The Nameless Horror

Chuck Wendig's Shotgun Gravy

“Uh-huh. So. You asked me, now I’ll ask you: what’s it like to be you?”

“It’s fine,” she says, plodding along. “Pretty boring.”

He rolls his eyes. “Oh. Sure. I bet. The town of Dullsville, population: You.”

“Now you’re just being sarcastic. That’s not cute at all. My Daddy used to say, Darlin’, sarcasm is the first refuge of bitter men.

“Well I say that sarcasm is a mini-mansion in the middle of Awesome-Town and there’s a pool and a room filled with puppies and a kitchen with granite countertops and a double-oven. And a cabana boy named Steve.” He walks in front of her and puts his hands on her shoulders, an act which earns him a malevolent stare. Even still he doesn’t pull away and instead says, “Atlanta Burns, you need to understand something. People are in awe of what you did. Jaw-dropping, pants-shitting awe.”

I’m up to my eyeballs in work, so this is going to be a quick capsule review (the alternative is none at all, because it takes me ages to do anything and Chuck’s a good egg all round so I feel like I should).

His hardboiled teen novella SHOTGUN GRAVY is very good indeed. The story’s snappy as a crocodile with a migraine, the drip-drip of Atlanta’s character background is expertly handled, characterisation is tight as a drum of tight things and there’s a healthy vein of dark humour running through a story that knows damn sure what it’s doing and makes sure it does it. It is, in short, a fine piece of work.

As far as things to spend three bucks on go, there’s no reason not to go for it.

Next up with my copious spare time (TM) - finishing Mosby’s BLACK FLOWERS and checking out Luca Veste’s LIVERPOOL 5.

Distribution in the Digital Age

In my post the other week, I wondered why publishers don’t set up their own distribution systems for ebooks to compete with Amazon and cut out the middle man. Yesterday, over a pie and a pint with @t0mbale, I got to talking about the same subject, and about Steam. So why should he be the only one to be bored with my ramblings?

Steam, for those who don’t know, is a digital sales and distribution platform run by game publisher Valve (creators of Half-Life et al.). When it launched it’s safe to say it was a total bag of shit, but they’ve improved it greatly down the years. They have the website version, and an application on Windows and Mac (which effectively runs as a sort of browser window with game-launching tied into it; you can’t run your Steam-bought games without running the Steam app itself). It started out as a way for Valve to release updates and mods to its games, but after launch they did deals with other publishers to sell some of their games through the Steam store. Now it accounts for between 50 and 70 percent of all PC games sales (maybe; Valve don’t release sales figures, so it depends on who you believe).

It has cloud achievement/status syncing, keeps records of which games you’ve bought so you can redownload them on a new computer wherever and whenever, and has a pretty thriving community and social system baked into it. (And various other things - and other issues - that don’t relate to what I’m talking about with ref to books here.)

Earlier this year, as I recall, EA, one of the world’s biggest games publishers, pulled its games from Steam (to considerable outcry from users) and announced that its next big releases would be distributed instead through its own ‘Origin’ digital store/application.

Basically, they’d seen how Valve were raking it in as middleman and decided that they had the clout to do things the same way but without paying a percentage. Gamers bitched about needing another account and application to run games, but Modern Warfare 3 will still sell a bazillion units.

So, let’s talk about books. We have three primary global digital distributors, all of whom play middle-man. They are Amazon (the 800lb gorilla), Google Books (the underfed colobus monkey) and iBooks (the tiny rhesus macaque). (B&N is the US-only Colorado spider monkey*, but since I’m not American I’m going to steer clear of them here.) All of these services - I admit I don’t know for certain what the deal with GBooks is, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t the same - take a percentage in return for selling books - unless you’re a publisher which hasn’t arranged an agency contract with Amazon, in which case, uh, sorry; tough shit.

Amazon has realised that it can help itself to a bigger slice of the pie by doing away with what it sees as another middle man and becoming a publisher in its own right, both through KDP and its newly-launched imprints. They’re by far the biggest distributor, and their aggressive price-shafting of publishers would suggest they’d rather publishing houses became rump editing services and no more. (Valve, back to our analogous cousin in the game publishing industry, already produced its own stuff and hasn’t shown any interest in putting other people out of business.) Google and Apple haven’t, to my knowledge, show any signs of doing that; they’d like their percentage cut, and to sit back and rake it in.

