The rise of the artisan author

The community of SF writers has reason to dislike digital copying, or “piracy” as it’s commonly labelled in the tabloid press. Genre writers exist, by and large, in the publishing mid-list, where mediocre sales might seem most easily eroded by the spectre of illegitimate downloads. SF, fantasy and horror are also the literature of choice for the culture of geeks most likely to share their favourite authors’ works on torrent sites. Not surprising, then, that many professional genre writers and editors respond to the growing reality of copying with the absolutist position that piracy is theft, and should be punished as such under the law.

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Closed to Print Editions

I am closed to print editions of books to review for the time being. Read on for more information why.

At some point after I started writing for the Guardian books blog, people started sending me books. When I started writing my own column, more people started sending me books. A couple of years on, it’s fair to say I get sent a lot of books.

I’ve always loved being sent books. As a young urchin, I was both properly poor and from the kind of chaotic family background that meant library memberships never lasted long, and may the the Big Guy forgive me, I stole books if I wanted to read them. Lots of books. (I’ll tell you the full story some other time). So having books turn up in the post, for free, has always made me giddily excited.

However, I’ve recently moved to a new abode, and I want to decrease the amount of post arriving at my door. So, if you ever happen to send me books and happen to be reading this then please take it as a polite notice that I probably won’t be receiving them. If you have a specific arrangement to send me books for review, then that will continue, but please make sure you have my new address. Apologies that I can’t notify all publishers directly

I’m happy to accept e-arcs, and much more likely to read them.

Selling Out is about trust not money

Imagine you are a doctor. The population you treat are sick. You have two medicines. One tastes bad and has some horrendous side effects but will over time make your patients better. The other tastes like honey and gets you high as a kite but has no real medical value, unless you count dying with a smile on your face. Oh, also the first one is very expensive, whereas the second is cheap and hence profitable.

Can we all agree that if you choose to sell your patients the second medicine, you are a shit doctor?

Good.

Your response to the idea of an artist Selling Out – recently under discussion here at io9 and here at John Scalzi’s Whatever – is likely to relate to whether you believe artists have any responsibility comparable to that of a doctor. For many people, and many artists, what the artist does is entertain. If it makes you weep or giggle or just occupies some spare time then the artist’s duty, as such, is fulfilled. The rest is accountancy.

In his book The Examined Life, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz tells how twenty years professional practice and 50,000 hours face-to-face with patients have shown him how human beings use stories to deal with pain.   By placing pain and suffering in to the context of a story we give them meaning. And through that meaning we turn suffering in to experience, and fuel for growth.

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Grosz’ is just one of hundreds of insights of how art is important to life. I spent a decade of my early career using books and reading to help people develop and grow, so I’ve been lucky enough to observe it in many people and in many settings. Books aren’t just an idle distraction or entertainment. They help us process life, deal with trauma, develop empathy, and overall to grow as healthy human beings through all stages of our life. Stories of all kinds do this, and art of all kinds, each in its own unique way.

Good stories. And good art. This is what people mean when they apply the word ‘good’ to art. Art that has purpose in our lives as part of our growth and development. Like a good doctor sells good medicine, a good artist sells good art.

Bad art is like the bad medicine above. It usually tastes good. More often than not that’s because it appeals to some basic human drives like status, violence or sex. And it gets you high. It’s a thrill. A buzz. A spectacle. Good art is sometimes these things as well. It’s using them to lure you in for the medicine. Bad art is only doing it to capture your attention. Some common examples of bad art? Most advertising. Most pornography.  A lot of Hollywood movies. A lot of TV. A lot of commercial fiction. Most everything created as part of a franchise. That’s not to say these things are morally bad (some are, some aren’t) they’re just bad art.

Like doctors, artists occupy a position of earned trust. Most of us don’t know enough to know if our doctor is selling us good or bad medicine. And most of us don’t know enough to tell good art from bad art. So we rely on artists who have earned our trust. I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman since I was fourteen. Like millions of other people, I’ve found a kind of medicine in Mr Gaiman’s art. Not in all of it. Some works for me, some does not. But I have trust that, under absolutely no circumstances, would Neil Gaiman sell me bad medicine. It doesn’t matter how much money Neil makes from his work, he hasn’t sold out as long as that trust is unbroken.

Selling Out isn’t about selling your work, it’s about selling the trust that fans have placed in you. Popstar Lana Del Rey is a nice example of an artist Selling Out. Her first two singles seemed like an indie artist with talent and some kind of insight. But they were a lure, manufactured by a very smart marketing team for an artist with a nice voice but nothing to say. They built trust, on the back of which much money was made. Bad medicine.

The real question for artists today, I think, isn’t whether you will Sell Out, but whether you will build trust at all. It takes years to learn to make good art, and it’s harder work. There’s a ready market hungry for bad art, who don’t really care whether they trust you or not. Most artists today come pre-Sold Out. Will you be one of those, or something better?

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Writing and the attention economy

As a writer you are asking for the most valuable commodity your readers have. Time. Each of us gets a finite portion. No sum of money can buy us any more. And the demands on it are ever greater.

The novel evolved at a period in history when the constituency of its readers had much more time to waste. Karl Marx would dub them the ‘bourgeoisie’, the section of society who owned the means of production, so profited vastly from industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The middle and upper classes had time on their hands and little to do with it. The novel became one of the most popular ways of being idle.

“many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited”

The bourgeoisie no longer exists in quite the same way, and it and the proletariat both have innumerable ways of occupying whatever free time is left from work. Yes, there are dozens of forms of entertainment. Films, music, games, sports. But there are also more and more ways for people to invest their time in improving themselves. Is your book really going to compete with the vast range of information available to me for free on Wikipedia? Or the infinite social networks accessible through Facebook and Twitter?

Information of all kinds is becoming a post-scarce resource. While the time it takes to absorb information becomes scarcer and scarcer. And yet many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited. Writing two novels, four novellas and ten short stories a year is great productivity. But completely counter-productive in an attention economy. Because if I read one story by you and it’s any less than excellent, I’m very unlikely to read another. Your first novel is very important to you, but as a commodity in the attention economy its almost certainly worth less than the value of my time to read it. Which is why the vast majority of material written and published every day on the internet disappears without a trace.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As a writer working in the attention economy you should take Pascal’s remark as the first rule of your professional life. Take the time to write a short letter to the world. Churning out fiction can give you the comforting illusion of progress. No doubt you’ll find one market or other to publish it. But think about the writing you really love and value enough to come back to again and again. How long do the best authors take to create their work? Why should you aim to be anything less than the best?

Damo’s Sci-Fi prophecies for 2013

2012 has been a year of transition for science fiction and fantasy literature. SF’s reputation as home of the Bearded White Male hides a more interesting story. SF is the literature of geeks, and today, geeks run the world. Geek culture isn’t infiltrating the mainstream: it is the mainstream. And geeks come in all ages, genders and backgrounds. This year, the Hugo and Nebula award shortlists demonstrated SF’s growing diversity, even as the decision of the editorial team at Weird Tales magazine to publish racist screed Save the Pearls demonstrated many of its ongoing challenges.

Even in the age of the ebook, word-of-mouth is still what makes a breakout hit, and many of the books to watch in 2013 have been building excitement through 2012. Madeline Ashby’s vN: The First Machine Dynasty is the outstanding hard-SF novel of the year and deserves to feature in many award ballots in 2013. Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce has brought the veteran English novelist and World Fantasy award winner to the attention of a growing audience, as have film adaptations in the pipeline for this and his previous novel, The Silent Land. And G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen stands out as among the most original and challenging books of 2012, and my personal pick for at least one major award in 2013.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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