The Nameless Horror

First 100 - Intelligence

In a cleared space amid the papers was a delicate cluster of glass tubes attached to a spray of flexible copper pipes like a fan of octopus tentacles that fed into a central valve like a mouth. Around it, separate for now, were parts Annabel recognised as a small pump, some kind of filter intended to hold a chemical catalyst, and a cooling coil fed by a copper vial no bigger than her thumb. Probabilities tumbled out of it uncalled-for, each shaped by combinations of its final form and the chemicals it might eventually contain within, and few of them looked good.

She turned her attention to the drafting papers while Jozef skimmed the letters beside her, occasionally muttering to himself in Polish. The papers held plans for devices like the one on the desk and more, larger, contraptions clearly military from their design. The title scrawled at the top was in a language she didn’t recognise.

“Do you know what ‘bosszúálló fegyver’ means?” she asked.

Jozef thought for a moment. “‘Revenge weapon,’ maybe. My Hungarian isn’t great; most of the words I know are what people shout at me when I’m threatening them with arrest.”

In a bid to get myself writing more by publicly tracking progress, the ‘first 100’ series is/will be the first 100 or so words spat out whenever I’m working on my own material, whatever they are, unchecked and unedited.

Service publishing - a long thought experiment

Publishing has always been an odd industry, even before the commercial and social pressures of the modern era, and following a tangentially-related conversation elsewhere I got to wondering about one possible future version of a publishing arrangement. Traditional publishing contracts are relatively loose in terms of what they offer the author with respect to getting the book in front of readers; the publisher is effectively employer, and while most contracts go into the percentages and remunerative side of things, the actual treatment of the book is left more open. Could a more restrictive format in which the publisher acted more as a service provider on a shorter timescale work?

Imagine getting a contract from a publisher that says:

  • We’ll pay you such-and-such an advance and/or these percentages of royalties on these given formats.
  • We’ll print and have the right to sell x paperback (or x hardback and y paperback), to be released within [this range of a few months].
  • We can sell up to z in ebook or POD hardcopy form (whether small-scale POD or modern short-run commercial printing).
  • Those rights being exclusive for a given territory/territories/language as per normal.
  • We’ll offer promotional support (advertising, PR staff, giveaways, etc.) at release and for [this period] either side to an equivalent budget of no less than $pr at present costs. (This would definitely be the hardest part to quantify, but it’s not actually much different to a regular promotional plan; it’d just mean considering and constructing it at time of sealing the book deal rather than in the run-up to release. And, obviously, it makes the commitment to promote a given book a firm one.)
  • Once those x, y and z books have been sold, or 3-5 years have elapsed (less for single hardcopy edition, more for hb/pb split; sales are almost always heavily concentrated in the first couple of months after release, so even a short period more than covers peak earning period), whichever happens first - effectively, once the promised service has been completed or run its course - the contract ends and all rights revert.
  • All the current usual stuff about you delivering material of publishable quality (better defined; I’ve never seen any attempt to do so in a contract) to deadline if the deal is for two+ books, us providing editorial and design services, what you do and don’t have veto on.
  • If we want to extend the contract, reprint or expand the run, or otherwise change things, a new/amended contract will have to be negotiated.

Would that be feasible? Would it be desirable?

The long wars over the relative benefits and validity of self-publishing versus traditional are more or less over (there are a few holdouts, of course, like soldiers abandoned on some remote island who never received the ceasefire order and refuse to abandon their foxholes even though all their gear is rotten and rusted).

The post-armistice publishing landscape is still littered with the wreckage of battle.

The advantages commonly cited as offered by publishers are: hardcopy distribution, quality control/assurance, convenience (the ancillary services provided by publishers, from cover design to PR to editing, can be perfectly adequately carried out by freelancers, but if you self-publish that’s for you to arrange yourself), and cash up front.

