Breaking into writing

I just tried to post this as a comment on Sarah Hoyt’s post about breaking into writing. Dunno if it went into moderation or just got eaten

Sarah, who I esteem very highly and is full of pungent and sensible advice on writing and other matters, left out two rules:

1. Write the book *before* you sell it.

2. The probability that your manuscript will be accepted varies directly with the size of the pre-existing fanbase the editor knows you have.

OK, this might just be me. But I’m a successful writer of nonfiction, with four solo books and two collaborations under my belt – all of which have done well. One of the four solo books cracked the NYT bestsellers’ list, and all but the very first of the solo books are still in print. So there’s reason to believe I’ve been doing something right.

1. Write the book *before* you sell it.

When editors don’t have to deal with the risk that you’ll blow a deadline or not deliver at all, they become amazingly compliant (well, for editors).

And it puts you in a power position come contract time. When we’re talking terms, I never have to speak the possibility that I might take the *completed* manuscript down the street to another publisher, but it’s there. Pulling me extra royalty points, and the ability to cross out any clause in the contract that claims rights other than “you get to print and sell this edition of this book” without fuss from the editor.

(In particular, *never* sign away the copyright. Nor “ancillary” rights like electronic publication. And if they tell you “standard practice”, your proper reply is “Fuck that noise!”)

2. The probability that your manuscript will be accepted varies directly with the size of the pre-existing fanbase the editor has reason to believe you have.

It is possible that the most powerful words a writer can say in today’s market is “Look at these site stats! My blog has X thousand readers”, for X high enough that at a 10% or so nibble rate the publisher can count on selling out a normal print run.

The most effective way of becoming a famous writer is to be famous for something else, first. Even if it’s just Internet fame – that can be enough.

UPDATE: It was in moderation. It has appeared now.

69 thoughts on “Breaking into writing

  1. Since you can now self publish on Amazon, why bother with the publishers at all?

  2. >Apparently you can still get a broader reach in the Walmart.

    Yes, I think this is true. How much longer it will continue to be true is an interesting question. Between print-on-demand and e-books, the conventional publishing and distribution chain is hurtling towards a disintermediation catastrophe.

  3. The story of Scott Sigler is an exemplar of these rules:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Sigler

    EarthCore was originally published in 2001 by iPublish, an AOL/Time Warner imprint. With the novel doing well as a promotional ebook, Time Warner was planning on publishing the novel. With the economic slump following September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Time Warner did away with the imprint in 2004. Scott then decided to start podcasting his novel in March, 2005 as the world’s first podcast-only novel to build hype and garner an audience for his work. Sigler considered it a “no brainer” to offer the book as a free audio download. Having searched for podcast novels and finding none, Sigler decided to be the first. Sigler was able to get EarthCore offered as a paid download on iTunes in 2006. After EarthCore’s success (EarthCore had over 10,000 subscribers[9]), Sigler released Ancestor, Infected, The Rookie, Nocturnal, and Contagious via podcast.

    After having collected a massive following for his podcasted audiobooks, he got his books published widely.

    You can listen to great interview about this history with Scott Sigler at TLLTS show 277 (December 10, 2008)
    http://tllts.org/rsspage.php

  4. For those thinking about “breaking into writing” via print-on-demand and self-publication, I suggest reading this:

    The Indy Author Game, a recent blogpost by Celia “Sgt. Mom” Hayes (20+ year Air Force veteran, now retired). Sgt. Mom is the author of several self-published books which have actually sold a fair number of copies – primarily historical fiction set in the founding years of Texas, where she now lives. (“Barsetshire with cypress trees and lots of sidearms.”)

  5. Some people bother with the publishers because finding your own editor, copy editor, cover artist, book designer, and publicist is a lot of work. For some, that’s work worth doing. For others, not so much.

  6. @esr:

    Between print-on-demand and e-books, the conventional publishing and distribution chain is hurtling towards a disintermediation catastrophe.

    Absolutely. Which probably explains why Amazon is focusing on providing cloud computing infrastructure to all comers. Because the end-game won’t give Amazon or Apple a 30% cut any more, either. If dwolla has their way, the credit card companies will be disintermediated too, and everybody will be able to conduct business with anybody else over the web for next to nothing.

    In theory, the credit card company provides a certain amount of insurance, but even that’s not really necessary when buying content — you don’t get a refund if you don’t like the book, and if, for some reason you just didn’t receive the download, any halfway smart company will be quite happy to resend it.

