Friday, May 29, 2009

May 29, 2009 Links and Plugs

Ed Healy has a new gaming podcast, Open Design.

Over the weekend, I should also be appearing at Sofanauts along with host Tony C Smith, Jeremiah Tolbert, and John Joseph Adams (we all ganged up on John...). And imagine that, people in the UK, US, and Asia all coming together to talk about SF.

Should have plugged this earlier:

World's End by Mark Chadbourn

Top 10 Best-Sellers as of 2009/5/24

From USA Today's best-seller list (you can find out their basis here):
  1. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  2. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  3. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  4. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
  5. Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
  6. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
  7. Gone Tomorrow: A Reacher Novel by Lee Child
  8. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
  9. The Shack by William P. Young
  10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Thursday, May 28, 2009

May 28, 2009 Links and Plugs

Summer summer summer, how I barely knew thee.

And to celebrate Ekaterina Sedia's new Twitter presence:

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May 27, 2009 Links and Plugs

I hope you get to visit The Shirley Jackson Awards Blog and The Nebula Awards Blog (*hint* *hint*). Hopefully will make it to the Sofanauts this weekend, if my Internet doesn't die on me.

And here's a pretty book cover:

Some support for the indies:

Essay: On Book Review Blogs

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

To anyone who's starting a book review blog, here's one piece of unsolicited advice: the challenge isn't in putting up your first book review, but rather sustaining those book reviews. Despite being a book review blog, I don't read a lot of book review blogs myself, but the few that I do read have significantly changed over the past few years. (And my blog has changed over the months as well. Tabletop RPG Podcasts links used to be a core feature here but I eventually had to drop it.)

For example, one of the blogs I'm envious when it comes to the number of visitors is Pat's Fantasy Hotlist. A few years ago, I did find it an interesting site to visit, especially with all the interviews and book reviews Pat has been conducting. These past few months, it's not as appetizing to me as it's transformed into a glorified catalog, with majority of the content being contest giveaways and novel excerpts. Not that the "blog-catalog" is a bad thing (there's certainly a market for it), but it's a stark contrast from what Pat was previously doing. There's still the occasional book review and interview, as well as personal blog entries, but they're the exception rather than the norm.

Compare that to Fantasy Book Critic, which while also having this "catalog" vibe to it, has for the most part transitioned more seamlessly. I attribute the catalog-vibe to Liviu Suciu's review format, which notes down where to buy books from the author, as well the occasional notes from the publisher/author. This format however is an evolution of the initial review template and retains an editorial slant. While the site also runs contests and giveaways, editorial content is still the dominant aspect of the site.

Another site I like to bring up is OF Blog of the Fallen. Like Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, digging through the archives, you'd run across lots of interviews and book reviews. Larry's current content however is anything but (although there is still the occasional review and interview). What makes me come back to his site however is that he's made his site appealing to me via the new content he's posting (and this is subjective--there are obviously people who enjoy the catalog-blog evolution of some sites). It's transformed from a book review blog to more of a column, where Larry writes his opinions, throws a question to readers, reacts to a news bit on the Internet, etc. What both Pat's Fantasy Hotlist and OF Blog of the Fallen proves is how you can gradually change the type of content you're showcasing and still retain your existing audience.

I started taking notice of Grasping for the Wind when it carved for itself a unique niche: catering to the book reviewer audience. John did this late last year by creating the Book Reviewers Linkup Meme, listing all the book review blogs in the genre. Currently, along with Diana Pharaoh Francis, they're assembling The Speculative Fiction Book Reviewer's Database. These aren't innovative features (other industries certainly have similar services) but somebody had to make the effort to start them and in this case, it was John. One might think of it as a niche within a niche, but it's a niche that has a sustainable audience (there'll always be new book bloggers popping up). For example, while the number of successful self-published authors using print-on-demand are few, print-on-demand services continue to thrive because of the sheer number of people (other aspiring authors) utilizing their services. That was also the case with the California Gold Rush, where the ones making the most money tended to be the merchants rather than the gold diggers themselves. And while I focus on this fact, that's not to say John doesn't maintain consistent editorial content.

Why all this change? Well, there's honestly few barriers to entry in the blog book reviewing field, and majority of us don't get compensated. For some people, the book review blog is just a phase, perhaps something that initially caught their fancy and later find out that it's actually work. For others, developments in real life get in the way (family, work, finances, etc.) which can cause an abrupt shift. What I really dislike however was this period of whining, with excuses thrown around "I'm not getting paid for this" or "I do it just for fun of it." Which is true, mind you, but in the case of the former, did you really think book review blogs would be profitable? While there are certainly attempts to monetize blogs (BSC Review and SF Signal for example), most book review blogs aren't set-up that way (where's your metrics, advertising rates, and advertising pitch? Solely depending on Google Ad Sense is folly). And while there's nothing wrong with reviewing books "for the fun of it," don't expect to have a consistent audience if your output is inconsistent (SF Signal for example similarly does it for the fun but they're as consistent as a daily newspaper).

