Not Writing About Writing

Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners:

I have very little to say about short-story writing. It’s one thing to write short stories and another thing to talk about writing them, and I hope you realize that your asking me to talk about story-writing is just like asking a fish to lecture on swimming. The more stories I write, the more mysterious I find the process and the less I find myself capable of analyzing it. Before I started writing stories, I suppose I could have given you a pretty good lecture on the subject, but nothing produces silence like experience, and at this point I have very little to say about how stories are written.

Short News, Autumnal Pursuits Edition

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, 1858

Tracking the Horseman. “Irving is pretty specific about the route Ichabod Crane takes while fleeing from the Headless Horseman.” So noted Scouting New York’s Nick Carr upon rereading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, inspiring him to visit the Hudson Valley town and retrace one of the most famous chase scenes ever put to paper. His photo safari captured the landmarks of Crane’s flight while explaining their historical significance. Unfortunately it seems the site of Crane’s fateful terminus has been lost to time.

Speaking of Hollows. I recently learned a new word: holloway. Also called sunken lanes, holloways are tunnel-like paths so worn by centuries of traffic that they lay below the grade of the surrounding landscape.

Raising Jakarta. Indonesia announced a 30-year, $40-billion plan to save their sinking capital by creating a sea wall and 17 artificial islands. This story notes that rising sea levels aren’t the main source of Jakarta’s flooding problems; instead, “the city has pumped its water out of deep underground wells for years — leaving empty chasms that are now sinking.” This is somewhat reminiscent of New Orlean’s problem, where the organic material in the wetland, preserved in anaerobic conditions, is exposed to air by drainage and construction, leading to decay. The soil, having lost mass, then packs down and the buildings sink.

Pumpkin Spice My Ears. AC/DC, Brian Ferry, and Foo Fighters all have new albums coming out.

This Week in Amazon

To counter Preston et al., Amazon posted an open letter to the world rehashing many of the points made in its July 29 posting. It also suggests e-books fill the ecological niche abandoned by the extinct mass-market paperback, an observation I’ve long shared. Still, I have to confess they should’ve quit before the final grafs wherein they beg readers to hassle Hachette on their behalf, complete with bulleted talking points. It strikes me as grasping and gross. Just because I’m rooting for Godzilla versus King Ghidorah doesn’t mean I’m going to pick up a kitchen knife and stab a kaiju in the toe. You’re so big and tough, use your radioactive breath or something. Jeez.

One worthwhile criticism I’ve read of Amazon is the question of whether monolithically pricing e-book editions of traditionally published books at $9.99 will hurt independent publishers, who (allegedly) price their e-books lower than the big houses as an advantage. I would imagine indy publishers are not competing on price alone; and yet, what if they are? The History Press prices their e-books (which I believe are now published concurrently with the print editions without any staggering) at $9.99 and holds firm at that price without discounts, a strategy I approve of. But if $9.99 becomes the norm, will sales drop? Which would perhaps lead to discounting to regain the advantage? I would be interested in hearing opinions on the matter, yea or nay.

And oh — this week Chaosium started offering a few of their latest fiction releases as epubs, mobis, and prcs. Onward and upward.

Publishers Have Pea Brains

Brontosaurus by Charles R. Knight, 1897

After months of wondering whether the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute was over the pricing of e-books, Amazon has finally revealed that the fulcrum of the argument is indeed the pricing of e-books:

A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book.

Even without knowing the exact details I’ve been on Amazon’s side since the beginning based simply on my belief that most publishers are idiotic criminals. No, I’m not just referring to the DoJ’s suit against Hachette and others for conspiring to fix e-book prices — by “criminal,” I mean many publishers are too stupid and lazy to earn their money sensibly, so like purse-snatchers they must resort to stealing it.

How else to explain the atavistic business model of publishing heavy, antiquated hardbacks for $30, then a year later a less-expensive paperback edition? Or delaying an e-book version until well after the print copies have laid on the bookstore tables? Or not offering e-books at all, even though sales of print books are estimated to be down 8 percent since 2008, the year after Kindle was introduced?

