Sci-fi author John Scalzi on the future of publishing: ‘I aspire to be a cockroach’

22 March 2017

From The Verge:

Two years ago, author John Scalzi signed a $3.4 million deal with leading science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor Books to publish 13 novels over the course of the decade. The novel that kicks off this new contract, The Collapsing Empire, is just now hitting bookstores. For Scalzi, there’s a lot riding on this book: it’s the start of a 10-year collaboration between him and his publisher, at a time when the publishing and bookselling industries have been undergoing significant changes.

Set in a brand-new universe, the novel is about an interstellar human empire that faces a major upheaval when its faster-than-light transportation routes begin to vanish. Scalzi has been a rising star in the science fiction world over the past decade, bolstered by a popular body of work and a legion of devoted fans he built through his blog, Whatever. His latest book is a thoughtful, exciting read, and it’s a good indication that his career will continue to rise.

. . . .

Scalzi’s career to date has been a mixture of experimentation and practical market assessment. He wasn’t able to sell his first novel, a science fiction / humor book called Agent to the Stars, so in 1999, he published it on his website, asking readers to donate a dollar if they liked it. He earned around $4,000 before he closed donations. (Tor published it in 2005.) In 2002, he began serializing his next novel online: Old Man’s War, which attracted the attention of his current editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and helped launch his career.

. . . .

Ten years is a long time for the publishing world. Since Tor first published Old Man’s War, the industry has seen huge shifts. Ebooks and audiobooks have exploded in popularity. As Amazon has expanded, brick-and-mortar bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble have suffered. But Scalzi remains upbeat. “I think the people in publishing do feel optimistic that not only are they going to be around for the next 10 years, but that they are actually going to still do what they have always done, which is to bring exciting stories and people into the market, to keep people engaged in the genre, and to be a presence.”

. . . .

How does this 10-year deal weigh on your shoulders looking forward? By the time you’re out of it, it’s going to be 2027, the future.

It doesn’t weigh on my shoulders at all. The whole point is that novelists do not have job security, right? You go from book to book, or you’ll sometimes get a two-book contract, or maybe even, “Oh, I’m going to write a trilogy.” But at the end of it, you have to go out into the market and prove yourself again.

In this particular case, literally for a decade, I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going to sell my next book. I don’t have to worry about whether the publisher is going to make a good-faith effort to actually sell the book, that it’s not going to get shoved down a hole somewhere. Rather than a burden of, “Oh my God, now I have 10 books to write” — or 13 books, because it’s 10 adult and three YA — it’s, “Oh boy, now I can write my books, and I don’t have to worry what happens to them from there.” Until 2027, I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going to be able to pay for my daughter’s college, I don’t have to worry about if I fall down a hole, whether I’ll be able to afford my medical insurance, so on and so forth.

. . . .

With concerns about publishers dying off, it’s intriguing that Tor is making this long-term commitment.

I think there’s a number of things going on there. I do think it was signaling. It is Tor and Macmillan saying: “We’re going to stay in business, and we’re going to do a good job of it.” This is part of an overall thing going on with Tor. Tor recently reorganized; brought in Devi Pillai [from rival publisher Hachette]; moved Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who’s my editor, from senior editor to associate publisher; brought in some new editors and some other new folks; and Macmillan basically gave it a huge vote of confidence.

It’s been fun and fashionable to talk about the death of publishing, and certainly publishing has had “exciting times,” I think that’s the euphemism we want to use, over the last decade. But the people who are in it do feel optimistic that not only are they going to be around for the next 10 years, but that they are going to do what they have always done, which is to bring exciting stories and people into the market, to keep people engaged in the genre, and to be a presence.

. . . .

So Tor saying, “We will be here in 10 years, so will John Scalzi,” is for me, very reassuring, obviously, but also a signal of intent that no matter what happens, they’re still going to be a player. This is just one part of an overall puzzle piece.


Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Sean and others for the tip.

PG always hopes for the best for authors. He sincerely hopes that John Scalzi’s ten-year contract works out wonderfully for him.

However, a publisher that is owned by large media conglomerate like Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck doesn’t control its own destiny. A small group of managers in Stuttgart controls the destiny of Tor, its employees, its authors and their books.

A brief history of Tor shows it was founded in 1980 and sold to St. Martin’s Press in 1987. St. Martin’s was and is owned by Macmillan. In 1995, controlling interest to Macmillan was sold to Holtzbrinck.

Control of Tor changed hands every seven years during its first 15 years of existence.

PG suspects that most, if not all, of Tor’s publishing contracts required that authors grant Tor rights to their books for the life of the copyright of those books – the life of the author plus 70 years.

Since 1980, employees of Tor have come and gone. Some almost certainly severed their ties with Tor in order to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. Tor never asked any of its executives or employees to commit to lifetime employment contracts.

