Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March 29, 2011 Links and Plugs

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Nascence by Tobias Buckell

Monday, March 28, 2011

March 28, 2011 Links and Plugs

RIP Diana Wynne Jones.

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 The Best SF and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 5 edited by Jonathan Strahan

    Friday, March 25, 2011

    Essay: Race and Film Adaptations

    Akira. The Hunger Games. The Last Airbender. Recently, there's an upheaval by fans on the casting calls of the said films. Here's my perspective on the matter:

    One of the problems is the audience's interpretation of adaptation. There's a lot of ways to "adapt" one media into another, and foreign properties (which makes The Hunger Games the exception as it's not a "foreign property", although it does feature a character with olive skin) are even trickier. This is an oversimplification, but foreign properties are usually adapted in one of two ways:

    1) Theoretically remaining faithful to the source. If the original story is set in Japan, the adaptation is also set in Japan. Arguably The Last Airbender falls into this category (yes, it's a fantasy world, but the fantasy world contains a lot of multi-cultural elements that is obviously neither USian or European).

    2) Appropriating the setting to fit the current culture but theoretically retaining the elements that made the foreign property unique. The Ring for example takes place in the US, not Japan.

    Now let me discuss 1) as that's simpler. While there is some room for leeway, for the most part it's appropriate that the film uses actors and actresses that represent the culture of its characters (i.e. if the character is Asian, get an Asian actor). Not that it's as clear-cut as that. For example, personally, while I enjoy seeing Ming-Na Wen or Pat Morita or Lucy Liu or Mako Iwamatsu, I dislike Hollywood's "recycling" of these actors, especially for parts that aren't necessarily representative of their culture. There's a big difference between Japanese, Korean, and Chinese for example, but Hollywood lumps them into this unified category so that Chinese actors play Japanese parts and Korean actors play Chinese parts. It's better than the alternative--Caucasians playing a Korean for example--but hopefully there will come a time when the role calls for a Chinese actor, Hollywood actually gets someone Chinese, and not just one that looks Chinese.

    Now when it comes to 2), the film producer has more leeway. Various countries like the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, India, etc. have made films using foreign properties. In those instances, the actors come from their respective countries. If the Philippines were to do a film adaptation of Batman for example, we're definitely going to hire a Filipino, not an American. (In comics, another example of this is Spider-Man: India, or even the Japanese live-action adaptation of Spider-Man.) So in the case of Akira, I don't know what track Hollywood is taking it. If it uses 2), then there's some leeway for them to cast a non-Japanese actor, but it will definitely feel out of place if they retain the Japanese names (why do they have Japanese names if they're not Japanese???). Having said that, Hollywood has one glaring problem with regards to 2).

    Hollywood is making a film for the US. Hollywood tends to cast Caucasians for most of their roles. Unfortunately, the US is not comprised of Caucasians. It's a melting pot of various races: African-American. Hispanics. Asians. Indians. So when making a film adaptation, even when using the 2) model, why are you limiting your casting choices to Caucasians?

    When Saban for example adapted the Japanese show Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger for American TV, it's understandable that Mighty Morpin Power Rangers would feature exclusively American actors (as opposed to Japanese). However, one good thing about the show is that it featured actors like Walter Emanuel Jones and Thuy Trang. (Of course the bad thing about the show is that it conformed to stereotype in terms of the color scheme. The African-American actor as the Black Ranger? The Asian actress as the Yellow Ranger? Really?) Similarly, that's why I approve of Idris Elba's presence in the upcoming Thor movie. Look, the Thor movie isn't about Nordic culture; Thor is about Nordic culture filtered through the lens of its American creators (Marvel Comics) as well as containing elements of fantasy and science fiction. It's not such a big leap of faith for the cast to include a Black British actor since this is an American production.

    March 25, 2011 Links and Plugs

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    Flurb #11

    Thursday, March 24, 2011

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    Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child Lochi by John Grant

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    March 23, 2011 Links and Plugs

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    Stone Telling #3

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    Guest Post: Are Bad Endings Good? by Guy Hasson

    Are bad endings good?

    Most authors would say ‘yes’. Even more would-be authors would say ‘yes’. When I was in my early twenties up till my early thirties, I would have said ‘yes’, too.

    When you’re just starting out, you feel like you have a responsibility when you write. You want to fix the world, change the world, teach your readers and audience the truth so many are blind to. You want to shine the light of truth into the eyes of people who have consciously or unconsciously pulled the wool over their eyes.

    When you make sure your book or story has a bad ending, you’re also telling your readers that not everything is good in the world. You’re telling them in a way that penetrates to their emotions that the world they live in is harsh and that happy endings are not guaranteed the way they are in Disney movies or most Hollywood movies for that matter. Sure, you may lose a considerable percentage of your readers if you consistently provide endings that are bad for your heroes, but the idealist in you insists that at least you told the truth to the people who listened. In some way, in some very small way, you helped change their lives and made the world a slightly better place.

    When you make sure your book or story has a good ending, the idealist in you says, you’re telling your readers that there’s no reason to get off the couch and be active to change things for the better. No, happy endings are all around. You leave your reader satisfied, and so he’s less likely to become active for being unsatisfied. In giving the readers good endings, the idealist in you insists, you’re helping to keep the status quo. And that’s not your job as an artist.

