The choice is to self-publish or submit to an agent

Hugh Howey makes another insightful set of comments on the state of self -publishing. If there is a self-publishing revolution, Howey is it’s Napoleon. Will end up being made mad by the wall paper on a small mediterranean island? Let us hope not. Centrally, Howey tackles the false equivalence made when critics of self publishing snort that most self-published books do not sell many copies.


One reminder that I’ve blogged about at length is that most books don’t sell very many copies. And that’s okay. It’s not a self-publishing thing; it’s a publishing thing. 98% of manuscripts submitted to agents never get published at all. They don’t sell a single copy. Nobody mentions this when they deride self-publishing as an option. The false premise seems to be that you can choose to self-publish, or you can choose to have your book on an endcap in every bookstore while you are sent on a 12-city tour by your publisher. That’s not the choice. The choice is to self-publish or submit to an agent. This is the choice.

If you self-publish, you can immediately move on to writing the next work. You don’t have to look back at all if you don’t want. You have the rest of your life to promote that work, if you decide to promote it at all. If you are one of the 1% to secure an agent, the earliest you might see that work in a bookstore is a year. More likely, it’ll be three to five years. And you’ll be asked to rewrite that work, not based on any artistic vision, but based on what’s currently selling, what publishers are currently looking for.

via The State of Self-Publishing | Hugh Howey.


What Howey is pointing to here is really a marketing issue as much as a creative one. Remember way back in the mists of yesterday when I told you that books were about as naturally marketable on the internet as an M1 Abrahams tank is a practical commuter vehicle? Well, that marketing problem is only made worse by waiting two years to find an agent, then two years for your actual book to get published. In that time your equivalently talented self-published comrade has written and published four books which they are happily selling in varying numbers as they build a following. See the problem? Traditional publishing has become a waiting game, and in a digital  world of microsecond attention spans, that is tantamount to suicide.

The problem with books

The problem with books is they are an extremely bad strategy.

Imagine you wanted to introduce yourself to a group of people. It could be a new social group or a new workplace. It could be a a new town. Even, if you’re a particularly ambitious and entrepreneurial sort of person, a whole new city. Whatever the scale, you face the same essential challenge. How do you go from being unknown to these people, to being well known?

Consider these two options :

1) You go out to social events and chat with people. You invite people to your events, maybe throw a few parties. You listen to what people have to say, and you share you’re own thoughts in exchange. At some point you put on a real grand shindig, with a free bar and top class entertainment. Hurrah! You’re the toast of the town. You pen a memoir and it sells like hotcakes.

2) You sit at home every evening on your own. Instead of sharing your ideas with people you write them down in a series of ever more intensely scribbly in notebooks. Eventually you take the notebooks, at this point resembling the deranged meanderings of a serial killer, have 10,000 copies printed up, and leave them in a pile in a shop somewhere. Uhm…where they are completely ignored and then pulped.

OK. So I’ve painted a less than flattering portrait of the aspiring novelist. But fundamentally the writers task is very much like that of meeting any new group of people. You write stuff, and out there in the world are people who read stuff. Unless you can somehow connect the two, you’re life as a writer is going to be deeply frustrating.

A book is a tremendous investment of time. Which in turn means tremendous resources, money, energy…or put bluntly, life. Imagine what you could do in the time you’re writing that book! In that time you could, I’m fairly certain, found a Fortune 500 company, sell it, and retire to your own island to be served by an army of slaves engineered from the genes of your defeated enemies.

Anyone who writes professionally online knows that long, ambiguously titled bits of text disappear without a trace in the viral marketing shit-storm that is the internet. Sadly, a “long, ambiguously titled bit of text” is basically the definition of most books. The book, as a marketable artefact, is about as profoundly unsuited to the internet as a tribe of hill dwelling indigenous peoples are unsuited to the radioactive vacuums of deep-space.