As for my own blog, I honestly don't know what the future has in store for me. I certainly plan on delivering consistent content and I've changed the blog features over the past few months (the daily Links & Plugs wasn't there a year ago for example) but who knows what monkey wrench (or opportunity!) I'll run into?

Essay: Publicity and Book Reviews

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Over at Fantasy Book News & Reviews, Jeff swears off reviewing books before its release date. It's a good guideline to live by but it's by no means a universal rule. Jeff is also working on the belief that book reviews are in the service of the publisher/author--and that's honestly not the case with every reviewer. But if we're just talking about promoting a book and the corresponding book review, when to release a book review depends on the publisher's marketing plan.

Pre-release hype is good but I'll qualify that by mentioning only if it can be sustained. Theoretically, you want to build-up excitement for the book and reviews can help with that (it's not the only method but for the sake of limiting the scope of this essay, I'll just focus on the book reviews aspect). A lot of the blockbuster movies accomplishes this through trailers and the occasional new media marketing ploy. An example of how early book reviews is leveraged by the publisher is when they use a line or two as a cover blurb for the book (or failing that, a blurb for their website, which was the scenario for my review of J.M. McDermott's Last Dragon [as far as marketing is concerned though, you might want to read about McDermott's experience with having a dedicated sales force working on his novel]).

I added the qualifier "if it can be sustained" because a poorly executed marketing plan can lead to a lot of wasted effort. Jeff tackles some of those points but I'll talk about an issue closer to home. One of my local publishers is Philippine Genre Stories. One of the biggest mistakes is the timing of its online promotions (to their credit, they also have some great successes--they have more local readers on their blog compared to mine for example). The first mistake they make with each issue is posting the cover of the magazine months ahead of when it actually gets released. Case in point is the horror issue (which I'm included) which went live at the blog last October 15, 2008. If the issue came out in October or November, the timing would have been right. The second time they failed to capitalize on the publicity was when the book was reviewed in a leading TV station's site, last December 10, 2008. Again, if the book had come out in November or even December, the timing would have been great. But since the issue still hasn't been released (I suspect it'll be out in time for this year's Halloween), whatever interest stirred up by the review has dissipated.

That's just one perspective on the matter though. A publication with an efficient marketing team could have sustained reader interest until the issue's release. This usually works well with either an established series or a really popular author. Looked at J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books. Mid-way through the series (which was when people started paying a lot of attention to her), it was a year or two between the release of each book. Yet fans were looking for news and snippets every single week which would culminate in large gatherings during the book's release. In fantasy, this is also the case with the multi-volume epics such as The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire. The scenario of epic fantasies is interesting because it's an example of how negative publicity is still publicity: all those fanboys complaining that the books aren't out yet are contributing to the hype surrounding the books.

Another example of a prolonged publicity campaign is Starcraft 2. It was announced as early as 2007 (and I doubt if the game will be released earlier than 2010) and every other week or so, Blizzard manages to sustain interest in the game by providing trailers, gameplay videos, Q&A's, and general information. If there's an effective way to build hype, it's Blizzard. Of course most book publishers won't pursue this avenue. It's already difficult planning a promotional campaign 6 months long, much less one that lasts for years. Typically a book is promoted a few months before its release, and yes, book reviews do help in getting the word out. If a book is coming out in December (which is supposedly a bad time for books to get released), publishing a book review as early as January is only optimal if you have other book reviews or publicity events through the rest of the year.

Here's the tricky thing with book reviews though, and why it's difficult for publicists to depend on them. The more successful book reviewers (i.e. the ones who receive tons and tons of books and have a similar wide audience) aren't obliged to review a book, much less print a review in the optimal time frame that publicists want--although it doesn't do any harm to ask. And between choosing between a review to go up before the book is released vs. months after it's out in the wild, a publicist will tend to focus on the former (which isn't to say that post-release book reviews don't help boost the sales of the book; it's just that if you're working in a publishing company, by that time, there are other books to promote, perhaps the author's next book).

Let's also not forget the presence of technology. Pre-orders are almost non-existent in the Philippines but that's not the case with the rest of the world. A lot of the books, especially those released by major publishers, can be pre-ordered in various sites, whether it's Amazon or Barnes & Noble or -insert your favorite bookstore here-. Even if the book isn't out on the day you publish your review, there's an outlet for interested readers to purchase a copy. So even if you disregard the previous section of this essay, this is a good rule of thumb to ask: is the book available for pre-order when I post my review?

What's also not evident to book reviewers is the publicist's marketing plan (and I'm not saying book reviewers should be aware of such details). Not every book reviewer receives the books at the same time, nor is everyone equally prioritized. There's a plan (although granted, some publishers/publicists/authors have inefficient plans) but it's not relayed to you personally. Some authors make their plans transparent: when Jeff VanderMeer released ARCs of his latest book, Finch (which you can, *cough*, pre-order), he had two instructions (which was qualified by the reviewer not being obliged to follow them): blog about it in May, and then review it in October of November (which is when the book gets released). For other authors who send me ARCs, I actually reply and ask them when is the optimal time to publish a review. Answers vary, depending on whether they want to establish pre-launch hype or post-launch coverage (and sometimes other factors come into play such as me interviewing them for my blog or as part of their "everyone-post-reviews-on-the-book's-release-date"). There are other publishers, such as PS Publishing, which releases books a few months before they go out but posts links to reviews on their website--a good way of leveraging the book reviews (they also have pre-order buttons on their store so it all doesn't go to waste).