    But then years of experience come in. And they show you that the effect your powerful stories have is nill. Powerful political statements? Even those who agree with you quickly forget your brilliant reasoning. A year later, they forget what it was they agreed with. Showing truth to readers? Your truths are forgotten and the readers continue to live their lives of lie and wool pulling.

    In truth, nothing you say sticks.

    Oh, no, that’s not true. A few things do stick. If you make your readers laugh, they’ll remember you forever. If you make them cry, they’ll love you forever.

    But let’s not talk about how your readers feel about you, let’s talk about whether something sticks that changes your readers.

    If you give your readers an explosion of imagination, it will stay with them. Even years later, they’ll remember that they’re capable of more imagination than they normally use. They’ll return to your stories or books and read them and then play with their own imagination. Giving imagination to people takes them outside their box and in some way, in some small way, makes their world a better place.

    Next: If you give your readers new experiences, they’ll remember that there is more to their world than what they experience in their normal lives. They’ll want to experience more, which leads to a specific kind of excitement, and one that spreads easily from man to friend. In some way, in some small way, you made their world (and the world at large) a better place.

    Lastly: If you give your readers an explosion of emotion, they’ll remember that they’re capable of so much more emotion than they’re feeling. They’ll know that the color red is redder, that beauty can be more beautiful, that anger can be more powerful, that love can be unbelievable, that a loss is almost too great to bear, and so on. They’ll know that there’s more, and some of them will seek out that more at the expense of dreariness, drabness, and sameness. In some way, in some small way, you made their world a better place.

    So are bad endings good or bad? Are good endings bad or good? As in most things in life, experience teaches us that it’s not the end that matters, it’s how you get there. If you got there through an explosion of imagination or through letting the readers live through new experiences, or if you’ve given your readers an explosion of emotion, then you’ve done good, and helped change and influence most readers’ lives in some small way. The ending really doesn’t matter.

    One last thing: I have a new book out. It’s called Secret Thoughts. Check it out. It’s an explosion of imagination, new experiences, and emotion: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/apex-store/secret-thoughts/

    Guy Hasson
    Homepage: http://guyhasson.wordpress.com/

    Guy Hasson is an Israeli writer, playwright, and filmmaker. His fiction is predominantly written in English, whilst his stage and film work is written in Hebrew. He is the author of two books published in Israel-a short story collection and a short novel-and he wrote and directed the science fiction feature film Heart of Stone in 2008. He is also a two-time winner of the Israeli Geffen Award for science fiction short stories. You can find more of his work in the anthologies The Apex Book of World Science Fiction and Apexology: Horror.

    March 22, 2011 Links and Plugs

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    The Spiral Path by Liza Paitz Spindler

    Monday, March 21, 2011

    Essay: Should eBooks be Cheaper than Print?

    If I take a survey now, majority of my readers will probably answer in the affirmative. I've seen the excuse many times: I'm not willing to buy an eBook if it's more expensive--or equal--to the cost of its print equivalent (i.e. "It has to be cheaper than the hardcover or paperback!"). For me, it's an interesting phenomenon, mainly because in this instance, consumers value old technology more than new technology. For example, in the music industry, when CDs came out, they were more expensive than cassette tapes, yet no one claimed "CDs should be cheaper!"

    The Rationalization

    An often but ill-cited reason by anyone but the publisher really is that eBooks don't have print costs, hence they should be cheaper. This has been debunked numerous times by various publishers, claiming that the actual printing of the book only costs somewhere between 10% ~ 20% of the retail price, but no matter how many times this is repeated, no one seems to listen--or better yet, there is a cognitive dissonance between this fact and how much we value print. A better example is a query from the 90's that I read in a video game magazine: the inteprid fan was asking that because video games were now delivered via CD-ROM (as opposed to cartridges), why did video games cost $50.00 unlike music CDs which cost $10.00 (at the time). There are, of course, many answers to that question, from production costs (theoretically harder and longer to create a game) to marketing (music arguably gets free publicity from radios and MTVs) to economies of scale (music sells more than games). CDs might be dirt cheap (currently $0.15 here), but what you're buying, whether it's software, an album, or a movie, or simply art, is the content. No one is claiming that you should buy Adobe Photoshop for $0.99 because the DVD it's copied into costs $0.20.

    "Content is king," however, can be a difficult concept to grasp at times. We're creatures of the physical world and content is intangible. It's easier, for example, to adjucate theft of physical property as opposed to intellectual property. In the case of the former, they either stole your bike or they didn't. With the latter, your "property" needs to be established (i.e. what are its unique characteristics), and then prove that the other party attempted to replicate it. Sometimes, it's clear-cut to experts (but not to the public in general). At other times, there's room for argument and debate.

