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RIP BEA

BookExpo America (BEA) and BookCon are folding. The shows’ organizers are blaming the shutdown on SARS-CoV-2, but the mask slips a little when they add, “The pandemic arrived at a time in the life cycle of BookExpo and BookCon where we were already examining the restructure of our events to best meet our community’s needs.” That’s corporate doubletalk for “The shows were both in trouble before the virus, and the virus was a plausible excuse to shut them down.”
I used to go to BEA every year. (I’ve never been to BookCon, which is a sort of combined fan and publisher gathering in NYC, targeted at consumers and mostly about fiction.) BEA was useful in a number of ways, not least of which was to see how our competitors were doing in the ’90s. I kept going for a few years after Coriolis folded, just to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry and spot trends. That pulse has been harder and harder to find in recent years. Ginormous publishing conglomerates are merging. This generally means that the smaller one is in trouble, and the bigger one wants their cash flow. Penguin Random House is buying Simon & Schuster, assuming antitrust challenges don’t emerge. What used to be The Big 5 is about to become The Big 4.
Two (related) things seem to me as behind publisher consolidation and the loss of big trade shows like BEA:
  1. The large publishers never wanted ebooks and don’t know how to deal with them.
  2. Independent publishing (indie) is catching on in a very big way.

The business model of traditional book publishing is complex, and weird. (Weird, even to me, and I worked in it for fifteen years.) The biggest single problem is that large and very large presses are fixated on hardcovers. This fixation goes back a very long way, and cooks down to the notion that hardcovers are books, and everything else (primarily ebooks and paperbacks) are secondary markets that depend on hardcovers to exist at all. It’s true that if you go back to the 1800s, vitually all books were hardcovers. Granted, there are exceptions: I have a paperback edition of Oliver Twist from 1882, which indicates that cheap books on cheap paper were there in the shadows all along, but were all too often slandered as “dime novels” that corrupted young minds. The money and prestige were in hardcovers.

Paperback originals emerged as a force in the 1950s, roughly concurrent with the emergence of the mass-market paperback (MMPB.) Because early MMPBs were reprints of hardcover editions, the notion of paperbacks as a secondary market was logical. When paperback originals emerged, larger presses used them to build the audience for their hardcovers, and to a lesser extent, a midlist from which promising new authors could be promoted to hardcover. Hardcover pricing was what kept the doors open and paychecks going out. Secondary markets were gravy.

Various forces are now turning the hardcover-centric business model on its ear. The single most important force here is not simply the ebook, but the fact that you can read ebooks on smartphones. Ebooks were dismissed early on because “nobody’s going to buy an expensive gadget just to read books on.” Well, dedicated ebook readers are no longer necessary. I have a Kindle Paperwhite because it’s easier on my eyes, but I’ve read plenty of books on my Galaxy Tab S3 and three different smartphones. Today, everybody has a smartphone, which means that everybody can read ebooks. It’s no longer a niche market.

This scares the crap out of traditional publishers. They have kept the cover prices of ebooks close to (or in some crazy cases higher than) hardcover prices, insisting that it costs just as much to create an ebook as it does to create a hardcover, dodging the truth that it’s all about physical inventory, returns, and unit cost. The unit cost of an ebook is zero. Inventory and returns no longer exist.

The second most important force is, of course, Amazon, home of The World’s Richest Man. Amazon did not create the notion of ebooks or ebook readers, but the Kindle Store allowed the emergence of independent publishing, more on which shortly. And the smartphone, in turn, created the market for the Kindle Store.

Amazon has systematically undermined the hardcover price point by allowing a nearly frictionless market for hardcovers that were read once and then sold through associate accounts for a third the cover price–or less–of the same book new. Amazon Prime created all-you-can-slurp shipping, and with improvements in logistics allows a book to be ordered in the morning and delivered in late afternoon. Why bother fighting traffic to get down to the last Barnes & Noble in town, when you can get the book just as fast (and more easily) with a few taps on your smartphone? (Yes, I’ll miss bookstores. But I won’t miss tchotchke stores.)

And last but by no means least, we have indie publishing. There are a number of platforms on which ebooks may be published, but realistically, it’s Amazon plus debris. They have wisely combined ebook and POD print book publishing into one entity. (90% or more of my sales are ebooks.) The system is straightforward enough to allow anybody with half a brain to publish their own books and short items on the Kindle store.

This means that a great deal of what is published isn’t worth looking at. We all worried a lot about that. But as it happened, people are discovering ebooks they same way they discovered print books in the old days: By word-of-mouth, which these days includes word-of-Web. Discovery sites like Goodreads help a great deal, as do Web forums with a topic focus. Amazon’s reviews are generally good, though you have to read a lot of them and average things out in your mind. Some people are hard to please, and others please way too easily. All that said, I’m very surprised at how few Kindle ebooks I have bought and then hated. Sure, some were better than others. But I did an odd kind of crosstime quality spot-check on marginal ebooks and SFF MMPBs from 50-55 years ago. Pull a passage from a 55-year-old no-name SF potboiler (easier now that the pages are coming loose as you turn them) and compare it to a no-name ebook SF potboiler you took a chance on for $2.99 based on Amazon reviews. The Amazon book wins almost every time. Why? Automated discovery, via reviews and recommendations. All we had to go on 50 years ago was the back cover, and a quick flip through the pages. Now we can be as fussy as we like, or at least as fussy as we have time for.