Consider these three personal anecdotes:

  • Earlier this month, it was announced that Arcadia Publishing would be acquiring The History Press, publisher of Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer. All well and good. Yet buried in the Publisher’s Weekly article was this fact: although Arcadia has a catalog of 9,000 titles, only “about 4,000” of them are offered as e-books. The CEO explained, “Since Arcadia’s titles are heavily illustrated, it has been cautious in moving them into digital format.” Except the postcards and photos included in most Arcadia titles are already black-and-white, which means they would translate well to Kindle’s E Ink or a Nook, let alone a tablet. I can understand how the nature of Arcadia’s books might slow down the conversion process — but less than half their catalog? The article also notes, “nearly all of History Press’ titles are already sold as e-books.” Methinks Arcadia, raising their serpentine necks from the mire with mouths full of water weed, saw the comet tail in the heavens and sought to stave off extinction by very quickly diversifying their backlist.
  • While standing at the school-bus stop one day, my neighbor who works for a well-known publisher in New York mentioned his efforts to digitize some of the processes at the company. I asked, Is this part of a green initiative to use less paper? He said it was an attempt to use less paper period. He then went on to tell me that no part of the process for publishing a book at his company was digital, save for the copyediting — and that, he said, was a recent development. The author submitted a hardcopy manuscript, edits and additions were made in hardcopy, and eventually the whole thing was shipped off in a big box to the printer in Quebec who, as my neighbor said, “somehow makes sense of it.” I was gobsmacked; the process for Smedley was entirely digital. But then again, small companies like The History Press don’t have cash to waste like the big houses do. So authors: when the publisher tells you it can only spare an eight-percent royalty, now you know the other ninety-two percent goes to Dunder Mifflin.
  • Chaosium mainly designs role-playing games but they also publish a line of Lovecraftian fiction. I’ve been interested in checking out a few titles, if only to read (and support) my old pen-pal Jeffrey Thomas, whose work appears in some of their releases. Yet Chaosium doesn’t offer e-book editions of their fiction. At all. In the year 2014. Because plugging the completed manuscript into, say, Jutoh and spitting out a .mobi or .azw is just too tough. This week I wrote the company asking if they had any plans to offer e-books. I haven’t received a response.

Meantime, Amazon has had to teach the concept of price elasticity to Hachette, a giant multinational company:

It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

What dark sorcery is this? Is this so-called “price elasticity” some new, overwrought theorem clawing its way out of the black pits of the Chicago school of economics? No, wait — price elasticity in regard to e-books has been bandied about since at least January 2010, at a time when self-publishers, wondering how to price their e-books and unencumbered by the publishing industry’s arch-conservatism, had a crash course in the subject and determined pricing lower was better.

Publishers like Hachette, by pricing e-books at $14.99 or $19.99, want them to be comparable to their paperback editions, which by their nature they cannot be and which the public, realizing this, rejects. And yet the dinosaurs insist because they perceive e-book editions as competitors against the print editions of the same title. They think the cheapest edition will cannibalize sales of other editions. While that’s definitely true of hardbacks, in my experience sales of paperback vs. e-book come down to preference. People like one or the other but both can live alongside. A frustration with Smedley was the nine-month delay between publication of the print and e-book versions; while promoting the book in 2011, I had many would-be customers ask me if it was available as an e-book. Alas, at the time it was not. Those were lost sales. But the publishers in their skyscrapers never see this, so they stagger the release of editions and try to hike the prices of e-books.

Unable to adapt either processes or economics, publishers — the large ones, anyway — instead resort to gouging readers, shafting writers with low royalties, and colluding to form trusts. Rather than hate the orange smile, I see Amazon as the asteroid that is cleansing the Earth of predatory gargantua, allowing the rest of us small, shrew-like mammals to rise.

Update: I added a link to a New Yorker article to illustrate a point above about cannibalizing sales, but the story criticizes Amazon on several other issues worth noting:

For one thing, he said, Amazon doesn’t actually get to decide what share of revenue publishers pay authors, a fact that the company is aware of. Its call for a thirty-five-per-cent share sounds nice, [literary agent Brian] DeFiore said, but it means little.

So how is that Amazon’s fault? That’s an indictment of Hachette, not Amazon.

DeFiore also pointed out that Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially.