    To be fair, when it comes to the publishing industry, it's not simply a matter of ignorance on the consumer's part. Publishers, over the decades, have fostered the idea that hardcovers should be more expensive than mass-market paperbacks. They've been selling to readers that hey, because this book is larger and printed on better paper, this is significantly more expensive than the mass market paperback (they haven't explicitly stated this but insinuated it). The reality, however, is that a hardcover isn't that significantly more expensive than a mass market paperback to manufacture. The real reason why hardcovers are expensive is that it's being sold at a price than the publisher thinks the public is willing to pay for. Part of this psychological trick is that for certain titles, a publisher will release the hardcover format initially, and then a mass-market paperback one year later (to theoretically entice readers who couldn't afford the hardcover to buy copies of the book). They know that the early adopters--those who buy the hardcovers--are paying for the privilege of reading the book first (or at least before it gets sold as a mass-market paperback). Unfortunately, this fact isn't immediately apparent to most consumers (although it's observable if you notice the publishing patterns). Hence when eBooks started becoming lucrative as a business, publisher expectations were at odds with consumer expectations. Here's one of my favorite quotes from author Paul Cornell:
    "Publishers have always thought that when you buy a hardback, what you're paying more for is the chance to own it on the day of publication. Paperbacks are cheaper because they come out a year later. The reading public, on the other hand, always thought what they were paying more for was the extra physical mass and quality. (Actually, a hardback costs, one publisher told me, only from 50p to a couple of pounds more to make.) So obviously publishers think an e-book, out on the day of publication, should cost the same as a hardback. And obviously the reading public think it should cost less than a paperback. From this difference in perception stem all subsequent horrors."
    Having said that, there are other cultures wherein it's acceptable of eBooks to be more expensive than print. Japan for example (see slide 12).

    The Advantages

    Still, you might not be convinced about the price of eBooks, at least in relation to print. Here are some examples of the advantages of each format.

    eBooks (or to be more specific, ePub, and I'm assuming they're DRM-free):

    Instant Delivery: When you purchase an eBook, you download it in a short period of time (i.e. less than an hour). Delivery time is actually a premium. That's why you pay Amazon an additional fee if you want to receive your shipment faster.

    Durability: eBooks don't suffer from wear and tear. That's why HarperCollins is imposing a 26-checkout limit on eBooks for libraries, because they're sturdier compared to print.

    Portability: You can store your entire library in your eBook reading device. Or a flash drive. Or email it to yourself. You don't need a suitcase to carry all your books.

    Searchability: You can easily look-up words, search for specific passages, etc.

    Bookmarks and Notes: While not exclusive to eBooks, it's easier to just bookmark a page or add a note to an eBook.

    Free of Organisms and Certain Allergens: I have a special condition--I'm allergic to dust. This makes reading old books difficult. eBooks don't accumulate dust or harmful organisms (your eBook reader though emits radiation so there is that...).

    Print:


    Tangible: A book is tactile. You can touch it, turn the pages, etc. One would argue this is the biggest assest of print.

    Flexibility: A lot of creative content can be conveyed in print. You can produce a footnote-heavy book. Or you can create pop-out books. You aren't hampered by technical limitations of code.

    Reliability: You don't need an eBook reading device to read a book. As long as you have it, you can read it.

    Loanable: You can loan the book to someone else or re-sell it.

    Visibility: In the same way that I have allergies which prevent me from enjoying print, there are some people who, for various visual reasons, cannot stand reading eBooks. You can't sell a book to someone who can't read them.

    Now the point of that list isn't to say eBooks are superior to print, but each medium has its own advantages. What consumers find value in, however, is relative. Most people right now will probably shell out $9.00 for a book simply because it's tactile and that more than outweighs any of the possible benefits of eBooks. And it's a perfectly valid reason: the previous generation, after all, was raised in a culture that prefers--and understands--physical property. That's not a condemnation of people who aren't willing to pay a lot for eBooks, but it explains their failure to articulate why they're not willing to purchase an eBook when it costs the same as the print version. When they use phrases like "I don't care" or "I just won't", what they really mean is "I'm attached to the tactile element of print and I'm willing to pay a premium price for it." That's why no matter how much logic publishers and critics might throw at readers (see my previous paragraphs for example), a lot of consumers won't budge because they're reacting from gut feelings. Combating emotions with logical arguments doesn't work all the time.

    Price Points

    eBooks as a format, however, is only part of the story. The bigger issue here is how much eBooks should cost. Magic numbers have been mentioned: $9.99. $0.99. I dislike "universal advice" because it doesn't take into consideration the unique situation of publishers, authors, or simply of the business. Jennifer Mattern, who writes nonfiction, has books priced at $9.97, $17.00, and $37.00. You'd think that no one would buy her books but it all comes down to her game plan.

    In genre, a better example is Clarkesworld. Its eBook editions cost $2.99 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. They're currently experimenting with selling them at $0.99. Is that the right move? Well, here's one problem they have to overcome:
    "The logical/mathematical side of my brain is screaming, NO, NO, NO, we would have to sell nearly 6 times as many books at Amazon and 5 times as many at B&N.com to maintain our current income."
    This is basic Supply and Demand. At $2.99, Clarkesworld is selling X number of copies of the magazine. In order for them to match the former at $0.99, Clarkesworld needs to sell 6X. Let's assume (for those who find variables too abstract) X is 100. To match the current income, Clarkesworld would need to sell 600 copies at $0.99.