The bottom line on ebooks is that with automated discovery and online recommendations, you no longer need traditional publishing at all. I’ve bought some ebooks from the few traditional publishers (like Baen) who embrace them. But at least 75% of the SFF I’ve read in the last year has been from indie authors. Some books were better than others. Remarkably, all but a couple that I took chances on were worth reading.

I’ll miss BEA–a little. I had fun there and met some interesting people. I will not miss hardcover culture and its attendant weirdness. If the Big 5, er, 4 can’t shed that weirdness, the reading public will shed them, sooner than later.

In the meantime, it’s a marvelous time to be a reader–and an even better time to be a writer.

The Odd Lots Project

Every so often someone sends me an email to ask, “Is there any place I could find your story ‘Our Lady of the Endless Sky’? I read it years ago and it was a really good story. I’d like to read it again.” Swap in the title of any of several other stories or idea pieces that I published in PC Techniques / Visual Developer what seems now like decades ago–because it is. Some of my idea pieces and humor from the magazine are already up, linked in an archive page that you can find here.

Still, it’s only a few of them, mostly because for those few I still had the original word processor files. Most of those files have been lost. All that remains are the magazines themselves.

Five or six years ago I sketched out an idea for a book containing some of the old BEGIN / END / The Vision Thing / Breakpoint pieces, plus some of my better Contra entries. For almost four years I was occupied with my new novel Dreamhealer. (The paperback edition is now for sale on Amazon, so that project is finally complete.) With Dreamhealer out of the way, a week or so ago I started building a TOC and searching out files for as many pieces as I still have. Some had to be scanned and OCRed from the magazines. Some were buried in odd folders in my data drive. All of them needed cleaning up. Quite a few I have only in WordPerfect format. Fortunately I can convert these using a handy utility called QuickView Plus. The Contra entries are copy’n’paste.

I work on it when time permits. I now have 45,000 words in the master Word file. My target is 75,000 words. There’s still plenty of scanning and OCRing to do, plus introductions to put all this ancient stuff in context.

The book will have seven sections:

  1. Essays and Editorials
  2. From Contrapositive Diary
  3. Poetry (maybe)
  4. Parody
  5. Memoir
  6. None of the Above.

The Poetry section may not happen. I’ve only written three poems in my life that I would show to the general public. Two of them are e.e.cummings pastiche and one Robert Frost pastiche. When God was handing out poetry genes I was standing in the Whimsical Tutorials line. (Fortunately, it was a short line.)

One thing that won’t be included in Odd Lots is “STORMY vs. the Tornadoes,” which appears in my AI SF collection Souls in Silicon . There are a few items that fall in the forbidden zone between fiction and nonfiction, which is what the “None of the Above” section will capture.

I will publish it in both Kindle ebook format and trade paperback. I don’t have a timetable yet, but in nice round numbers I’d like to see it laid out and ready to publish by the end of the year. When I flesh out the TOC a little more, I’ll post it here, and if you remember something that you liked but don’t see in the TOC, let me know in the comments.

The biggest task for now is simply reviewing Contra to remind myself what I’ve done. This is a challenge, as I’ve been publishing Contra now for 22 years and have about 5,000 entries. I’m working on that. So stay tuned. This will be fun. I don’t expect to sell thousands of copies. Mostly what I want to do is put a lot of my mostly-forgotten work back in the public eye. This’ll do it.

Looking for Cableton

I’m gathering miscellaneous items I’ve written down the years into a collection called Odd Lots. A fair number of those are editorials or END/Breakpoint pieces I wrote for the magazine across its ten years of publication. I no longer have the source files for a lot of my earlier material, though I do have most from about 1996 on. I have a complete run of PC Techniques / Visual Developer on a high shelf…

…or at least I thought I did, until I was scanning the spines for August/September 1993. It wasn’t there. And that issue included something I wrote called “Cableton,” which I had included in the tentative table of contents for Odd Lots.

I tore the house up, and opened a few previously unopened boxes from our move down here in 2015. No Cableton. It may still be around here somewhere. However, I looked in all the obvious hiding places, and quite a few very non-obvious hiding places, like under my big reading chair. Hit a wall, I did. So let me put out a request to my friends and readers who may actually have a copy of that issue: Could someone email me a scan of “Cableton”? Once I have a scan I can OCR it, like I’ve done with a lot of other items in those very old issues.

What else will be in Odd Lots? Some humor pieces, most of which were never published. A fair number of editorials and idea pieces from the magazine that I think may still be important. A little memoir, some of which I’ve published here on Contra. A few important Contra entries. It won’t be a huge book, and it won’t be expensive. If nobody has that issue, I’ll call it unfortunate and move on. But if you have it and a decent scanner, please email me a page image.

Thanks!

And as a postscript, if you’ve enjoyed some short item that I’ve written, let me know. I’m not always a good judge of what my best work is. Then again, nobody ever is. It’s a blind spot that may be baked into the human mind.