  7. Darrencardinal Says:
    > Since you can now self publish on Amazon, why bother with the publishers at all?

    Sorry, this is the great engineering fallacy — build it and they will come. One of the major functions of a publishing house is sales and marketing. These two functions still matter. That is why Bill O’Reilly sells way more books that Eric Raymond, despite their relative merits. It is also why Britney Spears sells way more music than vastly more talented and interesting garage bands. Sarah Hoyt alludes to this in the post Eric cited.

    People can and do search for what they want. But push often works better than pull.

  8. Patrick Maupin Says:
    > … is hurtling towards a disintermediation catastrophe.

    Something I was thinking about recently — if there ever was an industry primed for disintermediation it was the technical recruiting business. Tech recruiters for the most part match a list of skills from a resume to a job ad, and then set up a meeting. If successful they take a huge chunk for their efforts. Yet, from what I have seen, this business has been extremely resistant to disintermediation. Sure there are web sites with lots of listings, but most of those listings point back to traditional recruiters. I know some of the reasons why it works that way having dealt at both ends, however, given that a typical tech recruit costs the recruiting company north of $25,000 you’d think that there was a huge financial motive to get it right. But the fact is that recruiting firms are making money hand over fist.

    Again, the bottom line is that sales and marketing still really matters a lot.

  9. @Jessica Boxer:

    I think at least some recruiter disintermediation is already happening, and open source helps that greatly, by effectively putting more “resumes” online.

    From the point of view of the potential employer, the value of the recruiter is that the recruiter (1) finds people who aren’t necessarily looking, who are gainfully employed, but who can be persuaded to switch teams, and (2) helps in the persuasion.

    From the point of view of the potential employee, the value of the recruiter is either that (a) he wasn’t even looking and didn’t know the job was out there; or (b) he can send out his resume with relative confidence that his current employer won’t have a clue he was looking.

    From the point of view of both the employer and the employee, the recruiter is the third party you can have heated discussions with about how unreasonably negotiations are going. A good recruiter will deliberately direct all the acrimony towards himself, so that if he connects the company and employee, they can work together without bad memories.

    Of course, from the point of view of the potential employee, we all know the downsides of recruiters — some of them are way too pushy and communicative…

    But recruiter, like real estate agent, is one of those occupations where it is easy to measure performance on the metrics that are important to the recruiter/agent, but very difficult to measure performance on the metrics that are important to the actual customers.

  10. Bryant, the only problem is that more frequently the publishers are not finding the copy editor, or cover artist and are doing no public relations.

  11. Jessica, the thing is that publishing houses are increasingly doing no marketing and are expecting authors to it for themselves.

  12. @JessicaBoxer: But esr isn’t self-published. :) I don’t know what his publishers are doing to push his books, but I’ll bet since one of them cracked the NYT, it’s decidedly not nothing. OTOH, I know someone who is self-published and makes a decent living at it. He’s on G+, Twitter and Facebook if you’d like to talk to him. :)

  13. Morgan, I’m not entirely sure what your point is. However, if I was unclear, I am not saying that self published people can’t make a living, clearly there are some that can. And I am not saying that a publishing house can guarantee success, obviously the can’t and don’t. However, sales and marketing can certainly skew the odds greatly in the favor of those with a publishing contract.

    To use the example given above, I don’t know of any self published books stocking the shelf of Walmart. Self publishing guys don’t have the sales and marketing infrastructure to make that happen. I have never heard of a self published book promoted on a book tour. And I have never seen the author of a self published book on “The View” pimping her latest publication. Of course, I don’t watch The View, and I don’t book shop at Walmart, so perhaps I missed it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for reducing transaction costs, but some transaction costs are worth paying.

  14. @JessicaBoxer: It’s not entirely true that self-publishing guys don’t have the sales and marketing infrastructure. For example, if you look at the submission guidelines for WillowTree Press (Merv’s self-owned publishing house), while they are a small publishing house, they actually sell their books through normal wholesale channels, even those that are published via print on-demand.

    My point is that what you get out of self-publishing is proportionate to what you put into self-publishing.

  15. Maybe books do get better reach @ Wal Mart.

    Still, it’s hard to imaging The Art of Linux Programming on the shelves of Wal Mart. This is not the kind of book Wal Mart people would buy.

    And I have also heard that the publishers are really half assed at promotion; they barely do anything for the typical author.