Now, publishers have, for a long time, sold their own books and ebooks through their own websites. However, no one reading a book has, in the main, any clue or interest in what imprint produces it. And no one looking to buy a book is going to go first to, say, the Penguin website to find it. Their first stop will be Amazon, or B&N if they’re a spider monkey fan, or maybe the Book Depository if they’re after hardcopy. Or else they’ll fire up their Kindle app on their phone and browse and buy direct.

A publisher is not a consumer brand, in exactly the same way, back when, that Valve wasn’t a brand for games, and even EA realised it needed a separate store brand name.

So why hasn’t one of the big publishers decided to take the plunge and launch a Steam-like store service (either for just its own books, or open to third parties), with cross-platform apps - which should be easy enough to write, given that they’re primarily database handling - with the same syncing as Kindle and Google Books and whatever, maybe even the Goodreads-like in-app social side, and offer a higher cut, say 85%, to third parties (if it was open to them; if they went Origin rather than Steam they’d get 100% because it’d just be their own) than Amazon, and push it to consumers?

For starters, they’d face a huge commercial risk to start with, because to make such a service a success, they’d have to pull those digital books offered in the store from Amazon (at very least). They’d have to treat it rather like the launch of a new imprint with a bunch of titles by big-selling authors, apps and digital infrastructure that worked properly to start, then market them heavily to consumers. Make sure they start with a bang and rely on future sales and their much bigger percentage income to make back that advertising spend. This, in an industry where many big publishers didn’t even have useful websites a few years ago, would be a massive, and let’s be honest, unlikely leap.

They would also need to be sure they could offer hardcopy versions for shipment via the same app - quite possible, since in the past many publishers have run their own web store either on their own or in partnership with wholesalers or retailers (not least, in the past, with Amazon) - perhaps even with a system similar to Gardners’ Hive (which effectively wholesales books through local indie bookstores), because the moment anyone pulled an EA on Amazon’s network, or even threatened to, from past behaviour I would imagine that Amazon would delist that publisher’s books, as they have with Hachette and SMP over commercial disagreements in the past.

It would be the ultimate game of chicken, but it’d also be the only way publishing will ever shake off the lingering threat of Amazon and properly get to grips with the ebook age themselves, to free themselves from having their income stream increasingly controlled by one entity.

(Unless, somehow, GBooks or iBooks start claiming a bigger share of the pie themselves, and that seems unlikely; unless iBooks becomes as cross-platform ubiquitous as iTunes (which it won’t; iTunes had the same march on everyone else in music that Kindle does now in books) or Google suddenly start spending ad money to push their service on Android, which they won’t - even Chrome has only recently started to see ad money thrown at it. We can forget about either of these services hitting Amazon, I think.)

(Unless unless a big publisher piggybacks GBooks, say, and offers Google exclusive books by major names, basically using them as the exclusive distributor I postulated earlier.)

Dave suggested that any publisher who did launch their own exclusive book service would open themselves up to monopoly or price-collusion investigations, but I don’t think that’s right. Valve haven’t, EA aren’t; as the producers of what they’re putting out, it’s up to them where and through whom they sell their stuff and which option seems to them to offer them the best commercial return.

It won’t happen - or else it’ll happen too late and too half-assed - and in ten years we’ll all be writing books in the Amazon-branded post-apocalyptic wasteland by the light of oil drums full of burning celebrity biographies. But it’d be nice to think it could.

* I’m making this one up.

Edit: The mighty Ed Champion conducted a similar thought experiment a couple of years ago, too.

Delisting From The Big A

By now, the four things I had listed with Amazon should have finished “unpublishing” (they become unsearchable and unbuyable, lose their price listings etc. but direct links to their pages don’t die and no one’s about to have them deleted from their Kindle libraries). They are, of course, still available through my own website, on Kindle, abacus and cave painting.

Why would I do such a thing?

  • If I’m going to earn next to nothing - which is the level they’re raking it in at - I’d rather do so at without anyone getting a cut, or holding on to royalty payments until they clear each $100 block (£10 for UK). (For the record, that means the piffling US sales of those four have earned nothing for me and everything for Amazon.)

  • Not being bound by Amazon’s “same price or lower” requirement for what they go for there means, not for these (I can’t imagine I’m going to be arsed to do anything with them now) but for future ones, I’ll be free to monkey with how they get sold or what they get sold for.

  • The big one, with a fat “IMO” hanging over it: the (cough, splutter) “self-publishing revolution” is all about, in public at least, “cutting out the middle man”. To do it, you still sign up with exactly that (or two, if you use an aggregator like Smashwords). Not only that, but they’re a middle man with a history of marketplace bullying (cf. their delistings of Hachette and SMP books as a ‘negotiating’ tactic in the past) and with a rapidly increasing monopoly share of distribution with a very clear intent to extend that to swallow the production part of the chain as well. Nothing good can come for anyone - writers or customers - from such a position in the long run.