But whoah there Damo! Books still sell on the internet you know. To which I say yesbut. Look at the how and the why of books that sell well on the internet. Take a look, for instance, at the the Hugo best novel shortlists of recent years. How many of the shortlisted authors have a platform to reach readers *other* than their novels? The answer is almost all of them. At least 2/3 thirds are successful bloggers and that includes, notably, almost all of the writers to emerge in the last decade.

Does that mean that their books suck? No, quite the opposite. It means their books perfectly suit the established audience that enjoys their blog. Take a little time perusing the non-fiction book world and you’ll find that a strong online presence is pretty much essential for any writer in that field. A best selling non-fiction book is now, with very few exceptions, the culmination of a much longer audience building process effected through YouTube videos, blogs and social media.

IE, option 1 from the two discussed above.

Am I suggesting that you have to be a successful blogger to successfully sell books? No. But I am suggesting that books as we currently think of them are a very bad way of introducing a new writer to readers. Books are already adapting. Savvy self-publishers are using shorter forms to “pilot” work and then building on those which grab reader attention, Hugh Howey’s Dust being the most successful example of this to date.

As fiction writers we are storytellers. But stories have always adapted as the ways of telling them have changed. I don’t believe the novel has found the format that will carry it in to the 21st century yet. But I think the search is on. And the writers who crack it will be well rewarded by readers.

To be or not to be…pro-Amazon?

David Gaughran is proving himself to be one of the most intelligent independent commentators in contemporary publishing. In a razor sharp post on media bias in the coverage of Amazon, he dissects the overwhelmingly anti-Amazon stance reflected in the media. It’ s a post worth reading in full, including a very valuable summary of why a neutral standpoint on the big A is entirely credible.


For the record, I’m neither pro-Amazon or anti-Amazon. I have a reasonably positive disposition towards them as a customer and as a supplier because its actions have tended to be pro-reader e.g. reducing prices and pro-author e.g. paying 70%, creating a more level playing field than other retailers.But I also know that Amazon is a business and a very large corporation and will ultimately only look out for itself – like all corporations do, which is their fiduciary duty to their shareholders. I have had no problem criticizing Amazon in the past when I felt it deserved it e.g. the dumb, regressive Whispernet Surcharge or the worrying precedent of non-fixed payments in KDP Select.So I don’t blindly “trust” Amazon whatever that means. I adopt the appropriate level of skepticism to all companies in the fetid swamp that is publishing and, increasingly, to news reports on the business too.

via Media Bias and Amazon | David Gaughran.


Much if not all of the negativity towards Amazon is rooted in emotion. Bottom line, many people in publishing have or are about to lose their jobs because of Amazon. That’s exactly the kind of fearful, pressured situation that leads people to respond on the basis of uncontrolled emotion.

But Amazon isn’t destroying the world, or even publishing. In actual fact, it has put in to place an entire, much more efficient publishing infrastructure that publishers *should* have put in place themselves a decade ago. And now amazon is reaping the rewards. And, as the self-publishing revolution continues, so in fact are authors.

Change sometimes looks like destruction. The trick is nt to react from emotion, and to see what is being created in place of the things that have been destroyed.

France bails out its publishing monopoly

And thinking a little more about anti-Amazon bias in reporting. Here Melville House comments on the new French “anti-Amazon” law.


The new law forbids the combination of free shipping and a 5% discount on online book sales, meaning that sites like Amazon cannot offer consumers free delivery as a way to undercut independent bookshops, and it drastically curtails the kind of discount packages Amazon can attempt. French Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti a.k.a queen of our hearts and minds has been fighting for these changes ever since she called Amazon the “destroyer of bookshops” and announced a €9m plan to support independent bookshops.

This new law is seen as a much-needed update to the 1981 Lang law which established a “single book price” to prohibit deep discounting of books. Colette Mélot a senator member of the UMP, the party which has been pushing for the law, said:

via France passes Anti-Amazon Law » MobyLives.