    So I repeat: For someone like Eric, why not do an Ebook at Amazon?

    Eric can promote it himself, maybe doing a few appearances or showing up on certain podcasts. And, of course, this blog.

  16. Darrencardinal Says:
    > Still, it’s hard to imaging The Art of Linux Programming on the shelves of Wal Mart.

    No, but it would turn up on the shelves at B&N or in college bookstores around the country. I imagine that matters a lot, and I imagine it is very hard to get books in there without having built a sales network to make it happen.

    > This is not the kind of book Wal Mart people would buy.

    I’m a Walmart person, and I might buy it. I’m not really sure what “Wal Mart people” means. Isn’t that everybody? What’s not to love about Walmart?

    If you are interested, David Friedman, a very smart guy, has a series in his blog on the decline of the publishing industry. You can check it out here

    Eric did you ever meet David Friedman? You two seem like the sorts of guy that would get on like a house on fire.

  17. I’m a Walmart person, and I might buy it. I’m not really sure what “Wal Mart people” means. Isn’t that everybody? What’s not to love about Walmart?

    Oh, come on, Jessica. If you shop regularly at Walmart, then you know darned well that Walmart does not and will _never_ carry niche books like The Art of Unix Programing or even C++ For Dummies. Ok, to be fair, yes they carry the latter title on their website, but you won’t find it any of their stores. That I can guarantee. What Walmart carries is exacty the kind of stuff that _everyone_ would want to buy. Like books on gardening or Harry Potter or politics.

  18. Morgan Greywolf Says:
    > Oh, come on, Jessica.

    I was objecting to the derisive comment about “Walmart people” not the claim that Walmart doesn’t carry the book, which undoubtedly doesn’t have the volume to land on a shelf there.

    I love Walmart both as a store and as to what it represents. To me it is what America is all about. I hate that supercilious anti Walmart attitude some people have.

  19. >I hate that supercilious anti Walmart attitude some people have.

    Tell it, sister. I’ve seldom been in Walmarts myself and wouldn’t want that to change; wrong SES range for me, I’m at home rather further up-market. Nevertheless…scratch a Walmart-basher and you’ll find a snotty elitist, a person who hates capitalism and consumption and deep down thinks the Wrong People have Too Much Stuff. That person is my enemy.

  20. I like Walmart too, that is not what I meant. I shop there quite a bit and love the way it stretches those hard earned dollars.

    I meant that, as Morgan pointed out, Eric’s books are a niche that walmart probably would not carry, Walmart would carry books with a more mass appeal.

    And I was sort of referring to that internet meme, “People of Walmart.”

  21. I’ve written 7 books, all but one profitable, in that they made back their costs, plus.

    There is a change in the industry that everyone sees and isn’t sure where it is going. My sixth book, while it sold well in bookstores, continued to make royalties long after bookstore sales slowed because it was picked up by a digital subscription service as part of a business reference books package. The seventh book is largely sold as a downloadable ebook or Kindle.

    Publishers have traditionally been responsible for getting an author into bookstores – so bookstores don’t have to deal with each of the thousands of authors they stock, and the larger publicity venues, like NYT best seller lists. Authors have always been responsible for creating a presence that lets their target audience know about them, whether it is the speaking that Mark Victor Hansen and Jack Canfield have always done or the social media presence anyone can do today.

    But, the publishing business has been squeezed by bookstores that were slow to pay or casual in keeping track of sales, probably an early warning sign of the downslide of the entire business, just waiting for the disintermediation of print-on-demand.

  22. BTW — I’m no enemy of Walmart. I shop there regularly, mostly because, as Darrencardinal points out, it stretches those hard-earned dollars further.

  23. >Somehow, I doubt ESR would make a good novelist.

    You’re probably right. But what engendered this doubt?

  24. Your article about the political history of science fiction and the fact you’re stuck in the Golden Age and wish for everyone else to be too.

  25. >>>you’re stuck in the Golden Age and wish for everyone else to be too.<<<

    o_O

    Unpack this a bit? And link the article (blog post?) you're talking about? I'm genuinely curious.

  26. >Unpack this a bit? And link the article (blog post?) you’re talking about? I’m genuinely curious.

    He’s talking about A Political History of SF. He doubtless considers me to be “stuck in the Golden Age” because I judge classic Campbellian SF to be, as Dijkstra famously said of Algol, “not only an improvement on its predecessors, but also on nearly all its successors”. If that’s “stuck”, I cheerfully plead guilty.