Publishing book reviews before their release date isn't a bad thing, although yes, there are circumstances when they're sub-optimal. For the "benevolent" book reviewer, the solution isn't a universal "I'll only print reviews when they're out" but rather "how does this book review fit with the schedule of the publicist's plan?" And honestly, sometimes, in order to keep your schedule (professional publications have this thing called deadlines), you need to review a book now rather than later.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 26, 2009 Links and Plugs


Check out this tight and layered book:

Val/Orson by Marly Youmans

Interview: Dot Lin (Publicity Manager for Tor Books)

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Dot Lin is the publicity manager for Tor Books.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, let's talk about you and Tor. How did you first get involved with them?

I was fortunate enough to gain an entry-level position at Tor shortly after college. I liked it so much... that I’ve since stayed there for many years! Publicity looked like the most fun, so I eventually moved there. I have not been disappointed.

Your current position is Publicity Manager. Can you tell us what kind of work that translates to? How similar/different is it from, say, marketing and advertising?

Department definitions vary across companies, but for me, Publicity deals with promoting the author and book, either through the media or through book events. It also generally involves the most interaction with authors and outside people (and the most phone calls!). Marketing deals more directly and more often with bookstores and accounts in terms of selling the actual book, as well as other creative promotions related to that. Advertising designs the actual beautiful ads and works on placing them (anywhere these days—print, online, radio, etc.). We all work closely together, so there can be some blurring of the boundaries!

How does one become a Publicity Manager at Tor?

Caffeine and passion for SF! Aha, there is no one way to reach a position at Tor or any other publishing company. I must say that most people here love what they do and the books that they work on. For Tor, we have a close relationship with our authors, and even though you don’t have to love, say, religious non-fiction if you’re a publicist for religious non-fiction—many people here are passionate about SF literature and pop culture. It’s a wonderful community.

What other departments do you usually coordinate with?

It takes a village... If I had to choose, I would say that I interact most frequently with Editorial, Marketing, and Advertising.

I've seen your name pop up in several places, including the Tor website. What's a day in the life of Dot Lin like?

Wake up, tea, email, mail, phone call, read a blog, meeting, tea—repeat!

Really, I think my working day mirrors that of many book publicists (busy, interactive, and hopefully productive)—except with a bit more fun geek/ pop culture activity. For a fun “day in the life” rundown from an anonymous book publicist, go here. The details change from publicist to publicist, but the spirit of it remains the same!

I'm curious and because Tor is such a cool company, do you get to associate with all the Tor authors or do you simply focus on select authors/editors?

I meet many authors when they come to visit, or if I’m lucky enough to attend a conference, but each publicist works directly with different authors. As mentioned, Tor is part of a wonderful SF community, so we’re fortunate enough to meet authors and others in the community in various places (not just business-wise). Sometimes you go to a birthday party and you run into—“Oh, hey! You’re that artist!” It’s great.

Did you ever have fangirl-mode moments?

Definitely, that’s part of the fun. But it’s the kind that consists of excitement over finally meeting an author, blogger, artist, etc.—not really the kind where I faint facedown in costume at Comic Con :P

2008 was an interesting year for publishing in general. With all the upheavals and the launch of a site like, where do you see Tor positioning itself today? Like is it evolving and headed towards a new/different direction or more of the same with a small room for expansion?

This is a great question—and a big one. I think all companies are thinking about this right now, and I don’t have any shiny, new answers. I will say that Tor has been lucky to have great authors and great support over the years, We really, really appreciate the readers and have been continuously trying to do new and better things for them, which often involve responses to changes in culture, technology, and various factors—not just the economy. Basically, the economy must be taken into the greater picture.

In your opinion, how important a role does marketing play in a writer's career?

Marketing or promotions can only help a writer’s career. The question is which kind of promotion! There’s no one way to market every author or book, and you never know sometimes which method is going to hit the pulse of society at that moment. I do tell writers to never underestimate their own potential in helping to promote their books. You never know which contact could give the book that extra push (ie. your neighbor’s son knowing the editor at such-and-such publication), or maybe that story of you spending two years in the Peace Corps (not directly related to your steampunk novel) makes a great back story for a publication (who usually want a better angle than just “Hi! I wrote a book.”).

What are some of people's misconceptions when it comes to book publicity?

That there’s naptime? Aha, I’m not sure! What are these pre-conceived notions? I have never met Oprah.

How has book publicity been changing in recent years, especially with the Internet and all?

Ah, many people have weighed in on this—basically, more internet publicity in many ways and growing, be it blogs, social networking sites, videos, twitter. Second Life, you name it.

Let's focus more about you. How did you first get into fantasy/science fiction?