Now Available: Dreamhealer on Kindle and KU

Dreamhealer Large Cover With Type-500 wide.png

Some time last night after I hit the switch and the sack, Amazon approved my upload of Dreamhealer to the Kindle store and KU. So it’s ready to rock–go get it! I’ll have a trade paperback edition in a week or so, unless Amazon decides to arm-wrestle me over it, like they did with Firejammer.

Unlike most fiction these days, the cover is a from-scratch painting that represents a scene from the book itself. (It’s Larry healing a man’s falling nightmare–falling from 90,000 feet. See Chapter 1.)

This one was a long time coming. Part of it was starting a novel in the middle of a move that included renovating two houses 850 miles apart.I’m sure part of it was just starting a novel at age 64. Part of it was the…peculiar… nature of some of the background concepts. There is tension between witches and lightworkers. I worked some of that tension into the plot. I bought a whole book on the “etheric double” as understood by Theosophists. I read and reread a lot of material from the late Colin Wilson. Oh, and material about tiger moms, phantom pregnancies, Elk Grove Village, steampunk mechas, the bicameral mind theory of human evolution, and more. Way more. (I actually explored Elk Grove Village back in 2017 and chose the street where Larry the Dreamhealer lives.) Of course, I invented as much as I borrowed, especially regarding the Elemental Cycles of the Canidae and the quantum computational substrate underlying dreams. Researching the background is the fun part of creating a novel. The writing itself is butt-kicking hard work.

I was going to summarize the plot here, but there’s always the problem of spoilers. So I’ll be brief: Larry gets on the wrong side of what turns out to be the Architect of All Nightmares. He finds his true love, who has a thing for chainsaws. The spirit of Isambard Kingdom Brunel builds one helluva mecha. Dogs. Dogs everywhere. Talking dogs. Dogs who eat the creatures that create nightmares. Fights, more fights, a skeletal flying saucer, searching for calculus class, imaginary friends…hey, what more do you want? Whatever it is, it’s probably in there somewhere.

Go get it. Have fun. Write a review. Tell your friends. And…thanks.

Birthdaywander

68 today. About this place in each decade there are a couple of years where it’s not immediately obvious to me which birthday I’m having. 2020 being what it is and will likely continue to be, I have had no trouble remembering that this is my 68th birthday.

A lot of this is the virus, which from the demographic stats clearly has a target on my forehead. (See this compendium of stats as of June 23.) My age bracket represents 21% of COVID-19 deaths, and COVID-19 represented 9.4% of total deaths from all causes in my age bracket between February 1 and June 17. Them’s bad odds, at least from where I sit. So we’re staying home, and the most human contact we’ve had in a couple of months is talking to the neighbors out in the middle of the street.

I have some bitches about the numbers. In a lot of places, anyone who dies with tested SARS-CoV-2 in their bodies is listed as dying of the virus, even if they died of cancer, alcohol poisoning, car accidents, or lots of other unrelated conditions. Granted, it’s often hard to tell what actually causes death. So although I’m willing to accept the huge numbers of newly identified cases (where a “case” is anyone who tests postive for the virus) the mortality numbers are almost certainly higher than they would be if people who caught the virus but died of something else were not counted.

Bit by bit the numbers improve, especially now that tests are easy to come by. An awful lot of young people are carrying the virus, but an awfuller lot of those are completely asymptomatic. Whether they’re contagious is still under heated discussion.

Catching the virus outdoors is unlikely. I’m not one of those who blame the protests for the rising number of cases in young people. Oh, I’m sure it helped raise the case numbers a little. But in watching the appalling videos of the riots, what I see is a lot of people in fast chaotic motion, outside, probably with a light breeze. What this means is that the spreaders are unlikely to be in close proximity to the same people for more than a few seconds. This is not what happens at choir practice, really.

A lot of the protesters were wearing masks. Forgive me for thinking that a lot of them weren’t worried about acquiring the virus half as much as a police record.

Oh–masks. Let’s talk about masks. What I’m seeing in recent weeks is a peculiar psychology of constant harping about masks that does two things:

1. It makes a certain number of otherwise reasonable people annoyed enough to refuse to wear masks in public.

2. It makes a larger number of reasonable but naive people feel that with a mask on, they’re invulnerable and cannot catch the virus. This is major magical thinking.

I wear a mask to keep peace in the valley, mostly. Getting yelled at by every uberkaren in the supermarket is not on my bucket list. Nonetheless, I am under no illusions that the masks will prevent me from either catching or spreading the disease. There is plenty of research showing that SARS-CoV-2 spreads in aerosol form. (That is, as free particles rather than inside mucus or saliva droplets.) The masks available to the public will not stop isolated virus particles drifting in the air. For that you need properly fitted N95 masks or better, and I’m among those who think that front-line health care personnel should get them before the rest of us.

Consider this article, by a skeptical MD with 36 years of clinical experience. He knows medical masks. Woodworking masks or cowboy bandanas are of zero effectiveness, and even surgical masks are not effective in filtering aerosols. The virus itself is 120 nm in size; basically, a tenth of a micron. Your workaday snotrag is not gonna stop that. Droplets, possibly–at least big ones. But let me ask you this: What happens when a droplet that was stopped by your bandana dries out? It seems to me (I’ve seen no research on this issue) that absent their droplets, individual viruses can be inhaled through the cloth, or blown out into the invironment again by exhaled air.