    The question--and why publishers and authors are experimenting--is discovering whether lowering the price will indeed give them those numbers (or exceed them). If it does, then lowering the price was a smart move. If it didn't, then reverting to the previous price is the right decision. (And then there is also the question whether this is a one-time deal [i.e. those numbers are valid only for one month] or if it can be sustained.)

    And that's what most pundits don't realize: just because you lower your price doesn't mean you'll automatically get more readers--or at least enough readers to match your desired income. Let's say you first priced your book at $9.99 and you get 10 buyers each month. At $0.99, you get 100 buyers each month. Obviously the latter isn't significantly as advantageous, so you try somewhere in the middle, $4.99, and you get 50 buyers each month. Now at $4.99, you don't get as much readers as $0.99, but you are making more money than either $9.99 or $0.99 models. This should be the heart of the argument, at least if what you're interested in is profit and sustainability. It's possible that all you're interested in is gathering a large base of readers, profits be damned. That's certainly a viable long-term business model, and for the record, Amazon was a loss-leader until 2001 so that strategy paid off for them eventually. But if you're solely interested in acquiring a huge following, why not just give your book away for free using the Creative Commons model?

    Speaking of the Creative Commons, there's also something we can learn from that particular model in relation to pricing eBooks. Not all books that are released under the Creative Commons license, or even pirated books, acquire a huge following. That's also the case with $0.99-priced eBooks.

    If you genuinely think you can sell thousands of eBooks per month (factoring in your production expenses of course) with the $0.99 price, then go ahead. If not, then you might want to rethink your pricing strategy (again, taking into consideration your production expenses; The Blair Witch Project was a financial success after all because of the amount it grossed in relation to how much it took to produce the movie).  Also do not confuse $0.99 with marketing. It's honestly hard to sell tens of thousands of copies of an eBook if you don't know how to spread the word that you exist (or if your reader base is less than that number).

    Distributor/Retailer Business Models

    Related to price points are the models used by distributors/retailers, specifically the initial ire the Agency Pricing drew. Honestly, Agency Pricing is just one method, and it is not inherently right or wrong. Individual prices--and publishers--can be blamed (i.e. when they set the price too high) but the model itself is not broken as some would like to claim. It's like saying Democracy is a system that is broken (and while there are certainly those who genuinely believe that, a lot of complaints are usually targeted at specific politicians and regimes).

    Consumers, at the end of the day, don't care what business model is used for pricing books, as long as they end up paying the amount they think is right for books. If Amazon and Apple were to suddenly dictate that eBooks should cost $25.00, consumers would similarly be up in arms against them.

    What Agency Pricing does, however, is shift the power from retailers to publishers. Now when Amazon was still dictating the price of eBooks (and it had good incentive to make eBooks a loss leader since they didn't need them to profit; they were selling Kindles), it wasn't a free market economy. Neither is Agency Pricing (Amazon for example can't suddenly provide discounts for eBooks). And I'm not saying the business should be a completely free market economy. In other parts of the world, there are other bodies that regulate the pricing of books (eBooks or otherwise), such as the government and whatever taxes they impose.

    What's beneficial with Agency Pricing is that publishers can dictate the price of their books as represented by the market. Book A might be sold at $4.99 because it's selling briskly. Book B might be sold at $11.99 because it's not projected to sell as much. And sometimes, it's not about the quantities sold but production costs (i.e. Book B was more expensive to make than Book A when they're expected to sell the same quantities). A retailer won't care about these individual factors, as long as they get to sell books, since they're receiving a percentage of the sales anyway no matter which book sells. But that's just my side as a publisher-author.

    One Size Fits All

    It's not. If there's anything I hope readers take away from this, it's to understand the relativeness of everything. That's why it's possible for eBooks to be priced higher than print. Or why not all eBooks should be priced at either $9.99 or $0.99. Or why some consumers simply won't pay as much for eBooks (or print for that matter). Or what model is best for the industry.

    Book Review: Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge


    Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

    Small Beer Press only publishes a few books every year so I start paying attention at their lineup. Some are debuting authors or new books. At other times, it's like Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge, which is a reprint. When a company makes such a decision, you have to wonder: what made this book compelling enough to reprint? Or better yet, how could I have missed this in its initial release, and is it worth reading in the modern context?

    In a certain way, Solitaire is ahead of its time. It's a title that old, conventional marketing will tell you won't sell: it features a multicultural, non-white, female protagonist who happens to be a lesbian; the author is telling us the details rather than showing us; it's a science fiction concept within a science fiction concept. Yet it is for these reasons that the book succeeds. Let me break it down into its components.

    The first is characterization. Eskridge immediately thrusts us into her main character's conflict, a familiar scenario every teenager feels but magnified in a way that only fiction can exaggerates. While the author is direct when it comes to her narrative, the details are subtle. There's little exposition and her characters are left to fend for themselves--and it works. Dialogue is sprinkled with foreign words and phrases--as any believable multicultural character would normally speak--and it's presented in a way that's not patronizing. Everyone, from the main to supporting cast, has believable motivation and everyone operates in shades of gray rather than clear-cut black and white. I made a note in the previous paragraph that the protagonist in the story is multicultural non-white, female, and a lesbian, but what really matters to me as a reader is that I feel that this is a genuine character, rather than simply included for the purposes of one's agenda, the plot, or for the sake of introducing a non-mainstream character.