Employment contracts are generally governed by state law in the United States. PG is not an expert on the employment laws of all 50 states, but he is confident in saying that no state would enforce an employment contract that prevented an employee from ever working for another company.

If management or ownership of a company changes and one or more employees don’t like the way the new people do business, they can quit and go somewhere else.

PG has never seen a publishing contract that permits an author to do the same thing with the author’s books. For better or worse, the author is stuck with the acquirers, whoever they may be. The fruits of more than ten prime years of Scalzi’s writing career will be staying with whoever owns Tor in the future.

Amazon’s relationship with indie authors is revolutionary because the author controls the book. An author can end the business relationship at any time. The author can then do whatever he/she desires with their books. The relationship continues so long as both sides think it’s a beneficial business deal.

PG can’t predict what Amazon or Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck will be doing ten or twenty years from now. He can predict that KDP authors will be able to do whatever they want with their books in ten or twenty years while Tor authors will not.

George R.R. Martin Opening New Film Studio

20 March 2017

From The Albuquerque Journal:

Famed author George R.R. Martin is starting a new film project in Santa Fe, a 30,000 square-foot non-profit office and production facility that will be open to both major Hollywood productions and beginning film entrepreneurs.

Mayor Javier Gonzales tweeted enthusiastically about Martin’s Stagecoach Foundation project Tuesday afternoon as a big boost to Santa Fe’s film economy.

He said in an interview later that a Santa Fean donated the building to Martin, author of the best-selling fantasy novels on which the hit “Game of Thrones” TV series is based, with the idea that it would be used for “something good” for Santa Fe.

“What this means for the city specifically is more film infrastructure” that increases the likelihood that major film productions will come to town along with start-up movie-makers, film editors and digital media creators who need affordable production space, Gonzales said. The Stagecoach Foundation facility could be used for a film crew’s headquarters as well as editing and other functions, he said.

Link to the rest at The Albuquerque Journal

Transrealism: the first major literary movement of the 21st century?

16 March 2017

From The Guardian:

A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and his late-career work that had arguably left that genre behind. Like VALIS and The Divine Invasion that followed it, A Scanner Darkly was two stories collided into one – a roughly science-fictional premise built around a mind-destroying drug, and a grittily realistic autobiographical depiction of PKD’s time living among drug addicts.

It is also, in the thinking of writer, critic and mathematician Rudy Rucker, the first work of a literary movement he would name “transrealism” in his 1983 essay A Transrealist Manifesto.

. . . .

Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters, in favour of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience. But through this realist tapestry, the author threads a singular, impossibly fantastic idea, often one drawn from the playbook of science fiction, fantasy and horror. So the transrealist author who creates a detailed and realistic depiction of American high-school life will then shatter it open with the discovery of an alien flying saucer that confers super-powers on an otherwise ordinary young man.

It’s informative to list a few works that do not qualify as transrealism to understand Rucker’s intent more fully. Popular fantasy or science fiction stories like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games lack a strong enough reality to be discussed as transrealism.

. . . .

The potential list of transrealist authors is both contentious and fascinating. Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and her novels from Oryx and Crake onwards. Stephen King, when at his best describing the lives of blue-collar America shattered by supernatural horrors. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, among other big names of American letters. Iain Banks in novels like Whit and The Bridge. JG Ballard, as one of many writers originating from the science-fiction genre to pioneer transrealist techniques. Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, among others.

. . . .

“Transrealism is a revolutionary art form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a ‘normal person’.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Felix for the tip.

PG says if transrealism was developed in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s long past time to get post-transrealism going.

Retail wars begin as Pullman shoots to number one in pre-orders

16 February 2017

From The Bookseller:

Less than 24 hours after the announcement that Philip Pullman is to release a new epic fantasy series entitled The Book of Dust, the first volume has shot to number one in Amazon’s bestseller charts through pre-order sales.

Retail wars have already commenced with both Amazon and Waterstones offering the first instalment, due out on 19th October, with a 50% discount off the £20 book. Independent booksellers meanwhile have vowed to think “creatively” about how best to secure a share of the sales. Waterstones m.d James Daunt has said the first book could be worth around £8m in sales to the chain alone – 2% of its overall revenue.

Zool Verjee, deputy manager of Blackwell’s Oxford, said the store is planning something “stupendous” to mark the publication of the book. Pullman lives in Oxford and is well-known in the bookshop. “Everyone in this shop is floating”, he said. “It is fantastic, we know him really well and he’s done a number of events with us. This news has got us thinking of how to make people aware. We’ll have our own ‘Philip Pullman campaign’. We want to pull out all the stops and do something stupendous.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Lemony Snicket Spends ‘Unfortunate Events’ Mocking Netflix

22 January 2017

From Inverse:

When author Daniel Handler spoke to Inverse about the inherent difficulty in adapting his Lemony Snicket novels to television, he said “a commitment to literature is always a challenge.” Is the culture of binging streaming TV philosophically opposed to reading books? Because if so, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is the first highly bingeable streaming TV show with a very vocal and guilty conscience.