Yes, usually authors do receive a higher royalty on hardbacks. (A conspiracy theory of mine: publishers offer higher royalties on hardbacks than on the paperback rights because they know damn well about price elasticity, and realize they stand to sell greater volume of paperbacks and hence make more money on them.) But, over time, how many $30 hardbacks do you think an author will sell compared to its $9.99 e-book counterpart? The conclusion in the above graf does not follow from its preceding sentences.

If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.

I admit this is a legitimate concern. If we only read e-books and Amazon is the solitary stall in the marketplace, that would be bad. But again: whose fault is that? The reason we’ve arrived at this destination is because Amazon moved faster and more nimbly than legacy publishers; it’s the Year of Our Lord 2014, and publishers can’t decide on a strategy for e-books or, like Chaosium, whether they should even offer them at all. As a writer of alternate histories, I can imagine a world where publishers established their own online market site to sell their products, bypassing Amazon altogether.

In the end, what confuzzles me most is why so many authors loathe Amazon for theft and bullying that has yet to occur while meanwhile defending publishers like Hachette, who are stealing from and bullying them right this minute.

Haiku Out of the Blue

Frost first thing.

My friend and Ithaca College writing professor Cory Brown wrote to me about a new project of his, wicked haiku: a devil’s dictionary, wherein he posts cynical verse daily. Some of my favorites:

credit

the gift from two holes
the ass who lent it to you
and the one you’re in

self

the little cabin
in the woods you built before
it all fell apart

depression

a sometimes lethal
virus that you wish happy
people would contract

Every one of them is a sharp little piece of glass; Cory tells me he has over 700 more waiting to be scattered across the city sidewalk. And if it turns out you like poetry but didn’t even know it-tree, Cory also has a book you might enjoy.

The Gao of Bill

Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell.Never heard of Bill Ward? It’s your loss, though understandable. Despite having appeared in such pubs as Howard Andrew Jones’s Flashing Swords, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Kaleidotrope, and enough anthologies to burst an equort’s saddlebags, Ward remains shamefully underrated and unknown in the genre community.

Part of the handicap lies in the fact that as a short-story writer much of his work has appeared on paper rather than Paperwhite, which in modern times cockblocks discovery. Recently though, Bill collected and re-published his fiction as five e-books, each affordably priced at $3.99. Such value!

Interestingly my short story backlist sort of naturally fell into 30k-ish sized chunks of themed stories. There are two collections that are mostly heroic fantasy, sword & sorcery, or dark fantasy, those being ‘The Last of His Kind and Other Stories’ and ‘Mightier Than the Sword and Other Stories.’ ‘Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell and Other Stories’ collects mostly ‘mythic’ type pieces, stories that are written in a style more akin to fables or legends. I also had enough for two science fiction collections, divided roughly into ‘naughty’ and ‘nice.’ On the naughty side we have ‘Named in Blood and Other Stories’ which is darker, grimmer stuff; ’20,000 Light Years to Lilliput and Other Stories’ is a funnier collection, less serious, and a bit more all over the place genre-wise.

Having previously purchased a copy of Heartless Gao (which at that point only contained the titular story), Bill sent me a copy of the expanded Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell and Other Stories. Included are nine fantasies set in days of yore. Lust for wealth and the daughters of oracles drowns whole Hyperborean landscapes in “The Wroeth’s Grinding Bowl” and “The Old Man and the Mountain of Fire,” while Irish legends echo in “The Midnight Maiden” and “When They Come to Murder Me.” The Aesopic “How Antkind Lost Its Soul” satirizes corporate cubicle-copia; likewise, the repentant soldier-turned-monk Heartless Gao takes on the bureaucracy of a Chinese afterlife in the very clever and very worthwhile namesake tale. My favorites are the collection’s two bookends, “Gandolo of the Watchful Eye” and “Crow: A Triptych,” the first a rich sardonicism combining the best of Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, the other an arc reaching from classical Greece to post-apocalypticism.

I wish Bill would write more, especially in the “Gandolo” style. His dry humor is rare among fantasists (you can hear the laugh track when most writers combine labyrinths and levity) and his stories are almost always whole narratives — you know, those things with beginnings and middles and conclusions — rather than the pretty scenes strung together in literary ostentation seen so commonly in the pro markets. Please consider this humble recommendation when spending your Christmas Kindle gift cards.