    This approach to characterization is similarly employed in presenting the setting. There is no wall of text that explains how the world works. Instead, it's presented in such a way that the reader can deduce from the context clues what sort of world Solitaire takes place in. It's not a dystopia, a utopia, or some amalgam of cyberpunk, but a fleshed out world with its own unique benefits and challenges.

    I have, as a writer, been instructed numerous times to "show, not tell". I would describe Eskridge, based on this novel, that she is a tell-type writer, but it doesn't matter. After the first few pages, the reader is immediately engrossed in the narrative, which is what matters. There are also occasional moments of preciosity but they are irrelevant. There's a lot that Eskridge wants to convey and the book is constantly keeping readers up to speed with what's happening. That's not to say Eskridge's writing is perfect, but in this instance, it's adequate for what she's attempting. Solitaire is mostly a plot and character-driven book rather than one peppered with purple prose.

    And then there is the science fiction element of the book. Eskridge has worked out the details of her setting and its many implications. While it's clear from the very start that the book takes place in a science fictional world, I'm surprised--and applaud--Eskridge for steering it into new territory that wasn't immediately apparent but hinted at from the beginning. Suffice to say, I enjoyed the latter part of the book more than the opening pages, but it's impressive how the author ties the two together organically and how you can't just omit the earlier parts. The conflict later in the book also has many parallels to real-life conditions and philosophy, but I'll leave that for readers to assess. Those who read science fiction because of the "concept" will find lots to enjoy here.

    Personally, what sells Solitaire is Eskridge's characterization and how her characters, whether heroic or villanous, are sympathetic. The author doesn't take the easy way out, and she articulates the complex nature of our relationships through the various characters and their feelings.

    Book Review: What I Didn't See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler


    Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

    I'm one of those readers who's perfectly fine with the term speculative fiction (or fantastika on the other end of the spectrum). I enjoy a sense of genre ambiguity, as long as it's done well. It's also why I enjoy Karen Joy Fowler's stories. Some of the criticism leveled against her--and it's valid for a lot of the stories in What I Didn't See and Other Stories--is that it's neither science fiction or fantasy. Which isn't quite right. The fantastical or science fictional elements (as the case may be) tends to be subtle, except in a few circumstances (such as "Halfway People"). But at the end of the day, whether a specific story has this or that, isn't the point. I'm more concerned with whether a) I enjoyed the story and b) if it is well-written. The stories in this collection--every single one of them--easily satisfies that criteria.

    Some writers like to experiment in style and technique. Fowler isn't that kind of author, although each story is different in its own way. "Booth's Ghost" for example could easily have been classified as historical fiction, "The Dark" is sprinkled with research, and "Halfway People" is subversion of a well-known fairy tale. What's common among all of Fowler's stories--and the appeal of her writing--is her characterization and how we delve into the mindscape of her protagonists. One of my favorite stories for example is "The Last Worders" and one of the appealing aspects of the narrative is how the author never writes condescendingly to the reader. While the conflict and resolution isn't understated, it's not explicit either. It's up to the reader to read between the lines and comprehend the implications. It wouldn't work if Fowler doesn't sell us on her portrayal of the characters but it's quite evident how her protagonist in in denial. And this is just one story. "Always" for example has a different point of attack but Fowler's exploration of her main character is just as powerful and sympathetic. What impressed me here for example is how the reader comes to share the narrator's epiphany, at how convicing the character's paradigm shift is--and how this sets her apart from the rest.

    Initially, upon receiving the book, I wouldn't exactly classify Fowler's stories as memorable based on the title alone. But I've actually read a third of the stories from other sources--I quite easily remembered "The Pelican Bar" from Eclipse Three--and it's surprising how the story comes together in your mind after just reading the first few sentences. For me "Booth's Ghost" was interesting because I had heard a reading of it and I imagined reading it from a different book when that wasn't the case (it's a story original to the collection). Even Fowler's older work such as "The Dark" is something that will stand the test of time.

    Fowler cements her place in fiction history--genre or otherwise--not because of her fancy tricks but through sheer technique and her excellence in characterization. She should also be given credit at challenging the status quo through her insertion of the genre element in her fiction, even if it at times, it is mostly invisible. In a society where genre fans are disheartened to read about mainstream writers disavowing their clearly-genre work, Fowler is the opposite as she's willingly embracing genre. The metafiction aside, What I Didn't See and Other Stories is a powerful collection with no weak link, providing not just quantity but quality.

    March 21, 2011 Links and Plugs

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    M-Brane SF Quarterly #2 March 2011

    Friday, March 18, 2011

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    Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

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    Engines of Desire by Livia Llewellyn

    Tuesday, March 15, 2011

    Essay: eBooks and Self-Publishing

    Currently, there are a lot of people espousing going the self-publishing route when it comes to eBooks, citing authors like J.A. Konrath. Do I recommend such advice? Well, there will always be qualifications and here are some considerations that some people omit or aren't explicit.