I read a lot as a child, and as perhaps many can relate to, half of those books were SF!

Who are some of your favorite authors and/or what are some of your favorite books?

Ahaha, as a book publicist, I’ll keep away from this – but buy me a tea in person and I will tell you!

What made you decide to pursue PR?

Fun, great people, and great stories (even if, ah, it takes two years after the fact for you to “enjoy” said stories).

What do you think are qualities that make a good Publicity Manager?

For any publicist, some good qualities: detail-oriented, responsible, personable, ability to multitask and interactive.

Do you think you need to be a big fan of the works of you clients?

No, and I think almost every publicist would say this. Publicity is a job, and as with any job, you can do good work (and should) even if you don’t love it.

That being said, it doesn’t hurt to like your clients’ work.

Were there ever any aspirations to become an author yourself or perhaps contribute to the field in a different manner?

I do enjoy writing, but am not as prolific or hard-working as my authors—perhaps one day!

However, my secret dream is to do a cameo in a YA fantasy movie. If in animated form, even better! (hint, PIXAR)

Any other interests or something you'd like to share?

Recent interest—manga, anime, and grading the costumes at New York Comic Con. It never gets old. At San Diego last year, there was a group of Transformers who “transformed” before our very eyes ..

Any advice for people interested in doing book publicity?

You will do a lot of writing, interact with many people, do several things at once, and sometimes not have time for lunch. If you have any problems with that, don’t do it!

Any advice for aspiring authors?

I’m not an editor (who probably receive this question most often), but this is what I’ve heard over the years: Write, write, write. Don’t stop writing, and then write some more. Network and get an agent!

Anything else you want to plug?

Since you mentioned the internet, I’d like to give a shout out to sites like this one for helping to spread the word on good authors and books. Especially in these times, it’s lovely when people support the arts.

And hey, to the haven’t-read-a-book-since-Moby-Dick-in-college—buying a book is cheaper than going to the movies, and more hours of fun!

Monday, May 25, 2009

May 25, 2009 Links and Plugs

According to @Robinhemley: "President Arroyo has lifted the "Book Blockade!" No taxes on imported books to the Philippines, effective immediately!!!! Woo hoo!"

But I'm still waiting from official sources on the final news. (Edit: The Philippine Star breaks the news here.) At the very least, MalacaƱang has ordered a review of the tax on imported books.

Because Planet Stories needs more love:

Robots Have No Tails by Henry Kuttner

Book/Magazine Review: Val/Orson by Marly Youmans

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

I've always been impressed with PS Publishing's choice of personalities when it comes to the introduction of their books. In the case of Val/Orson, it's Catherynne M. Valente, who is a classicist, and that in itself should inform you about the particular route this story takes. Val/Orson is very mythic in language and Marly Youmans sells us this fantasy early on. In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story of sorts, with a traditional beginning and end. Where Youmans innovates is everything else, from the characters to the setting. There's always a dichotomy present in each scene, whether it's the clash of nature vs the urban, the protagonist vs his sibling, father vs mother, etc. It's this rich writing that rewards readers and make this a sophisticated read, going beyond what might be expected of a speculative fiction text.

As far as technical skill is concerned, Youmans is to be lauded as Val/Orson is more complex than most novels in the supermarket reading rack. Every single character, every single event, has a purpose and each is part of this diverse web where each element ricochets off each other. Stylistically, Youmans also sustains her tone and has this traditional fantasy atmosphere going for it. While I praise the author for all these accomplishments, Val/Orson isn't really my type of book and this is a personal preference. At this point in time, I'm looking for a more upbeat pace and there were honestly times where I was confused. Was I reading one character's story or several? These are, however, traits that other readers will enjoy and I'm sure when I get the chance to re-read this book, Val/Orson will have a more positive effect on me.

Val/Orson is ambitious and multifaceted, definitely a literary read that is both faithful to the form and groundbreaking. It takes a highly attuned palate to detect the intricacies but keen readers will be rewarded with such a discourse.

Book/Magazine Review: Firebirds Soaring edited by Sharyn November

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

At the Penguin site, Firebirds is described as an imprint designed to appeal to both teenagers and adults. That's a fair summation of this anthology which features nineteen fantastical stories, all of which have a young adult tone. Sharyn November assembles a gamut of authors and stories tackling various ideas, from adventures in the real world to high fantasy settings to anthropomorphic protagonists.

My assessment of this anthology is that it's a mixed bag, although for the most part it was a pleasant experience. Initially, there were some stories that felt too didactic, and a rare few where the prose was clunky. Firebirds Soaring also has its share of excellent stories that stand out, which I'll talk about more later on. Majority fell somewhere in the middle, above average as far as I'm concerned, although perhaps not as memorable as I would have wanted. Still, at nineteen stories, there's a lot to devour, and each story is accompanied by an explanation from the author on how their story developed.

"A Thousand Tails" by Christopher Barzak is an excellent story. The language is compelling, even as Barzak tackles a very discomforting social issue. While his setting is alien to most readers--save for the cliches we see in anime or read in manga--Barzak includes just enough detail that makes it feel right. There's also the incorporation of the fantasy element, not overt but a subtle piece that keeps readers wondering whether it's true or not. All of this however is for naught if the reader doesn't sympathize with the protagonist and the author successfully juggles the right amount of vulnerability and empowerment.