What hasn’t been said here? Oh yes, that these laws keep book prices high. And legislate against the competition trying to lower the prices. Outcome? Books remain outside the financial reach of many people in France. For a socialist government this is a remarkably elitist act. And of course the industry as a whole remains largely accessible only to the upper-middle classes. No Kindle self-publishing revolution for the French. Or likely a slower one. Legislation only does so much to stop progress.

Next time you ask for the UK government to act against Amazon, ask also what it is you’re asking for. The preservation of an industry? Or the perpetuation of a professional monopoly?

Women Are Destroying Science Fiction! (That’s OK; They Created It)

What what makes, one may also destroy. Women writers, having created science fiction in works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, are now destroying it. NPR books picks up this idea today. Of course, science fiction isn’t being destroyed. It’s changing, and the new space being claimed by diverse voices in the genre is the energy changing it.

Warning: you don’t want to read the comments!


If your notion of SF is confined to the vision brought forth by the likes of Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Sturgeon and Clarke all fine writers, mind, then the stories within these pages may well seem like destruction. As will such alarming developments as women sweeping the fiction categories of the Nebula Awards. And the way that speakers at feminist SF conventions characterize science fiction as an “exploration of the future and myth and history” and call for more stories that include “the voices, experiences, subjectivities and realities of many.”

So are women destroying science fiction? Yes. Women created it, so its only fair. Most would cite Frankenstein author Mary Shelley here, but others point out that Margaret Cavendish preceded her. In destroying it, women are creating a larger space for themselves within science fiction; one filled with their voices, dreams, experiences and realities.

via Review: Women Destroy Science Fiction! : NPR.

‘Weird things customers say in bookshops’ by Jen Campbell

I really want to read this book now.

Reading The Universe

Weird things customers say in bookstores

Hello Everyone! It’s certainly been a while, and frankly there are no excuses. I do get the emails reminding me to post each week (which I set up myself!), but whenever I think ‘Oh thats what I need to do tonight’, it slips my mind again. Bad bad bad.

Now, I’ve been back to work a while now since coming home from Australia, and have found a lot of funny and cute books that I just really need to share with everyone.

This beauty here is called ‘Weird things customers say in bookshops’ by Jen Campbell. This was staring at me from the recently returned shelves at work and I couldn’t just let it sit there without having a flick through it first. And…wow.

Though I don’t work in a bookshop, this still completely applies to me at the Library. The things people come up with can either have you…

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Marion Zimmer Bradley : can we separate the artist from the art?

It’s a truism that the writer you read on the page is not the writer you meet in the flesh. It’s for exactly this reason that meeting our cultural heroes is so often a profound disappointment. The transcendent singer on the stage is a bawdy lech in the bar. The poet who expresses beauty in words is a drunken misanthrope in person. So we commonly separate the artist from the human being, the icon from the reality. But when the actions of our cultural heroes go beyond bad behaviour, into to moral outrage, illegality and immorality, that separation becomes far harder. And in some cases, impossible.

The accusations of child abuse levelled at science fiction author Marion Zimmer Bradley, who died in 1999 age 69, are of the most serious kind. Published last week on the blog of Deirdre Saoirse Moen, these accusations come from Bradley’s own daughter, Moira Greyland. They include accounts of physical and sexual abuse, and were later joined by a brutally affecting poem written by Greyland in “honour” of Bradley, Mother’s Hands. Bradley’s reputation when alive had already been considerably damaged by the conviction of her husband on charges of child molestation in 1990.

Read more @ Guardian books

“I thought that my mothers fans would be angry with me”

It’s really impossible for any of us who haven’t experienced it to really comprehend abuse from a parent. But that experience becomes even more complicated when the abuser is famous. The Guardian today reports the abuse allegations against Marion Zimmer Bradley by her daughter Moira Greyland. In doing so it spoke directly to Greyland. This line in particular hit my emotions very hard, “I thought that my mothers fans would be angry with me”. The relationship between writers and fans has never felt more complex. Moira Greyland’s words in full are below.