Especially here in Phoenix, where the humidity is often in single digits, those droplets will dry out fast. Maybe they’ll remain stuck to the cloth fibers. Maybe. Bet your life on it? Not me.

So, again, we’re staying home. I’m trying to work out how to get the ball rolling on my new novel The Molten Flesh. The first chapter is a flashback, to twelve years before The Cunning Blood takes place. We’re focusing on a different nanotech society this time: Protea, which is designed to optimize the human body. Sangruse 9 can do a little of that, but Protea literally rebuilds the interior structure of the body to make it much more resistant to trauma, radiation, cancer, infectious microorganisms and aging. It’s not as smart as Sangruse 9, nor as good with physical chemistry. Still, once you understand the full reality of what it can do, it’s a pretty scary item. And that’s the canonical Protea. In 2354, Protea was forked. A renegade Protea Society member breaks with the others and starts tweaking the device. The story emerges from that.

I’m trying to put together an action scene where renegade Ron Uhlein steals the 1Earth starship Vancouver. He succeeds (with Protea’s constant assistance) and in the process demonstrates to Sophia Gorganis that starships can be stolen. What she does with that knowledge is told in The Cunning Blood.

I need to catch up a little on Contra entries here. I have one partly written involving my All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything idea, and another about the COVID-19 coin shortage. Really. Remember: The universe is stranger than you can imagine…and I can imagine a lot.

Plaguewander

How serious is this lockdown thing? Well, I’ve won all 1600 boards on Mah Jong Titan. That includes all available premium board packs. If there were more I’d buy them. There aren’t. That doesn’t surprise me, given the work it must take to produce another 300 boards that only the occasional crazy like me will ever play.

I’ve played Mah Jong for decades, and not just to kill time. For me it’s a sort of mental palate-cleanser: I play a board or two when I need to shift gears from one project to another. When I move from working on Dreamhealer to some construction project out in the shop, I play a board to stop me from thinking about Dreamhealer, or at least to pull me down from obsession territory. It does work. I’m not sure why, given that Bejeweled doesn’t provide the same benefit, nor do any of several other games I’ve tried. My theory: Mah Jong depends to a great extent on memory. Playing well requires remembering which tiles are where on the board. You’d think that that would be no big trick, given that the board is already laid out in plain view. Not so. A few tiles stand out from the crowd. Most do not. If a move uncovers a four of bamboo, you had better know if there’s a four of bamboo elsewhere on the board. The games I play, at least, are played against a clock. You don’t have a minute to scan the whole board to spot that four of bamboo over in the lower-right corner. Dead-time adds up, and each board has a time limit. To win the board, you have to empty it within that time limit.

The creative life is all about memory. This is true of fiction, especially the fiction that I write, which is heavy on ideas, foreshadowing, and gradual reveals. Getting away from fiction means remembering other things for awhile. And because Mah Jong is a shallow memory challenge, it takes little or no effect to push a board full of tiles out of the forefront of my mind when it’s time to turn to something else.

-…- -…-

Carol and I did some shopping at Wal-Mart today. I don’t know if this was their innovation, but aisles at Wal-Mart are now one-way. This makes it easier to stay away from other shoppers, though it can be a nuisance at times. I tend not to go shopping when I’m feeling impatient. Mercifully, I was not feeling impatient this morning.

-…- -…-

While at Wal-Mart, we looked at Polish sausage and other sausage products. I typically eat a bratwurst or some other similar sausage for lunch. There was a run on such things for awhile, and I was unable to find the Hillshire Farms smoked sausage that I’d been lunching on for some time. We saw them at Wal-Mart today. I picked up a pack, and scanned the list of ingredients. Yikes; they now put MSG in their smoked sausage products. I originally chose them because they did not include MSG. Johnsonville sausage products, on the other hand, have been nonstarters here for years, because all their sausages contain MSG. Well, since I was reading labels anyway, I picked up a package of Johnsonville smoked bratwursts and scanned its ingredients. No MSG! So I bought some.

It is a puzzlement. Given how many people react badly to MSG, I have to wonder why sausage companies insist on using it. Does a sausage really taste better with MSG than without? I can’t tell the difference and never have.

-…- -…-

Cutting Board Before-500 Wide.jpg

54 years ago, I took wood shop at Lane Tech in Chicago. We built a number of projects, but the only one that survives is the heavy oak cutting board. My mom used it while I stilled lived at home, and I took it with me when I moved out and married Carol. So it’s been in use for all 54 of those years. The board’s saggita is now half an inch, so we flipped it over and now cut on what was the bottom face.

Alas, the two outer oak layers on the board started peeling away from the rest a few years ago. Food was getting caught in the resultant cracks, and I was afraid I’d have to toss it out. Not so: A little careful work with my chop saw and some belt sander time yielded a narrower but now far more hygienic cutting board. This may not last, and the day may come when I can’t cut any more layers off the edges. Still, 54 years is a long time to be using an artifact that you built yourself with your own hands.