"The Ghost of Strangers" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is one of the lengthier pieces in the anthology but it earns its keep. In a certain way, this is a miniature epic in itself as we witness the maturation of the protagonist from youth to a certain level of adulthood. What's dominant here is the sense of exploration, whether it's discovering our heroine's capabilities, the mystery of dragons, the crisis that pops up in the story, or the characters and the world she eventually encounters. While Hoffman's writing is not perfect--the pace could have been faster--she does manage to pack a lot of complex elements into this tale and re-invent how we perceive dragons.

"Court Ship" by Sherwood Smith is this adventurous fantasy romp featuring princes, pirates, drama, and action. It's an upbeat story that keeps you wanting more and Smith creates a cast of characters that are fleshed out and complex. Perhaps in terms of depth, there are other stories in the anthology that fit that bill but if you want a story that's fun without falling into the trap of a two-dimensional fantasy, "Court Ship" is one of the better secondary world fantasies that I've read.

Overall, while there are some low points in Firebirds Soaring, majority are competent reads that's accessible to a wide audience. Mike Dringenberg has excellent art that captures the atmosphere of each story and there's an elegance in the book's design.

Friday, May 22, 2009

May 22, 2009 Links and Plugs

Book Bigayan 2009 this Sunday in protest of the Book Blockade.

And tomorrow is Free Comic Book day at Fully Booked.

And September 16, 2009 is the Manila International Book Fair.

And here's a nonfiction title that might interest you:

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw Notes on the Language of Science Fiction by Samuel R. Delany

And as a bonus for Matt Staggs:

Chaos by Escober

Quick Note on "Boycotting Taxed Books"

You know what's one of the stupidest solutions I've heard regarding opposing the book blockade? Boycotting the duty books. Because:
  • How do you determine which books are being taxed?
  • The taxes are already paid.
  • Books are good, taxes bad. You don't avoid the former just because of the latter.
  • It'll drive local business owners out of business.
  • While stores might not outlast a boycott, the government (or rather the Department of Finance) will.
  • Print illiteracy wins.
What needs to be done:
  • Put pressure on the Department of Finance (Customs might be deplorable but if it's just the taxing issue, they're not the ones we should be going after) to reverse the tax. And by the Department of Finance, I mean Undersecratary Sales or her boss, Secretary Teves (and irony of ironies, I went to a National Bookstore branch where there's a sign praising Secretary Teves--what does that say about Teves? NBS? Hopefully it's a paid sign).
  • Spread awareness of the issue. And by awareness, I mean legitimate concerns rather than the fallacies and misconceptions surrounding the issue.
  • Encourage the media and politicians to talk about the issue.

Top 10 Best-Sellers as of 2009/5/17

From USA Today's best-seller list (you can find out their basis here):
  1. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  2. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
  3. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  4. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  5. Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
  6. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
  7. Vision in White by Nora Roberts
  8. The Shack by William P. Young
  9. Wicked Prey by John Sandford
  10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 21, 2009 Links and Plugs

When it comes to positive news, books that arrived in the mail include The Best of Michael Moorcock (edited by John Davey with Jeff & Ann VanderMeer), Spotted Lily (by Anna Tambour), and Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales & (also by Anna Tambour).

Also check out my interview with Ian McDonald which seems apt for this week's Fen of Color.

Check out this magazine that just got released:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fictional Ad II

If D&D had Gray Caps...

"These intelligent, mobile mushroms are among the more unusual creatures that live deep below ground. Myconids (also called fungus ones) are gentle, quiet, shy, and thoughtful." - Monster Manual II

May 20, 2009 Links and Plugs

Brain explodo.

And my crush doesn't want me to send her books, *sniff* *sniff*

May 18th, 2009
Check out this book:

Fictional Ad

Gray Cap (illustration by Eric Schaller)

Not a Gray Cap

Feature: "Who Is Jeff VanderMeer?"