Greyland, writing to the Guardian via email, said that she had not spoken out before “because I thought that my mothers fans would be angry with me for saying anything against someone who had championed womens rights and made so many of them feel differently about themselves and their lives.  I didnt want to hurt anyone she had helped, so I just kept my mouth shut”.

Greyland, a harpist, singer and opera director, said it was now clear to her that “one reason I never said anything is that I regarded her life as being more important than mine: her fame more important, and assuredly the comfort of her fans as more important.  Those who knew me, knew the truth about her, but beyond that, it did not matter what she had done to me, as long as her work and her reputation continued.”

She hailed the “outpouring of love and support” which has followed her revelations. “What has happened in the past 20 years, apparently, is that rape, child abuse and incest have been enough in the public eye for them to be accepted, and victims and survivors to routinely be believed now, and there are so many survivors among my mothers fans, as well as supporters of survivors and decent people who care about the truth that my mother is now being held to the very standards she wrote about,” her email continued.  

“I am so glad I spoke out, because on the blog, so many people have shared their OWN stories of abuse and incest and heartbreak.  I am going to keep talking about it, if only so that those people who need to share their own stories will do so now.”

via SFF community reeling after Marion Zimmer Bradleys daughter accuses her of abuse | Books | The Guardian.

Why writing workshops fail, and why you need one

Imagine a group of mechanics, faces grimed with sweat and dirt, hands grazed by friction burns, overalls grubby with grease. Imagine them standing around the carcass of a motor car, stripped down to its component parts, sucking their teeth about why it won’t run.

“It needs more oomph.” Says one. “Oomph?” Says another. “Yeah, oomph. You know. More go. More VROOOM!”

“To be effective the members of a writing workshop must all meet two essential criteria.”

“Naaaw. It’s the seats. I can’t stand faux leather seating. I’d never put those seats in any car of mine.”

“I’ll tell you the problem,” Says the garage’s hotshot young mechanic. “It hasn’t got four wheel drive, that’s the problem.” “But…it’s a tiny little commuter car, what’s it need four wheel drive for?” “Every car needs four wheel drive!” Bellows the hotshot.

“Actually I think you’ll find the problem is ideological. This car was built as an expression of the principles of consumer capitalism, that’s the problem.” The boss sent this guy to college for a semester, and now everyone regrets it.

The old gaffer steps forward, he’s figured his way to the root of the malfunction. “What we’ve got here is the wrong driver. This car works just fine, the driver just doesn’t understand it.”

Everyone nods, because when the gaffer speaks, you nod. Even when he speaks nonsense.

Now. Would you trust these guys to fix your car? I certainly hope the answer is NO, for your car’s sake.

But these are exactly the kind of comments you will encounter in most writing workshops. I teach creative writing and have led literally hundreds of workshop sessions. I’ve been a member of numerous writing groups since my teens. I’ve heard all these comments and many more equally useless and unhelpful ones. “It needs more pace.” “I don’t like the characters.” “There’s no plot / there’s too much plot.” “I don’t get what it means.”

Special prices on Kindle.

The basic problem in most writing workshops is that the members do not know how to write. They’re like a gang of amateur, untrained mechanics. So in place of actual expertise these writers employ opinion and, most corrosive of all, emotion. The sad truth is that the majority of the criticism dished out in workshops is actually the critic puffing up their own ego or pre-empting criticism of their own work. This is why workshops can, at their worst, become festering feud pits.

To be effective the members of a writing workshop must all meet two essential criteria. First, every member must be at least competent in their technical knowledge of writing. Second, all the members must have a shared language to express their technical knowledge. If you can’t recognise and name a carburettor you have no place in a garage. If you can’t recognise and name a three act structure you have no place in a writing workshop.

A good writing workshop can be invaluable. The Clarion writers workshop I joined in the summer of 2008 helped my writing immensely. It wasn’t perfect. But all 18 workshop members had sufficient knowledge of writing to effectively critique and help each other. That also helped stop the workshop collapsing in to personal feuding, even when very negative and contentious critiques were delivered. Is a workshop essential for good writing? No. But critical reflection on your own creative work is, and unless you have a supreme level of ego control, you won’t be able to achieve that without help from other people.