    Whether this actually demonstrates that I’d make a lousy novelist is a different question. Apparently he thinks so. I don’t, and in fact I suspect that what he considers worthwhile modern literature I would find suitable only for wiping my ass. That’s usually how it goes in these conversations.

  27. Fantastic essay that I hadn’t seen before – if nothing else, in 15 minutes you’ve given me a book shopping list to last years (I don’t have much time for pleasure reading these days). :-)

  28. Post-Golden Age works that I consider worthwhile at their very list:
    John Crowley – Little, Big
    Jeff Vandermeer – City of Saints and Madmen
    Samuel Delany – Dhalgren
    K.J. Bishop – The Etched City
    Paul Park – The Starbridge Chronicles
    Paul J. McAuley – Confluence
    Michael G. Coney – The Celestial Steam Locomotive
    Catherynne M. Valente – In The Night Garden
    Roger Zelazny – Lord of Light
    Tad Williams – Otherland
    China Mieville – The Scar
    Brian Aldiss- Helliconia
    Walter Jon Williams – Metropolitan
    M. John Harrison – Light
    Robert Silverberg – Nightwings
    Christopher Priest – The Prestige
    Michael Swanwick – Stations of the Tide
    Joan D. Vinge – The Snow Queen
    Stanislaw Lem – The Cyberiad
    Dexter Palmer – The Dream of Perpetual Motion

    Campbell did more damage than good. And calling him a bit of an ass would be an understatement.

  29. >Post-Golden Age works that I consider worthwhile at their very list:

    I’ve read about 3/4ths and agree with you about some of these. Lord Of Light is overrated but sound; Stations of the Tide is positively brilliant. Confluence was pretty good. But other entries….Helliconia? Really? That was utter crap, lazily written and riddled with inconsistencies. The Starbridge Chronicles managed to be even less readable than Dhalgren which is some kind of exceptional but not a good one.

    In general, these books were good – when they were good – because they built on the Golden Age rather than rejecting it. Confluence and Nightwings are good examples of this; so is Metropolitan, which fits in the classic idiom of the Unknown Worlds technology-of-magic story and is excellent of that kind (disclaimer: Walter is a friend). Even Stations of the Tide, which is much more like lit-fic, has solid world-building in the Campbellian style art its core – and it wouldn’t even have been conceivable without Heinleinian indirect exposition as a key technique of the prose.

    >Campbell did more damage than good.

    Wow. That is some amazing ignorance talking. You really, really need to read a bunch of pre-Campbellian SF – and not just the few exceptional bits like the Skylark books that are relatively easy to find, but the general run of the stuff. At least get your hands on Asimov’s Before The Golden Age anthology, which was selected for quality – but be warned that even so it it take willpower to get through, because pre-Campbellian SF was mostly horrible to a degree that you will not credit before you immerse yourself in a good bit of it.

    Campbell raised the quality level of the field immensely. Go educate yourself; you’re talking nonsense.

  30. I hate to tell you this, but most of the Campbellian era was crap as well.

    And the ones in my list probably owe at least as much to Verne and Wells and Shelley and Huxley (and Peake, for that matter) as they do to Heinlein.

    Also, Campbell is indirectly responsible for Scientology.

  31. >>>Also, Campbell is indirectly responsible for Scientology.<<<

    A gross exaggeration bordering on falsehood. To hear Asimov tell it anyway, yes, Campbell published early Hubbard writings and spoke highly of them, but then, he was sort of his era's Scott Adams, deliberately pushing controversial ideas *because* they were controversial and he liked to, depending on how charitable one is feeling, stimulate discussion or watch the ensuing fights… Evidence that anything he did was a necessary, let alone sufficient, cause of the formation and rise of the actual Church of Scientology would be fascinating indeed.

  32. >I hate to tell you this, but most of the Campbellian era was crap as well.

    Sturgeon’s Law: 99% of everything is crud. But the medians differ. Only the top 5% of pre-Campbellian SF reached the quality level of even mediocre Campbellian SF. I’ve read metric tons of both, being a scholar of the field, and thus speak from hard-won experience.

    >And the ones in my list probably owe at least as much to Verne and Wells and Shelley and Huxley (and Peake, for that matter) as they do to Heinlein.

