture problem. So here’s the deal: If you like what’s on offer in SFF right now, there’s no problem…for you. I think it’s a problem, and I’ve begun to hear from other people who also think it’s a problem, along with reading a great many people online (whom I don’t know) saying it’s a problem, and for pretty much the same reasons.

If enough people think it’s a problem, then we really do have an objective problem. Lots of people who used to buy lots of SFF aren’t buying it anymore. Too much of that, and the genre goes into a kind of death spiral. Publishers consolidate, distribution shrinks (and shrinks faster than shrinkage of the retail book business generally) and fewer people find anything that appeals to them, so they drop out. The cycle then continues. We can argue about why this is happening, but it’s happening. I think it’s about monoculture. I’ll hear your explanation if you have one.

What I call social monoculture comes into play here. I encounter it when I go to cons, especially in the midwest: I see the same people I was seeing in the mid-1970s, when I discovered cons. We’re older, grayer, and (alas) more likely to be sick or dead. Young people are scarce. Fandom has no lock on this, by the way. Ham radio suffers from a similar monoculture, though it’s improving now, probably because Morse code has been out of the picture since 2007 and young people are coming to hamming through the Maker movement. ($35 HTs sure don’t hurt!)

SFF fandom has always tended toward cliquishness. Sam Moskowitz nailed it with his old but fascinating book The Immortal Storm, which documents all the fannish palace coups and nerdy attempts to draw lines between True Fans and Mundanes Who Sometimes Read SF, back in the Elder Days from the 1920s to WWII. Half of what I saw in fanzines in the 70s and 80s rehashed all that same material, and SFWA has been obsessed with who qualifies as a “real” SFF writer for decades, which is one reason why I no longer belong to SFWA. (There are others.) I never saw many attempts to welcome obvious newcomers. I have to grin to recall speaking briefly with a young woman at (I think) Windycon 1980, who complained that nobody would talk to her. I spotted her several more times that weekend, wandering around by herself, looking wide-eyed and lost. My guess is that she thought SF conventions were about SF. Well, um, not really…

The problem with social monoculture, especially one dominated by people at middle age or beyond, is that tastes converge on what a relative handful of social alphas deem acceptable. Without a steady stream of new people to challenge the influence of social alphas, uniformity rules, boundaries contract, tribalism emerges, nonconformists are marginalized, and the overall population of the culture collapses.

Industry monoculture may in fact be a consequence of social monoculture. (Certainly, the two feed on one another.) When social alphas work at publishing companies, they become gatekeepers, and their tastes become holes of very specific shapes through which all published work must pass.

Well, there’s a timer running on industry monoculture. Publishing is no longer capital-intensive, and as print book retailers drop off the edge, it’s become less and less distribution-constrained. (Just getting bookstores to shelve our books was a hideous problem in Coriolis’ early years. If we hadn’t had a magazine to do direct sales with, we might not have survived to the Internet era.) Publishing requires skills but not credentials, and those skills aren’t string theory. People I know personally are making money self-publishing, and some here and there are making a lot of money. Obviously, a writer has to produce material that readers want to buy. (Getting your work noticed by those readers is a separate challenge, one I’ll take up over time.) But once you step outside the conventional NYC-dominated world of print publishing, constraints imposed by social alpha gatekeepers pretty much vanish.

So: A spectre is haunting monoculture: the spectre of the Human Wave.

Stay tuned, kids.

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 1

A spectre is haunting fandom: the specter of monoculture.

I haven’t done much in SF for almost two years, having spent a great deal of time learning some new technology and then writing about it. (That saga is painful and may end badly, as I’ll explain when it does end, one way or another.) So I come back and begin preparing several things for publication on Amazon, including Firejammer, The Cunning Blood, Drumlin Circus, and a number of my longer stories. As I flip around the screamosphere seeing what’s up after my two-year absence, wow: A rumble has begat a manifesto that begat an attempt to break out of the worst rut the SFF world has ever seen. “Monoculture” is the polite word for a rut so deep that it threatens the viability of an industry. That’s what we’re up against in SFF, and that’s what I’m going to be discussing for a few entries here on Contra.