So how did we get into this situation?


Before Their Books Were Famous, These Authors Worked the Following Odd Jobs

Golly. I did so many jobs before I fond my way in to writing. Waiter. Bin man. Factory worker. Salesman. Fast food “operative”. And I still do, although today my freelance work is a lot more fun and creative than sweeping streets. But being a writer often means sacrificing the easy path of a 9-5 career. And the easy pay cheque that goes with it. Every writer, and every artist, has a unique path. What was yours?

Coffee and Bookaholics

It may seem as though all the famous writers have full-time writing jobs to which boost their chances of their novels selling and hitting the bookshelves. However, by looking through the authors etched in literary history, this is far from the case. Many of our iconic authors worked odd-end jobs while they sold their short stories and novels. Read ahead and find out the interesting jobs these five famous authors worked before their novels became a part of history.

Chuck Palahniuk

Today, the 52-year-old Chuck Palahniuk has a “cult” following behind his novels, which include Fight Club, Doomed, Damned, Pygmy, Survivor, Snuff, Rant, Diary, Haunted and more. While Palahniuk did gain his BA in journalism and afterwards worked in Portland as a journalist for a local newspaper, he left the position. According to his website,, he proceeded with a diesel…

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My nominations for Speculative Fiction 2014

Criticism and non-fiction writing seem to play an ever bigger part in science fiction and fantasy. Consider the issue of diversity in these genres, which has reached some kind of apogee in 2014. And a great deal of the energy driving that change has been generated online by non-fiction writing. Most of this writing is made by fans (those fans may also be pro authors, editors and agents, but writing first and foremost as fans) and it’s in online non-fiction writing like reviews, essays, blog posts and forum debates that the fans shape the genre. I honestly can’t think of a healthier and more open democratic way to shape our culture.

Following on from the success of Speculative Fiction 2013 it’s organisers have now made an open call for submissions to the 2014 volume of the anthology. Speculative Fiction 2014 will bring together some of the best online non-fiction writing on SF/F in to a handy, highly readable format. I highly recommend you nominate those pieces which stand out for you this year. I have just done so, and thought I would share my nominations to encourage more people to participate. Please chip in and tell me your favourite non-fiction of the year in the comments. I’m sure there are many I’ve missed.

Silk Road Fantasy and Breaking the Great Wall of Europe by Paul Weimer – Silk Road fantasy is such an evocative term for non-western oriented fantasy. Weimer may not quite have coined it but I think in this well researched post he brings it to new popularity. As the comments explore it doesn’t fit all non-western fantasy, but for the parts of the world the Silk Roads ran too, I think it’s rather lovely. I also have a feeling we’re going to see some great Silk Road fantasies in the next few years.

A Great Castle Made of Sea: Why Hasn’t Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Been More Influential? by Jo Walton – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a major bestseller, but the fantasy genre has largely ignored it in favour of the grimdark vision. Walton explores the many reasons for this, in her usual subtle and amusing manner.

12 Fundamentals of Writing “The Other” (And the Self) by Daniel Jose Older – “The baseline is you suck”, strongly worded and supremely insightful, this post cracked open one of the toughest issues in fiction writing. How do we write characters who have been cast as The Other by our culture? There are no easy answers, but Older makes some strong suggestions.

How Censors Killed The Weird, Experimental, Progressive Golden Age Of Comics by Saladin Ahmed – I had no concept of how many diverse superheroes there were until I read Ahmed’s superbly researched insight in to early 20th century comics. And the shock of course is how these characters were eliminated by top down censorship. A must read.

Post-Binary Gender in SF: Introduction by Alex Dally Macfarlane – this essay set off one of the most valuable debates in the genre this year. SF/F should be the natural home of characters who do not conform to enforced gender norms. So why isn’t it? The answer to this question is still being argued, and likely will be for some time.

Now, go an make your own nominations for Speculative Fiction 2014 here.