    Possible, though unlikely. But without Heinlein (and Rudyard Kipling before him) the idiom they speak plain wouldn’t exist. You, and they, take this for granted because the genre has so completely assimilated the lessons Heinlein taught. Which, on one level, is fine: that’s what progress means, being able to take what our ancestors achieved with sweat and struggle as a given. But your lack of perspective does make you unintentionally funny when you talk about Campbell.

  33. Did you seriously say the Time Machine is on the level of a lesser Heinlein novel?

    The golden age was little more than technology description with a thin veneer of story and characterization, those literary qualities you disdain.

  34. >Did you seriously say the Time Machine is on the level of a lesser Heinlein novel?

    Duh. Time Machine wasn’t just in the top 5% of pre-Campbellian SF, it was like in the top 0.001% :-)

    >The golden age was little more than technology description with a thin veneer of story and characterization, those literary qualities you disdain.

    You misspelled “the Golden Age was thankfully short on obsessive, masturbatory psychologization by authors under the sadly mistaken impression that their inner lives were interesting”.

  35. You misspelled “the Golden Age was thankfully short on obsessive, masturbatory psychologization by authors under the sadly mistaken impression that their inner lives were interesting”.

    What you consider the most irrelevant quality of literature is its most essential quality.

    If Hamlet were a Heinleinian hero, then when Claudius usurped the throne he would have been like “FUCK THAT” and killed him, taken the throne, started a group marriage with Ophelia, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, and turned Denmark into a bitchin place where there are no laws as such and no one can tell anyone what to do. It’d be a short, uninteresting play. Thirteen-year-olds would find it awesome. Grown-ups would find it puerile and forgettable.

  36. >What you consider the most irrelevant quality of literature is its most essential quality.

    Only in the minds of English professors and their groupies past about 1900. This belief is one of those toxic hangovers of early Modernism that we haven’t gotten shut of yet. Before “literature” turned into a sterile academic fiefdom it had much more varied metrics of quality – and was much healthier.

  37. I don’t think any metric of quality would have anything Golden Age at the top.

  38. Will, if you hadn’t gone to the trouble of providing that list of books you consider worthy non-”Golden Age” scifi, one could be forgiven for thinking you a troll, as you have provided no other concrete evidence or argumentation, only vague, deniability-optimized blanket statements. At least expressing my curiosity about your cryptic crankery got me a link to an interesting essay out of the deal.

  39. It’s not like his Political History of SF is any better.

    “I don’t like this because it’s not the Golden Age and it’s not a throwback to the Golden Age.”

  40. >I don’t think any metric of quality would have anything Golden Age at the top.

    You poor, sad, cramped creature. Stuck in your lit-fic prison. Well, it takes all kinds.

  41. Will,

    To be fair to Eric, he did give some reasons why he prefers the Golden Age era of SF. He’s constrained by his biases, viz., his absorption of the hasnamussian meme complex of libertarianism, but he did articulate why he has the preferences he has in his outlook. You, by contrast, have offered “The Golden Age sucks. Call me when you’ve read a real book.” Which isn’t terribly helpful and can be read as confrontational.

  42. >“I don’t like this because it’s not the Golden Age and it’s not a throwback to the Golden Age.”

    *snort*

    The best possible refutation of this silliness is a link.

  43. >He’s constrained by his biases, viz., his absorption of the hasnamussian meme complex of libertarianism,

    You have that backwards. I was a fan of classic SF many long years before I was a libertarian.

    If anything, the causality runs in the other direction. As I wrote about here.

  44. You have that backwards. I was a fan of classic SF many long years before I was a libertarian.

    But of course. What I’m saying is, that exposure set up filters and biases which shaped your preferences. Kinda like how for most people, all music sucks except what you grew up with in your teenage and early-adult years[0]. My dad, who grew up with early Elvis, Dion and the Belmonts, etc. can’t grok Hendrix let alone Led Zeppelin or Nirvana.

    If you haven’t already, see the movie Melancholia. I don’t think you will enjoy it. But, I imagine it is precisely what you believe lit-ficcers want SF to become. It’s basically a bunch of people angsting about their marriage and family problems, until a runaway planet hurtles into the Earth and destroys it, wiping humanity out of existence. The End. I’m on the fence about seeing it myself; the premise is too depressing and nihilistic even for me and Lars von Trier just sounds like a real angry guy who pickled the shark a long time ago and made a career out of using film as a medium to piss people off with. But the critics say it’s excellent…

  45. It reminds me of Majora’s Mask: The Movie.

    And that’s a good thing.