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Roughly three ago, I didn't know who Jeff VanderMeer was (and for that matter, I didn't know who Jeffrey Ford was a few years back--what is it with the J's?). The first I had heard of him was through the venerable Dean Francis Alfar who commanded me to find him a copy of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases as I was the resident book pimp. Unfortunately, I failed but got the chance to redeem myself when Alfar was interested in acquiring City of Saints and Madmen. Little did I know that the latter has an interesting history (and multiple versions that compound on the previous releases--you can read the history here and here ) but as fate would have it, I found a black hardcover at Fully Booked, selling for half price and ignored by most people. It was sitting on a shelf too high for me to reach that I had to contact customer service and they promptly got a small ladder to reach the book (advice to bookstores: don't place books out of reach). I inspected it just to make sure it was the real thing and in retrospect, it was the Pan MacMillan/Tor UK hardcover edition. There were three copies lying around, each one selling for P700 (roughly $14.00 at today's exchange rate) and while I was tempted to purchase more than one copy, I was strapped for cash. I quickly browsed through the book that would soon belong to Alfar, admired the artwork, and stored it in my bag. Later that day, I arrived at the home of artist Rom Villaserran who complimented the book's cover. I would have given him a copy of the book then and there but unfortunately, I didn't own the book.
One year later, I would curse myself for not snagging those spare copies of City of Saints and Madmen. A mass-market version was available at local stores but the newer version was missing most of the art save for the occasional mushroom (to be fair, it retains the art from the appendix). By then, I had read Veniss Underground which I found to be an interesting novel which I couldn't help but compare to China Mieville's New Crobuzon. In this instance though, I found VanderMeer's writing to be superior and more upbeat. At this point, the name Jeff VanderMeer was this vague creature. He was a writer of the New Weird (I didn't call it the New Weird back then)? He was this avante-garde author? Later on, it would be book scavenger Joseph Nacino who would utter the name Jeff VanderMeer like a mantra. This was probably life's way of telling me "you should pay attention to Jeff VanderMeer!"

Which was important because a quick Google search revealed that he had a blog! And wrote for Omnivoracious, Amazon's blog. And a bazillion other publications. I realized that I was merely scratching the surface. Back then, VanderMeer was plugging his various anthologies, from Steampunk to Fast Ships, Black Sails. Okay, so VanderMeer isn't just a writer (and not just a New Weird writer at that), he's an editor too (which is a realization that came late considering I first heard of him through The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases). Looking back at his bibliography, I observed that he had written a few novels, including the aforementioned City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: Afterword--both of which were set in his Ambergris setting. Now City of Saints and Madmen was a book unlike anything I've ever encountered before, hence my preconception that VanderMeer was this cutting-edge, avante-garde writer. Just when I thought I had him figured out, VanderMeer announces that he's writing Predator: South China Seas novel. This is, of course, a complete shock to my existing paradigm and I wasn't alone.

"Predator? As in the same predator with Arnold Schwarzanegger?" asked a friend.

I nodded and this necessitated a new mental model of Jeff VanderMeer. If I was a decade younger (or naive), I'd probably think that VanderMeer was a sell-out (not that there's anything wrong with writing media tie-in novels). So I dug deeper into his history.

It's tempting to latch on to the idea that VanderMeer was always successful (in the sense that he's productive and famous) but that's the result of long, hard work. In many ways, VanderMeer follows a punk aesthetic, especially when you consider the fact that he's been active in the speculative fiction industry for more than two decades. He founded the Ministry of Whimsy and while it might contain the stigma of vanity press, at least when it comes to the Leviathan series (in which VanderMeer is co-editor for volumes 1-3), it's not like the anthologies weren't lauded. And over the years, VanderMeer has produced material that defies convention, from The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, City of Saints and Madmen, to the various incarnations of Shriek: An Afterword (movie, soundtrack, stamps). In that context, Predator: South China Seas is a perfect fit in the sense that it's something that VanderMeer hasn't tried before, and doesn't shirk from attempting. I'm not even including work that bridges the fiction/non-fiction divide such as Secret Life (not to be confused with Secret Lives), Why Should I Cut Your Throat?, or the upcoming The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals.

What truly excites me about VanderMeer is that to simply call him a writer or editor is to ignore his other facets: reviewer, columnist, publisher, promoter, columnist, scholar, teacher, blogger, etc. And he manages to successfully juggle all of those as if he was a mutant hybrid of a chimera and a hydra. Some people are content being successful in one field but that's not the case with VanderMeer. He continues to innovate which brings me to the reason why I'm writing this.

Product Placement! Pre-order the book here.

VanderMeer's third Ambergris novel, Finch, is coming out later this from Underland Press. Now as varied as VanderMeer's short stories and novels are from one another, a recurring subject he often goes back to every few years is Ambergris. What is Ambergris? It's this secondary world where humans live among mushroom people (called Gray Caps). My own words do the setting no justice and while it's easy to imagine Super Mario Bros. when I mention mushroom people (Toad anyone?), VanderMeer actually makes them threatening, eerie, and alien. Let me tackle the three books briefly:

City of Saints and Madmen for me redefines the mosaic novel. My preconception of a mosaic novel is something along the lines of Thieves World where a bunch of authors collaborate on the same setting, using the same cast of characters and creating a unified narrative despite writing independent short stories. This book, however, isn't like that. If fantasy fans admire J.R.R. Tolkien on his historical approach to fantasy, as was the case with Silmarillion, VanderMeer takes that premise to the next level. City of Saints and Madmen isn't about any specific character but Ambergris as a whole. You'll find fictional histories (complete with footnotes), bibliographies, appendices, and various short stories. In fact, it's too faithful to the nonfiction material it's mimicking that the writing can get dry and boring (can you really imagine yourself reading several pages of fabricated bibliographies?). But taken as a whole, VanderMeer succeeds in experimenting with structure and form.