    Every Person is Wired Differently

    The first thing to consider is who you are. For example, when it comes to the writing process, different authors have different techniques. Some writers use outlines. Others do not. Some write in chronological order. Others write the scenes they enjoy the most first. There is no universal, objective answer to such questions. One technique might work for one author while it may not for another. The best advice here is to experiment and discover what works for you.

    That's also the case with self-publishing. Some writers are optimized exclusively for writing (or don't have the time to pursue anything else). Others might be good at the other elements involved in publishing. Do you know who the ideal author self-publishers are? The ones who are in love with the entire publishing process, from book cover to editing to marketing to production to finances. You might be obsessive-compulsive when it comes to these details. With self-publishing, you have all this freedom--and responsibility. Honestly, some writers are ill-suited for self-publishing. Others, on the other hand, might be encouraged by this route and improve their writing and/or finances. Because a lot of people subscribe to the theory of specialization (i.e. you can only be good at one thing), the former is probably more common than the latter.  But who knows, it's possible that you might be one of the latter. However, be aware of the other considerations (see below).

    Quality Control

    Now you don't have to be a great writer to be a best-seller, if that is your goal (life's not fair, deal with it). However, there is a bare minimum of quality that is required. Even the most horribly-written (based on each reader's subjectivity of course) best-seller is, at the very least, competent. Self-publishing is usually frowned upon because a lot of unpublished writers don't even have the sense to write competent fiction. What do I mean by competence? Basic things like grammar, spelling, structure, etc. While it's easy to claim that other people don't have this level of skill, a lot of us don't have the same "objective" assessment when it comes to our own writing. Traditional publishing plays it safe (and to a certain extent, determine whether your writing is worth the investment or not) by having gatekeepers and editors.

    Now let's assume you're not the kind of writer mentioned above. Let's say you are a talented writer who has produced fiction that is of some quality. Well, then you'll usually fall in one of two camps. The first camp are the writers who actually want to improve. It might be polishing the existing manuscript. Or making significant edits with their work. What you want is either time (time which can be devoted to other duties) or an editor(s). There are different kinds of editors (Terri Windling has a breakdown here on some of them) and you don't have immediate access to them a self-published author. It's not just about paying for an editor, but finding the contacts and finding the right editor for you. With traditional publishing, not only does the publisher pay for that service, but they have a stable of editors who theoretically have a track record. It's also very much possible that you're the type of writer who doesn't need any sort of editing. I'll be blunt: that's usually the exception rather than the norm (which isn't to say that you're not that type of writer but self-delusion is easy to come by in the publishing industry).

    The other type of writer is one who is satisfied with their current level of writing and simply want to focus on getting their book out. See below.

    Book Design

    For me, book design can be broken down into two parts. One is the cover. Unless you're a graphic artist, illustrator, or have raw talent, you'll most likely want to outsource your cover. (It's still possible to come up with a horrible cover and sell a lot but it's not a practice I encourage.)

    The second is book layout. If this were a print book, my recommendation would be similar to the first. But the good news about two of the popular eBook formats right now--ePub and Kindle--is that you don't need to have good design sense to create a competent layout (I elaborate on that here). As a self-publisher, this is one of the things you can teach yourself and what I consider "trainable". It'll take some time to educate yourself, depending on how web-savvy you are, but as long as you're not an absolute luddite (or an idiot), I'd say you can teach yourself within a week or two of how to layout eBooks. That's the good news. The bad news is that while it takes a relatively short time to teach yourself how to layout in ePub/Kindle, it usually takes a lot of time and effort to produce a competent (see Lou Ander's experience) layout, especially novel-length books. This can be partially mitigated by software but I do not recommend being solely reliant on software (as opposed to code).

    Marketing/Publicity

    Now marketing and publicity are really two different but related industries. The question is whether you want to outsource these, or take them upon yourself (at which point, the distinction can be moot). Before you choose the latter, if you are planning to interact with your readers, you must first determine whether you have a sociable personality. There are honestly some authors who should never be on Twitter or Facebook or responding to comments. Others are a more than welcome addition to the community. If you're the former, either outsource publicity, or you might want to simply stick with a traditional publisher. If you're the latter, prepare to dedicate a lot of time to this aspect of the business (which honestly can be rewarding as you get to interact with your readers).

    Employees vs. Entrepreneurs

    If you are going to be a self-publisher, you need to have an entrepreneurial mentality. What do I mean by that? Well, employees are paid on a timely basis (i.e. once a month) and freelancers a lump sum (usually a 50/50 split before and after the work is done). Authors with a traditional publisher is some combination of those two: they are given an advance (lump sum) and then hopefully, every year or so (assuming their book is successful), receive royalties. It's mostly a "fire-and-forget" experience: write manuscript, submit manuscript, get paid.