At the beginning of every single episode, Neil Patrick Harris sings directly to the audience and tells them to “look away.” This joke is a direct tribute to the way meta-author Lemony Snicket advised readers to stop reading each of the original novels. In the books, with false earnestness, Snicket would recommend you read a different book, which now has been modified for the medium of streaming television. In the seventh episode of the Netflix series, Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) gets probably his best warning: “If you like stories about children who enjoy pleasant rides in truck beds on their way to colorful destinations where they finally solve the curious mysteries plaguing their lives, that story is streaming elsewhere.”

. . . .

 Still, streaming subscription services like Netflix generally want people to consume more of their product. And that ussually relies on keeping certain plot details a secret. In the third episode, Neil Patrick Harris’s opening song tells the viewer, “Spoiler alert, a villain comes to plot and steal and murder, so if I were you, I wouldn’t even watch one minute further.” The medium of streaming TV is being mocked for sure, but the true target here is the way people talk about shows. Because the entire plot of a show’s season is available more quickly in the streaming model, worries about spoilers have become almost fanatical to the point of absurdity. But, in a move worthy of Kurt Vonnegut, A Series of Unfortunate Events just “ruins” the plot for you, and then dares you to keep on watching.

Link to the rest at Inverse

Artificial Intelligence Looms Larger in the Corporate World

12 January 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Artificial intelligence, long a subject of fanciful forecasts, is starting to enter the corporate world in a much bigger way, as costs decline and the need increases to identify patterns within ever-growing troves of business data.

Once a mainstay of startups and big-tech firms such as International Business Machines Corp. and Alphabet Inc., technologies such as machine learning are taking a larger role inside corporate giants including American International Group and Fannie Mae, which are deploying AI to automate and augment tasks previously done by humans alone.

Chief information officers say the technology helps them complete routine tasks faster and often without human help, saving money while freeing their employees to focus on value-added activities.

But as the technology becomes both less expensive and smarter, and more advanced technologies continue to emerge, companies will extend AI use beyond routine jobs to aid in decision making and spot trends and patterns that wouldn’t be evident to the sharpest data scientist.

. . . .

Less expensive, more abundant data storage, increased processing power and advances in deep-learning technology could lower the cost of artificial intelligence and make it possible for machines to learn with minimal programming from humans.

One common deep-learning tool, the neural network, uses layers of interconnected nodes to roughly mimic the operations of the human brain.

Nova Spivack, founder of AI startup Bottlenose, said the latest versions of deep learning employ hundreds of layers of neural networks. That power can be used in areas such as weak-signal detection, or the ability to spot trends more quickly.

. . . .

AIG said it recently deployed five “virtual engineers” inside its IT infrastructure that work 24 hours a day collecting and analyzing system performance data and spotting network device outages. They work alongside human engineers to learn patterns in the network data and eventually act on their own to solve technical problems.

A network device outage, for example, typically would go to a queue and take human engineers about 3½ hours to address, an AIG spokeswoman said. Using the virtual assistants, nicknamed “co-bots,” there is no queue and most incidents can be fixed within 10 minutes, she said. If a machine can’t solve a problem on its own, it is kicked back to a human engineer.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

A Series of Unfortunate Events

11 January 2017

The rise of Chinese sci-fi

4 January 2017

In 2015, Chinese Sci-fi hit the American literary scene when Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem by Chinese author Cixin Liu received a Hugo Award and a Nebula nomination. These prestigious science fiction/fantasy honors see few works in translation, and until now, none had been Chinese. As the general public begins to follow the literary critics in their curiosity towards Liu’s work and others like it, I decided to write a two-part series on the rise of Chinese sci-fi. From the Asia Times.

. . . .

Science fiction has existed in China almost as long as it existed in the West. It began in the late-Qing Dynasty, with scholars translating the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells into Chinese. Among such translators was Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature himself. Of course, tales of the strange and mysterious permeate Chinese literature from its ancient origins on, but the first work generally recognized as an original Chinese science fiction story was Colony of the Moon (月球殖民地). It was published as a serial from 1904 to 1905 under the pen name Huangjiang Diaosou (荒江钓叟), which means “Old Fisherman by a Deserted River.” Many other works were published during this early-twentieth-century period. The genre was perceived to have literary merit through its ability to incite interest among readers in the rapidly evolving fields of science and technology, in which China was involved in a game of catch-up.