One warning: This issue makes people of certain psychologies slobberingly, incoherently, hatefully, murderously, roll-eyes-back-in-the-head angry. If that’s you, well, about face, forward march. You are not allowed to be angry here, and if anger is your hobby, you won’t find much to enjoy.

To begin: I read a lot of SFF. I’ve been reading it for over fifty years. Recently, instead of new fiction, I find myself increasingly reaching back to the 90s and prior for things I’ve read not just once or several, but often many times. I do try new fiction, but I rarely finish it. These are the primary reasons:

  • It’s depressing. Depressed characters with depressing 10,000-word backstories wander around depressing worlds through depressing situations where nothing is learned, no one is redeemed, and in truth nothing of consequence ever actually happens. (Sarah Hoyt calls these “grey goo stories.”)
  • It’s preachy. Good polemic is hard, and should be subversive, not in-your-face. Clever writers can preach via story without being too obvious about it, but sermons in story costumes are dull, off-putting, and in many cases excuses for scapegoating and tribal hatred.
  • It’s slow, and talky. I don’t necessarily demand fistfights and explosions on every other page. Still, shut up, put those coffee cups down and do something!
  • It lacks ideas. I may be peculiar in this, but to me a story without interesting ideas lacks an SFF soul.
  • Humor is nowhere in sight. I like funny SFF. As best I can tell, it’s now extinct.
  • From a height, it just isn’t fun. Fun is what we do this for. Fun is subjective, and hard to define, but damn, I know it when I read it.

When I begin reading a new work of SFF, I start a mental timer. If at some point the fun doesn’t start (and that point depends on my current mood and available time) I put the book down and go on to something else. Such books rarely get second chances. I gave Bowl of Heaven a second chance because it’s an idea story by authors with good records, but the fun took a long time to start and really didn’t go anywhere coherent. I haven’t given it away yet, so a third chance is possible, but as it’s the first volume in a saga, I may wait until the second volume actually appears.

I’ve been slowly drifting away from SFF for a number of years. Discussions with people I know suggest that I’m not alone.We’re all still reading as voraciously as ever, but the reading has gone over to other things, especially nonfiction. Nonfiction matters: I’ve noticed that I’ve become a better fiction writer since I’ve become an insatiable nonfiction reader. Fiction, especially SFF, is not 100% imagination. On the other hand, when you set aside a recent Hugo-award winning novel for being tedious and generally lame, well, that says something.

Note well (especially you hotheads) what I’m saying and not saying here: I’m saying that the SFF universe is losing readers because of a steadily narrowing focus on dark, dull, misanthropic, idea-free titles. I am pointedly not saying that such titles should not be published, nor read. What I want is a broad selection. What I am against is monoculture.

Having given it a great deal of thought, I see the monoculture issue in four parts:

  • Political monoculture. I hate politics and loathe talking about it, so I’ll let others handle this one. It’s just an extension of the monkeyshit tribal wars that seem to dominate our culture right now.
  • Social monoculture. This is tricky, and has to do with the fact that the SFF fan community is aging and grouchy, and young people are for the most part going elsewhere. For example, how many people go to Worldcon? How many to Dragoncon? From what I can see, the dragons have it twenty to one.
  • Industry monoculture. SFF publishing has become a reflection of NYC publishing as smaller presses are engulfed and devoured by conglomerates or simply go under. It’s the same people and the same companies working in more or less the same place, with fewer and fewer gatekeepers who are mostly all alike. There’s a time limit on this one, as anybody who’s paying attention can tell. (Much more on this in future entries.)
  • Technique monoculture. Critics and gatekeepers lean strongly toward literary techniques, and against techniques that emerged from the pulps, and the pulp descendents that many of us grew up on: adventure, action, and upbeat themes that express the triumph of the human spirit. Yes, characters are critically important. Characters are not the whole show.

Whew. That should be enough to get me in serious trouble for the rest of my next three lives. Heh. See if I care, as I go more deeply into these points in future entries.

Odd Lots