    Self-publishers, on the other hand, are like entrepreneurs. While authors do spend some money during the publishing process (i.e. printing copies for their agents and publisher), it is a paltry sum compared to what a self-publisher will spend. The good news is that eBook self-publishing (as opposed to print) has lowered costs significantly. You don't need to pay for distribution for example (or at least it's not in addition to what you're paying the retailer). Or for printing the actual book. But there are other costs such as ISBNs and freelancers (book designer, cover artist, editors, publicists, etc.) you might employ. You can mitigate some of these costs by doing them yourself, but bear in mind that a) you have finite time and b) you may not actually be good in that specific field.

    So aside from spending money, also don't expect to recoup your investment immediately. eBook payment terms are relatively quick (compared to traditional publishing), especially if you're a self-publisher, but unless you sell a hundred thousand books in your first month, you won't get a fat paycheck initially (see payment terms of your retailer on how soon you can expect to get paid). A return on your investment won't happen until later on (which can be anywhere to months or years, depending on your success). If your book is a success (i.e. recoups your costs), congratulations. You can expect a better payoff in the long-run compared to signing with a traditional publisher. If your book tanks, well, no one is going to give you your money back.

    The good thing about being a self-publisher however is that you can make decisions and changes immediately. You can set the price of your book. Make it available in certain countries. Market it the way you want. You have mobility that you wouldn't otherwise have. But you'll also be working the entire year, not necessarily eight hours a day. You 'll want to monitor sales, make sure there's no problem in the production chain (i.e. your retailer suddenly stops selling your books), address your customer's needs, etc.

    Now neither paradigm--employee vs. entrepreneur--is superior. Some prefer the former, as the diminished risk is well worth the diminished rewards. If you're a starving writer for example, I don't think you'd want to go the self-publishing route (but there are exceptions, such as with Catherynne M. Valente and the initial release of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making). There is also the question of valuing your time (it's not necessarily time that goes into your writing, but time that could be spent with friends and relatives). Being a self-publisher is more demanding on time (depending on how much work you delegate to others) although it's significantly less when it comes to eBooks (as opposed to print).

    Intimidation

    Now there are other details in self-publishing that I haven't mentioned, but these are the broad strokes. If you're intimidated by all this, then self-publishing is probably not for you. If you're encouraged by this, you might want to give it a shot (which isn't to say you're suited for it). Cory Doctorow for example has posted his experiences self-publishing With A Little Help (although this is both for print and eBooks).

    Self-publishing can be rewarding, financially and/or emotionally, but it is also demanding of time and talent (if not money). Whether one outweights the other varies from person to person.

    I have self-published electronically (just look at The Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler and The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009) and I've had fiction published by traditional publishers. Each experience is different and has its own rewards although for me, I tend to avoid the former unless it's absolutely necessary. (For example, as an author, I have to keep track of a) my manuscript, b) contracts, c) revisions to proofs, d) updating my author bio and bibliography, e) payments, and f) taxes; how much more will be on my plate as a self-publisher?)

    March 15, 2011 Links and Plugs

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    Secret Thoughts by Guy Hason

      Monday, March 14, 2011

      Book Review: The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One edited by Scott H. Andrews


      In a certain way, I'm the benchmark reader for The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One. I haven't read any of their issues so this is their chance not only to impress me, but to convey what their specialty is. This goal might sound simple but it's difficult to pull off. I remember reading Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show anthology and it was an amorphous publication that didn't leave a distinct impression, either in the quality of their stories or what their niche was (save for the fact that it had more Ender stories). Thankfully, The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One leaves an impression. Even without looking at their web page, it's evident from the stories what the direction of the publication is: high fantasy. Not just high fantasy that's derivative of sword & sorcery or post-Tolkien, but high fantasy that brings something new and different to the table. I love this niche because aside from Blackgate and the occasional short story collection or anthology, coming across such a sub-genre is rare--at least as far as the short story format is concerned. (That's not to say Beneath Ceaseless Skies is exclusively high fantasy; there are some urban fantasy stories included for example.)

      While we have a clear picture of what kind of publication Beneath Ceaseless Skies is, the second challenge is whether their "best" is good enough. It can be safely said that there's no false advertising here as the book does feel like it's the cream of the crop. It's not just about delivering a story that's memorable, but each story is distinct from the rest. I mentioned in the previous paragraph at how a lot of high fantasy can feel derivative of Tolkien or the sword & sorcery sub-genre, but each story is refreshing and drastically different from the story that precedes or comes after it. Take for example the opening piece, "The Sword of Loving Kindness" by Chris Willrich. While at first glance it bears resemblance to Fritz Leiber's famous duo, Willrich steers the narrative into an entirely different direction. It has its fair share of amorality but the way he injects humor while still maintaining the seriousness--and danger--or the narrative is commendable. Nor are the characters, either the protagonists or antagonists, reduced to stereotypes and are instead fully fleshed out. Compare this to "Silk and Shadow" by Tony Pi which embraces the epic nature it's drawing inspiration from. The characters do not veer away from your initial expectations but what sets the story apart is its magic system and how the hero uses this to outwit his enemies. One could say this is a plot-driven narrative with a well thought-out cosmology and creative mystery. What adds oomph, however, is the way Pi fashions the ending which leaves room for ambiguity and fits the notions of a Tragedy.