-…- -…-

My fellow hams don’t need me to tell them that the bands are dead right now. The very occasional sunspot is so small I often wonder if it’s dirt on some telescope’s lens. Propagation is lousy. Working Wisconsin was a delight. Working Seattle almost knocked me off my chair. But beyond the current sunspot dearth, what really annoys me is the noise level. I thought for a long time that this was caused by the crappy switching power supplies inside every LED bulb in the house, which would be all of them but two. (The two incandescents are grow lamps for Carol’s African violets.) So I did the experiment last week: I shut off every piece of electronics (including the AC) and every damned lightbulb in the house.

The noise level did not change at all.

I can’t shut off the security system and really don’t want to. But I’ve had security systems in every house we’ve lived in since 1990, and have never had noise levels like this. The houses here are widely spaced (this is the land of half- to one-acre lots) so I suspect I’m not hearing the neighbors’ stuff. All the more reason to buy a 12V battery pack and enable the Icom IC-729 to run on battery power. If the power ever goes out in our neighborhood, I’ll make a beeline for the shack, to see if the noise level drops. That won’t help me work Wisconsin once the power comes back on, but at least it’ll narrow down the culprit list a little.

-…- -…-

Dreamhealer is coming along. I’m still doing some edits, but in truth, I’m waiting for the artist to finish the cover. I was going to release it at LibertyCon in June, but there will be no LibertyCon this year. My deadline, being dead, no longer has much force.

-…- -…-

Arizona is opening up. Carol’s going to her hairdresser to get her hair done on Tuesday for the first time in quite awhile. The next time I need a haircut (I know, I know, during the next Ice Age) I’ll be doing the same thing. We’re being careful, but we’re no longer cowering at home. I’m watching Arizona stats for a number of reasons, the main one being that we’re already most of the way to a long hot summer. Viruses in the Sun die in seconds. No data on how long they last in triple-digit air out of direct sunlight, but I suspect it shortens their viable stage by a lot. Viral load is, as best we can tell, a factor. So we don’t go to concerts or political rallies. (Actually, I have never gone to a political rally. Viruses are not the reason.) We used to go to sit-down restaurants maybe once a month. We have carryout service accounts now and know how to use them. Total Wine is open, as are most other stores that we frequent. My motto remains what it is and has always been:

All will be well. And all will be well. And every damfool thing in the universe will be well!

Grundig Blaupunkt Luger Frug

The other day I was thinking back to what written material I had found the funniest in my life. A lot of it was Dave Barry, some Hitchiker’s Guide, some Keith Laumer, some Gene Shepherd, some Terry Pratchett, a crazy little ancient item called The Silly Book by Stoo Hamble, and then–words of fire appeared unbidden in my head:

Grundig blaupunkt luger frug
Watusi snarf wazoo
Nixon dirksen nasahist
Rebozo bugaloo

OMG! Unbeknownst to me, I had memorized a part of Bored of the Rings. And this is a good time to take up the topic of humor in fantasy and SF, since Bored of the Rings is now fifty years old.

I see in the book’s Amazon reviews that a lot of people thought it was hilarious when they were 12, and it falls flat now. Quite a few others had no idea why the book was supposed to be funny to begin with. Yes, it was funnier fifty years ago, granted. It was published when I was 16, in 1969. I was quite a Tolkien devotee by that time (I first read the trilogy in 1967) and not only did I think it was funny, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

I still have the 50-year-old MMPB. And I’m reading it, falling to pieces though it may be. Yes, it’s still funny. But I have the unfair advantage of an excellent memory for trivia. The problem with the book’s humor is that a lot of the things they’re making fun of no longer exist.

The four lines quoted above are what is written on the parody version of the One Ring. Every single word is real, and every single word meant something to most people in 1969. Fifty years later, I’d wager that all but the legendary Nixon have simply been forgotten.

The whole book gallops along that way: one 1969 cultural reference after another, interspersed with really obvious substitution parody and frat-boy crudities. I still enjoy it, but in a slightly guilty way that rubs my nose in the fact that I’m now 67. The best parts are in fact the original poetry and songs, which were parodies of style more than actual poems and songs. Another example, excerpted from a longer work that still makes me giggle:

Fearful were the chicken dwarves,
But mickle crafty too.
King Yellobac, their skins to save
The elves he tried to woo.

Sing: Twist-a-cap, reynoldswrap, gardol and duz
The elves he tried to woo.

Youngsters might be excused for being puzzled, even though they can look up all that crap on Google. The kicker is that they didn’t live the context, and in certain types of humor, context is everything. Broadcast TV ruled the world in 1969. There was (almost) no cable, and certainly nothing like our streaming services. The whole thing was supported by ads for minor products like toothpaste, not just luxury sedans and expensive pharmaceuticals. Ads seen several times an hour tend to stick in your head. So even if you never even once bought the products, you damned well knew what Gardol and Duz were. (I believe Reynolds Wrap is still a thing, though you don’t see TV commercials for it anymore.)