  46. It’s basically a bunch of people angsting about their marriage and family problems, until a runaway planet hurtles into the Earth and destroys it, wiping humanity out of existence. The End.

    I’ve seen it, or as much as I could bear to see of it and you basically got it. For me, it was insufferably dull, my mind kept searching for a meaning to the film and found none. Although the final scene was interesting, as Earth collided into Melancholia.

  47. >Nevertheless…scratch a Walmart-basher and you’ll find a snotty elitist, a person who hates capitalism and consumption and deep down thinks the Wrong People have Too Much Stuff.

    You know, I don’t think you need to be an anti-capitalist in order to disdain over-consumption and its enablers. I’m an anarcho-capitalist and I hate the fact that American capitalism works by producing predictably obsolescent products and focusing a lot of effort into persuasive marketing in order to get people to buy things that they don’t really need (often with money they don’t really have) as our lives (and landfills) get cluttered with unwanted, hardly used detritus.

    Not to mention how American holidays now seem to exist for the sole purpose of giving people an excuse to buy more stuff.

    But inevitably, plateauing populations and increasing environmental pressures will push capitalism more to the opposite direction.

  48. >You know, I don’t think you need to be an anti-capitalist in order to disdain over-consumption and its enablers.

    Gonna blog about this.

  49. >But the critics say [Melancholia is] excellent…

    Yes, that was entirely predictable from your description of it, and yes, it does sound exactly what the lit-fic crowd wants SF to become. They had a good hard try at it in the late 1960s and early 70s after they ruined the modern mainstream novel, but failed. Ever since, some of us have been patrolling the borders with metaphorical shotguns in case they come back.

  50. That’s the kind of opinion I expected from someone who’s stuck in the 50s.

    Also, is it just me, or is fantasy more forward-thinking and creative than science fiction these days?

  51. >Also, is it just me, or is fantasy more forward-thinking and creative than science fiction these days?

    It’s just you.

  52. I don’t know, compare The Scar or The Etched City or City of Saints and Madmen to any of the Baen-published pulp.

  53. >I don’t know, compare The Scar or The Etched City or City of Saints and Madmen to any of the Baen-published pulp.

    A lot of the Baen-published pulp is crappy military SF cranked out to make dollars; this is not news. If you aim to judge the Golden Age, you’d do better to examine the reprints – like, say, the recent omnibuses of Murray Leinster or James Schmitz. Or, since the tradition is not a mere museum exhibit, present-day exponents – Neil Stephenson’s Anathem, say, or whatever Greg Egan is writing this month.

    >I find lowbrow snobbery more offensive than intellectual snobbery.

    Of course you do, because your identity is tied into being part of the “intellectual elite”, or aspiring to it anyway. News flash: I’m part of that elite, by accomplishment rather than posturing, and I’m here to tell you that identifying with it the way you do is just another form of limiting bullshit tribalism.

  54. I wasn’t judging the golden age itself, I was judging its descendants. Everything Niven wrote in the last quarter-century. Stuff like that.

  55. >Everything Niven wrote in the last quarter-century.

    It’s true, Niven apparently forgot how to write around 1978. Shocked me at the time; he was one of my favorite authors back then. He’s made a bit of a recovery in the last couple years; the Draco Tavern stories aren’t half bad. But I think what happened to him perfectly illustrates the problem with your belief that the classic mode can be improved on by importing lit-fic concerns and stylistic devices.

    See, Niven apparently decided that writing well in the Campbellian mode wasn’t good enough for him; he made noises at the time about wanting to stop writing space opera and do quieter, character-centered stories. This was a really bad idea. By attempting that, he threw away what he – and the SF genre in general – was good at, for no actual return.

  56. Just because Niven (and everyone else Campbellian) is bad with characterization doesn’t mean SF should be devoid of it. I’d hardly call Niven’s work great before that; someone said Ringworld had an interesting concept but would have been better had Zelazny wrote it. I could never actually finish The Mote In God’s Eye.

    Nova and Confluence and Veniss Underground and Light had memorable characters and other such literary concerns and stylistic devices, and they were quite excellent.