      There are a lot of other strong stories in the anthology, especially those by female authors: "Dragon's-Eyes" by Margaret Ronald, "The Alchemist's Feather" by Erin Cashier, "Blighted Heart" by Aliette de Bodard, and "Thieves of Silence" by Holly Phillips are easily the strongest stories in the book--or any other anthology it might be included for that matter.

      What's impressive with The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One is that there's no story that settles for mediocrity or competence. Each story works on an elevated level, and challenges the notions that high fantasy is cliche or just escapist. Looking at it from a holistic level, the anthology works not only because the title is apt, but because unfamiliar readers will immediately understand what the magazine is about as the selected stories speaks for the editor.

      Magazine Review: Bull Spec #4

       
      Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

      As much as we might mourn the departing of genre magazines--both established and amateur--the good news is that new publications are popping up. They aren't replacements by any means, but they are venues for both readers and writers, as well as delivering something (hopefully) new and different. Bull Spec is one such publication, available in both print and online. If we look at the technical aspects, it's very much a professional publication: professional pay rates for original fiction/poetry, has distribution, an ISSN, etc. In terms of content, however, it has a grassroots vibe. Twelve years ago, I started a fanzine for anime/manga (it's now long gone) but if I were to do one for speculative fiction, Bull Spec could have been one of my babies, which unfortunately includes some of the mistakes I would have made.

      In many ways, Bull Spec is my ideal genre magazine. It has fiction and poetry (although from the table of contents, it's the former that has priority), reviews, and various features such as essays and interviews. In this issue, it even has a comic. While it gets a thumbs up for me in terms of diversity of its selection, the real challenge of any publication is standing out. Let me break it down into its various components.

      In terms of fiction, Bull Spec is healthy. "O, Harvard Square" by Nick Mamatas and "City of Shadow and Glass" by Erin Hoffman stand out, while the other stories are competent. Mamatas's piece is strong on characterization and gives readers much wiggle room with its ambiguous ending. Hoffman, on the other hand, provides an engrossing opening, and while I don't particularly enjoy flash fiction, this is one of the more memorable ones, and whets my appetite for more.

      The poetry section is similarly memorable, although the editor's tastes is fairly traditional (which suits me just fine). The most sophisticated piece is undeniably "Beastwoman's Snarled Rune" by Rose Lemberg, whether it's technique, rhyme, or narrative. Still, it's difficult to find fault with the rest, such as "Masdevallia" by Mark Brandon Allen. Overall in terms of quality, the poetry section is better than the fiction.

      Moving on to its feature articles, what's great about Bull Spec is that there's synergy. For example, there's the "Closed System" comic by Mike Gallagher but this is also paired up with an interview with the creator. The interview with Mark L. Van Name is accompanied by both a personal essay and excerpt from his novel. This is where the chinks in the armor pop up, however. When it comes to "Closed System", Gallagher has his own unique art style, and while this is the fourth part in a series, it stands well on its own. My problem though is with the narrative and the ending: the former feels too didactic while the latter will polarize readers (I fall under the dislike it crowd). The excerpt with Van Name is honestly not enticing although it is a good enough starting point for unfamiliar readers. These two interviews are satisfactory, but they honestly pale in comparison to the other interview in the magazine: Lou Anders. The feature with Pyr and Lou Anders is honestly what the magazine should be focusing on: it's comprehensive and energetic, and interviewer/editor Samuel Montgomery-Blinn writes a terrific introductory piece. I could easily imagine the Anders interview being the centerpiece of its nonfiction. There are also two other interviews in the magazine which aren't highlighted as the previous three, one with Clay and Susan Griffith, the other with Orson Scott Card. Interviewer-writer Alex Granados knows how to frame the narrative around these personalities and the feature article comes out stronger for it, although the lack of emphasis in the design hurts it (they could easily have been mistaken for reviews), but I'll get back to that later on.

      When it comes to the reviews, I find them as a whole uneven. The reviews by Richard Dansky and Paul Kincaid for example are very detailed and helpful. Majority of the other reviews, however, read a bit too generic.

      The last element I want to discuss is design and this is arguably the magazine's biggest weakness. Not that I blame the editor as Montgomery-Blinn's passion is in the content, but I find that for a lot of magazines, overall design is an afterthought and gives the impression that it's an amateur production. I find it disturbing for example that the header/footer has a significantly larger font size than the body. When it comes to the fiction and non-fiction, they are for the most part large chunks of texts and there's not much breathing room. This is usually remedied by photos and illustrations, or even emphasized quotes (which is done in the Lou Anders interview), but that's lacking here (which isn't to say it's not possible to create an elegant layout without images: Black Clock for example). Two of the interviews are tucked with the reviews that it's not immediately evident that they're important features. It's all these tiny details that add up. Which isn't to say there's no great design in the magazine. The spread preceding the interview with Lou Anders, for example, is simply brilliant and stunning. But sadly it is the exception rather than the norm. Ironically enough, these flaws wouldn't be evident if the magazine was delivered in ePub and Kindle format since most of the design is stripped, but as a PDF and print magazine, it's a detriment.

      Overall, Bull Spec is commendable for its attempt. It's not perfect as it has its own fair share of flaws, but it also has bright spots which make the publication worth buying.