Lois McMaster Bujold on the power of the Internet
- Someone on the ebook-community list printed this short piece from Lois McMaster Bujold, which she wrote in 1999 for the Baen's Bar section of the Baen Books website. Baen Books is a science-fiction publishing house founded in 1984 by Jim Baen, who died recently. It was among the first publishers to offer eBooks, and it is the ONLY eBook publisher to clearly make a profit, year after year - mainly because it refuses to endorse copy-protection methods and releases all its books in an easy-to-read, easy-to-copy format.
Thanks to Baen Books, science fiction readers can now obtain large numbers of the books THEY want to read, rather than the books that publishers want them to read. Bujold's article helps to explain why. Read it and ask yourself: can we do this? Can we get publishers to supply us with the books we want to read? Can we supply ourselves? Then why don't we do it; and do it now?
Or do we just go on fighting each other for the leavings of second-hand bookshops?
I've been mulling over a little informative mini-essay for
the general interest of the Barflies, and this seems as good a place to
stick it in as any. This is all about the business of publishing, rather
than the art of writing, standard writer-gossip; you may imagine that a
bunch of writers discuss High Art when they get together, but I'm sorry to
say they more usually bitch about money. (The less obvious reason for this
is that no writer can talk about his/her own book in front of another writer
with the emotional intensity they really feel; it just doesn't work,
Anyway. The publishing business as it is presently
constituted consists of three parts: publisher, distribution system, and
bookstores, followed at a remove by reader-customers. A publisher's actual
main customers are not the readers, but the book chains, and big
distributors such as Ingram's or Baker & Taylor who in turn supply small
bookstores and libraries. Present conditions have the publishers trying to
push ten gallons of books into a five-gallon pipeline (the distribution
system) into a three-gallon bucket (the bookstores). Something has to give,
and it does.
The first way to get More Stuff through is to speed it up,
which is why books whip on and off the shelves with such velocity these days
(category romance novels are given, count 'em, thirty days on the market
before being replaced by the next batch.) What this means is, the speed of
book turnover has grown to be faster than the speed of word of mouth, a
slowish process formerly vital to a new book or author. All but the very
first readers to buy a book thus have no way to send economic feedback
messages back through the system saying, "More, please." The late reader
loses a vote.
The second pernicious thing that's happened to take away
readers' voices in the process occurs at the stuffing-books-in end of the
distribution system. I was bewildered when I first heard of a large ad
budget being spent on a book when I never saw sign of an ad in any newspaper
or even bookstore. Turns out that money was being spent advertising to
distributors of various ilks. Publishers have turned, in something like
despair, to attempts to buy room for their books in that narrow pipeline;
hence such things as paid placement at the front of a bookstore, front page
treatment in book chain newsletters, various complex incentives for high
volume, etc. (I won't even get into the evils of the book returns system
here - that will take another essay to explain.) Naturally, publishers with
deep pockets have an advantage in this Darwinian competition for space, and
work like mad to pitch the packaging of their books to a harried crew of
buyers who, given the volume of books to pass through their hands, can not
possibly read them.
Again, the result has been to take away another piece of the
readers' voice in the process. If a book - or rather, its packaging and the
sales numbers of previous books by that author - fails to pass muster at the
stuffing-in end of the pipeline, no reader (or very few) will ever learn of
its existence in order to ask for it. Reader input is limited to an
expensive and wasteful negative - readers can (and do) reject books they do
see, but they have no way of asking for books they don't see.
Such was the hair-tearing state of the business in the
middle of the 90's.
Then along came the Internet.
And publisher's websites such as Baen's Bar. And some short
guy who had a better idea what to do with his website. And Amazon.com, with
shelves that never get too full to hold More Stuff. And still more - word
of mouth got hyperdrive through chat groups and email. Word of mouth got
faster, even, than the system's book-removal rhythm.
And suddenly, publishers now have an economical way of
getting the word out to the excluded people in this process, the actual book
readers, of their books' existences - totally jumping over the unfortunate
book-blocking nature of the distribution system. Instead of trying to push
books through the pipeline, this intelligence network allows a thousand or
ten thousand of you guys to line up on the other end and pull the books
through - the books you want, not the ones some desperately overworked
distribution exec imagines will sell.
Folks, it's a revolution. And you were here when the
barricades were stormed. It's possible - we're still in the middle of the
smoke and rubble here - that it may be a revolution that re-makes the book
industry as profoundly as Ian Ballantine's development of the mass market
paperback. Because it takes the fundamental power to decide what books
appear - placed by the physical and historical accidents and necessities of
the industry into the hands of people who don't read books - and puts it
back into the hands of people who do.
And it's all happening by accident, while someone was trying to do something
else - downright Milesian, I'd say.
All power to the readers.
Ta, Lois. December 1999
- Peters, Geoffrey - The Whirl of a Bird (1965)
Detective writers in large, sparsely populated regions face a special
problem; how do you get your sophisticated urban detectives to
attractively remote murder settings in time to do a decent
investigation? Peters has solved this by bestowing the Sydney Criminal
Investigation Bureau with an imaginary helicopter flying squad. Faced
with a murder in the Australian Alps, the four intrepid detectives whizz
off to the ski slopes in time to find the body stiffening. The local
force is glad to hand over the job and even provides an aide-de-camp --
the ski-savvy Constable Wilson.