Disadvantages commonly cited include: long lead times or other scheduling issues, uncertain (and sometimes bizarre) pricing, difficulty in ending a contract or reclaiming rights otherwise held in near-perpetuity, level of support (particularly in terms of promotion) varying from plans or promises.

A publisher can get your book into big chain stores (or any stores at all), mentioned in press or paraded at events, and they’ll pay you an advance for doing it. But your book won’t come out for a year (less for digital-only) and external factors (a bigger author delivers a new book and takes the slot, a distributor changes its ordering pattern, the sudden success of the next Gone Girl sees everyone scrambling to push anything even vaguely similar out faster than planned, etc.) can hugely change your due date without you having any input - and current contracted “published no later than” clauses normally have a lot of leeway, you might find yourself with an ebook being sold for $12 in a vain bid to protect hardback prices, a lack of concrete definitions of terms like “out of print” might mean that you can’t get the book back without a fight, and while they may have signed you talking about being the next big thing, six months down the line the success or failure of other projects might mean that your book is no longer something they want to put their energy into.

Generally speaking, as far as I’m aware (and certainly as far as I’ve experienced myself), a publishing contract goes into great detail about the financial arrangements between them and you (for mass market paperback sales (up to the first 10,000) - x%, for book club editions - y%, etc…), sets out the broad responsibilities of both parties (you’ll write everything, with x deadline, while they’ll edit, print and package the book; you’ll have technical veto on x and y and z (though you’ll almost never use it because of the functional power dynamic; you don’t bite the hand that feeds), and if you fail to provide a “publishable quality” work they can shitcan you), explains a little of rights reversion (usually after a number of years, if the book “goes out of print” - whatever that means, or sells less than a (tiny) number of ebook copies in a couple of consecutive quarters, maybe with a secondary definition like “if the book is ever dropped from our catalogue”), and spends little or no time on promises about how much weight they’re going to put behind the book in terms of all those non-cash things that publishers provide (sometimes they’ll stipulate a minimum print run, but that’s it).

This seems a little ass-backwards. I understand why it’s always been this way - given that even if the book you’ve bought is finished bar a light edit, in the twelve months before it comes out, even in the six months before you’re shopping it to distributors, a lot can change. The market suddenly decides that it wants psychological thrillers and that finely-crafted procedural novel just can’t justify as big a slice of your limited print and promo budget as you’d planned. Another similar novel to your Next Big Thing comes out a few months before from another publisher and despite pushing it strongly, it tanks; maybe there isn’t the market for yours that your publisher hoped and they cut their cloth accordingly. Publishers are businesses operating on tight margins in an industry whose economics and consistency are crazy, and they need some ability to hedge their bets. I like publishers and want them to thrive.

But still, the market generally buys what’s put firmly enough in front of it; people suffer decision paralysis when presented by thousands of unfiltered options and they’re normally happy for someone to winnow the field. The relative commercial risk encapsulated in all that hedging and loosely or wholly undefined terms and conditions in a standard contract generally fall more heavily on the author; delaying a release six months makes little difference to a publisher’s bottom line unless they’re a small publisher right on the ragged edge, but that’s a sudden six months without any income for the author. Likewise with punting a particular book down the priority ladder, dropping a format, etc.

I’d think in the modern era that a deal more clearly setting out the practicalities of what a publisher’s offering - not just the finances - would make a deal more attractive to an author considering their options. It might also allow them to compete with one another, or with self-pubbing, on specific terms other than how much cash they’ll put up. Publisher A might offer a higher royalty or a bigger advance, but Publisher B might be offering a bigger print run and a stronger PR package, not just promised in talks but locked into the contract. No different to employment contracts in most industries, in fact.

The last contract I signed was a few years ago with a new, modern publisher, and it was much better in terms of laying out everyone’s duties and responsibilities than ones I’d had before. (And while it didn’t work out, that at least meant I knew exactly when and how and why I could pull out.)

Would/could/should a shorter-term, more concrete and committed approach work in practice?