Shriek: An Afterword, on the other hand, is a more conventional narrative in the form of a biography (not autobiography!) that's annotated by the very subject it's talking about. It builds upon what's established in the previous novel but stands well on its own. If City of Saints and Madmen experiments with form and structure, Shriek: An Afterword experiments with technique. This is an incredibly layered read, the type that one can easily gloss over but rewards those that pay attention (as opposed to needing to pay attention the entire way, which is the case with James Joyce's Ulysses).

Finch may be the third book in the series but it's completely unlike the first two books. While admittedly its experimentation is less overt (overt being the key word here and I wouldn't be surprised if I missed a meta-textual commentary by VanderMeer), it nonetheless veers towards an unexpected direction with its mystery atmosphere. There's a lot of fantastical elements and genre tropes but all throughout, the book is written with a certain seriousness and drama. Throw in various other elements such as Steampunk and Magic-Realism and you end up with a book that's sophisticated and has a steady build-up. Perhaps the biggest treat for Ambergris fans is that VanderMeer finally answers some enigmas in the previous books, while still being accessible to new readers.

An interesting metafictional layer (as if VanderMeer wasn't metafictional enough) when it comes to all three books is its publishing history: three different publishers (well, at least when it comes to the initial publisher of City of Saints and Madmen) and three entirely different novels yet all written by the same author and set in the same cosmology. Looking at the titles released by Underland Press, Finch is (intentionally?) a perfect match for them, especially with the vibe it conjures.

Over the past few months, I've gotten to known Jeff VanderMeer a bit more but I'm honestly no closer to answering "Who is Jeff VanderMeer?" The only thing I'm certain of is that he'll surprise me as he never ceases to experiment and innovate (assuming the Gray Caps or the squids or the finger puppets don't get to him first).

Feature: Brief Points on A Post-Book Blockade Philippines

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

To Tax or Not To Tax?

Personally, I'm not against taxing books per se. However, Undersecretary Sales' implementation leaves much to be desired such as:

1) Failing to comply to international law, in this case the Florence Treaty. Tax books, fine, but our government shouldn't claim that it's honoring--at the very least--the spirit of the Florence Treaty. Opt out of the treaty, at least there's no hypocrisy that way.

2) Due process of passing "new" laws. There's a complex system for proposing new laws and Undersecretary Sales is free to propose the taxation of books. Let's at least honor our own legal system. Otherwise, why have our existing government set-up in the first place if due process is just going to be arbitrarily bypassed, whether it's Undersecretary Sales or someone else?

3) Lack of coordination between the various departments. Department of Education might want to promote reading but Department of Finance creates a policy that undermines that goal.

Books are not Educational.

For me, the problem is determining which books are educational, scientific, or cultural. It's as precarious as determining genres. Books are art and unfortunately, there's no empirical way (i.e. something that can be consistently proven) to judge them. For example, we have George Orwell's Animal Farm. It's a fantasy novel (and there are those who would argue that it's a "novel" period and shouldn't have the fantasy label attached to it). When the book initially got released, does it qualify as educational? For the sake of argument, let's say no. And then later on, due to the various reactions, it became this literary icon for anti-communism and several schools included it as part of its curriculum. It may not have been classified as educational originally but for certain schools and universities, it did become educational. So there's no real fixed standard to these things and honestly, a university's syllabus will be in constant flux. There's no empirical way to determine whether a book is "educational," unless Undersecretary Sales really means "text books," in which case I think the original law would simply have mentioned text books.

And if what's "educational" is already in a precarious situation of being defined, how much more a looser term such as "cultural?"

What's even scarier is who gets to unanimously claim which books fall under which category (or rather exclude them from, say, being cultural). It may not be direct censorship, but it's a policy that discourages specific titles (which is fine if we're not claiming to be a "free" and democratic country).

It's fine to tax -insert type of book here- but we should make exemptions on -insert type of book here-

The problem here is who gets to determine which books should be exempt and which shouldn't? Or why should Book X be taxed but Book Y not? Those looking for such a policy is only interesting in furthering their own agenda rather than everyone's. (For example, I'm sure the Church would love to tax books like Da Vinci Code and make exemptions on books like The Bible. But why should we give preference to the Church as opposed to everyone else?)

Also, see the previous point.

And not to rant, but other mediums such as comics have been proven to be educational/cultural, such as Art Spiegelman's Maus. Or magazines such as Playboy have featured literary fiction from authors like John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemmingway, and Jack Keruoac, despite what others might think of the rest of its content.

The new law is good for local book publishing.

Wrong again.

First off, some local publishers have their books printed (publishing isn't simply about printing the books) outside of the country. They will be taxed.

Second, some companies are in the business of importing/distributing foreign books for local consumption. Local business, foreign materials. They will be taxed.

Third, if you think Filipinos will buy more local books because a) import books are more expensive or because b) there's suddenly less import books on the shelves (honesty an unlikely possibility), then you're working on a wrong assumption. (Granted, this isn't a fact and can be argued against, but when was the last time you bought a local book because you couldn't purchase an import?)