There are lots of ways to get a laugh. For simply exaggerating Tolkienesque imagery into absurdity and beyond, there’s little to match this longish paragraph, which comes at the climax of the story:

Black flags were raised in the black towers, and the gate opened like an angry maw to upchuck its evil spew. Out poured an army the likes of which was never seen. Forth from the gate burst a hundred thousand rabid narcs swinging bicycle chains and tire irons, followed by drooling divisions of pop-eyed changelings, deranged zombies, and distempered werewolves. At their shoulders marched eight score heavily armored griffins, three thousand goose-stepping mummies, and a column of abominable snowmen on motorized bobsleds; at their flanks tramped six companies of slavering ghouls, eighty parched vampires in white tie, and the Phantom of the Opera. Above them the sky was blackened by the dark shapes of vicious pelicans, houseflies the size of two-car garages, and Rodan the Flying Monster. Through the portals streamed more foes of various forms and descriptions, including a six-legged diplodocus, the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast with One Million Eyes, the Brain from Planet Arous, three different subphyla of giant insects, the Thing, It, She, Them, and the Blob. The great tumult of their charge could have waked the dead, were they not already bringing up the rear.

Admit it: That’s funny, though it’s not a species of funny people do much anymore. In the book the authors dip into every humorous mechanism ever invented, right down to breaking the fourth wall, as was one character’s habit almost every time he appeared:

“We cannot stay here,” said Arrowroot.

“No,” agreed Bromosel, looking across the gray surface of the page to the thick half of the book still in the reader’s right hand. “We have a long way to go.”

This brand of humor is almost dead, which is a shame. Depending on my mood, I variously blame the Flynn Effect, more people going to college, political correctness (where nothing is ever funny) and a remarkably sour zeitgeist, considering that the economy is in better shape than it’s been since, well, Bored of the Rings was first published.

In truth, I think the core problem is that there is no longer a single culture in the US. Social networking (and networking generally) has allowed us to find our own culture among the dozens on offer somewhere or another online–and if we don’t find one to our liking, we just invent one. We all once knew what Gardol was. Today, hell, there are liberal and conservative grocery stores, and forty shelf-feet at Safeway dedicated to different balsamic vinegar SKUs.

Basically, when a hundred different cultures exist side by side, nothing will be funny to all of them because nothing is common to all of them. So cultural references are fraught. I’ve actually had to explain some of the gags in Ten Gentle Opportunities to its purchasers and while writing it I consciously avoided having the humor too closely tied to any one culture or era. Sure, I included a veiled reference to Flintstone Vitamins, which are themselves a cultural reference to a cartoon show that ended in freaking 1966. And “sweets baked by elves.” I’m sure we all know what that refers to. Don’t we? Don’t we?

Maybe we do now. In fifty years, we won’t. By then, people will have as much trouble with any and all 2019 humor as people today are having with Bored of the Rings. I’m certainly sure of one thing: A thousand years from now, J. R. R. Tolkien will be having the last laugh.

Firejammer: Go Get It!

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I’m not the fastest writer in the world. If I were even modestly faster than I am, I would be a lot better-known. So as a side project while I hammer on my new fantasy novel Dreamhealer, I went back to a short novel that sat in a box for forty years. After rather more work than I expected, I uploaded it to Kindle yesterday, and Amazon approved the ebook edition last night. (The print edition is still awaiting approval, since I had to fix an issue with bleeds and the cover image.)

Behold Firejammer. I hate to call it my “new” novel, but I’m sure it’s new to all but a vanishingly small number of my readers. $2.99 from the Kindle Store, no DRM. It’s a humorous romp very much in the style of Keith Laumer, the author I imitated heavily while just getting out of first gear as a writer, back in high school. I dedicated it to him, since no other writer (with the possible later exception of Larry Niven) influenced my fiction as much as he did. Firejammer‘s mission is pretty much the same as the mission of most of Laumer’s writing, especially his Retief stories: Give the reader a wild ride, with some laughter thrown in for good measure. No sermons. No literary pretensions. Just good crazy fun.

As with most of the things I write, the story has a backstory. In 1977, I began selling stories to the late George Scithers, editor at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (IASFM). Some time in 1978, he told me that he and his publisher were about to launch a new SF magazine, one slanted to a slightly younger audience, and intended to capture the atmosphere of some of the better SF pulps, like Planet Stories. It would be called Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine. He asked me if I had any suitable concepts. Inside my head something was screaming hell yes!!! but I politely answered that I did, and would get to work on it immediately.

I did. I had gotten an idea in high school while turning into the parking lot at a Target-like store called Turn-Style (now long extinct) at Harlem & Foster Avenues in Chicago. (Yes, I remember the moment that clearly.) I was 16 at the time, and took some notes on it, but never actually started writing.

Now that I had a nibble on it, I started writing. I wrote. I wrote. And I wrote some more. I was still writing when the first issue of the new magazine appeared. I was still writing when the second issue appeared. I finished it in early 1979. I sent it to George Scithers, who informed me that, alas, the magazine had been canceled. I did due diligence and sent it to all the other existing SF magazines, all of which rejected it. The reason (where stated; I got a form slip from Fantasy & Science Fiction) was that it was just too long, by about, well twice. Maybe more. And yes, at 27,000 words, it was sitting square in the middle of what I would come to call “that hideous length.” It was too long for the magazines and too short to call a book. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. However, in 1979 I had other things on my mind: Xerox had offered me a promotion and relocation to Rochester, NY. So it went into a box of manuscripts and didn’t see daylight again for a long time.