Deceased turns out to be Carl Schmidt, an Austrian ski instructor who
was investigating Nazi war criminals on the side. He also favoured
whirlwind romances with female students, neighbours and staff, giving
Inspector Nichols and his boys an wide selection of motives and
suspects. Progress is made by searching the ski resort where Schmidt
lived and worked, and interrogating a variety of suspects. These include
anozzer ski inztructor viz a funny Cherman accent, and the visiting
femme fatale, Judi Francks. A second attempt at murder is made. Lacking
the patience of his counterpart Bony, Nichols decides to play stalking
horse, and the villain is trapped.
This is a cheerful, blokey production, without much depth and with an
obvious villain. My guess is that it was written with television in
mind, and lots of attractive young Antipodeans in ski-suits; but if
Bazza and Charleen from NIDA ever actually got to buzz their sibilants
in front of a camera there's no record of it to be found. Likewise the
sequels which the author was obviously planning for. Still, it's done
with enough enthusiasm and good humour to be an entertaining read.
But that title - ugh!
- Novelists in post-Waugh England had it easy. Take a few art students;
add a handful of exotic foreigners, and a mysterious underworld figure
or two, and stir in some theatrical personalities. Garnish with
sparkling conversation, and top with decorous hints of homosexuality.
Strain out the compassion. Plot is optional, but a thrilling title is a
must. Does it work for detective stories? Let's see.
Murder, Bless It centres around Sadie Dobson, a femme fatale from the
Henry VIII School of Art, now designing sets for the movies. Act One
takes place in Paris, where she leaves her elderly lover, Major Bexhill,
and takes up with the shiftless Irishman Niall Niall. Bexhill, enraged,
makes a scene - veddy infra dig, old man - and nobody is particularly
surprised or upset when he later parts company with the Calais train and
life, in that order.
Several months later the same company finds themselves together in
Ireland. They include Niall and Sadie, Niall's brother Brian, Sadie's
theatrical employer Tony, a beautiful young actor called Sean, Niall's
estranged wife and awful children, and the DuVivien family, Johnny,
Natasha and Pat, who carry the detectival burden of the tale. This time
it is Niall Niall who plunges to his death, forestalling all the
problems he would have caused people with spell checkers fifty years
later. Emotions run high; some people are quite badly miffed. Later Sean
meets the same fate, but no-one minds this much. Much harmless fun is
had with the ghastliness of the children and there are a few
laugh-out-loud moments that one feels rather ashamed of afterwards.
And what of the detection? Is a secret killer bumping off Sadie's
lovers, or is it the obvious solution? It's the obvious solution, as a
matter of fact. This is where the book disappoints: after a hundred
pages of investigation, one hopes to learn something more startling than
the equivalent of 'the butler did it'. Spain seems to have spent all her
energy on being bright, and left nothing over for a satisfying
conclusion. Perhaps plot does matter, after all.
But worth reading all the same, if only for those appalling infants.
- Once upon a time there were three Herriard brothers. Nathaniel stayed at
home accumulating money and choler. William got married, died and left
two children and a widow. Joseph ran away from a lawyer's office to have
a theatrical career, marrying Maud from the chorus on the way. Two years
before the story opens, Joseph and Maud return from overseas and move in
to Lexham Manor to sponge off the irritable Nathaniel.
Now it's Christmas, and Joe is annoying everyone except the
imperturbable Maud as he bustles around cheerfully arranging decorations
and putting up holly. He has insisted on a proper family Christmas and
invited William's two children Stephen and Paula, with their current
romantic interests Valerie Dean and Willoughby Roydon; Mathilda Clare, a
cousin, is also present, with Nathaniel's business partner Edgar
Mottisfont. So when Nathaniel is found dead in his locked study there
are plenty of suspects to choose from.
Heyer's main gift is depicting the barbed interactions between the
prickly Herriards and their soapy Uncle Joe. The book is a long one -
320 pages, with the murder only appearing on page 73 - but the whole
thing is mixed and balanced extremely well. There are some nice moments
of humour, some of which also provide neat clues.
The detection begins on Christmas Eve, with the arrival of a local
uniformed Inspector, and continues with the arrival of Inspector
Hemingway from Scotland Yard. Hemingway is just fallible enough to be
human, without distracting attention away from the detection. By the
time we've gone through it all three times - once in real time and twice
via interrogations - we are thoroughly familiar with the locked-room
problem. Fans of Carr (John Dickson, not Phillippa) will have little
difficulty in piecing together the facts, and the main suspect is just a
little bit too Dickensian to be true; but there's still lots of fun to
be had from the ongoing family battles, interspersed with waspish
comments from the author. A hint of Heyer's future in the field of
historical romance can be inferred from what might be called The Clue of
the Vanishing Empress.
Not quite first-rate -- Heyer is trying a little too hard to
out-Christie Christie -- but a very good B+.
- I enjoyed "Envious Casca" when read as a teenager, too! But all can remember
now is the locked room puzzle (which is decent). So cannot add any comments.
Favorite Heyer mystery: The book known variously as "Merely Murder" or "Death
in the Stocks" (1935). The plot of this book is of no interest. What is
amusing is the dialogue from Heyer's cast of characters, a family of comic monsters
who say whatever awful thing pops into their heads. Really clever dark
comedy, like a drawing room play.
Heyer had been writing historical romances since the 1920's. When I was
growing up in the 1960's, these were a huge craze in paperback. Don't know if they
are still anywhere as popular. One of them, "The Talisman Ring", deals with
the efforts of three stalwart characters to bring home a murder to its
perpetrator. Both the sleuths and the reader soon learn whodunit. The fun is watching
them try to gather evidence, and bring the culprit to justice. This too is a
really enjoyable tale.