    As they get more and more in-house authors, I would expect this to merely consolidate the success of those authors in exactly the same way we all complain that physical bookstores only buy in the names they know will sell and so the only authors who do well are the ones who already have, or the few who get a paid-for push to break out by their publishers. Amazon effectively becomes those front-of-shop promotions in Waterstones, with the difference that they’re free to flood those promotions with their own stable of authors, and fuck the rest if they want.

    Should they become the only game in town for a jobbing writer - and I’d hope and expect that they won’t, but they clearly want to be - their position to dictate terms, having a lock on distribution in particular, is only going to mean a screwing for the producers, us. That’s how it always goes. I defy you, for instance, to claim that supermarket pricing for food has wildly enriched farmers since they got a monopoly on sales, for instance, even as the ease of sale for certain produce has increased.

    The only way to win that game is, until publishers get off their arses and properly step into the e-distribution business themselves, is not to play. Grow, if you will, your runner beans on your allotment and sell them at your local market for beer money, rather than kowto to the system. Getting MURDER PARK finished, for example, is something I’m likely to Kickstarter initially, and forget if there’s not enough interest, then do all manner of whacky shit with. But not through Amazon’s KDP.

I’d go into this further - I ranted drunkenly at length on the subject at FantasyCon the other weekend - but the sleeping infant on my lap is stirring and my time appears to be up for now.

Article: The Double Life Of The Split Parent

Aidan 1

"So where’s Mummy today?" the shop assistant asks my little boy as I load our shopping into my backpack. She’s new here; most of the existing staff know us enough to chat to. I already know how this conversation is going to end even as the - perfectly ordinary, pleasant - platitude leaves her lips.

He just frowns at her like this is the craziest question in the world and says, “She’s at her house.”

Aidan is two and half years old.

"Be back there on Friday, won’t we, mate?" I say to him.

The penny drops, and, as always, so does her face. That quickly-covered moment of embarrassment and guilt - was that an awkward question, have I just upset a small child, etc. - and the beginnings of a stuttering apology. “It’s absolutely fine,” I say. What I really want is a t-shirt that I could reveal every time this happens. On it, in bold capitals: IT’S ALL OK. IT’S NOT AN AWKWARD SUBJECT AND EVERYONE GETS ALONG FINE. DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT.

I don’t have one, and it’d probably take too long to read even if I wasn’t arrested for acting like a flasher.

That evening, I make ‘pasta aidanese’ under his watchful eye. In a few months time, when he and I move flat again, finally leaving the freezing cold student conversion I’ve christened ‘The Beige Horror’ - the best of what was available when his mother and I split up - he will surprise my sister-in-law by rattling off a complete from-scratch pasta recipe when she asks him what he wants for lunch. He’s a great kid.

Come Friday, I’ll say goodbye to him for three days. Just as I do several times a fortnight. His mum and I worked out a split rota a long time ago that shares his time with us totally equally.

You get used to saying goodbye. Every time you do it, you have to tell yourself it’ll only be a couple more days until you’ll be saying hello again.

When he’s a month shy of his second birthday I take him to a taster session at a local Tumble Tots group. A dozen kids flinging themselves around a makeshift obstacle course in a church hall and howling with laughter while their parents watch. I’m the only man in the building older than four, and somewhat outside the existing cliques.

You get used to this too. In the children’s bookshop cafe around the block, I’m the only regular male customer. I talk childcare and ‘kids say the darndest things’ with mothers while our offspring bicker over who plays with what toy. A friend’s wife jokes that I have honourary ovaries when we meet at the local play park and she’s discussing pregnancy with another friend of ours.

Nick Hornby and Hollywood would have you believe that single fatherhood is gold dust for meeting women. In my case, at least, this is a lie. I meet plenty, sure, but all we talk about is child stuff and that’s not the instant “come to bed with me” pulse-racer you might think. And in any event I’m not sure I even have much time for a social life.

When we return from Tumble Tots, I wash up and cook dinner for the pair of us. By the time Aidan’s in bed and I’ve tidied up the rash of wooden train track that routinely covers my floor, it’s 8pm, and time for me to start work. Tomorrow is a changeover day, and I know I’ll only have to be awake and running at full steam for a few hours in the morning. I can stay up late, survive on limited sleep, and get a good few hours writing done.