First 100 - On The Street

Jozef dodged around a handcart laden with cabbages pushed by a man with a face like a kicked spaniel. “No,” he said. “Not a lot. Not without reason. What happened on the voyage? Did you discuss your employment here with anyone?”

“Only that I was going to work for a city magistrate, not in what capacity. The only time I might have said more was in conversation with the ship’s chief engineer. Not with any of the passengers.”

“An educated foreign woman, not of obvious noble birth or great wealth, travelling alone to Zunderlicht to take up an official post – it wouldn’t have taken much to jump to the conclusion that you were an informatician.”

“You don’t think I’d pass as nobility?”

“You don’t come across as enough of an arsehole,” he said.

In a bid to get myself writing more through publicly tracking progress, the ‘first 100’ is/will be the first 100 or so words spat out whenever I’m working on my own material, whatever they are, unchecked and unedited.

The last 12 months, professionally speaking

2017 was a solid, pretty average year in most respects. In those 12 months, I:

  • edited 57 short stories: 228k words*.
  • edited 10 novels: 900k words*.
  • wrote 51 editor’s reports: 153k words*.
  • wrote non-fiction (trade journalism, an RPG bound eventually for DriveThru, misc. stuff): 100k words.
  • wrote fiction: 4k words.

*Estimates based on rough averages for each category, probably on the low side for most (particularly the novels). Reports don’t include later-draft follow-ups in correspondence either. I tend to be quite lengthy in editing feedback, and you could probably tack on another 30-40k in email form if you were so inclined. I don’t write reports for copy edits, hence the number disparity.

So as a freelance editor (my schedule’s not bad at the moment, hit me up, blah blah blah), I’m clearly keeping busy. Which is good; it’s generally enjoyable work and it’s nice to help writers across ability groups and backgrounds polish their output, build their skills and confidence, or learn the basics of the craft.

And as a fiction writer in my own right, I’ve clearly managed piss-bugger-all. That’s not strictly true - I’ve done a lot of tidying of a novel finished the year before, done a lot of research for that one I got 4k into, done a lot of planning, and replanning, and planning again - but in terms of words-on-page, jack shit.

That needs to change this year if I’m not to fall out of the habit entirely. I think it’s partly a case of time limitations, partly a case of tidying/fixing last year’s output turning into an interminable slog that’s made me want to stab toothpicks in my eyes rather than even think about writing anything, and partly the creeping doubt that builds over time between making progress on something, the sense that maybe you haven’t gotten anywhere because you’re not going to, you’re never going to, because you’ve somehow forgotten how. It’s over. Stick a fork in you, you’re done.

Which, frankly, is all bullshit. Other than maybe the time thing, but even then; I used to be strict at carving out a little chunk of the week for my own stuff. Little by little, while keeping the editing rolling along because that’s what pays the bills, I need to return to taking my own writing/career seriously too this year, particularly if I stick to self-pub, which I’ve been very half-arsed with. (Yes, we’re a month into 2018 already, but I’ve had flu. I’ve also turned 40 and am now therefore Old and Old People forget things like the simple procession of time.)

So, 2018: keep editing, start enjoying writing again, finish a damn novel.

Charlie Stross on our dreadful future

Charlie Stross’ keynote for the 34th Chaos Communication Congress in Leipzig in December sees him on top form on why everything is going wrong.

Paperclip maximizers that focus on eyeballs are so 20th century. Advertising as an industry can only exist because of a quirk of our nervous system—that we are susceptible to addiction. Be it tobacco, gambling, or heroin, we recognize addictive behaviour when we see it. Or do we? It turns out that the human brain’s reward feedback loops are relatively easy to game. Large corporations such as Zynga (Farmville) exist solely because of it; free-to-use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are dominant precisely because they are structured to reward frequent interaction and to generate emotional responses (not necessarily positive emotions—anger and hatred are just as good when it comes to directing eyeballs towards advertisers). “Smartphone addiction” is a side-effect of advertising as a revenue model: frequent short bursts of interaction keep us coming back for more.

Well worth your time.