It came out of the box in 2000, when POD services like Lulu.com began to appear. I trimmed it down to about 25,000 words and did some heavy edits. I even started talking to artists about a cover, figuring that I could throw in enough of my previously published short works to bring it up to a book of about 70,000 words or so. I played with that idea for a year or two. Then Coriolis collapsed, and once more, I had other things on my mind, like moving to Colorado. So back in the box it went, where it stayed until several years ago. I did some more rewriting, then had to set it aside (back into the box it went) because we had decided to move back to Arizona. That was a multi-year endeavor, and so totally involving that I had completely forgotten I rewrote the story in Colorado in 2015. I expected to take a piece of what (by now) I considered juvenalia, and rewrite it for the modern market. When it came out of the box earlier this year, I realized that I had already rewritten it.

So what was I waiting for? As time permitted, I created a print book design, tinkered with the layout, made some more edits, laid it out as an ebook, and finally found a cover image on WikiMedia. The image is an eruption of Stromboli, in Italy. Stromboli is my all-time favorite volcano. (Can anyone guess why?) I resisted my temptation to keep tinkering with it, but resisting temptation slows me down even when successful. So more tinkering happened.

Which brings us to yesterday’s uploads. Amazon approved of the ebook cover and body. I’m still waiting for approval on the paperback. The ebook is up there on Kindle and ready to (molten) rock.

Now it’s back to work on Dreamhealer, which is well on and should be finished this summer. So in the meantime, have fun–and don’t forget to leave a you-know-what.

Thanks!

The Cunning Blood Is 20 Years Old

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Hard to believe: I finished the first draft of The Cunning Blood twenty years ago today, on March 27, 1999. I created a progress spreadsheet and used it to store a word count for every day that I added to the manuscript.The spreadsheet does not cover the whole novel. I created it when I was about 50,000 words in. There is a date on every entry, which allows me to gauge how often I wrote, and how much I wrote on any given day. My maximum word count was 5,162. My minimum was 33. The median was about 1,800. The total finished word count for the first draft was 135,680, which grew to about 143,000 after some edit passes and a couple of added scenes for continuity’s sake. I don’t remember when I started writing it, but I’m pretty sure (based on some emails I shared with friends about the project) that it was sometime in October 1997.

That book was hard work.

What boggles me today is how much of it was concocted without my conscious knowledge. Through most of the story I was not just flying by the seat of my pants; I was flying without any pants at all. I frequently had no idea what a chapter would contain until I started writing it. It got worse than that: I did not know that Geyl Shreve would detonate a long line of LPG gas tank railroad cars with a pocket missile until three paragraphs before she did it. There was a little planning here and there, but not much. As best I can figure, the novel self-assembled somehow in my subconscious, and came out pretty clean with almost no outlining or planning ahead of the current position of the cursor. I had to exert some force-of-will toward the end, when I was way past my target length of 100,000 words and part of me still wanted to toss in new story arcs and new characters. (That’s a problem I have to this day.)

I learned a lot about how to write a novel, that’s fersure.

I mention all this history here because a lot of people think that because the novel was first published in hardcover in the fall of 2005, that I wrote it in 2004. Uh-uh. I sent it to several publishers between 1999 and 2005 without much luck. Betsy Mitchell of Aspect (an imprint of Time Warner now belonging to Hachette Group) was polite and encouraging, but ultimately turned it down. Tor responded to a query and requested the manuscript–and then ghosted me. Really: After I sent the manuscript to them in March 2001, I never heard from them again. Ever. I sent email queries, which were never answered. I finally sent a written letter withdrawing the manuscript from consideration in July 2002. I didn’t get a response. They did not return the manuscript. Just silence. Dead silence. My long, gradual entry into the SF indie camp began that summer, and I’ve never looked back. These days, Manhattan needs writers way more than writers need Manhattan.

I eventually sold the novel to a small press in the Chicago suburbs, and they did a pretty good job with it, especially in terms of getting reviews. I got a rave in Analog, and a strong endorsement from Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, along with other very good press. However, I’m not entirely sure that the hardcover ever saw the inside of a bookstore. (The Colorado Springs public library did buy two copies, which astounded me.)

Some of the problems selling the novel may have been due to what little politics I put in it, which had a libertarian slant with a huge footnote: I’m willing to admit that there is no such thing as utopia, and did not portray either Earth nor its prison planet Hell as fiat utopias. Nor were they dystopias. All societies have problems of one sort or another. As the Sangruse Device put it in the story: There are different kinds of freedom, and different kinds of imprisonment. I’m not sure I could state the novel’s theme more concisely than that.

It doesn’t matter. I was exploring ideas. I was not preaching any sermons. I had a big potful of ideas and was having fun with them. I had set out to write the ultimate action/adventure hard SF story. Judging by reader reactions since 2005 and (especially) since the ebook’s release in 2015, I think I succeeded.

Publishing a trade paperback edition through CreateSpace at the end of 2018 finally brought the project to a close. It’s sold well: up in the thousands, all editions taken together, and probably made me more money as an indie title than it would have under a big Manhattan imprint.