Writing for a living is what makes the half and half split with Aidan possible. I can juggle my hours to fit a full-time job around my half-time parenting duties. A lot more time with my son than I’d otherwise have, at the cost of sacrificing many of my evenings and every free weekend, particularly when a deadline’s approaching. The pay’s low, the work’s uncertain, but the flip side outweighs all that. I get no government benefits, no support; his mother claims his child tax credit (since I had a source of income already, this seemed only fair as arrangements go). Only one parent can claim. You have to declare a ‘primary carer’ even when there isn’t one. The same is true for a lot of official bureaucracy, and the assumption as to who’s the primary point of contact always falls on the mother’s side. I understand why this happens, but it’s extremely frustrating at times, not to mention demoralising. “Take your fatherhood responsibilities seriously,” society says. “Just be aware that we’ll still assume you don’t even if you do. Tough shit.”

This is the only life Aidan will ever know. His mother and I broke up when he wasn’t quite eighteen months old. This wasn’t what either of us had planned, but it was at least as amicable as might be expected and we were both committed to Aidan. Which means we’re now both stuck in each other’s orbits. On changeover mornings we have a cup of tea and catch up. When she falls in love with a soldier, I’m invited for a barbecue to meet him. The next year, a month before Aidan turns three, I’ll be at their wedding. My then-new girlfriend, now fiancee, will come to the reception afterwards.

It’s an odd arrangement, and we’re all very lucky, and Aidan’s very happy, that we get on fine with one another. It takes work and dedication and the occasional difficult conversation to keep it going and to keep life stable, but it mostly succeeds.

A month after that almost-awkward conversation with the shop assistant, Aidan and I are on a bus, off to visit a friend and their little boys across town. There are two other lone parents with kids who are a shade younger than Aidan. One guy maybe my age who’s been playing dinosaurs with his son since we got on the bus. A young woman across the aisle with a daughter about the same age, equally content. The two adults seem to know each other and are chatting perfectly politely while their kids amuse themselves.

"There’s another one," a voice says behind me. An old guy in the next row back, talking to his wife. "They’re everywhere. You know they live separate so they can both claim the benefits. They all do it. Don’t even know what work is, most of them."

Aidan, next to me, is rattling off the names of everything he can see out of the window, oblivious. I’m thinking, “Does this old sod mean me? All three of us? Just the other two?” The lazy tabloid prejudice - benefits, marriage, even at one point national service - trickles into my ear in a stream, his wife murmuring bored agreement, until the couple finally get off the bus. This bitter old man knows nothing and has based his vile opinions on nothing; all three kids are quiet and well-behaved, I’m silent and the other two adults are talking pleasantly and politely. For all he knows, none of us are single parents at all. No one has done anything to earn his ignorant hatred, and if the same papers that peddle the ‘scrounging single parents on benefits’ line he seems to be quoting word for word also tout the old saw that ‘motherhood is a full-time job’ then they’re hypocrites and he should, surely, have the sense to realise that.

The thing - the only thing - that stops me saying all this to him is Aidan. He’s plainly enjoying the ride, he’s off to see some of his friends, and I’m not about to hurt his good mood. Because tomorrow I’ll be saying goodbye to him again, and as much as you get used to it, you don’t want to spoil the time you do get together by rising to other people’s prejudice.

My son is four now. We have moved again. He is about to start school. In the same week this happens, my fiancée is due to give birth to a boy, our first and likely only child. Aidan’s mum recently had to explain to him that his new brother wouldn’t be changing over with him every time but staying with us, but he seems to have overcome that disappointment. I still give up a lot of my evenings to work and this doesn’t seem likely to change so long as I can keep writing for a living. Aidan’s happiness and stability remains my top concern; in a few weeks, he’ll start sharing, equally, that perch with his newborn sibling.

A few months ago, he was asked by another shop assistant, one who knows us better, whether he liked hanging out with his dad. “Oh yes,” he said. “Daddy’s my best helper.”

Aidan 2

Note: This was written a month and a half or so ago, on the off-chance we could persuade Guardian Family to take it. Life of the working writer WHO JUST HAPPENS TO HAVE A BOOK OUT sort of thing. They were a bit swamped but have hung on to it for a while in case a slot opens, but I’d guess if it was going to happen, it would’ve done by now, and it seems a shame to let it go to waste. Obviously it was written before Morgan was born and before Aidan started school. It also obviously covers a broad spread of time, from my single single parent days, through to the settled split parenting life of today.

I do still start work once everyone’s asleep, though. So tired. So very tired.