Fourth, if you think this will encourage local publishers to acquire the rights to reprint foreign titles and print them locally, that's also an unlikely scenario. Local publishers don't do that in the first place because there's usually an expensive licensing fee to do so--thus making the local reprint expensive as well even if the publisher could afford it. There are some exemptions of course (i.e. Ang Munting Prinsipe) but they're the exception rather than the norm. Acquiring local reprint rights for a mid-list author might cost $500~$1,000, which in the case of the Philippines translates to a publisher's entire marketing budget for the year, or the actual cost for the book's initial print run.

Fifth, a lot of the people involved in local publishing read foreign books too. Unless you want to encourage a stagnation in creativity where the only books people read are those written by fellow Filipinos.

Local books are being sold at a high profit margin because they retail for less than their US counterparts.

First off, honestly, the only way to determine the profit margin of any business is to get a look at their accounting books. I'm not privy to those details.

If certain bookstores (i.e. National Bookstore) sell books at a cheaper rate than in the US, it's because they have a system in place that subsidizes the expenses. Such as selling school supplies (and National Bookstore honestly doesn't have to sell books or price them as cheaply--a good chunk of their income is derived from selling school supplies; in The 2000 Philippines Yearbook, Clinton Palanca interviews Socorro Ramos and is quoted for saying "If I didn't sell the pencils, I wouldn't be able to sell the books."). (And if you notice, this is the common trend for the past few decades, such as the case with Goodwill Bookstore.) That's also why in independent bookstores, books are being sold at higher than the US retail price.

Bookstores might be given distributor discount (30%? 60%?) but they have 1) overhead costs, 2) shipping costs, 3) pay its staff, 4) make profits, and 5) pay its taxes (different for custom duties). Anyone who has experience in business will know that a few percent can mean the difference between staying in business or not.

No new books were being imported during the book blockade.

Old news but I want to reiterate this fact: the statement above is false. "...customs curtailed all air shipments of books entering the country." That's air shipments. Books were still being delivered through sea (which is how most bookstores transport their stocks). The new law, however, taxes all shipments, whether via air or by sea.

Having said that, here are some points I want to make:

Undersecratary Sales should not be surprised at the reactions.

According to various sources, people did express their distress when Undersecretary Sales proposed the customs tax. Why she didn't listen to them, I don't know. Did she understimate the public's reaction? Or is simply the type of person who ignores feedback?

The law hurts the lower-income people.

Guys and gals, let's face it. The rich will shop abroad or consider the increase in costs negligible. The slightly-less wealthy buy their books online. Majority of people who buy their books in local brick and mortar stores will be the middle-class and those with lower incomes.

Whether there actually be an increase in book prices.

Honestly, the correct answer here is I don't know. I can only say that the independent bookstores are more likely to increase their prices compared to the mainstream bookstores but that's no guarantee whether they actually will or not. There are a lot of variables in business, such as gas. This new tax is simply another of those variables. Whether it's enough to justify a price increase depends on their business plan and how it relates to the other variables (i.e. when the peso-dollar ratio or gas prices were increasing, not everyone raised the prices of their products). And when bookstores do increase their prices, it won't necessarily just be by 1% or 5%.

It doesn't affect certain businesses that sells books.

Comic shops sell books. In a mailing list, I got into this argument regarding gaming books being sold in hobby shops. They're not affected by this tax mainly because they never declared their inventory as imports falling under the Florence agreement. I talked to a friend who owns a comic shop and they're paying regular import duties for the comics they bring in, which is based on a formula that takes into account the weight of the shipment and its invoice price.

Not enough media exposure.

The fight that book aficionados should fighting right now is that of propaganda. Aside from money, a good motivator for politicians to act is through social pressure and that's usually through the media. (I expected more posturing from politicians, especially with elections coming up soon, and this could be a platform people that their supporters could rally on.)

Unfortunately, right now, despite attempts by personalities like Manuel Quezon III, there's really not a lot of coverage regarding the issue. It's not making the headlines, whether in TV or print (although thankfully there are editorials and columns tackling the issue). I really love the grass-roots campaign that's going on here in the Internet, but I honestly don't think it should end there.

Why not a lot of people are aware of the issue.

Because not everyone who needed to be informed about this new law was actually informed. Sure, Sales may have contacted the booksellers, but they're not the only ones affected by this. There's the local publishers for example. They might have published in the Inquirer the new law but how can the lay man (myself included) understand all that legal jargon? There's also a lot of misconception and ignorance about what the new lay entails. If, for example, I said that tuition will go up by 1~5%, would more citizens be up in arms? (Clearly this won't cause tuition to go up by that much but let's say you're an English Major who needs to read ten [Western] literary books in a semester. Those books will be taxed. Unless the government is encouraging our lack of respect for intellectual property laws via rampant photocopying, even if it is for educational purposes.)

Taking it to court is a long and tedious process.

It's a last resort but right now, I'd bet more on increasing media exposure rather than relying on court of law to reverse the decision.

This policy is embarrassing.

It's honestly embarrassing to the other countries who actually honor the Florence Treaty. And if we're willing to break this treaty, what else are we willing to break? (It doesn't help that piracy and corruption runs rampant in this country.)