The big question, of course, is what to do next. I’m 77,000 words into Dreamhealer, and starting to pull all the plot threads together. I hope to finish it before the end of May. After that, well, it’s either something about the drumlins or The Molten Flesh. People have been pestering me for a sequel to The Cunning Blood since it first hit print in 2005. (My alpha readers have been pestering me even longer.) I have a couple of characters and a concept, plus a growing pot of ideas. I don’t have a plot. I tried to outline it. My subconscious basically said, No deal. (Right brains can be funny that way.) I may not know how any of the story goes until three paragraphs before I write it. That strategy has worked before. It’s worked (with greater or lesser success) all through Dreamhealer, though I’ve had to take a whip to my right brain here and there to keep it on task. Do I trust my subconscious enough to try it again?

Do I have a choice? Heh. We’ll damned well see.

Slow-Mo Espresso

I first heard about the Espresso Book Machine in 2001, back when it was called PerfectBook 080. That machine is now old enough to vote, yet…where are they? I was talking about that question in the mid-oughts, and described what I called just-in-time bookstores (which were in fact gumball machines for printed books) in 2006. A recent piece in the New York Post suggests that the machines are indeed out there, and are in fact being installed in bookstores for on-demand printing of books.

Well, it’s 2019 and ebooks have raced past the print-on-demand (POD) tortoise at about .25 C. You don’t hear a great deal about POD books anymore. I used to sell quite a few in the early-mid oughts, when I mounted several titles on Lulu and Amazon’s now-shuttered CreateSpace. As ebooks have become cheap and easy, POD books are a much harder sell. I wish Shakespeare & Co. (see the NYP link above) all the best, but whereas the concept sounds great on paper it may well be impossible to implement as more than an isolated and little-used oddity.

Why so? The bulk of it is simple copyright: Beyond public domain titles, the stores would have to have some sort of contractual agreement with publishers to print books, along with a usable print image. (These are generally but not always PDF files.) Publishers are reluctant for a number of reasons:

1. They don’t really know how to negotiate such a contract. How much should the publisher get? How much should the store get? How much would the authors get? Under what circumstances can the contract be terminated? With book publishing in the parlous state that it is, figuring this out would not be easy. Why? Once precedents of this sort are set, they become expectations and are hard to break. Publishers have no history here, and would basically have to guess. Bad guesses could be fatal over the long run.

2. Publishers want to protect conventional bookstores and chains. Publishers and big store chains have a fragile but necessary symbiotic relationship. Small booksellers with Espresso machines would nibble away at that relationship by making big-box bookstores even less necessary than they are today. If Barnes & Noble were to shut down, there would be publisher blood in the streets of Manhattan. Espresso machines in espresso shops would just hurry that apocalypse along.

3. This is probably the big one: If a book’s source file(s) escape a bookstore’s control, they’ll be all over the Internet, and anybody with a laser printer or access to a POD machine can create bootleg copies. This actually happened to me: The publisher print image file for my book Assembly Language Step By Step escaped its publisher’s control and was everywhere, just six weeks after the book was published in 2009. Bookstores are notoriously fluky operations, with lots of turnover and quirky people. One part-timer with a thumb drive in his pocket would be all it took. I’ve studied file piracy in detail over the past twenty years. This is a real fear.

4. Espresso machines are not cheap. They cost about $80,000 and up depending on speed and sophistication. Most firms rent them, with periodic maintenance included in the rental. I have no good numbers for that, but Espresso uses xerographic printers and I was a Xerox repair tech forty-odd years ago. Those machines are messy and touchy. Something gets a little out of line and the machine ceases to work. So it may not be an option for tiny storefront shops, especially if publishers aren’t on board.

5. Here’s the insight I bring to the issue: Near-term, espresso bookstores are likely to be opportunities for small, very small, and indie publishers. It would cost a bookstore very little to host a print image that might be ordered twice a year. PDF files for mostly textual works like SF novels are very compact. (Heavily illustrated books, of course, require larger files, but not that much larger.) Small/indie press would be far more likely to cut deals with the bookstores than Macmillan or Wiley. They have a lot less to lose, and a whole lot more to gain.

So where does all this leave us? Alas, I’m nowhere near as bullish on POD as I was even six or seven years ago. I attribute this to the promotion of smartphones to mini-tablets. I myself have a “phablet” (a Samsung Note 4) and I love it. I also do exponents more reading on it than I ever thought I would back when I bought it toward the end of 2015. (And this is true evenn though I have other readers with much larger screens.) Basically, almost everybody who partakes of modern life today has an ebook reader in their pocket, and some of them are actually called “ebook readers.” People have become used to reading genre fiction on small screens. It’s a tougher call for technical nonfiction containing figures, photos, or code. I have read technical books on my Lenovo Yoga convertible, and it’s…so-so.

Back in their heyday, the pulps were considered disposable books. You read them once, maybe kept them for a little while (the bathroom was possibly their final redoubt) and then threw them away. Fiction ebooks work like that: People read a novel once…and then, having done its job, it vanishes into the archives. It may never emerge from the archives again, but with terabyte drives in increasingly small devices, who cares? You’d have to read a lot of SFF to fill one of those.

POD will continue to make a certain amount of sense for science, tech, and history books, or any other genre that depends on fixed page-layout specifics. Reflowable tech books are just hideous. The big question is whether that sort of nonfiction is enough of a market to float a maintenance-hungry beast like an Espresso Book Machine in the basement of a bookstore. Given how long that question’s been hanging in the air, my guess is that the decision’s already been made.