. . . .

At the beginning of Mao’s Communist rule starting in 1949, the genre still flourished – so long as works reflected the party line. These works tended to be geared towards young readers, optimistic, and educational. Many Soviet era sci-fi works, such as those of Alexander Belyayev, were translated into Chinese at this time and influenced the genre. Major Chinese sci-fi authors of the era included Zheng Wenguang (郑文光) and Tong Enzheng (童恩正). Sci-fi took a blow, however, during the Cultural Revolution as creation of the arts all but ceased from 1966-1976, especially genres associated with the West like sci-fi. Lao She, author of the satirical work Cat Country from the Republic era was among the intellectuals targeted and humiliated by anti-bourgeoisie mobs, leading him to drown himself in a lake shortly thereafter.

. . . .

Sci-fi experienced a major revival after Mao’s death, now with some darker and broader themes from a generation of authors that grew up during the violence and tumult of the Cultural Revolution. This period also saw the popularization of sci-fi magazines, such as  Science Literature and Art (科学文艺), now known as Science Fiction World (科幻世界), one of the most successful sci-fi publications in the world in terms of number of readers. Cixin Liu appears on the scene beside Han Song and Wang Jinkang,“Three Generals of Chinese Sci-fi,” as part of this New Wave of sci-fi authors.

That takes us up to Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, which was serialized in Science Fiction World in 2006 and first published as a book in 2008. It wasn’t until 2014, however, that Chinese-American author Ken Liu tackled its translation and the novel began garnering international recognition. The Three-Body Problem is an example of hard sci-fi, where fantasy is rooted in actual advanced scientific knowledge (the title refers to a physics phenomenon involving the gravitational forces of three celestial bodies). The novel opens with a scene from the Cultural Revolution and then flashes forward a couple decades to a time when the world’s leaders and militaries are faced with a mysterious virtual reality game and an impending alien invasion. Hapless nanomaterials scientist Wang Miao finds himself caught in the middle of it all.

Link to the rest at Asia Times

Here’s a link to The Three Body Problem.

J.K. Rowling Has Two More Novels in the Works

23 December 2016

From Slate:

Rowling revealed that she has not one but two novels in the works, one under her own name, the other under her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, which she uses for her Cormoran Strike books. Rowling first adopted the pen name for The Cuckoo’s Calling, saying that she hoped to write without the hype or expectations placed on her as the author of Harry Potter. But her secret has been out for years, and her announcement has certainly brought the hype for what will be the fourth book in the detective series.

But what about the other novel, the one that will say “J.K. Rowling” on the cover? All we really know is that it won’t be about Newt Scamander, the hero of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Link to the rest at Slate

Star Wars Is and Always Has Been Political

12 December 2016

From i09:

At the premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this weekend, Disney CEO Bob Iger said, “It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.” That cannot be true. Star Wars is, and always has been, inherently political.

It’s impossible to look at any Star Wars film and not realize that it’s packed full of allusions—some subtle and others really really not—that make it clear that the franchise is saying things about what’s good and what’s evil. The Empire is evil in Star Wars, that much is abundantly clear. The mere set-up of a totalitarian state, run by a dictator who has no problems with subordinates being murdered for failure or who approves the building of a space station that can destroy a whole planet, versus a band of rebels trying to restore justice to the galaxy is a political statement. Unless Rogue One isn’t actually about the desperate measures the rebels will take to defeat the Empire, it’s going to be making some sort of political statement.

The Empire, from its first appearance, was clearly meant as a stand-in for fascism. “Stormtrooper” is a name that comes from German troops in World War I and comes up again in Nazi Germany as the Sturmabteilung (“Storm detachment”), the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.

. . . .

“[Rogue One] has one of the greatest and most diverse casts of any film we have ever made and we are very proud of that, and that is not a political statement, at all,” Iger contradictorily told The Hollywood Reporter. While it shouldn’t be a political statement to have a multi-ethnic cast, that’s not the world we live in. It’s a choice that the filmmakers made, on purpose. It has to be on purpose, because the default in Hollywood films is still mostly white. Filling out the hero roles with a diverse cast is a political statement and one completely in keeping with the politics that have always been a part of Star Wars.

Iger’s comments that there aren’t political statements in Rogue One are related to two deleted tweets from Rogue One writer Chris Weitz and former Rogue One writer Gary Whitta. On the Friday following the election, Weitz tweeted “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization.” Whitta added, “Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women.” The response to these almost completely objective truths about Star Wars swelled to last week’s call for a boycott of the movie and the by-now standard hashtag (#DumpStarWars). Iger probably wants to defuse the controversy, which he is at least right in calling “silly.”

Link to the rest at i09

PG suspects he is not the only person who would like 2016 and its politics to be over.

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