  57. On the subject of disintermediation, one industry that has already had the props knocked out is that of music publishing – whereby I mean sheet music for common-practice orchestras. Today a composer can get much better range by self-publishing, although it does require an extroverted personality to ‘hawk’ the music around. For example one remark I saw on a composition forum: “The publishing industry is passe. Composer doesn’t have to publish scores of his works in traditional way to reach those who want to get it and there is not much money to earn from publication either.” Another poster adds “If you want to be published because you want to be performed, best to get to know performers and self-publish. With electronic media, the internet and so on, this is easy. In fact, without performances, no publisher is going to look at you.”
    On the other hand, the music sec. at my local orchestra is complaining about how hiring sheet music (of common-practice period music) for performances is becoming significantly more expensive (like, a factor of 2 or 3 over less than a decade). Obviously performance rights don’t carry over into the field of books, and works recent enough to need them do cost more (so if you’re on a tight budget, don’t play Gerschwin; play Schubert instead), but other than that, the picture this seems to paint of the future of book publishing is of the words costing less and the physical-book costing more. Fortunately, I’m happy to read from a screen, and I’m not a writer, so that change won’t harm me ;)

  58. >Nova and Confluence and Veniss Underground and Light had memorable characters and other such literary concerns and stylistic devices, and they were quite excellent.

    Two of them were, yes. The reason people like me patrol the borders with metaphorical shotguns, though, is that in our experience people urging SF writers to do the conventional-literary-values thing better always has this followup:

    “And now that you’re a real writer, you’re going to forget all that greasy kid stuff about worldbuilding and philosophical exploration and sense-of-wonder…right? Oh, and I’ve got this hip drug for you labeled ‘Angst, Pessimism, Alienation, and Cod-Marxism’. All the cool writers take it; here, mainline some in that vein there. Attaboy!”

    Now I’m going to admit something I rarely do in public: I read Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges for fun, so I do know what lit-fic is like when it’s done right. I’ve also been through the ouevre of John Irving and Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon and half a dozen other lesser lit-fic stars. I understand what they’re doing, and my contempt for almost all of it is not founded on ignorance but on knowledge. I have tried them and found them wanting. I don’t want that rancid, pseudo-profound shit in my genre!

    There are a very few writers who can work both the SF and lit-fic sides of the street and do it well; Michael Swanwick will serve as an example. But the usual result of attempted crossover is an ugly failure both as SF and as lit-fic, because most writers lack the skill to do even one of those idioms justice, let alone both. So the best outcome for everybody is for the lit-fic crowd to stay well away from SF, and vice-versa.

  59. Unfortunately, your anti-literary SF crusade has only led to things like later Niven and mil-SF.

    (which of the two?)

  60. >Unfortunately, your anti-literary SF crusade has only led to things like later Niven and mil-SF.

    Bollocks. Consider, as obvious recent examples, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Or Charles Stross’s Glasshouse. Or anything at all by Greg Egan.

    >You must have low standards.

    No. High ones – too high for most lit-fic to clear. And remember, I have read the stuff. Occasionally it shows glimmers of intelligence; I’d read more of it if that were more common.

  61. I’ve never read Anathem, but from what I’ve heard of it, calling it un-literary? That’s really quite absurd.

  62. Maybe it’s not so much that your standards are low or high but inherently broken.

  63. >I’ve never read Anathem, but from what I’ve heard of it, calling it un-literary? That’s really quite absurd.

    OK, then, if you think that’s absurd, you need to explain why your standard for “literary” is failed by – say – The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Or the Foundation trilogy. Or any other major work of Campbellian SF.

    I know what my standard is. “Literary”, as used in the 20th century and today, refers to a style of writing in which all else is subordinated to (1) the psychological exploration of the characters, and (2) a kind of language game in which points are scored for stylistic cleverness and coded references to previous “literary” works. I intend to contrast this with SF in which, when it’s done right, all else is subordinated to the achievement of “sense of wonder”, the feeling of suddenly understanding the universe in a new and larger way.

    By this standard, Anathem is not “literary”, and would be far less interesting if it had wasted its time there.

  64. Foundation did nothing for me. I found it very dry.

    The examples I’ve cited suggest that a sense of wonder is possible with style and psychological exploration of the characters.

  65. Will Says:

    > Foundation did nothing for me. I found it very dry.

    Could it be that the underlying device of Psychohistory, especially as described in the first volume, seems counter to your natural inclinations? Either because you have internalized the knowledge problem underlying most of the assumptions of planners? Or maybe the apparent paradox between individual free will Hari Seldon’s ability to predict the future?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>